A Major Change

Agnes, just stop and think a minute. Calm down now, stop and breathe a second.

When I started Fall term, I had a vague plan in my head that I would explore the crevices of my trauma and ace my healing like it was a course I registered for, and I would use art to help facilitate some of that exploration within the context of my painting class. The term is ten weeks, which I thought would be plenty of time to identify my problems, confront them head on, and walk out of the battle with healed scars instead of open wounds. So naturally, I've blinked and it's the end of week 5 already. I've been circling the edge of the thing instead of plunging in directly. I find myself almost waiting to be led into my darkness. I keep forgetting that I own the place, that I'm the leader this time. In my excitement to have a self-structured painting class to explore my artistic ideas alongside my therapy journey, I forgot that therapy doesn't come with a syllabus. I forgot that healing isn't linear; that sometimes when you continue forward, you find that you've gone in a complete circle.

I finally sucked up my kinda-anti-mainstream-shit pride and read "Eat Pray Love" this August, which I then promptly fell in love with like everybody else did. Elizabeth Gilbert quotes a Sufi poet at the end of her novel, talking about how time is a circle drawn through the place you stand. I think this is a powerfully beautiful idea, especially in juxtaposition to my recent realizations about my grieving process. But I'd misplaced my copy of the book and Google thought I was trying to find Nietzsche's eternal recurrence theory. Which, upon further reading, I suppose I kind of was... Luckily, I also found the Elizabeth Gilbert quote I was looking for, and even the original poem it was based on: This Place Where You Are Right Now by Hafiz. The beginning of the poem reads:

This place where you are right now God circled on a map for you. Wherever your eyes and arms and heart can move against the earth and sky, the Beloved has bowed there. Our Beloved has bowed there knowing you were coming.

Nietzsche's theory and Hafiz's circle drawn by God come down to the same idea, which is also the same idea Elizabeth Gilbert was marveling at while standing on a remote beach at the end of "Eat Pray Love". All that has come before and all that comes after was always going to happen, is always going to happen.

To Nietzsche, this recurrence is absolute and eternal. You will live your life over and over, in exactly the same way, forever. To know that this life is a never-ending cycle is either the greatest weight or a gift from God. To Hafiz, it's less about reliving the same life over and over and more about the stark inevitability of a moment.

I like the idea of something being both greatest weight and gift at the same time. My grief has genuinely felt like both, simultaneously a thing of burden and a thing of beauty. I miss Belly with my whole damn body. I feel it everywhere, missing her like this. But how beautiful to have loved her at all, to have experienced a love that left an ache this wide. What a comfort, then, to think that this love was always going to come to me, will always come to me. And yes, so will the grief that follows. But the love will always come first.

A choking rose, back to be reborn; I want to hold you like you're mine.

What is the process of healing? The "5 stages of grief" weren't written as a set of instructions to be followed. They were actually written as an observation of people suffering from a terminal illness. There's no evidence that demonstrates a grieving individual will move from Stage 1 to Stage 5 in any order, if they even experience those stages at all. But there is a pervasive idea in American culture that says if you do X and Y, you get to Z.

  • If you work hard and save money, you get to be wealthy. (Never mind the fact that those living below the poverty line work incredibly hard, do what they can to scrimp and save, but will hardly ever reach true wealth.)

  • If you eat your vegetables and exercise enough, you get to be healthy. (Never mind the fact that this doesn't work for people with illnesses and disorders that affect how their body processes nutrition and creates energy.)

  • If you go to school every day and you do your homework, you get to be smart. (Never mind the fact that statistically, up to 10% of people in a classroom struggle with a learning disability that prevents them from fully understanding or retaining the material.)

If you cry for a week and then go back to work, you get to be done grieving. Right? Aren't there steps you can take to avoid or minimize the suffering? Isn't there anything you can do - any quality you can possess - that can ward you from the evils of sadness and loss? If you're a good enough person, do you get a free pass? If Father Time is supposed to heal it, how long does he really need to get the job done?

I came home on Monday and heard Belly meow when I walked through the door. I've been a tearful mess ever since. There's been other shit going on, and it culminated in quite the week for me. I walked into therapy on Thursday, sat down on her couch, and burst into tears. I cried into Kleenex for the next 25 minutes, sobbing my way through my frustration at what felt like a regression in my grief and general progress. When the tears and word vomit was done, she gently reminded me that if I didn't believe in there being a linear process to healing, then there's really no room for a word like regression.

I needed the reminder. I do not think that healing is linear. So I needed to scrub the word "regression" from my vocab list, because it just doesn't describe what I'm going through. I'm not going backward by continuing to grieve. I just might have walked in a circle, back to the spot drawn on my map. With my gained knowledge from my first trip around, I get to begin again.

Go back to the very beginning. Can't you see what was different then?

What was different? When is the beginning, exactly?

When I started at WOU, I was hurting but hopeful. I was actively grieving the loss of Marylhurst and the dreadful feeling that comes from having all your eggs in a dropped basket. WOU seemed like a good place to start collecting eggs again. I made wonderful friends, built myself a small community of artists and peers, became the president of the art and design club. I was Doing The Thing: I was working on my degree. That's all that mattered at the end of the day. My basket was filling.

Yet I ran into issues in every single art class. I had to change my advisor for my art major after my very first term because I already wasn't getting the support I needed. I struggled through my entire ceramics course and, at the end, my work wasn't considered good enough to be documented for future review. Everyone else in my intermediate class had their work documented, an academic slight that went beyond bruising my ego and actually damaged my ability to work with clay for months. I tried taking basic design courses to meet pre-requisites and found an inflexible curriculum that literally had no room for creativity, which made it extremely difficult for me to wrap my brain around. How do you even create artwork with no creativity? I challenged myself to try watercolor, because it was the only painting course being offered and I was in an echo chamber of "acrylic paint looks cheap," "watercolor is more painterly," "oil painting is the master craft anyway." Why not try a medium that I might enjoy? Well, I tried it - and hated it. I scraped a B in the class but have refused to touch the medium since.

And now, in Fall, things are snapping into focus. The problem is, the image in focus isn't what I thought it'd be. I'm in this painting class that I had such incredibly high hopes for. Acrylic mixed media is my jam and it was going to challenge me to work on building the conceptual structure behind my artwork. But my expectations of the class and my part in it are not being met. I'm floundering in a way I didn't see coming. It took me until Samhain to realize that why I'm not succeeding in these classes is not because I've suddenly become a non-artist, or become incapable of trying new things. It's because I am not actually interested in being a professional artist.

I want to be an art therapist, and I want my art to be equally as important and valued as my therapy skills. I had a game plan at Marylhurst that would have placed equal priority on my studio skills and my psychology coursework, thanks to their Art Therapy preparatory courses. With Marylhurst gone and the sole accredited program for art therapy in my state with it, the best approximation for that education plan was to double major in the two concentrations at a college with equally good art and psychology departments. I stand by my decision to attend WOU, and I stand by my description of WOU as a new nest to roost in, a new basket to collect eggs. I genuinely love the campus and the people I now get to call friend. It has been very obvious that I was meant to go there. But what I didn't fully realize until a few days ago is that the art department is there to educate and prepare artists who want to make that their career. The departments expectations of me are not matching my intended trajectory.

Your head is so numb. That nervous breath you try to hide between the motions, that trembling tender little sigh. And so it goes.

I've learned to demand what I need in order to succeed, and if I'm not receiving it, I've learned to find someone who can help. I've not always been good at this, but luckily had parents who could be my voice when I didn't have any idea what to ask for. Being diagnosed with ADHD came with the gift of realizing that I'm neurodiverse, not stupid or broken. It's okay that I learn differently and require different levels of assistance for things.

The ability to set boundaries and the need to both set and understand expectations is integral to my success - the lack of a clearly outlined idea as to what I'm supposed to be doing is the quickest way for me to fail. Knowing how my ADHD specifically affects my learning has been the most beneficial tool in my communication toolbox this term, because it has helped me understand and set clear expectations and boundaries that are designed to help me succeed.

Boundaries are important for my c-PTSD, too. The emotional and visual flashbacks are distressing; trauma comes with the feeling of absolute helplessness, and reliving that feeling sucks nuts. After knowing how it feels to completely lose control of yourself and your immediate environment, being able to set a boundary and have it respected becomes really important.

The setting of healthy boundaries is an important tool in cultivating resiliency. I'm better than I used to be at recognizing a need of mine, communicating that need, and respecting my own boundaries enough to confidently enforce them for everyone else. Continuing to do so is the surest path to a robust resiliency. My therapist thinks I have a robust resiliency already, but I feel like I have some work to do. These are the ten facets of resiliency as defined by my therapist: 1. Emotional - Negotiating life while creating emotionally satisfying relationships.

2. Financial & resource - Building current and future financial/resource situations.

3. Community - Cultivating a sense of connection, belonging, and a well-developed support system.

4. Spiritual - Expanding a sense of purpose, meaning, and value in life.

5. Ethical - Grounding choices and judgments in a moral outlook.

6. Occupational - Personal development and enrichment from one's work, volunteering, and contributing to society.

7. Cultural - Understanding the deep sources of one's culture, and that one's cultural responses to stress and trauma are a legitimate way of expressing identity.

8. Physical - Recognizing the impact of physical activity, sleep, and nutrition on personal well-being and health.

9. Intellectual - Recognizing creative abilities and finding ways to expand knowledge, skills and artistic expressions. 10. Environmental - Discovering pleasant, stimulating environments that support personal resilience.

I can confidently say that I've got 1, 4, 5, 6, 9, and 10 down. There are minor things I can do to adjust and adapt, but these areas are not ones I struggle in. Except that's only 60% of the resiliency checklist - a failing grade.

My ADHD wants to plan this out. There are four things for me to tackle on the list, and five weeks left in term. If I start now and focus on one thing a week, I'll lay the groundwork for those four items and be able to focus on whatever winds up being most difficult a second time during finals week. How convenient!

My ADHD does not remember that I don't actually operate that way. What I am learning to do is not to let perfect be the enemy of good. It would be perfect if I rapid-fired these four resiliency categories out in five weeks, because then I'd be meeting my original vague idea that I'd tackle therapy alongside my classes and basically 'graduate' Fall term and 'win' therapy. But if I plan for perfect (like my ADHD wants) and fall short (because I'm not perfect) then I have a high chance of just dropping the endeavor altogether. This is a boundary I must set for myself, then. It is a good, healthy, and reasonable desire to want to work on developing the areas of resiliency I am currently struggling with. It is not a good, healthy, or reasonable plan to do so ASAP, on a tight five week schedule, with no regard for my other commitments and their demands on my time. Setting a deadline and an expectation that I learn several new tasks in a short amount of time is not conducive to me actually retaining and using the information in practice. So, no deadlines on the therapy stuff - no scheduled check-ins, either. The boundary I must respect is that taking my time will not invalidate the knowledge I gain. You see the sad in everything: a genius of love and loneliness. This time you overdid the liquor. This time you pulled the fuckin' trigger.

PTSD is famous for triggers, alongside other anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and substance abuse. In recovery, it's incredibly important to identify what triggers activate your specific negative responses. It's also important to identify how these triggers are able to activate you - are they visual? Do you suddenly have a flashback after hearing a certain sound? What about the other senses? Your emotional and mental traumas interact with your body. Like a bullet or stab wound, there's an entry point and sometimes even an exit point.

The word trigger has been commandeered by the mainstream, so I find it difficult to talk about because it now carries some non-therapeutic connotations. If I'm learning anything from this therapy journey, it's that the words I use in my personal narrative are key. I haven't found quite a suitable replacement, but "spark" has come close, so I'm going to try using it here.

My sparks can be internal feelings, particularly anxiety or sadness. Perceived helplessness or loss of autonomy is another internal spark. I can also be sparked by visual, auditory, or tactile overload. Sometimes there is just so much stimulation occurring around me that it sparks a feeling of not being able to escape, which then sparks a negative stress response. This can range from something fairly innocuous like binge-watching television or making a few extra plans to keep busy for a couple days, to some seriously unhealthy responses like lashing out in verbally or even physically explosive ways.

Knowing what sparks me is essential in order for me to appropriately set boundaries. It's also important so that I can build a Wellness Recovery Action Plan, or WRAP. The idea behind the WRAP is that I will lay out what I look like when I am well, and list tools that support my wellness. I'll also identify what the early warning signs of a struggle are, and what it looks like when things get worse. I'll even document what I look like during a crisis, and what happens post-crisis. The fully completed WRAP can then be shared with close loved ones, who can use these tools and descriptions to help support me during my struggles. If a crisis occurs, having a WRAP is like having a POLST order filed with your doctor: your voice, your wishes are documented for your loved ones to be able to help. I have made a Wellness Toolbox full of ways that support my well-being. But I'm at a place in my life that is post-crisis. I don't know what I look like when I am well. I haven't fully integrated the loss of Belly into my narrative, healed over the wound. Resiliency is supposed to help return you to yourself after sustaining a blow, but my 60% checklist has me feeling 60% there. I'm still finding my way back. These days, you're rolling all the time; so low, so you keep getting high. Where went that cheeky friend of mine? Where went that billion dollar smile?

In addition to the methods I've already mentioned, my therapist is using DBT to help me during recovery. DBT, also known as dialectal behavioral therapy, is a sub-type of cognitive behavioral therapy that focuses more on the emotional and social aspects of recovery. My disorders all cause extreme emotional dysfunction and poor emotional regulation. Using DBT means learning to use mindfulness techniques and learning to take an active role in regulating my emotions. Emotions mostly live on the inside, but when they're rioting and there's a weak regulatory force, those emotions of mine can come play havoc on the people around me.

This, then, is the darkness I have been tiptoeing around. At my core, I am an overly emotional creature with too much opportunity to lash out at the ones I love. My negative stress responses are unhealthy behaviors learned to cope with abnormal amounts of stress due to the varied traumas. That is not an excuse to inappropriately release my emotions into the wild, but I am not perfect. Emotions escape. I can harm the ones I love if I do not learn to set boundaries to keep them safe. Knowing how to keep them safe means holding each of those over-sized emotions, getting to know what sparks it, and using that information to deactivate the spark. The idea behind identifying a spark and developing healthy coping mechanisms is that while we can manage our environment to some extent, we cannot avoid all external and internal sparks. Setting boundaries does not mean those boundaries are automatically respected. Learning to react in healthy ways when those sparks occur is the only real way of moving past the trauma. I just get to do this multiple times, because of multiple traumas. Sometimes setting a boundary feels like a power move. For example, I will not be going into detail on this blog regarding my previously suffered traumas. I will not be explaining why. It is simply a boundary I have set and there is no way for this boundary to be crossed. It feels like a power move to get to declare something so absolute and also know that it will be 100% respected.

And yet, sometimes setting a boundary feels like admitting defeat.

Guess life is long when soaked in sadness, on borrowed time from Mr Madness. And so it goes. I am changing my education plan. Based on the continued struggle I have had in my art classes, it's no longer beneficial for me to pursue an Art & Design major. I mentioned that my intended trajectory does not match the departments expectations of me, and that despite my communication as to what I'm looking for in these courses, I continue to not get what I need. It is not the fault of the department that I keep getting sucked into scenarios where my art is being judged by people who don't respect my boundaries, against standards I have no interest in meeting, on the lone assumption that I'm there to become a proper professional artist. The department is there specifically to churn out proper professional artists. I'm the anomaly.

So I am admitting defeat. I quite literally cannot continue this path; to do so would lead to further harm for me when I am already struggling. One of the biggest reasons that you learn how to identify sparks in therapy is so that you can avoid what is considered "avoidable suffering." I am avoiding avoidable suffering by deciding to recalibrate my education plan. In five weeks, I will have met the requirements for getting an Art & Design minor. This will mean that I am only 36 credits away from meeting the requirements for my Psychology major. I can do most of these credits online, though it may be more effective to attend in-person courses in order to get certain classes with limited availability. Either way, that's essentially three terms away from graduating with my Bachelor's - a huge goal, tantalizingly close.

I simply do not fit into the Art & Design department curriculum. Being in upper division coursework has led to me feeling like an absolute fraud at something that has been vital to my personal and therapeutic journey for the majority of my life. I find myself surrounded by people who are mostly 8 years younger than me, who seem to have this university thing down in a way I don't think I'll ever experience. I have been trying to accept challenges, but have been falling very, very short. This hurts my GPA and shatters my confidence and this suffering is avoidable. I found the place I belong - I do think I was meant to attend WOU. But I have also found a place I don't belong, and that feeling is one of overwhelming failure. "Progress looks like a bunch of failures, and you're gonna have feelings about that because it's sad, but you can't fall apart." - Meredith Grey I'm standing here, feet on the metaphorical sand, with a god drawing a line through the point where my feet make contact. I was always coming here. I was always going to learn these things about myself. I was always going to walk this path, complete with getting to love Belly and having to suffer through the loss of her. I can keep coming back to that greatest weight and gift, as many times as I need, as many times as my path leads me back here.

I am learning how to respond to the negative aspects of this path so that I don't fall apart.

I am beginning to navigate the darkness.

Others can follow me in, but I have the flashlight.

You're gone, but you're on my mind; I'm lost, but I don't know why. You're gone, but you're on my mind; I'm lost, but I don't know why. You're gone, but you're on my mind; I'm lost, but I don't know why. You're gone, but you're on my mind; I'm lost, but I don't know why. You're gone, but you're on my mind; I'm lost, but I don't know why. You're gone, but you're on my mind; I'm lost, but I don't know why. You're gone, but you're on my mind; I'm lost, but I don't know why. You're gone, but you're on my mind; I'm lost, but I don't know why.

xo, Cate

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