Incendiary

Content note: mental health, self-harm impulses, disassociation

So far, 2020 feels like I’ve strapped myself into a roller coaster that I’m not sure has passed safety inspections. It’s been a hell of a ride in just this month, I can’t imagine what the next 11 are going to look like.

After Sunday morning’s nightmare, I didn’t want to be alone in the house with my husband, so I was out the door and at the library by the time it opened at 9am on Monday. It was so much more empty and silent than usual that I felt conspicuous. I’d planned to put in an application for an office assistant position that H had forwarded me, but was waiting to hear back from A (different A, this one is in Colorado) as to the state of my resume and cover letter revisions. She is part of the hiring process at her company and I’m so grateful for her help teaching me these skills.

By the time most of the morning had passed, I hadn’t heard back, and assumed either she hadn’t seen the email or was simply too busy. I decided I’d head home and make myself a salad, in spite of the fact that I’d have to be alone with my husband.

Well, I might have consciously thought I could handle that but my body said otherwise and ratcheted the anxiety up by about 1000%. He went off to his bedroom and shut the door, but it didn’t matter – my chest was hurting, I was freezing cold, shaking, and obviously engaged in flight or fight. I can still function in that state, though. I chopped veggies, and chatted with A & H while clinically examining what was happening with my body, then ate my salad. I discovered apparently it was easier to use a knife than hold my fork, which was grimly amusing. Still, the shaking wasn’t bad enough to prevent me from eating.

By the time I was done the episode was passing. I changed and left for my appointment with my career counselor at the state’s employment office. Once there, I had to be open with him about what was happening – I needed to know what community resources were available if things got worse. He was sympathetic, and kind. Still, when I drove home, everything felt surreal. This could not be my life. Everything I’d discussed with him I’d discussed with other people, privately, and it had never left me feeling this way.

I felt pathetic. I see myself as strong and smart, and would describe myself that way if not feeling embarrassed about tooting my own horn. How could someone that was strong and smart have let herself stay in that toxic relationship for so many years?

I managed to get through the hour or so I had at home before needing to turn around and head out for my ABE class. I was exhausted and nodding off 15 minutes in, but managed to keep myself awake and even correctly perform some algebra I was learning.

I went home and went to bed and slept as well as usual – which is to say, not well. When I woke up in the morning, I discovered that things didn’t feel real. Maybe reality was actually some kind of simulation. Maybe I wasn’t real. Maybe none of this was actually happening, or was happening as some kind of experiment – maybe I was some kind of SIM. I felt numb and disconnected and knew whatever was going on wasn’t normal and was some kind of mental health episode.

I also discovered my normal healthy coping methods weren’t working to get me through it or shift it. Chatting with friends didn’t help, writing didn’t help, listening to music didn’t help. I thought of myself as being disassociated, googled the term and found out yes, that was most likely exactly what I was going through. (It will look a little different for me because my brain doesn’t respond in the average way.)

I felt like my core had been exposed and I wasn’t sure that core resembled me at all. Maybe I was completely wrong about myself. The description for disassociation mentioned episodes related to self-identity, and that was certainly relatable.

I really, really wanted out of this state. It was disconcerting. I started having self-harm impulses. Not to kill myself, but to use pain to see if the shock could put an end to the episode (scientifically speaking, yes it can, but while effective it’s not a coping method I want to start using.) It’s amazing how many options the average home has. There were knives on the table, a teapot I could bring to a boil, walls I could punch.

I started wondering if the reason my healthy coping mechanisms weren’t working was because they were tied to my core sense of self, and I was disconnected from that identity at the moment. Maybe I needed to do something that wasn’t normal for me.

I called my therapist.

I try not to call my therapist outside of office visits. I know they have a lot on their plate, and clients that are dealing with symptoms that are a lot harder to manage than mine, and I just don’t like taking up extra time. But I called him, planning to ask him if he had any tips for how I could safely bring myself out of the episode.

And just that one simple step started working. I cried a little. That sign of my emotions returning to a normal state was a relief. They began trickling back. By the time my therapist returned my call (within a couple of hours), the episode had ended.

He wasn’t convinced at first that I was describing a disassociative episode. Maybe he’s still not convinced. His clients haven’t typically manifested my level of self-awareness while going through such an episode. I explained the quirk about how my brain doesn’t get overwhelmed and shut down the rational, decision-making process. I don’t have any qualms about describing what happens to me in the available terms and I’m not sure what else I could call the episode I’d had.

He did still talk through things with me, give me some general tips related to emotions and processing and accepting that this was, in fact, part of healing and change. When I talked about my sense of self and how could I reconcile that with the life I’d actually lived, he told me I’d lived a paradox.

He wanted me to start paying attention to my emotions. Asking myself what I felt, and what I wanted. Pondering that later, I decided I’d start a log. Write down the date and time, what I was feeling, what I wanted, if anything, and ask myself what my choices were in regards to that feeling and proceed from there.

Anxiety. Sad. Anxiety. Anxiety. Anxiety. Sad. I was getting a little ticked off about that. I’d been discussing my log idea with J, A and M in our group chat, while kicking around the internet, and after a little while realized I was randomly feeling horny. I thought about the log being full of anxiety and sad so on a whim I went and wrote down the date and time and that I was feeling horny and… laughed. It felt ridiculous and yet it made me happy in that moment to be able to describe myself in some other state, even if it was an embarrassing state to have set out in words.

I don’t know if it was in response to the log or my brain still processing the previous day’s disassociative episode and trying to repair any damage done, but I – started to feel good. Happy. Excited. Not to a great degree – calm waves lapping at the shore.

I felt hungry. I asked myself what I wanted to eat, and felt like a grilled cheese sandwich. This is only the 2nd time in the month that I’ve eaten because I felt hungry. Normally I have to make myself eat because I know it’s important. Suddenly I was a little outraged by that. Why did I have to put so much effort into performing one of biology’s most basic functions? If I don’t eat I die, what on earth happened to my urge to eat? Was my meat suit TRYING to die? That then led to rampant speculation as to if there could, indeed be the remnants of an evolutionary mechanism that would kick in and kill us once certain levels of stress are reached. Was my body literally at war with itself to stay alive?

I shot off to the group chat with A & H to discuss my theorizing, accidentally triggered A in the process, for which I felt terrible and had to apologize. I can discuss stuff like this and find it calming, because I grew up being told that illness and mental illness both were caused by spiritual reasons. Demons, or secret sin, or God teaching you a lesson to make you a better person. Looking at what’s happening to me from the angle of biological processes is definitely preferable. Not necessarily soothing for others, though.

Of course, I also felt like a dumbass later when I realized there was a very simple explanation for my lack of appetite – one of the functions of cortisol when the adrenal system kicks off is to temporarily suppress “non-essential” functions – which includes things like digestion. One of the main ways to eliminate cortisol is through sleep. Between the high levels of anxiety and low amount of sleep, I’m probably operating with excess cortisol all the time, which could be suppressing my appetite because of its impact on digestion.

But still, it felt good to have that moment of – interest. Going down a rabbit hole of theoretical speculation is a specialty of mine and something that just hasn’t happened all that much in the last little while. It felt like me again.

I went to my ABE class, did more algebra, and even though I was tired on some level I was also – alert. Not feeling like I was struggling so much to understand what I was doing. I continued to have an elevated mood. I felt restless, too. I almost considered leaving class early just to go express that restlessness somehow, but stuck around until the end. Went home still feeling excitement and restlessness and… happy, on some level.

It worried me.

I talked it over with A, and how I couldn’t even accept a good mood without being suspicious – but it seemed like it was some kind of response to the disassociative episode and of course it worried me that maybe something new was going wrong and arriving in a pleasing package.

I also felt kind of crazy, as I told her – because it felt like my brain had crashed and had to reload from an earlier save. It felt like I was myself again, almost, but an earlier version of me. One that hadn’t gone through the last year. I could still see the outline of the me that had lived through that year, but it worried me to feel like I was inhabiting earlier me because she felt more vulnerable to my husband. (Yes, it probably sounds crazy now, too, but I can only describe what the feelings and experiences were.)

While talking about this, though, it felt like a 3rd me appeared in outline – angry me. That angry me was assuring me they weren’t going to leave me vulnerable. They hadn’t forgotten what he’d done and what he’d said.

Honestly, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if some of what I’m describing was my brain literally reconnecting pathways and feeding forgotten information back to the core. That’s already happened periodically throughout my recovery process, as I’d be startled to have long-forgotten memories pop into my head, and with them the echoes of emotions that I wasn’t being able to feel – as though my brain were using those old sources to retrain itself and reconnect my emotional core.

I woke up this morning feeling more integrated, thinking about H and feeling wistful and wanting that to work out, but also feeling a little stronger and more capable of being able to absorb the blow of the more likely outcome of rejection. I think I slept a little longer than usual, because it didn’t feel like I’d been up that long when I finally checked the time and found it to be 5:30. I was still feeling better than I had been in a while. Not the excitement of before but still elevated at least a little bit.

I pulled out my laptop and started doing some calculations and figured out that of the $1420 my husband has left / given me in the last 6 months, I’d spent $1200. An average of $200 a month for 6 months.

I had two trips to see my family in TN during that time. I paid for my own gas. I paid for my own hygiene products. Sometimes I paid for extra groceries because we were out of something I needed at home. I spent $10 a month on premium Spotify. I’d dropped 2 sizes and needed to buy new clothes, which I purchased at Walmart and Goodwill. I went out to eat with friends maybe 2x a month on average.

And my husband begrudged me every penny. Lost it and yelled at me about not having a job, claiming I’d promised to get one as soon as we got to Indiana. The man is up to making 80k a year now, and spends hundreds on magic: the gathering cards. Thinks I owed him children and everything I did for those children, and for him, because “we were married” but thinks he owes me nothing because I refused to keep giving him everything, because I was afraid I was running out and would have nothing left to give.

Hello, Anger, my old friend. I’m truly glad to see you.

People that saw my angry screeds on Facebook between 2015 and 2018 were sometimes unsettled by it. They didn’t understand that visceral anger was keeping me alive. When I had no other emotions to tap into, I could tap into that anger and gain energy to keep going. I directed the anger externally, at politics and religion and world events and systemic injustice, unable to see that I lived with my own version of systemic injustice and that on top of that, I was unjust to myself.

I grew up in a religion that taught me that every scrap of goodness that came my way was an undeserved gift. I came to believe that was true, and became content with scraps.

Now I could feel fire again – fierce, exultant, determined fire. Fire that can be molded and utilized, housed in a new shape that has grown to hold it. This anger wasn’t going to be a nuclear meltdown that would sweep everything away before I was prepared.

This anger is fuel.

I felt happy. Happy and angry, happy because I was angry. I’ve hated that numb emptiness left in its place. I want to be able to feel all my emotions, and not have my access to any of them cut off.

I want to be whole.

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