Category: Anxiety

Trauma, EMDR, and the Kobayashi Maru Test

Given today is September 11th, and it is 20 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, I figured it is as good a day as any to blog about trauma. This post is not about 9/11. Or where I was or what I did or some romanticized version of my experiences or actions on this day in 2001. My personal experience is not very important here. But 9/11, as the overall events as a whole have come to be called, was for MANY, including me, a traumatic event. Given that, I think it will be helpful to discuss trauma and it’s effects in a context that many people can relate to.

What is Trauma, anyway?

There are a number of ways that various organizations define trauma. In this case, I am not referring to the physical sense of trauma like a wound or injury. But rather, the trauma I’m talking about is more of an emotional wound or injury.

Trauma: a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury; an emotional upset; an agent, force, or mechanism that causes trauma

Trauma | Definition of Trauma by Merriam-Webster

Trauma: a deeply distressing or disturbing experience

TRAUMA English Definition and Meaning | Lexico.com (Oxford)

The very succinct, but inclusive definition from Lexico above captures it best in my opinion. The key being that trauma is “deeply” distressing or disturbing. So, getting pickles on your hamburger when you asked for no pickles is not a traumatic event. But terrorists taking over commercial airliners to crash them into buildings most definitely is. Those events created a massive amount of distress, even for people like me who were very far removed from the events and had no particular personal connection to anyone involved. I’m confident that a lot of you out there who would say the same.

BANG Trauma

The 9/11 attacks are a great example of a point in time trauma. An event. A “flash-in-the-pan” if you will. This is similar to an assault, a car crash, or some other moment that happens relatively quickly, but then has lingering effects on you. Let’s call this BANG Trauma.

WOOSH Trauma

Some trauma takes place over a course of time and is more environmental, but still has the nature of being deeply distressing or disturbing. A great example of this would be the COVID-19 global pandemic. While this may encompass individual BANG Trauma events for people, like the loss of a loved one, getting laid off from your job, or some imbecile trying to give you horse medicine (WTF?), it also created an environment that was quite distressing over many months and is still going. Let’s call this WOOSH Trauma.

Honor Thy Mother and Father

It is pretty common that the impact our parents have on us is not all positive. Whether through their actions or inactions, their words or their silences, their presence or absence, we’re all going to have some shit to deal with that traces back to Mom and/or Dad.

Goodbye, Florence

The majority of my trauma comes from my parents. This is not uncommon. The cliché of going to a psychiatrist or therapist to “talk about your mother” is alive in well in popular culture, movies, TV, etc. But it got to be a cliché for a reason. Our parents can have an incredible impact on us. In fact, I would argue, that having an incredible impact on us is their job. Just like it is my job to have an incredible impact on my children. It’s just that this impact isn’t always positive.

My mom, Florence, suffered from Bipolar Disorder back when it was referred to as Manic Depression. People who live with this can have their mood swing profoundly between deep depression and the more high-energy, excited “manic” state. My mom had a pretty hard go of it with a husband who didn’t necessarily understand or support her, but was quite willing to put her in the hospital when it became too hard to “manage” her. Sometimes, during these manic periods, she would decided to stop taking her medication (lithium) because she didn’t want to go back to that more subdued state that the Lithium help put her in.

These experiences, in which my mom’s showing emotion tended to land her in the hospital, laid the foundation for the wall I ended up erecting between me and my own emotions. Except anger, that is. More on that in a future post.

Hello, Flo

When I was in my early to mid teens, I don’t recall specifically, my mom had a major manic episode in and around accidentally inhaling some chemicals at work. Looking back, that was around the time we lost Florence. I lost my mom. In her stead, we got Flo who took over Florence’s body. Unlike Florence, Flo was a woman who gave no fucks and was irreverent and sometimes really fun and funny.

At this time, my dad was not living with us (BANG and WOOSH; more on this in a later post, perhaps). My older brothers (Gerry and Ray) were long out of the house, Gerry in Minnesota and Ray in Massachusetts. So, it was just Flo and me. We had lost the house I grew up in to foreclosure (BANG and some WOOSH) and were living in an Section 8 (low income rental assistance) apartment as Flo was no longer able to work.

BANGs and WOOSHes Galore

Middle Finger on Skype

Flo had her good side. We made a game of finding new and creative ways to give each other the middle finger, which was often pretty funny. The first time one of my friends saw me give my mother the finger, they were shocked, “Did you seriously just flip off your mom?!” “Of course,” I said. “Why didn’t you?” From that point on my friends were in on the game, too.

But, Flo wasn’t always fun. Sometimes, she would decide to “cope” with her own pain by causing pain for others. Not in a physical sense. But in terms of manipulation or “causing a scene” or getting someone else to have to drop everything they wanted to do to deal with Flo. Since it was just me and Flo, the most common target for this was me (plenty of BANG and WOOSH and more WOOSH).

How Do You DO This?

My oldest brother, Gerry, and I were pall bearers for my paternal grandmother’s funeral. We needed to go a bit early. The plan was for my other brother, Ray, to bring Flo and meet us there. They never showed up. When Gerry and I got back to the apartment after the funeral, Ray was huddled in corner in utter anguish (BANG). Flo was sitting at the kitchen table with a air of profound satisfaction at what she had been able to do (BANG and some WOOSH). She had taken this man who was fun and funny and always had a smile or a joke or a positive thing to say, and turned him into a pile of goo. She had broken her son. And she LOVED it. (BANG much?)

As soon as he saw me, Ray just asked, “How do you DO this?” I didn’t have an answer for him at the time. One possibility can be found in A Bully and a Hero: Depression and My Paladin » Can’t Juggle (cantjuggle.com). Flo was able to wreck Ray in a few hours. The fact that I spent years as her only target and am still here is pretty miraculous. Please understand that this is not about Ray being weak. He is one of the strongest people I have ever met. Nor is it about me being some sort of exceptional person. I’m really not.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)

EMDR is a psychotherapy treatment for trauma-related disorders like PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). In times of great stress or danger, our Amygdala, which controls our Fight/Flight/Freeze processing in our brains, can activate our OH SHIT! system. When that happens, our logical processing centers of the brain get shut out. A traumatic event which triggers this OH SHIT! system can cause our Amygdala to ring the OH SHIT! bell whenever it perceives a situation to be like the original event. For example, combat veterans suffering from PTSD can have their OH SHIT! processing triggered by a loud noise that has nothing to do with combat.

During the Fight/Flight/Freeze process, our body chemistry is altered to enable us to have the burst of energy we need to survive a deadly situation. After that burst, we can get super fatigued as that burst of energy comes at a cost. Having our OH SHIT! system activate a lot means we get that burst of energy a lot which means we have to pay that cost a lot. It’s brutally draining.

The goal of EMDR is to try to get our Amygdala to form a new pathway in place of the OH SHIT! one in response to events it perceives as similar to the original trauma. That is the Reprocessing. It is trying to train your brain to stop triggering the Fight/Flight/Freeze response in mundane situations where we really don’t need our OH SHIT! system activated.

I’m Trapped

To start the process, I spent several sessions with my therapist, Ashley, taking an inventory of the trauma I could remember and identify. Yes. It took several sessions to get through it all. We then worked to identify a theme, a feeling that formed the core experience with each BANG and WOOSH. I landed on “I’m trapped.” That is the one sentiment that fit perfectly in all the BANGs and all the WOOSHes. So much of my trauma involved events or situations in which I felt like I had no way out. I had no way to win. I just kept finding myself taking the fucking Kobayashi Maru test. Over and over.

Starfleet Academy’s Kobayashi Maru Test

The Kobayashi Maru Test first appeared in the 1982 film Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan. It also features in the 2009 reboot film, Star Trek. The test involves a distress signal from a civilian ship, the Kobayashi Maru, that has become stranded in the Neutral Zone, a region of space between the Klingon Empire and the United Federation of Planets. Starfleet cadets taking the test must choose whether to help rescue the Kobayashi Maru, and risk major diplomatic incident and attack by Klingons, or leave the civilian ship, and its crew, to fairly certain destruction. Any cadets that attempt rescue end up facing a battle with Klingons that is designed to be completely unwinnable. Starfleet uses this test to measure the character of cadets and assess how they will function in the highly stressful environment of a “no-win scenario.”

I’m Strong

The goal with my course of EMDR was to reprocess these I’m Trapped situations into something more positive. Something that would not trigger my OH SHIT! system. Ray’s question, “How do you DO this?” inspired the more positive theme: “I’m strong.” We then had our course of action for my EMDR. We would reprocess “I’m Trapped” into “I’m Strong” and I’d be good to go. Simple. (sigh)

Physically, the process can involve actually moving your gaze side while doing this emotional work (hence the “Eye Movement” part). But that made me dizzy AF. So, we used little hand-held fobs that gently vibrate on and off and in alternating pattern.

Oh my god, you guys. EMDR is the most grueling thing I have ever done. By a lot. It is such hard, draining work to jump back into trauma (on purpose) with both feet in order build a new path out of it and make your brain choose this new path over the familiar one. I was on medical leave at the time and I can’t see how I could have worked and done EMDR at the same time. There’s just no way. Each one-hour session took 3-4 days to recover from. I was very fortunate to have a friend that would drive me to and from these appointments. Thank you, Megan.

While the “during” for EMDR suuuuuuuuucked, I have to say that the results, at least for me, were MAGICAL. I can’t promise the same for anyone else. Mental health, in general, doesn’t work that way. But this childhood trauma I had been carrying around my whole life got so much easier to carry, thanks to EMDR.

To Boldly Go…

James T Kirk is fabled to be the only Starfleet cadet ever to beat the Kobayashi Maru test. He did so be changing the simulation to make it possible to both rescue the Kobayashi Maru crew and defeat the Klingon attack. Kirk took an unwinnable situation and reprocessed it into a win. But he needed to cheat to do it.

Trauma can seem like a no-win scenario. It can seem like we are trapped. That there’s no way out. But there can be. It can take work, to be sure. But it can be done. I’ve done it. And I didn’t cheat once. Take that, Jim.

Meet Dave: My Anxiety Vampire

Personification and Externalization

I have found great value in personifying and externalizing my mental illnesses and other aspects of the wild ride my brain treats me to. But what the hell does this even mean? Well, dear reader, I shall explain using some very concise and easy definitions adapted from Reid Wilson, Ph.D., Director of the Anxiety Disorders Treatment Center in Chapel Hill, NC, and contributor to Psychology Today. He is also that author of several books, including Stopping the Noise in Your Head.

I adapted the definitions below from Dr. Wilson’s article Wrestling With Anxiety in the Canadian Wilderness from May of 2020. It’s a brief, easy read and I recommend it. Anxiety, hiking, and bears! Oh, my!

Personification as the attribution of human-like identity to something, the subject, that is not a human. It is related to anthropomorphism in that it allows for treating the subject as a person you can address directly.

Externalization is perceiving of a part of yourself as being outside of yourself instead. Rather than being a part of you, it is something in a relationship with you.

Meet Dave

Face of Nosferatu from the 1922 film
Nosferatu

Since my Anxiety burst through the wall of my mind like the Kool-Aid Man a few years ago, I have been personifying and externalizing it in an effort to make it a bit easier to deal with. For me, my anxiety is a ferocious vampire (no stupid sparkling; #TeamAlice) named Dave that stands about 1 inch behind me almost all the time. Because he is so close, if he decides to get me, there is no possible way I would be able to prevent it. I am completely at his mercy.

When I look back at my childhood, and really throughout my entire life, I can see that Dave has been with me almost since day 1. I have always been leery and uncomfortable with my back to open doorways, darkness, or any other place where Dave or other creatures could be laying in wait for me.

What are you afraid of?

I was actually afraid A LOT as a kid. My parents even tried the practice of checking my room for monsters when they put me to bed. But, it didn’t work. You see, MY monsters were wily, persistent little shits; they would just come back as soon as my parents left the room or turned off the light. Nightlights were a huge deal for me; although I never had a blue canary nightlight until adulthood.

To this day, I seldom enjoy horror movies and tend to avoid them altogether. It still takes some effort, sometimes, to walk through a dark room in my house. Being outside alone after dark, even just to bring the trash and recycling bins to the curb, is often a nerve-wracking experience for me. I am able to push through and do what I need to do, but it takes more effort than it does for most people, I think.

Anxiety is not my enemy

Beavis kicking Butthead in the junk
Ouch

As humans evolved over the millennia, we developed fear and anxiety. These feelings helped to inspire caution, and ultimately helped us to survive as a species. It is easy for us to understand, today, that walking up a mountain lion and kicking it in the junk is not a scenario that is likely to end in our favor. But on a more primitive level, before we developed the brains we have today, it was the fear and caution that would have urged early humans to avoid junk-kicking exploits like this. Junk-kickers, those that didn’t exercise this caution, were less likely to be around long enough to procreate, making the junk-kicking trait less likely to pass on to future generations.

Thus, Anxiety, in a very real sense, was a vital asset to our success as a species. It exists as a means of trying to keep us safe. I find it helpful to keep this in mind and take it even a step further: Anxiety is not my enemy. It is a healthy part of me. It is not the fact that I experience anxiety that is a problem; it is the fact that I have an anxiety disorder that is the problem. My brain triggers anxiety far more frequently and forcefully than it needs to in its attempts to keep me safe. It sees more danger in more places or even just DANGER in all the places. Which brings us back to Dave.

Dave is my hero

Dave, as the personification and externalization of my anxiety, just wants to ensure my safety. He wants to keep me from being eaten. So, rather then standing 1 inch behind me to try and get me, he stands there to guard me. He has my back. My Generalized Anxiety Disorder makes Dave way more active than he needs to be. He needs to spend less time crying wolf and more time sitting in a corner with his coloring books and crayons. But he’s on my team (#TeamDave). He, like my Paladin, is my hero.

From Can’t Juggle But Did It Anyway To Just Can’t

X All The Y Meme | CAN'T; ALL THE THINGS | image tagged in memes,x all the y | made w/ Imgflip meme maker

What’s this blog about?

When I was thinking about starting a personal blog about my experiences with mental illness, namely, Depression and Anxiety, I wracked my brain for something interesting to call it. I wanted it to be memorable. I wanted it to be short. I wanted it to imply that there would be some humor thrown in. And I wanted it to have some meaning for me, preferably on more than one level. I’m pretty happy with where this landed. “Cant’ Juggle” accomplishes every one of those goals. Besides, Hippopotamus was taken. In this inaugural post, I will share the story behind the title; and hopefully give you a preview of the content you will find here if you choose to stick around.

Years ago, when I started working as a data professional, I got to attend a lot of conferences. Almost always, I was a speaker as well. I loved standing on a stage and teaching people about various tools and technologies and making them laugh while I did it. Some of these events would have community zone areas for just hanging out that were strewn with beanbag chairs. It was a great place to spend time between sessions, on meal brakes, etc. I met great people here and made friends.

Can’t juggle

At one particular event, I was in a community zone with several other folks, but it was largely empty. Many of the beanbag chairs were unoccupied. I decided to see if I could juggle them. Why? Was anyone else juggling these vacant beanbag chairs? Of course not. What moron would even think of such a thing? It certainly wasn’t because I could juggle. I could not. Maybe I figured the attempt would be fun and might even garner a few laughs.

So I thought, fuck it. Without a word, I walked over to a group of chairs, grabbed three, and moved to an open area away from anyone. Then I went for it, trying to figure out the mechanics of juggling as I went. The first bag I threw sailed about twelve feet away and hit the ground. I went and grabbed it and tried again. And again. And again.

Wow! Mark’s an AMAZING juggler! Just top notch!
~ No one. Ever.

It was hysterically bad. I never even came close. I spent far more time wandering about picking up the chairs I threw beyond my reach than anything else. But it was indeed fun and it did indeed garner some laughs, including from me. Then it became a mission. Whenever I was not in a session or when the community zone was sparsely populated (so my colossal failures didn’t hurt anyone), I could be found tossing beanbag chairs around like an imbecile.

Nothing personal, but….
Fuck this guy and his stoopid juggling.

Photo by juan pablo rodriguez on Unsplash

But did it anyway

Then it happened. With two chairs in my left hand, I threw one up. While it was coming down, I threw up the one in my right hand just before catching the chair that was already airborne. Then I did the same with my left hand and so on. Once. One full revolution, before it all went to shit. A few seconds of outright victory that tasted so sweet. Kind of like Fortune Bubble Gum from the 1980s. Wonderful for a few seconds and then death. I wasn’t aware of how racist the packaging, etc., was at the time. I was just a kid. But since I do now, I chose to just link to it instead of putting an image in here. Growth.

Did I stop there, having conquered a small corner of the beanbag chair juggling world? Did I end on a high note like when John Elway won the Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos in 1999 and then retired? Of course not. I kept at it. In all my attempts at subsequent conferences, I never succeeded again. I never successfully juggled anything else either.

This is not a cautionary tale about juggling beanbags or any other barely jugglable objects. This is not really a cautionary tale at all. But it does establish the kind of outgoing, fun-loving person that I was. I loved making people laugh. And sometimes I would try ridiculous things to make people laugh. And I loved it. I was presenting at conferences, and emceeing company meetings at the consulting firm I worked for, and being told (more than once) that I should hire myself out just to attend parties and functions because I brought so much energy and fun and humor with me wherever I went.

Just can’t

X All The Y Meme |  CAN'T; ALL THE THINGS | image tagged in memes,x all the y | made w/ Imgflip meme maker

So, when I tell you that I have spent a substantial portion of the past 3 years afraid to leave my house; afraid to leave my basement office; afraid to be near people; near ANYONE; I want you to understand my full meaning.

I started having such soul-crushing fatigue from Depression that I actually didn’t know if I could keep breathing; actually despairing, “FUCK. I have to breath again in a few seconds…. How am I going to do that?”; or being perfectly still and getting so exhausted from it that I thought if I could just lay down, it would be better, only to realize I was already laying down; I was already doing NOTHING and it was too much (by a LOT). I was too exhausted to move, just from EXISTING. Too terrified of EVERYTHING to be near my family. From Can’t Juggle But Did It Anyway to just Can’t.

Where do we go from here?

In subsequent posts, I will walk through this descent in more detail, including some of the childhood trauma that had a major impact on me, even if it took a while to bubble over. I will also share how I came back from the mouth of the abyss. I’m back to work now, and have been for quite a while. I still have bad days, but fewer of them, and the ones I have are less bad.

I think that’s enough for this first post. I dug the foundation that future posts will be based on. Gave an inkling of the kinds of experiences I plan to share. I hope you will stick around for it. I’ll keep writing anyway. But if I can have this energy expenditure pay off by helping people, then so much the better.

One last thing. I have never heard of anyone else ever juggling beanbag chairs. So, I have to entertain the possibility that I may be the greatest beanbag chair juggler of all time. Just… you know. Just saying.

Addendum

My good friend, Doug Lane (blog|twitter) not only witnessed many of my beanbag chair juggling exploits, but even recorded some back in November of 2012 at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle, WA. You can now see videos of my beanbag chair juggling, including my one an only success on my new page The Tiniest Bit of Juggling.