The Parts Department

It’s possible to have things going on beneath the surface of which we’re not entirely aware. I experienced this the other night in my struggle with rumination. My therapist and I have started discussing this phenomena as part of Internal Family Systems therapy (IFS). Fascinating stuff.

I sometimes feel as though there are individual “parts” of me that rise to the surface and make themselves heard in times of crisis. For example, when I struggled to fall asleep the other night, I was bothered by thoughts that kept calling for my attention. I described it to my therapist as if there was a toddler who wouldn’t stay in bed. A drink of water, a trip to the potty, a check for monsters under the bed—my thoughts seemed to be demanding some kind of reassurance from me that everything would be alright. Diane explained that in IFS, different parts have specific functions: managers, firefighters, or exiles, that can be either productive or extreme.  According to one online article:
“Internal Family Systems Therapy is based on an integrative model and believes that each sub-personality of the mind possesses its own characteristics and perceptions. This therapy technique sees each level of consciousness as having these sub-personalities, or “parts,” and each plays a distinct role in achieving self-preservation for the client as a whole. Every part within a person is responsible for warding off any behaviors, actions, or reactions that can result in dysfunction or disharmony within. In this type of treatment, each part is validated and recognized as significant because of its primary function. Parts can be identified as having either healthy, productive roles or extreme roles. The latter category is made up of parts that require transformation or alteration through the therapeutic process.”

partsMy inner toddler is one of my exiles, who carries painful, traumatic emotions that interfere with my functioning. In this case, she was making it known to me that my recent termination caused a lot of pain, fear, and self-doubt. In this situation, I didn’t have a chance to advocate or stand up for myself. This caused her to stay awake at night, worrying about how things would go in the new job, and wondering if I could rise to the occasion. She simply wanted reassurance from my core self, my true self, that I would not let the same thing happen again in the future. By taking a new job, I am taking a calculated risk—one which frightened and confused my toddler. It was up to me to let her know that despite the risk, we can trust that I am where I need and want to be, and that I would do everything in my power to protect her from trauma in the future. She needed to know I could see and acknowledge her hurt, and that I would work to take good care of her.
I also have a manager, who stands up and does what needs doing during traumatic events or times of stress. This is the one who dries her tears, registers for unemployment the same day she’s fired, and works to present professionally in a job interview. My manager is one who gets things done despite pain and fear. She’s not perfect however; she’s capable of working herself until she drops in order to avoid feelings, she’s cool and detached, and left to her own devices will drive my true self into the ground in order to further her agenda.
I imagine my toddler as “Cindy Lou Who”, with big sad eyes and a pink onesie. She has soft brown curls and rosy cheeks, likes ice cream and flowers, and needs to be snuggled occasionally. My manager on the other hand is an Execu-Dyke, with a bland, neutral two-piece pantsuit and pearl earrings. She gets things done and is uncomfortable with powerful emotions like fear or sadness. These parts aren’t pieces of a multiple personality—they coexist within my core self and each have their given roles. They aren’t Sybil. They’re merely adaptations I’ve learned throughout my life to survive. Working with them means that I take the best of them, work to subdue the negative behaviors, and encourage my true self to treat these parts with compassion. It’s interesting, it’s not easy, but I think it’s invaluable work. My goal is to bring the best of myself forward, stop the internal battles, and learn to live with myself harmoniously, with all parts intact.


Letting go of resentment

I struggled to fall asleep last night. As I lay in bed, my thoughts moved into dangerous territory—reliving the morning of 5/6/15. That was the day I was fired from my job and in an instant, my life changed.

Although I am feeling well, start a new job in a few days, and realize that overall this was a positive event in my life, I still find myself ruminating at times. There are a lot of unanswered questions for me as to how this all came about. The fact is that I know that problems began when I was hospitalized in February, and returned a week later. I was told at that time that I was not performing up to the agency’s standards. I explained that I was experiencing a serious episode of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and was doing everything I could to get well with the help of my psychiatrist and therapist. I asked for time to attend an intensive outpatient program (IOP) and stabilize my medications. I managed to make it to work as scheduled, despite all of these challenges, but the situation did not improve. I was warned that I had thirty days to correct my behaviors or face termination. This placed an extraordinary amount of stress on me—right in the midst of my recovery from a life-threatening case of depression.

I believe that I did everything that was asked of me by my employer, and that I addressed the pressing issues that they were concerned about. Despite my best efforts, I was let go on the morning of May 6th rather unceremoniously. They wanted to explain in detail how I had “failed”; I asked for them to simply fire me if that’s what they planned to do, cleaned out my office, and left the building in tears. While I don’t believe the agency handled the situation fairly or appropriately, I do feel a huge sense of relief at being let go. I can’t explain why I feel this way, other than the fact that the stress that had been placed on me had become so overwhelming, I preferred to face termination rather than continue in such conditions. Personally, I think it’s ridiculous to expect anyone to be successful under such dire circumstances. I could no more have completed that month intact than calculate the number of protons that fit on the head of a pin. It just wasn’t happening, and I knew it.

In hindsight, I have no regrets. While in their employ, I did good work for the agency, and I believe I honestly did my very best. I know I am a good worker, with effective habits and a lot of skills to offer. I know that I cared deeply for every client that I had the honor of working with, and I worked hard to serve them. So here I am lying in bed, wondering if I was wrong, wondering if I am a failure, and ruminating over the way the situation was handled, and I cannot sleep. I never had an opportunity to tell my side of the story, nor was I in a place to assert myself and advocate on my own behalf. If there is one thing I am angry and resentful about, I think that’s it. I’m disappointed that an agency that is supposed to be working to assist those with mental illness treated me with such utter disregard. I’m hurt that my supervisor started out as my friend and ended up as someone who I no longer care for or respect. I’m hurt that I never had a chance for any closure on the relationships I had with my clients; I know that some were deeply upset that I was fired.

I know that I have to let go of my feelings about all of this as I move into another job. I would like to have communicated with my supervisor all of the things that I experienced during the past few months, but didn’t have the chance. How do I go about letting go of this resentment, so that I’m not finding myself lying in bed saying “fuck you” to them at 1am? Perhaps a skillful thing to do would be to write a letter to my former employer—not mail it, but write it nonetheless. That may give me a chance to get all these feelings out and on paper. I could then burn the letter and imagine the smoke going up to the Universe, like a prayer or a meditation. I could burn it in my backyard firepit and let it all go. I don’t want to hold onto this stuff. I think that holding on to anger and resentment makes me physically (and spiritually) sick, and it’s really best for me to put it down in words and release it to the sky.

Yeah. I like this idea. I think I’m feeling better already. Maybe I can consider it an offering of sorts, like one would burn incense on an altar. What it says is that I trust this happened for me as it was meant to, and I am in a better place now, with some very real opportunities in front of me. It says that I don’t have to know what the outcome is, but that there is a divine plan for me and that I trust in it.

This is good. This is helpful. Yeah.

Showing Up

It’s another great big beautiful day, with perfect temps in the 70’s and no rain in the forecast. Finally, after a prolonged, wet and bone-chilling spring, it’s finally beginning to feel like summer here in the armpit of the Midwest. A good day to get things done at home, take care of business, and enjoy feeling like I’ve accomplished something. This is not easy for me to do. I’m my own worst critic and tend to harsh on myself for even the smallest things. Truth is I’ve come a long way in the past nine years, since first entering DBT.

One of the key skills I’ve learned to use is Opposite to Emotion action. In the simplest terms, this means “showing up” for things and being willing to do what it takes. For someone with crippling social anxiety, this takes a great deal of practice. At the root of my fear lies the thought that I am not good enough and that others will see this and judge me. I remember bowing out of countless things and feeling overwhelmed by even the most fundamental social interactions, such as meeting a repair person at the house to fix a broken washing machine. Going for coffee at an unfamiliar cafe could send me into a tailspin. Drinks with one or two colleagues after work would shut me down, and I’d make an excuse to get out of it. Any situation in which I would might be exposed, have to make conversation, eye contact, or talk about myself was utterly mortifying. To add injury, I’d be forced to explain my behavior to others, bringing even more attention to this great big Brontosaurus that was my anxiety.

I’ve learned that success in DBT is based on taking calculated risks. This means going to group every week and participating. Keeping my therapy appointments. Calling my therapist when I’m feeling like the bottom may drop out. Accepting social invitations as often as I can, and actually showing up—despite the thoughts and fears bouncing around inside my head. I’ve found it helpful to honor the fears, to gently acknowledge and recognize them with “I hear you, fear”, but not cave into their demands. I often imagine putting my fear in a box “for now” and placing it on a high shelf out of reach. I’ve got things to do and experiences to live, so the fears can live in that box (punch a few holes in the top so they can breathe) until I’m done doing what I want. The tricky part of all this goes back to core mindfulness skills of being present.

If I allow my fears to take over my brain, I lose the ability to remain present. Losing the present moment means that I lose my ability to act on my own behalf. I can only advocate for myself if I’m here right now. A therapist once described this to me as “allowing one’s emotions to drive the bus”, and that’s about as good a description as I can think of. If we allow the noise of our fears to overwhelm us and our anxious thoughts to grab the wheel, we’re not in control of our own lives.

What this means is that even when we’re scared, we can choose to move forward. For example, today I can decide to meet a friend for coffee and not worry that I might have to sit there alone for a few minutes. I can recognize the fear in me, put on a half-smile and take a deep breath knowing that it’s my choice. I can remain present, be gentle with myself, knowing that despite any anxiety, I’m in charge. The fear and anxiety recede when we don’t give them all of our present energy. And we can go back to living life as it is meant to be lived—in the now. We can enjoy whatever it is we’re doing with peace of mind and our full attention.

My theory is that often if I bring the body, the mind will follow. So I simply drag my carcass to the show, and let things unfold as they will. What I’ve found is that my fear and anxiety has been significantly reduced, and my joy in ordinary daily life has increased ten-fold.

My Bodyguard

I’m feeling positive this morning, despite a restless night’s sleep. The two Ativan I took at bedtime usually leave me with a hung over feeling, but not today. Could be the sunshine and the yard full of noisy birds that’s got me uncharacteristically smiley and bright. Like I’m actually looking forward to something.
It’s going to be several days of projects around the house, as I try to wrap it up before returning to full-time work next week. My procrastination with all things household is remarkable—I’m amazed by the way we can live in chaos and dirt and barely notice it when we’re busy working. Saturday morning coffee brings the rude awakening that yes, we are total slobs. C is a tough old bird that works a career day job and a part-time gig for extra household money. When circumstances in my life are challenging, she’s always managed to be my shining star, my cherry lifesaver, my knight in Old Navy.

She’s not a young woman any longer, but is determined that no matter what, we’re going to keep our house and cars and maybe have enough left over at the end of the month to order a pizza. Her attitude is that she does it because she’s the only one who can at this point. While I’ve always worked in some capacity, the past few years have been rough. In addition to my lifelong mental health issues, I was diagnosed with autoimmune arthritis about five years ago. This has reduced me to doing pretty much the bare physical minimum for most of that time. My joints swell and ache to the point where I can do nothing more than ice them and try to sleep through the worst of the pain, or alternate with short bursts of activity and rest. This has been an adventure to say the least. It has shown me just exactly the kind of person I chose to partner with though, and I am grateful for her drive and commitment to our shared cause.

C has told me that she struggles with wanting a housewife (me) and understanding that I need to have someplace to put my passion and energy outside of the house, engaged in meaningful work. We’re almost there. Prior to getting sick with arthritis, I was actively employed in the landscaping industry, in a highly physical job that kept me running like mad ten months out of the year. I loved coming home filthy, stinky, and sunburned at the end of each day, dog tired down to my bones. But things change, and I had to let go of that career when my body gave out on me. Enter social work. I’m now attempting to get myself established in community mental health, working with those who’ve been newly diagnosed or struggling to live independently. It’s satisfying work, difficult and rewarding. C has been understanding about everything that’s changed—my new physical limitations, the cut in salary I’ve taken, the fight to find a job with health care. She’s stood by me this entire time and allowed me to figure it out. Even through my recent firing, she said “good—FUCK THEM. I’m sick of seeing you cry over that damn job anyhow”, and she took me out for a hot meatloaf sandwich. Now that’s the kind of partner you want to keep for life, one that understands the siren song of the brown gravy.

I like the idea of being in love forever. Seems like statistically, the odds are not in our favor, but next year will mark our 25th together, which has to count for something. This year’s trip to Club Psych was not my first, and my disorders have not been easy to live with, that’s for certain. Still, C has managed to forge ahead as the responsible adult in this relationship. She’s made some of the major decisions for us not to control, but to gently steer this great ship along its course. I’m actually quite grateful for this because I feel that there were too many times when those big decisions eluded me, I couldn’t tolerate the pressure of making them for myself, and I needed her to pull the trigger. She always offers me choices and involves me in the process, and just as often I find myself saying “I trust you. Let’s do what you think is best”. I’ve never once regretted this.

When considered alongside the fact that she is the only person on the planet who knows how to cook my eggs, allows me to drive her truck, and always remembers to line dry my bras, I’m convinced she’s the One.

Loving the Enemy

It’s officially the first weekend of summer, according to our Midwestern cultural tradition. Sure it’s not actually summer yet, but Memorial Day marks the time when we in the upper middle of the country shed our winter coats and crawl out of our holes into the light. It’s raining and 54F. I’m pleased to report that despite this, for the first time in seven months, I’m not depressed.
And that’s remarkable considering the facts. I’ve gone through three rounds of bronchitis, two sinus infections, a hospitalization, six weeks of intensive outpatient programming, and been fired from my job since last Fall. The firing was my most recent adventure in insanity, less than a month ago. Reality was that I needed to be canned, otherwise I may not have left that place. Although I strongly disagree with how it was done, I’m grateful that I’m out of there. I was approved for unemployment, food assistance, and just this week I was offered another full time job with benefits. All in all, things are looking up for me, I must say. I’m impressed with my ability to perform under extreme pressure and deadlines—basically one that said “you’re completely broke, so get a job NOW”. Every week I managed to drag myself to my therapist’s office for my appointments, took my prescribed head meds, and did my homework diligently as a nerdy schoolgirl. I was a good kid, and it appears to have paid off.
I’m going to be returning to work full time for the first time in several years. I guess I’m a little nervous about that theoretically—I hope I can keep up with the “normal” schedule, meet my benchmarks, and get everything done as I’m supposed to do. It’s odd not to have any sense of my strengths or skills, to have to blindly aim and shoot for the clay pigeon with no idea which way is up or down.know-your-enemy3.157153555_std

I think that’s part of my illness, the inability to see myself for anything more than a defective or judge my performance objectively. This comes from years of programming from non-supportive sources, and blanket statements about my identity. “You’ll never be liked by anyone”, my father told me. “You can’t get along with people and you’re impossible to like”. Or “you failed to meet our standards, even though you say you tried your best, you still failed” said a former supervisor. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you”. Always the feeling that despite all the coaching to “be myself”, there were certain things so inherently wrong with me, so irreparable, that I would never be able to pass for normal or fit in. After hearing such things over and over, one begins to feel, and live, as an outsider.
Oddball, weird girl, scary chick, creep, freak. My response was to withdraw into the library and spend hours alone reading Nabokov and Poe among the musty stacks. Or hide in the basement rec room with headphones on listening to Kate Bush and Bauhaus lp’s, writing poetry and cutting the hair off my Barbie dolls. I walked through life feeling like I had a neon sign on me that read OUTSIDER, that everyone could see as a warning to steer clear. You’d think I was meant to be an artist, right? I never was great at painting or drawing. That was my sister’s territory, she’d been labeled “the creative one”. Sorry, kid that job has been taken. I had to be creepy. I had to be the one in all black at the Thanksgiving table. I had to be the bad one who liked girls instead of boys, to like multiple girls even, and pursue a career doing nothing much of anything for most of my adult life.
Now that I’ve reached the middle, nearing fifty, I’ve simply stopped caring. It’s easier somehow to not feel bothered if others don’t understand or like me. It’s easier to stop worrying and love the bomb that I am. My therapist has an extraordinary amount of like for me, and faith in my abilities to be a worthwhile human. “You’re amazing”, she says. “Never have I met anyone with a vocabulary quite like yours. It’s fascinating and a lot of fun”, she told me last week. And the woman who offered me the new job told me that I was “a joy” to talk with. So I think perhaps, if it’s possible, lots of people in my past have been mistaken about me. Perhaps I am creepy, but with the charm of Edward Gorey. Maybe I am an outsider, but with the appeal of Dennis Hopper in “Easy Rider”. Perhaps I am a little defective, but that makes me all the more interesting. And maybe I’m not the enemy I thought I was.