Respecting My Limits

In trauma therapy this week, I broached an uncomfortable topic with my therapist at the beginning of the session. After last week’s intensive trauma-based emotional discussion, I was left feeling overly distraught and depleted. In fact, after I got home, I lay wrapped in my heated blanket on the couch for the entire remainder of the day, unable to work, carry out other responsibilities, or even enjoy leisure activities (or TV!). I was utterly spent, and my mind was unhappily churning through distressing feelings and premonitions. Some amount of that is healthy and a necessary means to the achieve the outcome I desire, but I can only handle so much at once. The amount of exposure to the traumatic thoughts and feelings that gets drummed up has to be carefully titrated in order for my highly sensitive little body and mind to tolerate the insult. Beyond a conservatively calculated dose, I get emotionally overloaded, which sends me reeling and spiraling into a bad direction. As my mom so astutely pointed out this week, my autoimmune disease started flaring up just after the stressful therapy. My doctor told me that one of the biggest risk factors for triggering a flare up is stress; the brain-body connection is very real. Needless to say, while last week’s aggressive probing into the trauma emotions I keep forever guarded and locked up was informative and an important step in my eventual healing, it likely was too intensive for the resilience and the supports I currently have. It was just a few days ago, for instance, that I compared myself to a precarious Jenga tower; I feel on the verge of emotional collapse with the slightest of perturbations much of the time. Objectively, that means that my tolerance to withstand significant exploration into my most painful memories and buried feelings is low. Such an aggressive deep dive as last week’s inquiry and discussion teeters into being more destructive than beneficial at this point. It is more healthy and productive for me to explore these topics and emotions at a slower, gentler pace, gradually working through the layers of successive painful intensity when the previous layer has been digested and absorbed safely.

The effects of the difficult therapy session last week were not confined to that afternoon and evening. My brain continued to feel inundated with thoughts about the attack, the feelings I guard, my metacognition in general, and the regular host of deliberations that always occupy my mind for days. And I got sicker. Fevers spiked, digestion went even more haywire than normal, and my joints became palpably hot and swollen, which although freakish and unnerving, pales in comparison to the degree of pain they caused me. This is unhealthy and counterproductive. It made sleeping harder, moving around near impossible, and pushed my emotional resilience buttons to the brink of their capacity. I’m trying so hard to keep depression, anxiety, low self-worth, and pessimism at bay. This is a constant battle but one I’m committed to. It becomes that much more onerous when I’m exhausted from not sleeping, achey to the point of debility, and immobile because of diseased connective tissues. Chronic pain is wearing.

As I took to my usual chair in the therapist’s office, I reluctantly looked down at my hands as if studying them for the answers. When my therapist asked me how my week was, I blushed and said, “Surprisingly manageable, but I need to talk to you about last week’s session first.” I hate confrontation, even when the situation isn’t heated or contentious, and even, like in this case, where I’m simply advocating for my needs to a provider whose sole job is to help me (and thus also wants to do whatever is best for me). Nevertheless, it makes me feel unbearably uncomfortable and guilty. However, I sucked it up like a responsible and confident person and expressed my concerns about my reactions to last week’s session. I suggested we keep delving into the lock box of trauma memories and feelings but that we do so in my conservative bouts, peppered in with discussions about the myriad other problems I have. I laughed at my open honesty about my dire need for lots of psychological work to demonstrate that I can be good-humored about a serious bevy of issues. You kind of need to develop a healthy ability to laugh at yourself when you’re engulfed in such an exhaustive list of challenges; it makes it more bearable. I do, of course, understand the gravity of some of the issues I do deal with, like the trauma, my lifelong battle against depression, my health and food allergy restrictions, etc. because it’s my reality, the only life I know. But I try to stay positive and keep perspective on everything. Ultimately, I’m doing really well and it’s valuable to recognize that when things start to feel too defeating and painful.

Fortunately, my therapist handled my suggestion and explanation of my experience fine, as she should. I always seem to carry this burden of worrying that I’ll upset someone else by sharing my thoughts or needs, even if, like I said, that other person is a professional dedicated to helping me. I just hate ruffling feathers so much and truly have my whole life. I remember being a toddler and swallowing my words that would convey my feelings or needs if I thought they’d be potentially controversial or unharmonious with what was expected or already occurring. Where do these fears derive from? My memories of worrying about this type of thing and imagining scenarios and conversations actually stem all the way back to being in diapers, and I graduated out of diapers at an early age (that is to say, I was very young!). It’s been one natural tendency I’ve never outgrown or put to rest, and yet I recognize its self-limiting and even self-sabotaging consequences! The day I discover the secret way to reprogram my brain will be a mightily powerful one, but in truth, I think I’m learning that I can do it, it just takes way longer than a day. These are deep-seeded behaviors and thought patterns that have worn very deep grooves in my brain. All this self-improvement work is a process that will gradually reroute the trenches. As permanent as they feel, I must remember that they don’t have to be. It just requires a lot of work, patience, and persistence to dig out of them and start tunneling a new groove instead. The good thing is that becoming aware of your problems gives you more of an aerial view so that you aren’t rerouting blindly; instead, you have a sense of where you want to go and where your previous grooves deviated from that course. Therapy, in this sense, as well as all the thinking I do on my own, have helped me design my own road map from which I can plan an itinerary that allows me to go to the places that are important to me. Other people may be guided more successfully than I have with intuition alone; and while I seem to lack this good direction sense, I’m able to work hard to build my own supports to help me chart a smart course.

I think there will still be some growing pains in trying to determine how much trauma work I can productively handle in one session. And more than likely, it’ll be variable, depending on concurrent other factors in my life and how wobbly they render my Jenga tower. I imagine some days, we will overdo it again. However, I feel more comfortable voicing my tolerance concerns with my therapist and more confident that we will err on the side of caution, at least for now, and prioritize my health and stability. The traumatic memories aren’t going anywhere, so theoretically, I’m in this healing process for the long-term. I’m naturally impatient, and this is even more apparent when it comes to feeling better, but I’m learning to stretch the bounds of my patience and keep the ultimate achievement of the end goal in a way that feels good as the priority, not the pace with which I work towards it. This is yet another thing I’m working on. I’m starting to realize it’s not hyperbole to say it’s a never-ending list…good thing determination has always been my strength!


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