Dissociation and Survival vs. Living: A Survivor's Story

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A CSA Survivor's Relationship with Dissociation, Survival and Living:

     
    "There are many things I wish I could help people understand about childhood trauma; this just happens to be one I hear very little about. Like many survivors, I struggle to hear sentiments like, "Oh my! I'm so so glad that's over now and you got through it!", "I can't believe you got out of that alive. I couldn't even do that now! I'd give up," or "At least you know your worst days are behind you. You know you can conquer anything!". Even resources and groups for trauma survivors, as well as therapists and clinicians, can share quips like "You survived the abuse, you're going to survive the recovery!". While these things intend to uplift or highlight our strength, they all categorically deny the fundamental mechanism that allowed us to survive in the first place, and why adulthood is the real hard part: dissociation.

    Make no mistake, those of us who endured trauma as children are courageously strong. We were forced to be tougher than most; and, by nature or necessity, we became resilient, creative and sharp. But Little Me didn't even experience the bulk of the trauma back then. I wasn't connected to the physical pain or sheer terror; I wasn't incapacitated by shame, disgust or uncleanliness; I wasn't aware of the immorality, nor was I having a crisis of conscience. I also didn't even know who was hurting me for much of my childhood - parts of my mind did, but not me. Little Me wasn't facing the anger or the blistering sting of betrayal from those I loved most hurting me in such inhumane ways. I wasn't yet aware this was abnormal or something that could make me feel alien or 'different' from my peers. I was numb, I was hyperfocused on the things I could control, and I was even made to feel special or self-confident in certain areas very early on. While some of that confidence dwindled over time and I became more aware of my unhappiness and "irrational" fears, none of that compares to what you imagine a tortured child feels — let alone what I was about to feel later in life.

    That suffering is here now. Adulthood is when all of it breaks through and confronts you with a vengeance. No, the abuse is not "over", it is not "behind me", it is not "something I got through". As far as my mind and body are concerned, it is NOW. It is very alive and in full-effect. Each excruciating detail of physical pain, disgust, and revulsion; every tidal wave of anger at those who knew and did nothing; each immobilizing shockwave of new material that re-writes my entire life story from how I once knew it. THIS is when my survival is tested. I am hypervigiliant, terrified, exhausted, unsure if I'm even real. I exist in hollowing spaces of grief for Little Me and the life I should have had. ...lost in an endless state of confusion, horror, disbelief and dismay. It is all day. THIS is live trauma in my brain and body. THIS is my battleground, and I am fighting for my life NOW. As an adult, not as a child.

     Furthermore, the dissociative process not only contorts the timeline of when we experience our trauma, but dissociation as an independent symptom challenges life as an adult, too. (..even beyond the forgetfulness, memory gaps, driving troubles, safety, maintaining a job, etc.) One of the most critical elements in trauma recovery is establishing healthy relationships and improving our overall worldview. It's very hard to want to carry on when all you've known is the absolute worst of mankind. Being able to look around, connect, and believe the world is still good is vital to our sanity, safety and healing. But, dissociation challenges this. It can dull your senses, leave you numb to positive feelings, keep you at an emotional distance from love or affections shown to you. It can keep you trapped in a surreal in-between state of both the past and the present -- where you respond to what's happening today with the same emotional maturity you had as a child. Emotional flashbacks, unexpected triggers, and other sudden symptoms that crop up - particularly in intimate relationships or the more meaningful aspects of life - can complicate joy and frustrate those in your life. But most of all, no one wants to just "be alive", we want to LIVE. Fully and authentically, with all the vibrance and richness available to us. But, dissociation has a way of diluting and blurring the world - stripping it of its color and beauty. So, how do you hold onto a light that you can barely see, feel or trust is even there?

    Like most ALL means of sheer survival, dissociation has its pros and cons. Just like chemotherapy and emergency surgery, they can keep you alive, but there are risks. They're also unpleasant in the moment and, separate from the conditions that necessitate these interventions, they alone carry longterm consequences. But, without them, you wouldn't be here -- so it's a constant tug of war with perspective and gratitude. Dissociation is no different. It got me through. It saved my life. It gave Little Me a fighting chance. But it also made life after abuse so darn difficult. Because, I should feel free. The abuse has ended, I am safe. I should be dancing and singing and holding everything I love dear to my chest. But instead, now is when I fight. Now is when I stare down my trauma, my innocence, my perpetrators - all with adult intellect and understanding - and try to decide if this life is worth living or if I'm up for the task.

    It is worth it. And, I am up for the fight. I'm going to do this and will do it with grace and strength. But then, and only then, can you say I survived the impossible or that 'it's over now'. This is the battle. ..and not for just survival, but for life. To make this existence meaningful now. I am going to conquer this. ..the trauma, the feelings, the defeat, the difficult relationships, the dissociation. I will also remain appreciative of what dissociation made possible for me, despite its thorns. I want Young Me to get credit for surviving the horror. But I want Adult Me to be credited for not only surviving even more anguish, but for learning to LIVE, too."

 

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MORE POSTS YOU MAY FIND HELPFUL:

    Grounding 101: 101 Grounding Techniques
    Flashbacks 101: 4 Tools to Cope with Flashbacks
    Nighttime 101 and Nighttime 201Sleep Strategies for Complex PTSD
    Imagery 101Healing Pool and Healing Light
    DID MythsDispelling Common Misconceptions about Dissociative Identity Disorder
    Did You Know?: 8 Things We Should All Know about C-PTSD and DID
    Trauma and Attachment: 3-Part Series on Attachment Theory with Jade Miller

 

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An In-Depth Conversation with Elizabeth Vermilyea

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   If you've worked in the field of trauma and dissociation for any amount of time, the name Elizabeth Vermilyea will likely be very familiar to you. For survivors new to their healing, you may not know her by name, but you've most certainly been using her tools and symptom management skills! In part due to her own humility and unassuming disposition, it's quite possible to be unaware of the impact of Elizabeth's work, despite having benefitted from it for years and years. If learning the detailed process of containment, modulation, healing pool/healing light imagery, or the more welcoming takes on internal communication, sounds familiar to you -- you have her to thank for that!

   Elizabeth's workbook, "Growing Beyond Survival: A Self-Help Toolkit for Managing Traumatic Stress" truly revolutionized the way that trauma survivors could not only learn about their conditions, but explore a variety of tools to alleviate their suffering at the same time. An unintimidating and easy to understand look at complex trauma, it allowed survivors to really work at their own pace. Clinicians were also given a new language with which to explain coping skills to their clients, and most importantly, a chance to work on them together.  Elizabeth's message of educating with compassion and warmth, and always including survivors in the process, has remained steadfast throughout the years and is a lasting legacy on the community. Through her continued work in the field, she keeps the momentum of trauma education and care headed in the right direction -- always focused but empathic.

    It is our absolute honor and privilege to bring to you an in-depth interview with someone we admire and value so deeply. You'll get a chance to learn more about Elizabeth's personal journey, her experience weeding through the at-times tepid and contentious world of trauma, and also explore the past, present and future of trauma care! We sincerely hope you enjoy!


❧     ❧     ❧

 

Let’s start with some background for those who are being introduced to you for the first time.

・Where are you from/currently residing? Where did you attend school and what did you earn your degree in?
How long have you been practicing and in what capacity do you currently work with trauma survivors?

     I was born in Raleigh, NC, and I currently live in Napa, CA. I don’t like to focus on schools and degrees because I don’t think they tell us anything about who someone is. Suffice it to say, I’ve spent a great deal of time on my education, but I really learned the most from the people I’ve worked with over the years both as clients and colleagues. Currently I do not treat survivors, but I do train and consult with professionals and survivors alike. My consultation with survivors focuses on managing traumatic stress symptoms.

 

・What made you interested in pursuing trauma disorders? Did you always know you wanted to focus here, or was it something that found you?

     I like to say that I tripped and fell into this work, and then fell in love with it. I had intended to become an experimental psychologist. My first job out of college was at the Masters & Johnson Sexual Trauma program at River Oaks in Louisiana, and I got that job after sending out resumes everywhere I could. They were the ones who called back! It didn’t take long for me to realize that I wanted to make a career in the trauma field.

 

・When did you come to understand the full impact of complex childhood trauma vs. trauma as an adult? What was your introduction to dissociative disorders like?

     My work at River Oaks was my introduction to all of this. I remember going home one night in tears after having heard some horrific stories of abuse at the hands of a man’s parents. I found my mom and said, “Thank you for not abusing your power over me.” I realized how much that relationship means, how it can be twisted, how it can torment a child. Most of the clients in that program were diagnosed with a dissociative disorder, so I learned a great deal there. The program took a relational approach to the work, and I appreciated that. It wasn’t so hierarchical or tied to the strict medical model.

 

You began your work in this field over 25 years ago — a time where dissociative disorders were even more heavily stigmatized, disbelieved and could even be used to question the integrity of the very clinicians who supported their existence.

・What would you say the climate was like when you were first starting out? Did you face any particular challenges — clinically, interpersonally or even within yourself? 

     I started this work at the beginnings of what would become known as the recovered memory debate era, but I didn’t encounter much of that controversy until I moved to Baltimore and began working at Sheppard Pratt in their Trauma Disorders Program. Across town was Johns Hopkins and Paul McHugh who staunchly denied that recovered memories could be valid and that dissociation was real. The climate among those of us at Sheppard Pratt was one of dedication to the cause and to believing people. When I was starting out, the challenges I faced were related to understanding that horrible things are done to people, but that doesn’t mean the world is horrible. Holding those truths together is an important part of the work for all of us. More challenges came later when I began to chafe against the medical model and hierarchy in the treatment arena, and especially the “once a patient always a patient” mentality.

 

・When did you decide you wanted to write a book? And not just an informational or educational book but specifically a workbook for survivors?

     For several years I ran a PTSD Symptom Management group at Sheppard Pratt. I used to create worksheets because there weren’t any around that met the needs of the clients and my needs as a helper. Over time, I had a rather large portfolio of these worksheets. My colleagues and the clients started telling me I should write a book. So I began.

 

・Were there any unique obstacles to getting it published? Did you ever have any reluctance or hesitation, particularly given the atmosphere back then?

     Getting the book published was an incredibly serendipitous series of events. I was meeting with Esther Giller, the President and CEO of Sidran Institute, a publication company specializing in traumatic stress education and advocacy. Let me see if I can remember it the right way. She was looking for someone to come on board as a trainer for a Federal Grant project she was involved in. At the same time, she was looking for someone to produce a self-help symptom management book for a project being underwritten by the States of Maine and New York who were embarking on a massive training effort in their public mental health systems. This is a long story, but a good one.
     Survivors in the State of Maine had sued the state saying not only was the mental health treatment they received not helpful, but worse, it was hurtful. So the State handed down a consent decree that all state mental health personnel be trained in what is now called Trauma-Informed Care. This was the beginning! Esther had located professionals to create the material for training personnel (the good folks at TSI CAAP – Karen Saakvitne, Laurie Ann Pearlman, Beth Tabor-Lev, and Sarah Gamble – who wrote the Risking Connection Curriculum), and they also wanted material for the clients. That’s where I came in. I left Sheppard Pratt to take the training job at Sidran, and Sidran published the book, which was then distributed to survivors in the Maine and New York public health systems for free. I’m really proud of that.

 

Your workbook, whether you know it or not, truly revolutionized trauma care on the patient level. Worksheets were printed out on trauma units, weekly inpatient groups were held to teach your skills, your techniques and scripts became the go-to standard for coping with specific symptoms, and survivors in countries across the globe use your tools by name (sometimes not even knowing where they came from or having read your book)!

・Did you ever anticipate that your work would have such a profound impact or global reach, let alone become the foundational launchpad for which survivors worldwide would begin their trauma healing? 

     I am humbled beyond words by what you’re saying. I can tell you when I did the second edition I felt really good that there was still an interest in the book and that it was still useful thirteen years after the original publication. It’s mind boggling to think it has the impact you describe. I guess I have to take your word for it! I really felt I had arrived on the day a friend told me her book had been stolen! I replaced it for her, but for someone to steal it… it must be valuable!

 

・What has it meant to you seeing your work, and not just your book but your advocacy and education in all forms, fill such a massive void in the trauma community?

How does it feel knowing most has stood the test of time?

     Like most people dedicated to this work, I feel good about being able to educate, support, help, advocate, and hopefully change for the better the process of healing for trauma survivors. I know that every professional I am able to help will spread that exponentially outward, and that’s why I do it. I think it has stood the test of time because the material I focus on is universal and not subject to treatment trends. I want to offer something that can help everyone every time.

 

・What would you say is the biggest change you’ve noticed in the field of trauma since beginning your studies (ex. education, the approach to care, general attitudes toward trauma/dissociative disorders, etc)?

     The biggest change I’ve seen is the mainstreaming of trauma-informed care. There used to be a handful of treatment centers providing good treatment, and now, thanks to the Adverse Childhood Experiences (A.C.E.) study, there’s a deeper understanding of trauma as a public health issue. Even Oprah has got on board recently! I’ll be working with the Oregon Commission for the Blind next month because they want to better serve traumatized persons in their vocational rehabilitation programs. That’s huge! If you Google “Trauma Certificate Programs” you can find them all over the country. That’s amazing!

 

・What areas do you feel still need significant improvement? Is there anything you feel is almost missing entirely? What changes would you like to see be made in those areas?

     We need to improve the awareness, understanding, and addressing of the intersections of trauma with addiction and the criminal justice system. These intersections are at the heart of recidivism in both arenas. We have to keep showing agencies and organizations what’s in it for them and how trauma-informed practice can support and enhance their existing work. Essentially, we have to sell it.

 

・Do you have any colleagues or mentors that you really look up to or admire?

     Oh gosh, too many to name. I can tell you one person who had tremendous influence on me professionally. Her name was Andrea Karfgin, and she was a psychologist. She died several years ago, but she lives on in me. She taught me how to think about this work, how to understand really important dynamics in the work, and she guided me through tough lessons as a professional. I hesitate to mention other names for fear I’d forget someone. I worked with a number of survivors who were brave and trusting enough to let me into their inner worlds and allow me to walk with them into the wider world with more confidence, faith in themselves, and stronger boundaries toward life beyond survival. I’ve had many colleagues who were instrumental in shaping my professional development. I’ve had the privilege to work with some of the most respected people in the field and to have worked with the amazingly skillful lesser-known warriors for survivors. What I love is that I keep meeting people in the field who continue to inspire me and who keep me on track. I am so grateful that I get to do this work.

 

・What keeps you going after sitting face-to-face with some of the darkest, heaviest tragedies this world has had to know? What keeps you focused, rejuvenated or inspired?

     In the beginning I wrote a lot of songs to process what I was seeing, feeling, and understanding. I would play music for the clients in the evenings, sometimes songs about them and their struggles and strengths. That helped a lot. I keep a guitar in my office in case any of my staff need to sing the blues. Laughter is important and has always been a way for me to rejuvenate. We have to be able to laugh in the midst of awareness of such pain. I’m fortunate that people put up with my goofy humor. What helps most though is that with every workshop I do, I encounter people who believe, who want to help, and who are eager to learn how to be more effective in the work. It gives me such hope!

 

・·Do you have any advice to new, or even veteran, clinicians who are seeking to work with trauma patients?

     Do your own work. Get a good clinical supervisor. Make friends with countertransference. It will help you through so many confusing moments, and being able to notice it, understand it and use it to strengthen the relationship will be helpful and a huge protection when facing ethical dilemmas. Cultivate a good support system. Pay attention to and address signs of vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and secondary traumatic stress. TAKE VACATIONS!

 

・What is the biggest thing you’ve learned from your patients, or other survivors, over the years? What have they taught you that books could not?

     I’ve learned that I can never give up on a person, never write them off, because people are more resilient that we imagine, and we never know when the moment of hope will come - the moment of immersive transformation that gives someone a reason and the will to continue. I’ve learned to trust people’s judgment about themselves. I’ve learned to be kinder. 

 

・If there was one thing you wish the world could understand about trauma survivors, or the clinicians that help them, what would it be?

   There is no “them.” There is only us.


 

❧     ❧     ❧

 

     Thank you, Elizabeth for your sincerity, your thoughtfulness, and your humble dedication to survivors everywhere.

    You can find more information about Elizabeth here on her website. You can also order the "Growing Beyond Survival" workbook here (or here). [Note: While the blue cover edition is still available on Amazon, the Second Edition (green cover) is the most up-to-date and has the most current perspective on trauma, so we of course recommend that one. The first is also no longer in print, but Amazon has held onto some copies.]  We cannot recommend this workbook highly enough. It has been the first recommendation on our Resource page, since the day it was made, for a reason!
 

 

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MORE POSTS YOU MAY FIND HELPFUL:

    Grounding 101: 101 Grounding Techniques
    Flashbacks 101: 4 Tools to Cope with Flashbacks
    Nighttime 101 and Nighttime 201Sleep Strategies for Complex PTSD
    Imagery 101Healing Pool and Healing Light
    DID MythsDispelling Common Misconceptions about Dissociative Identity Disorder
    Did You Know?: 8 Things We Should All Know about C-PTSD and DID
    Trauma and Attachment: 3-Part Series on Attachment Theory with Jade Miller

 

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4 Tools to Cope with Flashbacks

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    There is no delicate way to put it: flashbacks are just awful. Whether you've just started having these upsetting and intrusive symptoms, or you've been fighting with them for years, we know how challenging and exhaustive they can be! Thankfully, a wide variety of tools and skills exist that can help you break free -- each one highly customizable to your specific needs. That said, some of the very best resources out there can take some time, and a lot of practice, before you've shaped them into the go-to symptom management tools you need. Skills like imagery, containment, split-screen, etc. are incredibly valuable, but they can be quite advanced, and even turn some away from using them altogether if introduced too soon. For those new to their healing, you may need options that are very straightforward and uncomplicated. For those with an entire workshop of tools already, we know it's still possible for giant waves of new or stubborn material to put your best skills out of reach. Items that are extremely easy to recall in a time of panic or crisis may be the only things at your disposal. We hope to be able to offer you exactly that.

    Before we get too far, let's first define what a flashback is! Whether you're a trauma survivor yourself or a loved one/supporter of one and are trying to learn more, you may be surprised to learn there are different types of flashbacks:

 

 

 

    So, what can you do?

     We recognize that half the battle when you're struggling is just being able to remember that these tools even exist and are available to you. When you're terrified, feeling very young, or you aren't oriented to the present, it can be really hard to even recognize that you're symptomatic. Try to be compassionate with yourself (or your loved one or patient) about this. Years upon years, sometimes decades, have been spent responding to distress and fear in the same exact way; it is very hard to retrain the brain to a different response when you're only presented a chance every so often. Also, flashbacks stem from a completely different section of our daily-functioning brain. It's hard work to override that circuitry, and none of us think very rationally or critically when we're flooded with fear and adrenaline. But, with practice, and by trying to utilize these skills as early as you can in your symptoms, you'll find that they become more habitual and automatic, taking less conscious effort and becoming more like muscle memory.

     Let's get to it!

 

 

Grounding

     Your absolute number one, first line of defense for any posttraumatic symptom is to be grounded -- or at least substantially more grounded than you are. None of your other skills will be effective if you aren't grounded first. (You can learn more about what it means to be grounded, as well as have an entire list of 101 Grounding Techniques to use, right here on our website!) We know it can sometimes feel really impossible to practice grounding before you've put a memory away, because that memory is what's fueling your dissociation and making you ungrounded. But, if you're heavily dissociated, and stuck in the past, you're only putting the memory away in the past - not in the here and now. It will continue to find you. As you start the grounding process, you'll find that some of the intensity of the past material backs down, which frees you up to use any other skills (like containment or modulation) that you may have fully, which takes things down another notch, allowing you to get even more grounded, and so forth.

   What are some of you best, most-easily accessible grounding tools?:

  • Open your eyes. Uncover your ears. Make as many senses available as you can!
  • Look around. Try to label 5 things you can see, 5 things of a single color, 5 things of one shape.
  • Listen. What do you hear? Is it close or far? Loud or soft? Pleasant or grating?
  • Open up, feet on the floor. If you're curled into a ball, or have your feet tucked up on the chair, try to put them on the floor and press your feet into the ground.
  • De-trance. If you are rocking, tapping, or engaging in other rhythmic or trancing motions, try to start slowing them down to a stop or make sure they're no longer a pattern.
  • Sit upright. If you are slouching deep in your seat or laying down, try to sit up. Lying prone can be very disorienting and triggering for many.
  • Orient. Remind yourself of the date, your age, where you are, and that you're safe now.
  • Movement. If you feel frozen and unable to move, start by just trying to wiggle your toes or finger tips. Slowly work up the body, little by little, until you have movement.
  • Smell. Inhale strong fragrances (they don't have to be pleasant!). Coffee, candles, lemon, etc.
  • Taste. Chew gum, eat mints, or suck on sours. Eat a meal or snack. Drink a very cold or warm beverage.
  • Touch. Run your fingers over unique textures within reach. Your clothes, the furniture, a zipper, a pet, a grounding stone or fidget item.

   There are many many other grounding tools you can find in our article, but we'll move on to our next step.

 

 

Self-Talk

     Our inner monologues are far more important and powerful than we tend to give them credit. Self-talk during a flashback can be part of your grounding, or it can be used to keep you calmer and steadier as you employ other techniques.  It can be hard to access your grounding skills or other tools if you are in a panic, or can't remember what's happening to you or who you even are. Self-talk can be a vital skill that helps everything else fall into line.

   You can say things to yourself like:

  • "This is a flashback. It is just a flashback; it is not real. This is not happening right now."
  • "I am safe now. No one is presently harming me. There is no external threat to my safety right now."
  • "I am an adult now. My name is ______. I am ____ years old. It is 2018."
  • "This will not last forever. I have the power to make this symptom go away."
  • "I am competent. I am able. I have done this before."
  • "It's important that I get grounded. Dissociating can feel safer, but I've learned it puts me and others at risk. I can do this."
  • "I can ask for help. I am worthy, even if that's hard to believe right now."
  • "I will be okay. This is temporary. I can feel it getting easier already."

   Find a mantra or phrase that feels right to you, something you know you'll remember when it's time. Talk yourself through the process. It is healthy and helps keep you planted in reality.

 

 

Separating Past from Present

     Separating past from present works on many levels as a combination of self-talk, grounding and reality-testing. It's also a tool that outsiders or loved ones can help you with, too! It's not just all up to you! During a flashback, it's very easy to be disoriented from the current time or place. You could feel like you're all the way back in the 80's, believe you're a small child, or just in a completely different environment than you truly are. Taking the time to label - either in your mind, out loud or in writing - all the things that are different now, from the past that you're currently lost in, can help your mind tease apart what was once very unsafe from the security you're currently in.

   Some examples:

  • "It is 2018, not [fill in the date/timeframe of the flashback]"
  • "I am a strong, competent adult now; I am no longer a helpless child."
  • *look at body* "These are adult hands and feet. I am taller now." Observe other physical changes like tattoos, body modifications, health changes, even wrinkles or grey hairs.
  • "There were no smartphones back then. TVs didn't look like this. I didn't have a laptop or desktop computer like this."
  • "I live on my own now. This is MY house/apartment. I can drive now. I have children/a spouse/a partner now. These are my car keys."
  • "I have a voice. Before I would have been too scared to even make a sound right now." [Then use your voice in any form to prove to yourself it's safe to do so.]
  • Label any changes about your abuser(s): their age, location, relationship to you, living status, etc.
  • Label any other major life changes: geographic locations, jobs/professions, people you know now that you didn't back then, other appearance changes
  • List (or listen to) popular music, movies, entertainment you enjoy now. Remind yourself these things did not exist back then.
  • Acknowledge the positive supports you have in your life now: new pets, friends, a therapist, a partner, family members, etc.

 

 

Internal Communication

     Internal communication is a bit more specific to those with DID/OSDD systems, but it can still be applicable in different ways to those with C-PTSD or PTSD. It is also not exactly an "easy, basic skill" in dissociative disorders, as was the case with the other tools we've offered. This is definitely a bit more of an advanced skill, however, it is very important to include because failing to check inside can often render alllllll your other attempts at grounding/symptom management ineffective. It may come as a surprise to some, but alters in a DID/OSDD system, or even just parts of a less compartmentalized C-PTSD individual, are capable of sending flashbacks your way on purpose. It is not always with nefarious or hurtful intent. It's often with the aim to protect or is used as a means of communication - handing you things they feel are important for you to know/feel/be reminded of/etc.  When this is the case, using symptom management to make the flashback go away may just exhaust you.

     If you already have some well-established communication inside your mind with parts inside, you can certainly ask them these questions more directly. But, if you aren't there yet, or if you don't have as differentiated alters, you can still send these thoughts back into your mind and see what bubbles up. For those who are just attempting to establish more communication with their systems, sometimes opening that line during a flashback can be the first successful connection that comes through.

   Some questions you can ask alters/your mind (then, open yourself up to allow the answers):

  • "Is there a reason I'm being shown this flashback right now? Is someone sending this to me?"
  • "What are you trying to communicate by making me relive these images/feelings/physical pain?"
  • "Is someone else in a flashback but came/got too close to the front of the mind? Can we do a role call and see that everyone is grounded and present?"
  • "Are you trying to make me feel as unsafe as YOU feel right now about something happening in our life?"
  • "Do you want to scare me back into silence?" "Is this your way of reminding me we aren't supposed to talk or tell anyone?"
  • "Are you trying to shut me down? ...make it so that I can't talk/go to work/go out with a friend/accomplish x task/leave the house/etc?" "Why are you afraid of me doing that?"
  • "Did something trigger you that I don't know about? Did you see/hear/feel something really familiar that I didn't notice?"
  • "Are you feeling ignored? ..like I don't care? ..like I'm not listening to you or taking your feelings into consideration? Are there other ways you could get my attention that don't include re-traumatizing me?"
  • "Are you oriented to the present? I know that it's 2018, but do you? How can we work on getting grounded together? Do you need to look through my eyes or feel in the body that we are safe and not in danger right now?"
  • "Did someone else inside order you to share this memory with me? If so, you can say so without revealing yourself to me. I want to talk to them, not you; you're not in trouble."
  • "Am I being punished for something? Can it be shared with me what I did wrong or which rules I broke without this flashback? I can't have a conversation with you about it or make amends if I can't think straight."

   There are many ways to appeal to parts inside to get to the root of why a flashback may have been sent your way. It is also possible to send these thoughts throughout the mind even if you do not have parts or a system. Many aspects of the mind may still be operating under a similar pretenses and using these symptoms as a protective defensive mechanism -- maladaptive as that may be. Appealing internally may strike a chord and enlighten you to what the real issue is. The answer may just "click" the moment you ask, even if you can't hear a direct/"audible" reply. Once that has been discovered, you will be better able to tackle things appropriately, to meet that need or fear, instead of just exhausting yourself on symptoms management skills that won't work until that is resolved.

 

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     We sincerely hope these four basic, foundational tools will be able to help you find relief and distance during a flashback -- no matter what stage you're at in your recovery. Once armed with more stability and a framework from which to work, you can then explore more detailed and elaborate skills with confidence!  We will absolutely be covering more imagery, containment, modulation, and journaling skills that are helpful in the fight against flashbacks. (We've already introduced a couple!) So, stay tuned. 

     Please don't hesitate to share some of your go-to strategies for flashbacks below and consider bookmarking this page for quicker, more direct access should you need it while you're struggling!

 

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MORE POSTS YOU MAY FIND HELPFUL:

    Grounding 101: 101 Grounding Techniques
    Nighttime 101 and Nighttime 201Sleep Strategies for Complex PTSD
    Imagery 101Healing Pool and Healing Light
    Trauma and Attachment: 3-Part Series on Attachment Theory with Jade Miller
    DID MythsDispelling Common Misconceptions about Dissociative Identity Disorder
    Did You Know?: 8 Things We Should All Know about C-PTSD and DID

 

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Trauma and Attachment (with Jade Miller): Part Three

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The Healing Process

   We are so honored and eager to bring to you the third and final installment from guest host and author, Jade Miller, who has created a three-part series on attachment and how it relates to trauma. We have already covered the basics on Attachment Theory, the way childhood trauma affects attachment, as well as our goals for this series in previous articles. If you missed those, we strongly encourage you to go back and take a look; they provide a more comprehensive background that will help make this information more applicable. But, worry not, there's enough review here that you'll still be able follow along if you've only got a minute!  Please be sure to check out all the wonderful things you need to know about Jade below! We are truly thankful to her for allowing us to bring you her insights and wisdom, and want you to be able to locate and appreciate all of her other work, too.

 


Changing Unhealthy Patterns

 

    At this point you may have absorbed the information in this series about attachment styles and trauma and made the realization that you have some unhealthy patterns. In that case, you’re in good company.  There are very few people who had healthy enough parents to raise them in an ideal environment that fostered a secure attachment style.

    There is a lot of information out there on attachment styles and its effect on children and even their lifelong relational patterns. But, unfortunately, there is not as much information on what this looks like in adults or its implications for them. Some suggested reading is the information on adult attachment provided by Fulshear Treatment Center, which can be found here

    The good news is, many professionals do believe unhealthy patterns can be changed, and I have found this to be true in my own life. Due to the brain’s lifelong neuroplasticity, neuroscientists believe it is possible to change ingrained thought patterns and learn newer, healthier coping skills. So let’s dive right in to some places where positive change can lead to healthier relationships.

    Please keep in mind as you read these suggestions that I realize they all sound much easier than they really are. There is zero intent to sound reductive - quite the opposite, really. I’ve been in the position of knowing that these things were a struggle for me, and feeling lost and unsure of how to change. I offer these thoughts in an attempt to simplify it and make it sound more attainable. But I know that there are layers and complexities to these thoughts and behaviors, and that changing ingrained patterns takes a lot of time, attention and, quite often, sheer will. However, it absolutely can be done.

 

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Avoidant (also called Dismissive) Attachment Style:

The avoidant attachment style has a positive self-image but a negative worldview. So, this person typically does not seek help from outside resources. Their trust in others is low, and they are usually unwilling to be vulnerable or let people come close. 

People with the avoidant attachment style can work on changing these patterns by practicing taking emotional risks in their relationships. They'll need to learn how to communicate when they are feeling needy or vulnerable, and practice allowing someone to be present with them in those times. Those with the avoidant attachment style have a tendency to believe, deep down, that no one else is safe or trustworthy. This type of thinking will have to be challenged and replaced with a healthier perspective. They can also learn to identify people who display characteristics of true safety versus perceived, and form quality friendships where they can start to practice letting those people see their real selves.

 

Anxious (also called Ambivalent) Attachment Style:

The anxious attachment style presents with a negative self-image but a positive worldview. This person usually seeks help from outside resources but they have few internal resources upon which to draw. They trust others – oftentimes a bit too much – but they haven’t developed very much trust in their own self. They are often described as needy, clingy, and codependent.

People with an anxious attachment style can start to find ways to feel secure within themselves, without needing constant contact with others in order to feel like they are okay. One way to do this is to work on improving their self-esteem. They will need to intentionally set out to learn what is important to them as an individual and why they are valuable as their own person. They require practice in valuing their own selves equally as much as they value the needs and expectations of others around them. Allowing others to become a complement to their independent and secure selves is where they'll find their healthiest relationships.

 

Disorganized Attachment Style:

The disorganized attachment style has the double whammy: a negative worldview and a negative self-image. In short, those with a disorganized attachment style will require help changing both of those things. Some of the strategies for each of the other insecure attachment styles may be helpful, but often people with disorganized attachment styles have underlying trauma that needs to be addressed before those changes are truly feasible without causing more unexpected distress.

While those with each of the insecure attachment styles would benefit from therapy, those with the disorganized attachment style may be most in need of the extra support. Changing one’s self-image and one’s view of others to a more positive outlook can be challenging all on your own. Without an anchor point on at least one side of a relationship, it can extremely hard to determine for yourself what a safe, healthy and balanced relationship would even look like -- let alone trying to go about achieving it. A therapist who is educated in attachment theory can help those with a disorganized attachment style to work through attachment-related traumas and make progress in attaining a healthier self-image and a more positive view of others. 
 


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     So, we have come to the end of our series on attachment and trauma. We know this information can be a lot to digest, and even very painful. Having to uncover all of the ways in which you may have been disadvantaged before you even had a chance, can be such an emotionally-charged experience. Allow yourself the permission to grieve those things; to be angry, upset, and sad about them. Yet, on the flip side, we sincerely hope we've also been able to provide you with clarity, understanding and even real hope. Sometimes, just knowing what you're up against, and to have someone explain to you why all the changes you've been trying to make may not have been the most successful, it can be relieving and even alleviate self-blame. And, knowing there are real things you can do to change how you see yourself and the world around you - that it doesn't have to feel so chaotic and confusing all the time - can present a real opportunity for feeling optimistic. And, we know how hard optimism can be for so many of you!

    We want to thank Jade for all of her hard work on this series. Not only did she bring to you the best-researched information on this topic, she did so having gone through this exploration herself and wholly empathizing with every way this can be difficult and painful.  ...but also knowing it is ultimately really worth doing. We hope you have found this series valuable, and if you have, please be sure to let Jade know below, or find her on her various platforms to pass along the appreciation (or questions!).  We are also glad to answer any of your questions, so don't hesitate to ask!  Thank you, Jade, and to all of you who brave the hard task of facing the things that are difficult head on, and working to make those positive changes in your life. You are a beacon of light to us all.

 

 

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    Jade Miller would describe herself as a blogger, artist, SRA survivor, peer worker, and member of a poly-fragmented DID system.  ..who also desires to bring education and awareness about the reality of SRA/DID to the public and increase the number and availability of resources to survivors for healing.  We would firmly agree, and also add that she's a fantastic advocate, with an abundance of passion, knowledge and experience of which we can all benefit.  Her blog is not only an invaluable resource, but she's also a published author with some must-read material.  Notably for survivors are her two illustrated books for younger parts of DID systems called Dear Little Ones and Dear Little Ones (Book 2: About Parents)!  You can even listen to her read it on YouTube, and see the illustrations.  She's also written books on Attachment and Dissociation, and has also compiled her experiences of struggle and healing into more personal books in the past.  All of these are very well worth your time, and we strongly encourage you to seek out all of her published work as well as her online presence (listed below).  We are super honored to partner with her to bring you this series and deeply value her support to us, and to survivors everywhere!
 

FIND JADE ON ALL HER PLATFORMS!

  -  Thoughts From J8  (blog)         -  Amazon Author Page
  -  Facebook                                    Pinterest
  -  Twitter                                       -  LinkedIn

 

MORE INFORMATIVE POSTS YOU MAY FIND HELPFUL:

  -  DID MythsDispelling Common Misconceptions about Dissociative identity Disorder
  -  Did You Know?: 8 Things We Should All Know about C-PTSD and DID
  -  Grounding 101: 101 Grounding Techniques
  -  Nighttime 101 and Nighttime 201Sleep Strategies for Complex PTSD
  -  Imagery 101Healing Pool and Healing Light

 

FOLLOW US ON SOCIAL MEDIA:

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When #MeToo Hurts

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When #MeToo Helps.....then Hurts

    It was mid-October when the words “Me Too” took us all by storm and shook the ground; impassioned, strong voices broke through the earth to let their stories of sexual assault be heard and felt.  Survivors worldwide began disclosing their experiences, discussions about sexual assault began to spark, and together we all faced the brush fires stirring in our own communities. What started in Hollywood spread to our personal feeds and many were completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of loved ones who’d been affected by sexual misconduct in some way.  Brave, courageous stories were being told, honesty and openness were being more respected, and incredibly moving work was taking off at an unprecedented rate. While difficult, it offered the first glimmer of hope to all the survivors who’d been sitting in their silence since they were small children, ignored and mistreated for so long. This could be the turning page! “This could be the moment we’re seen. This could my chance to be believed! The battles I face every single day just to make it through could lift! …someone will finally understand us!”  Unfortunately, over time many started to see that the movement that held, and still holds, so much promise was letting them down and, at times, even actively causing them pain. Survivors who were most broken by sexual violence were being left out, others were being narrowly characterized as the problem, and then there were those being lifted into the spotlight with whom most couldn't identify. What aimed to amplify the voices of those hidden and silenced the harshest, instead began doing the silencing and hiding.

 

    It’s been three months. Three months since we’ve begun having daily, public conversations about sexual assault, consent, harassment, power dynamics, manipulation, silencing, fear, coercion, and so much more. These topics are fiercely important. Yet, somehow we’ve moved on to where the conversation delved into the smallest of details, to where we even openly analyze the very minutia of one person’s assault, but managed to jump right over entire groups of men, women and children who are most affected by sexual assault. They were left out of the broader conversation entirely. Men have been almost completely shut out. We even had two famous men come forward with their experiences, but as more came forward against Spacey, those men devolved into just part of a number count - not people with names and stories, like each individual woman against Weinstein was given. You also had to work exceptionally hard to find anything about them. On another plane, and it has already been well-observed but bears repeating, people of color have been largely overlooked in favor of powerful, white, attractive women. The most neglected, however, have been those abused as children and teens. So, if you are/were a little boy, or a child of color, forget it. Three months and no one with influence has taken the time to speak on your behalf or any of the populations most exposed to sexual/complex trauma.  Survivors themselves have been speaking, though. They’ve been sharing their stories, as well as their frustrations, their pain, their sense of invisibility, their disappointment, and their desire to just be seen and be given care. But, these strong souls are forced to talk mostly amongst themselves — with those who already get it. Any attempt at more public dialogue or even education has been so explicitly redirected or avoided. That's unacceptable.

 

    Several weeks into the movement, we saw branches like #ChurchToo take off. This brought with it renewed hope for many, particularly the groups feeling most ignored. It felt like there was still a chance we could get to them soon; just give it time, soon the spark will catch. But, then the compassion fatigue seemed to set in, sympathies were waning, and many had their embers snuffed out as they saw it barely trend, never given a hashtag icon, and articles about it remaining very few and far between (and, most were about churches defending themselves). Over time, it seemed concerns about the direction of MeToo - including its re-traumatizing and triggering effects - were either disregarded or met with hostility.  ..as if by expressing concern, one was arguing against its necessity or importance as a movement. Which, is typically untrue and worrying at best.

    In the last month, MeToo has been increasingly described as a women’s movement. “Thanks to #MeToo, it’s the year of the woman,”  “#MeToo gave a chance for women to tell their stories,” “Stars are dressing in black to support the women affected by sexual assault.”. To add insult to injury, men were universally being characterized as the perpetrators. They were emphatically told it’s their turn to LISTEN. They were told they aren’t to be doing any talking, just listening and taking notes on what they plan to do to help women. Male victims are an afterthought or a parenthetical to an article about women. They aren’t allowed to speak, just learn and don’t abuse. This is dangerous, toxic, and painful. It takes away their voices to come out as victims themselves, and re-impresses to ALL victims that, unless their abuse was at the hands of a male, they just shouldn’t come forward. Abuse perpetrated by women has been responded to in a wildly different way. Some have even said it’s “not the time for those stories because we’re trying to help women right now”. No. No, we aren’t. We’re trying to help victims of sexual assault. Humans. That includes men. That includes those who were hurt by women. It means little boys, teens, children and little girls. It means we fight for those hurt by family members, those with multiple perpetrators, whose abuse lasted for years, and those who’ve been trafficked, who are poor, who have nothing to their name, and those with no power elsewhere.

 

    THIS IS NOT A WOMEN’S MOVEMENT. IT’S NOT A POWERFUL-WOMEN EXCLUSIVE movement. IT IS NOT A MOVEMENT AGAINST MEN.

    This is a movement for survivors of sexual assault. And, to exclude any group is to abuse them again. To say their voices aren’t important, their stories insignificant, motives impure, or not as glamorous a story for a magazine cover, is inexcusable. Being selective with the voices we lift up, and when, says to everyone else, “You don’t fit our agenda, your story is too messy or hard to hear, you can wait your turn”. Only, their turn won’t ever come if no one takes a stand for them. They cannot just be expected to talk amongst themselves indefinitely and expect anything to change. They need the world to see them, understand them, to HELP them.

 

More Evidence of Inequity

    We currently have the largest criminal case of sex abuse against children, teens and adults that the U.S. has seen in decades. The number of girls who've survived the abuse of Larry Nassar - former team doctor within USA Gymnastics, Michigan State University and club gym Twistars - surpasses the number of Sandusky, Weinstein and Bill Cosby victims combined. Yet, somehow, even in the era of #MeToo, it’s gotten a fraction of the coverage as each of those cases independently. Over one-hundred and forty girls [update: currently over 200 girls and the addition of a male as of January 23, 2018] and women were hurt by one man (as well as the organizations that employed him, and specific individuals who enabled his abuse), over the span of 3 decades, with many reports against him that went ignored or were hidden -- but somehow, the story and all of its lessons has struggled to have any lasting power in the media or public discourse. Is it because many were children and teens when they were hurt? Because it wasn’t sexual harassment, or abuse against independent women, and seen as off-topic? Was it just too difficult to hear? Too unbelievable? Was it because these precious survivors weren't wealthy, didn't have a current platform or large following, or were mostly just strangers from Michigan? In truth, it is because of all those reasons and more. Some of the more ludicrous-sounding posits even have evidence behind them. There only was a sudden uptake in interest, after an entire year of coverage and legal proceedings, once McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles and, most recently, Jordyn Weiber, each stepped forward in the case against Larry.  Only then was attention given to this beyond the walls of the gymnastics community. You can even witness the trend yourself. The week Simone Biles came forward is when coverage took off, but then it took celebrities offering monetary support to McKayla Maroney; 156 of the 200+ victims sharing their impact statements in court, to Larry and anyone who would listen; and Aly Raisman's testimony and forceful words being specifically picked up and featured in the New York Times, just to keep it there. To further update: it actually took sassy, fiery, gif-worthy Judge Aquilina to thrust the story into the real spotlight -- I mean, look at those numbers since the case broke. Many deemed her their new hero, but it seems they forgot who the real heroes in this case are.

    This deeply disheartening trend in media coverage and public interest sent a very, very loud and clear message to the 135+ non-famous little girls, teens and women who originally csme forward in the last 2 years: that they alone weren't important enough for the public to care. Their abuse, suffering and stories of survival weren’t something people wanted to hear about or learn from unless they were already emotionally invested in them as a fan. Several of these remarkable girls were even vocal about how much that hurt. They weren't 'marketable' or click-worthy enough by their own accord -- not even in the era of #TimesUp, or as they fought back against the most heinous criminal, and the very powerful organizations, that created the worst case of institutional child endangerment that the U.S. has seen in decades. Once clout, power and celebrity were introduced, publications couldn't be written fast enough. These are the kinds of actions that hurt everyday survivors deeply, and everyday survivors are who this world is made up of. However, even once the brilliant voices of our Olympic gold medalists were added, breathing new life into its visibility, it was clear their fame and power were still inadequate to that of a Hollywood celebrity. They provided a bump in exposure, but only a bump.  They, too, were given the message that their fierce, powerful and also heartbreaking voices, after years and years of abuse, weren’t as meaningful as those retelling one night as a Hollywood elite. And, that not only stings and cuts deep to those experiencing the neglect, but to many witnessing it. Because, if that’s true for even them, it begs the question to survivors everywhere, sitting in their nondescript homes, with names no one knows, and traumas deemed “too bad”, “too gross” or “too complex”: “What chance do I have for anyone to care about me? Who will help me? Who will fight for me to make my life safer? Who helps make sure that what I'VE been through never happens to anyone else? Who will help me get the treatment I need to stay alive? When will anyone believe us? WHEN WILL ANYONE JUST HEAR US?!”

 

    If that isn't a repeat dynamic of the questions they asked themselves as children victimized in their own homes, schools, daycares, and sports teams, I’m not sure what it is.  #MeToo, #TimesUp, and those championing them the hardest promised to fight for those who couldn't fight for themselves. Who can’t come forward. Who are scared, unseen, and voiceless. But so far, we’ve only witnessed stories of abuse to children, teens and men being pushed out of the discussion in favor of celebrities and those who have power elsewhere in their lives. It hurts. This version of #MeToo hurts. And, I can promise you that was never part of Tarana Burke’s mission statement ten years ago.

 

 Looking Ahead

    One thing that we MUST also keep in mind as we continue to spotlight sexual assault and have extremely important conversations about the behavior of those who abuse — is how it invariably pushes those who are actively abusing individuals, especially children, further underground. …which typically involves worsened abuse. Fear of being caught leads to firmer punishments, deeper threats, drilling victims much harder about not telling anyone, convincing them no one will believe them, and instilling the fear of God (or death) into children who might think for even second of telling a loved one or teacher. Teens may be the most vulnerable because their abusers know they have access to the internet and may see these conversations about abuse in the media. They have a unique opportunity like never before to realize “them too” and want to seek help. Unfortunately, those who abuse only care about themselves and will not be scared into inaction; they will only abuse more violently and creatively to further insulate themselves. We need to remember that, while we cannot and should not be quieted just because these individuals exist, we need to do that much more for those presently trapped in abusive environments. If we’re going to have these global conversations — and we MUST — we must also take thoughtful, intentional care of those who are still under threat. Those who are being further endangered by our mission to deconstruct the institutions that make abuse so prevalent deserve better. And, despite beliefs to the contrary, there are absolutely things that we can do on this front. There are actions we can take. We just need to remember to explore them and that this is not just about us sharing our stories and letting people know it’s an issue, but going out of our way to protect others from future victimization as well as rescuing those still in its vice grip.

 

   Above all, we must remember the most vulnerable. A movement FOR the broken, should not leave anyone more broken. Children and most teens are the truly voiceless. They cannot say #MeToo. They cannot put a post on social media and be enveloped in support and care. They may not even know what’s happening to them is even wrong yet. They’re terrified and afraid, just as so many who are now adults but hurt as children remain.  Yet, they’re the ones left out of the global effort to create a better world for survivors right now. We must remember them always. And, we must remember men. The men who’ve been violated but still told to hush up and just listen. The men who were hurt as adults, as little boys, who were trafficked, and men who were hurt by women. We must think about anyone who’s EVER been hurt at the hands of a female — who is struggling with that independently, let alone in the public sphere. We must think of those who are not wealthy, who are disabled, who don’t have jobs, who cannot go to court, who are not safe, who cannot even share their story. We must keep in mind every survivor who is too scared to speak against someone more powerful than them because having their motives questioned, being told they’re lying for attention, or are only seeking justice because they want money/fame is too great an assault on their character and integrity to bear. They've been assaulted enough. They don't need one more against the core of who they are.  We must keep in mind every survivor whose trauma was severe, unpretty, chronic and whose abuse left them with severe mental health issues. They are not crazy, they are not weak, they are not ‘bad’ or ‘gross’, they are not lesser than. They are just as important as anyone else with a trauma history they never asked to own.

 

    We need to get up close and personal with the fact that #MeToo is meant for everyone. Sexual assault is a human issue. And, if your movement doesn’t include those who are affected by it most, then it’s causing more harm to those already hurting than good. But it does not have to remain that way.

 

Our Commitment

    We want to re-confirm our stance to fight for women, men, children and teens today until forever — regardless of race, income level, ability, mental illness or severity of one's story. We will never stop fighting for you or trying to create a better world for us all. That includes helping those already victimized to be seen as whole and complete individuals, and to get them the treatment and care they deserve. It also includes taking every step within our power to educate the public and clinicians on trauma, particularly complex trauma, and to prevent this from continuing. We have faith that this movement CAN shift in the right direction once more. These conversations are desperately important. They are invaluable, and the strength of each and every person who dared utter the words MeToo, as well as those who bear witness, can not be understated. But, we need to see this opportunity be extended to everyone. We believe that’s respectful, responsible and entirely realistic. We also believe the hope we were initially ignited with can be rekindled.

We are honored to be a part of this fight with you, and we will hold each and every hand - big and small - through the journey.


 

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MORE POSTS YOU MAY FIND HELPFUL:

  -  Did You Know?: 8 Things We Should All Know about C-PTSD and DID
  -  DID MythsDispelling Common Misconceptions about Dissociative identity Disorder
  -  Grounding 101: 101 Grounding Techniques
  -  Nighttime 101 and Nighttime 201Sleep Strategies for Complex PTSD
  -  Imagery 101Healing Pool and Healing Light

 

FOLLOW US ON SOCIAL MEDIA:

  -  Facebook
  -  Twitter
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