We have all heard that change is inevitable and that change is good because it helps us grow. Although I agree with this to a point, change isn’t always a good thing when it comes to mental health issues. We all welcome improvements for those suffering with mental health issues; however, setbacks can be devastating for those of us who suffer even the mildest forms of mental health issues.
Devastating changes or setbacks can come from a variety of places that were not self-created, expected or avoidable. I know there are those who have not personally experienced mental health issues and cannot understand the journey those of us with these issues travel or the journey that we walk. I can tell you from experience, that no matter how careful you are; how many things you do right; how long you’ve been “stable” with your symptoms that at some point a setback can rear its ugly head. I say this because it has recently happened to me.
On my own journey through mental health, I would say that after years of therapy, DBT training and medication that I have been stable (as much as that is possible for someone with these issues) for quite a while. I have been on medications that worked well for me, I had good doctors, I had a great family support system and I was experienced in my arsenal of “go to” soothing tools and DBT things to do when minor flare ups occurred. However, several recent changes have occurred in my life, some planned and some not, which have recently created some setbacks and new challenges.
Several months ago, my family moved across country. When we planned this move, we knew it would require establishing new doctors, setting up a home environment and temporary upheaval while we unpacked and set up. I knew I would need to join a new gym and make new friends, but all these things seemed doable. The reality turned out much different.
Our new house wasn’t ready and needed repairs before we could unpack. Finding new doctors wasn’t as easy as we’d hoped because there is a shortage of local psychiatrists familiar with treating Borderline Personality. Add to that the wait time getting new patient appointments, etc., and the list goes on. These were unexpected challenges, but we got through them.
Then the other shoe dropped. My meds that have worked well for me for years suddenly started becoming ineffective, as my body had become used to them causing them to no longer be effective for me. This meant medication changes and we all know how changing any medication can create unwanted side effects and symptoms. This can mean trial and error trying to find the right meds while unwanted side effects from the medications you’re trying can range from mild to severe. That’s exactly what happened to me. The side effects from a new medication were not only severe, it triggered a new diagnosis for a condition doctors had thought was only a slight possibility to a positive diagnosis for this new co-disorder. Receiving a new diagnosis and still needing to undergo medicine changes was not an easy time for me. I’d honestly have to say it was a major unexpected setback.
Fortunately, for me, as I stated earlier, I have a great support system. This is probably the one thing that enabled me to remain at home while trying to find the right medications for my disorders new and old while receiving counseling and help understanding my new diagnosis. As I began to stabilize on my new meds, my mind cleared enough that I could also research my condition in order to help me help my doctors to get my disorders back under control. I personally believe that the more you can understand your condition, the more you can get out of your therapy and treatments because you understand why you feel and think the things you do. This gives your doctors a big advantage in treating you and a quicker recovery.
Understanding that changes can bring setbacks and having the right support systems in place can be the most important tool I can advise for anyone suffering with mental illness. If you don’t have a good support system, I recommend seeking one or reaching out for help as soon as possible when things start to go awry. Please be sure to check out our resource page and places to receive help. If you are in crises, please call 911 immediately.
With the holidays upon us, the influx of being with family and people you don’t interact with on a daily basis can be a trigger that can also cause a setback as I discovered. I believed that I had come to a point in my healing and progressed to such a point that I would be able to handle a visit with my mother and brother alone, without my husband or daughter there for support. I looked forward to my visit very much and had all kinds of exciting thoughts and plans for spending time with them.
What happened unfortunately is that Monsters of Christmas Past and many triggers I thought were long conquered started surfacing from the first day I got there. Whereas I have been in counseling and treatment for over 15 years, my mother and my brother have never made the choice to go to counseling or receive treatment for the horrors that our family endured while my father was alive. It is my observation that when people choose to bury things that have happened, traumatic things can haunt you for the rest of your life, and it can take only a feather stroke to ignite a firestorm.
Regretfully my brother is the one who suffered the most at the hand of my dad. My mother, the person one expects to fiercely fight for her children used alcohol and denial to cover up what was going on right under her nose, and it was a lot to shove under the rug. In addition to the horrific emotional trauma and physical abuse my father wrought on all of us on practically a daily basis… we have all been deeply scarred and wounded by what transpired in the hell hole I grew up in . Because my mother gave up custody of me to the state of New York foster care system while my brother went to boarding school, there was no physical reconciliation with my mother or brother until my early twenties. My father had eventually passed and was no longer in the picture.
For those of us that have yearned for or not had a normal family dynamic, never quite get over it. There are different ways to deal with trauma, especially the sort we did. One way, as my mom has done, is to live in denial and ignorance of what transpired. She’s managed to erase whole blocks of time from her memory as a defense mechanism from having to cope and not face what actually happened. Then there are those who acquire the same behavioral attitudes and demeanor of their abusers, as my brother has.
I chose from age 25 to seek counseling, combined with taking the medications necessary to subdue my symptoms. It has been a lifelong journey for me of healing, self-reflection, much therapy, with a combination of writing, blogging and helping others as an advocate that has helped me. I am not saying that my route is superior to that of my mother or brother but it certainly is a lot more palatable.
It is not for me to judge how people handle traumatic situations that happened in their lives. I can however have a personal opinion and that is to face our demons and look them straight in the eye, learn their names, and how to have coping strategies and a support system in place to live with what has happened to us is the best way to go. Add in psychotherapy and medication and in my opinion, you have the positive path to follow for recovery and hopefully, breaking the cycle of abuse.
I'm sure that many of you have seen generations of families that have carried on the same trauma and behavior, generation after generation, never dealing with the root issue whether it is physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, substance abuse or other. It can continue and pass down from generation to generation without ever being rectified. It becomes a pattern so ingrained in a family tree, known and accepted until it almost seems normal.
When a family member chooses to step out of the turmoil and find peace and a different way of life, it is a very healthy thing to do. When that family member goes back into the turmoil that still exists with other family members who have never faced their demons it is a very unhealthy thing to do. This is something I recently learned. The topic of Triggers is something I have talked about before many times. They exist in the crevices and darkness of the family albums, traumatic memories and experiences hidden away and tucked into our psyche. It only takes a small matter to pull them out into reality, where they overtake us, just as if we were right back in the initial trauma that happened.
Those of us that have gone to therapy and are on medication have learned to deal with our triggers to the best of our ability. Those of us who have not dealt with them are very fragile individuals, waiting to implode at the slightest touch of the trauma. What transpires is post-traumatic stress disorder, (PTSD). Veterans and victims of severe traumas like 9/11 have PTSD. It doesn't take much to set it off and then we are all left coping with and reliving the trauma of the past event as we relive the showing on a screen in our minds all over again. Reliving the pain, horror and nightmare of the event until it renders us hopeless and incapable of functioning reasonably.
What happened for me this Christmas vacation, alone, with my family members who have never dealt with their triggers, was just that. A buildup of situations led to an explosion of triggers for each one of us. Even though I’d undergone therapy, being in the situation unfolding again affected even me. It transpired like a brewing storm and then when the time was right, it overtook all of us. It blew up in our faces full force, taking our little family back to the trauma and nightmares we had all lived through together. Although these things happened years ago, the feelings and emotions swept over us like a trauma tidal wave, causing each of us to revert backwards into to old behaviors as if it were that time long ago. It is much too personal to describe in detail what transpired, so instead I will focus on the aftermath, the lessons learned, and how to survive being thrust into a PTSD situation.
My first mistake by believing that I had it together made me think I could go into the lion’s den alone. If your relatives and or friends that you experienced the trauma with have not done the psychological rebuilding that is so necessary, you are leaving yourself open to attack from all sides.
People like this will never understand, so don’t try explaining it to them. Instead, try to find a way to limit your interaction with them. Know the places, people and even sights and smells that trigger you so you can find ways to avoid or lessen the effects of your triggers. Also, please avoid alcohol. Not only does alcohol not do well with your medications, it causes more problems than it helps. Meditation and other techniques will do much more to ensuring your holiday can have a good outcome.
It is so important to have an escape route planned so that you can get out as quickly as possible if things start to escalate. Thank God, for a dear friend of mine who was able to come, collect my luggage and me, and take me to her home and away from the trauma situation.
Try as I might to explain to my brother and Mom what was happening and building around us as I watched the triggers escalate in each one of us, there was no understanding or meeting of the minds. I have learned now those uneducated and untreated minds, harmed by psychological experiences, are not only fragile but also volatile at the same time. It is my opinion to walk away, or do anything you can to deescalate immediately, is the only way to go.
Unfortunately, I have what I call the “fix it” gene. I have sought to create the perfect utopian family for us for many years to no avail. A wise woman once said to me, you can’t turn a grapefruit into a watermelon. This holds very true for people. Try as we might, we are never able to change or create a person into what we want them to be. This god like strategy we may try to employ never transpires. Sadly, I have spent the majority of my lifetime trying to fix and piece together a normal family with glue sticks and staple guns. My husband, daughter and son-in-law have warned me time and again as to the futility of this experiment. Every time it has crashed and burned. Every time I have been hurt, re-traumatized, and left with a severe bout of PTSD for my efforts.
It is my experience that God will always provide people in our lives to replace those roles for us that did not exist. He is our heavenly father and he will give us an example of a new earthly father if we never had one that lived up to our expectations. He will fill in a mother role, complete with siblings (friends who are closer than blood). Yet we will always yearn for the actual people who were meant to play these roles in our lives.
I want to share from my heart, that sometimes, many times, our true family members will never step up to the plate and into the role they were meant for. It is up to us to mourn that fact, move on, and create a healthy “family” to replace the dysfunctional one. When we go back, no matter what the age, no matter how much time has transpired, and try to get the dysfunctional family to play out the role of a functional family, you will limp away with your head hanging low, frustrated and tattered by the exercise.
I am now currently nursing a full-blown case of PTSD and a major setback of my psychological development and healing for my efforts. My husband gathered me off the plane as I collapsed into his arms, tears streaming down my face, realizing that I had done it again. I tried to make a grapefruit into a watermelon.
There comes a time of reckoning when we realize that the only healthy solution is to break ties with the dysfunctional family. We need to realize that we cannot go back, fix, and create the utopia that we longed for growing up. It is a very sad, heartbreaking discovery and a very grown-up decision that we have to make. The decision that, in order to keep ourselves healthy, we must stay away from that which hurts us. I believe that this new realization is what hurts the most and created the most difficulty for me as I not only understand why I need to walk away, but I am mourning the loss of a dream I’d spent much time trying to foster. Giving up this hope and mourning the loss has been very difficult especially with the holiday well underway. Hopefully, you can avoid this tragedy.
So as you plunge into your family this Christmas or holiday season. Please heed my words of advice. We must protect ourselves at all costs from re-entering into those triggers from Christmas Past. We must not engage in triggers and need to have an escape route ready, should a situation emerge that we are not prepared to handle. Alternatively, you may decide to spend the time with your God created family. In a healthy environment where you are celebrated, loved and accepted. This can be a major change for many, with or without mental illness in their families, yet it continually effects many of us each year.
My prayer for you this holiday season is that you will not do what I did. You will not put yourself through hoops of dysfunction in hopes of recreating a utopian fantasy of a family that never existed and never will. May the peace of God that passes all understanding be with you.
With you in the journey, Alice