mental health

The Refuge- A Healing Place

I returned home yesterday afternoon from 89 days spent in a residential treatment facility in Florida. I was at The Refuge- A Healing Place in Ocklawaha, FL. While I was there, I participated in two therapist-led groups and a 12 step or similar client-led group each day seven days a week. In addition, I received an hour of individual therapy each week and more on weeks when I needed it. It’s difficult to summarize 89 days worth of treatment, but I’d like to share some take-aways. Text in blocks of color come from the cited sources.

I’m not comfortable going into the details of my trauma at this time, but I have decided that I want to be really open and honest about the fact that I have been diagnosed with PTSD. One thing I learned at The Refuge is that my trauma is real and valid and shouldn’t be minimized. Many things played into my diagnosis of PTSD, but if you need something somewhat easier to digest, please consider my entire experience in the Peace Corps, prior to which I didn’t have symptoms of PTSD. Here is some information from Mayo Clinic about PTSD. I feel like I’ve been inauthentic in the past by using this blog to only talk about my diagnoses of Bipolar Disorder and anxiety and I’m trying to rectify that.

From The Refuge website:

When events occur that make us feel extremely frightened, threatened, or distressed we may end up developing an emotional or psychological wound. Some people may be able to move beyond this experience with the help of friends, family, and an extensive support network. However, many people do not have these resources and end up feeling very alone. This can lead to an increasing inability to cope, function in important various areas of daily living, or maintain regular routines. Often trauma victims feel that no one can understand what they went through and the suffering they experience which can cause them to withdraw from loved ones. Conversely, loved ones may realize that something is wrong with their loved one and want to help but feel confused, rejected, and unsure of what they can do to help.

There is no “normal” way to react to trauma – each person is different. Some people try to repress or forget the event by distracting themselves with other activities. Others may focus on the traumatic event constantly. There may be a drive to remain continuously active to prevent unwanted thoughts from surfacing or an individual may become overwhelmed, paralyzed by intrusive thoughts they can’t get out of their mind. Often individuals who have experienced trauma lose the ability to feel pleasure, leading to a lack of motivation to do much of anything. Some people may feel a sense of emotional numbness while others may experience emotional oversensitivity.

Often those who have survived one or more traumatic events don’t fully realize the impact it is having on their lives. At our PTSD treatment center, we want you to know that you don’t have to deal with trauma alone. We’re here to help you through this troubled time. We see each resident as an individual with unique needs and recognize your desire to belong to a community that understands you. When you become a part of our rehab center’s family, you will begin to replace the negative experiences you have lived through with the positive experiences of re-establishing positive relationships and the joy that life holds. Don’t try to go at it alone. We’re here to help.”

I was in denial about having PTSD for quite a while, but I’ so grateful that I had the opportunity to go to The Refuge and learn more about it. We primarily used narrative therapy, which means I wrote a bunch of letters to people, concepts, and emotions. I wrote a ten page letter to misogyny that I may share an edited version of on here at some point following several unsettling interactions with men on the campus.

In addition to PTSD, I realized with the help of my amazing therapist that I have authority figure issues and specifically people pleasing issues when it comes to authority figures. What I learned is that people only have as much authority as I give them. I am not obligated to do things for people just because they are in a position of authority over me. I can say “no” and it is a complete sentence.

While I knew to some degree that I struggled with Codependency prior to going to The Refuge, I have a lot more codependency issues in my life than I realized. CODA (Codependents Anonymous) lists some of the characteristics of codependents:

  • I have difficulty identifying what I am feeling.
  • I minimize, alter or deny how I truly feel.
  • I perceive myself as completely unselfish and dedicated to the well being of others.
  • I have difficulty making decisions.
  • I judge everything I think ,say, or do harshly as never “good enough.”
  • I do not ask others to meet my needs or desires.
  • I value others’ approval of my thinking, feelings, and behavior over my own.
  • I do not perceive myself as a lovable or worthwhile person.
  • I compromise my own values and integrity to avoid rejection or others’ anger.
  • I am very sensitive to how others are feeling and feel the same.
  • I am extremely loyal, remaining in harmful situations too long.
  • I believe most other people are incapable of taking care of themselves.
  • I attempt to convince others of what they “should” think and how they “truly” feel.
  • I become resentful when others will not let me help them.
  • I freely offer others advice and directions without being asked.
  • I lavish gifts and favors on those I care about.
  • I use sex to gain approval and acceptance.
  • I have to be “needed” in order to have a relationship with others.

I also attended ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families) meetings, and learned just how many of those characteristics I embody:

The Laundry List – 14 Traits of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic

  1. We became isolated and afraid of people and authority figures.
  2. We became approval seekers and lost our identity in the process.
  3. We are frightened by angry people and any personal criticism.
  4. We either become alcoholics, marry them or both, or find another compulsive personality such as a workaholic to fulfill our sick abandonment needs.
  5. We live life from the viewpoint of victims and we are attracted by that weakness in our love and friendship relationships.
  6. We have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and it is easier for us to be concerned with others rather than ourselves; this enables us not to look too closely at our own faults, etc.
  7. We get guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves instead of giving in to others.
  8. We became addicted to excitement.
  9. We confuse love and pity and tend to “love” people we can “pity” and “rescue.”
  10. We have “stuffed” our feelings from our traumatic childhoods and have lost the ability to feel or express our feelings because it hurts so much (Denial).
  11. We judge ourselves harshly and have a very low sense of self-esteem.
  12. We are dependent personalities who are terrified of abandonment and will do anything to hold on to a relationship in order not to experience painful abandonment feelings, which we received from living with sick people who were never there emotionally for us.
  13. Alcoholism is a family disease; and we became para-alcoholics and took on the characteristics of that disease even though we did not pick up the drink.
  14. Para-alcoholics are reactors rather than actors.

I hope none of you ever have to seek residential treatment. But if you do, I hope you seek it at The Refuge. I’ll write more about my experience later, but this is getting pretty long, so I’ll leave you with this for now: You are worthy of love and belonging. You have the right to say no. You can say what you mean and mean what you say.

mental health

Carrie Frances Fisher (October 21, 1956- December 27, 2016)

As many of you know, I am in a residential treatment facility in Florida for my mental heath. After discussing my love for Carrie Fisher with my therapist, he gave me an assignment. The assignment was to find some way to show what I love about Carrie Fisher and what that says about what I love about me. I elected to make a collage and do some writing on the subject.

Carrie Fisher was an American actress, comedian, and writer. She was best known for playing Princess Leia in the Star Wars films. She was also Hollywood Royalty, the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. That’s what her Wikipedia entry says, but she was so much more. Carrie Fisher was fierce, fearless, and incredibly open about her struggles with Bipolar Disorder and substance abuse, even though she was in the public eye. She was an advocate for those with mental illnesses and those with substance use disorders. By all accounts, she was funny, warm, generous, kind, and creative. She was an incredibly talented writer and storyteller. She helped the people she loved, but she also helped complete strangers.

Carrie Fisher gave me hope when I felt like I had none. Following my Bipolar I diagnosis, I felt alone and scared. She once said, “at times, being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage, so if you’re living with his illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of.” She also said, “Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.” I have found each quote to be profoundly helpful in my journey with mental illness.

The memoirs Carrie Fisher wrote about her experiences with mental health and substance abuse are some of my favorite books of all time. She wrote Shockaholic, Wishful Drinking, and The Princess Diarist about her challenges with mental health, her challenges with substance use, and her affair with Harrison Ford during the filming of Star Wars: A New Hope. Her book, Postcards From the Edge, detailed her relationship with her mother and mental health.  Candid and hilarious, her books paint a realistic portrait of what it’s like to live with Bipolar I. They show that people who make mistakes (myself included) are still whole, capable, competent, worthy people. They detail the immense pain that people like her and me feel and share tools and tactics she used to help her feel better. Her books helped me feel less alone and my hope is that someday I can help other people feel less alone with their mental health struggles, too.

Not only was Carrie Fisher a badass in real life, but she played my favorite fictional character- General Leia Organa. Many people would say that Princess Leia is their favorite, but there’s a special place in my heart for the Leia of the new trilogy. She may have been adopted into royalty, but she earned her title as General through decades of hard work and dedication. She wasn’t a perfect wife, mother, or person, but she stood up for what she believed in and ultimately sacrificed herself. She used the last of her energy to call out to her son, Ben Solo, and saved Rey, the Resistance, and the galaxy in the process. I think I find this so appealing for a variety of reasons, some of which aren’t healthy. I seem to love the idea of giving and giving and giving of myself until there’s no me left to give.

I want to be like Carrie Fisher- open about my struggles, good at writing, and a published author who is known for her humor and generosity. In some ways, we are similar. We share a diagnosis (Bipolar I), but we share more than that. I try to be generous with my time and money. I advocate for myself and others. I love writing about my mental health and my family and friends seem to enjoy reading it. I am kind and loyal. I use humor and care deeply about others. I work hard to fight for causes I believe in and I’ve spent my whole life wanting to help others. We share a love of dogs and I believe we share a deep desire to be liked and accepted by others as shown in the book Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge by Sheila Weller. The biography details Carrie’s drug use and relationships, but it also shows a woman desperate to feel love and belonging, which I can certainly relate to.

Carrie Fisher once said, “Do not let what you think they think of you make you stop and question everything you are.” She also said, “I trust myself. I trust my instincts. I know what I’m gonna’ do, what I can do, what I can’t do. I’ve been through a lot, and I could go through more, but I hope I don’t have to. But if I did, I’d be able to do it.” I hope that I can someday live up to both of these quotes as well as the strength, courage, authenticity, and vulnerability that Carrie Fisher showed. I find it awe inspiring that Carrie Fisher was aware of how important it is for validation to come from within. This is something I personally didn’t realize until spending well over a month in a residential treatment facility and having been told about it by multiple therapists during that time. While my head knew that it logically makes sense that validation from within far surpasses external validation and even though I learned about the internal locus and external locus of control in graduate school, it wasn’t something I could get my heart to believe until very recently.

It’s truly challenging for me to compare myself to such an incredible and amazing woman who remains my idol. When I sat down to write this, I knew it would be difficult. I suspected that everything I came up with would be a stretch that other people disagreed with. What I actually discovered is that I have a lot more in common with my idol than I realized. For some reason, I praise her for being a woman willing to publicly make mistakes and learn and grow, but I shame myself internally for similar mistakes, learning, and growth. If I can see Carrie Fisher as someone worthy of being my idol, maybe it’s possible that I can start to love myself more and hate myself less.