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Joan Jessup

"There is no such thing as a bipolar moment. It is simply every moment of every day."

Month

May 2016

Childhood Sexual Abuse: Resurrection of the little girl I used to be

Guest blog for Bobbi picChildhood is supposed to be a simple thing. Young children enjoy the fun in all the things we as adults don’t see. Kids find the beauty in imagination and see what others don’t. That is supposed to be the best thing about being a kid right? So what happens when you no longer enjoy those things? When closing your eyes brings fear and heart break? I survived my sexual abuse as a child by quickly becoming a tiny adult. I no longer felt like a kid. I knew I didn’t feel the way I did before “he” found me. The world lost some of its beauty and I stopped finding joy in my imagination. I no longer imagined fairies and unicorns. Gone were the days that I was a princess waiting for my prince. Instead, I sought out hiding places and went to the deepest parts of my mind where everything was dark and I was alone.

               I know I am alive. I am breathing and writing this blog. I made it. Right? I survived? But did I survive in one piece? That’s the questions I try to answer now. Part of trying to piece together these memories and become whole again has been about what I lost. I have had to really dive head first into all the things I fought all these years to disconnect from. It has always been a fear of mine. Just when I think I have successfully pushed it all down, I am proven wrong. It is usually a smell that will transport me to a place I fear the most. The smallest little trigger on an otherwise wonderful day. I shake out of my head the unwanted visions and the flood of emotions and push it all right back down again.

               I have learned a lot by talking to others who have “survived” the same sexual abuse. It brings me comfort to know I am not alone. It also brings me sadness knowing I am not alone. This is definitely a situation where misery wishes there were no company. So here goes the dissection of Joan. What did I lose? What all did “he” take from me and how the hell do I get it back? For me to really face the past, to really call myself a survivor I have to get back as much as I can.

I know I can’t get back my full innocence. I know “he” took things that can’t be rebuilt but I am damn well going to get everything I can. I am starting with my appreciation of the little things. I want to see the world in color again instead the dark and gray that “he” left me with. I want to use my imagination and still dream the sweet dreams I barely remember. I know I had to have had that once. I want it back.

               I had my son outside the other day. He was blowing bubbles and running to catch them before they popped. I just watched him and smiled for a few moments. I was so in awe of how much fun he found in something so simple. I wanted to be that kind of happy again. I made a choice, I stood up. I was taking back the love of bubbles that “he” had TRIED to take from me. I ran around the yard with my son just blowing bubbles. The bubbles were now imaginary balloons of color and whoever was covered with the most colors would win. I looked at my son and I saw a rainbow of colors. I could see the balloons full of color where bubbles were floating. I took back a piece I lost as a little girl. In that moment I was with my son as a child, a playmate with an imagination as big as his. There were no chores to do, no job to clock in for, no dogs to walk; just 2 kids having fun.

               That playtime in the front yard had really got me fired up to get all of that little girl back. I started writing down all the things that I missed. Not the normal adult wishes like no bills, no dirty dishes, and no dirty laundry. I wanted the fun stuff back. I wanted to imagine being a hunter chasing big game. I was going to lay on my back in the grass and see shapes in the clouds. I would be the ballerina taking a bow on stage and holding a huge bouquet of roses.  “He” tried to kill all of that and now at 42, I was going to get it back. For me to survive I felt like I had to get back the little girl he tried to break. It has been scary and I have questioned if it was a silly notion. The adult in me had doubts but the little girl in me was smiling. The smile was because I was finally feeling brave.

               A 6-year-old couldn’t find the bravery in living through sexual abuse but I know how brave she was. I will stand up for her while I process the anger I have because no one else took that stand. I can feel that the imagination and desire for simple joy still inside me. Suppressing it was the only way I was able to survive. How I stay alive now is by letting that little girl live in the woman I am today. Everyone since “him” has been seen through the eyes of pain and mistrust. I have to see through the eyes of the little girl I was before. Only then can I truly accept a relationship without a preconceived notion. I really want that. I really long for the day when the touch of someone doesn’t cause me to pull away. I want “touch” to be a nice thing when it is coming from the person I love. I have to resurrect the little girl inside of me to have that.

               This process will never really end. Of that I am fairly certain. I may be afraid and the memories may cause me tears but I am fighting now. I am fighting for the little girl I was and the woman I am today. I want to say more than I am just surviving. I want to feel like a survivor. My nights feel a lot brighter now. I have found my imagination again. I can come out of my dark hiding place and see the beauty in the light. It has taken so many years but facing those memories isn’t as scary now. I can talk about what happened because I know it wasn’t my fault. The shame has faded and in its place is a feeling of calm. The little girl in me is no longer afraid because the woman I am now is protecting her. Her and I have found our way back from what “he” did. I wish that for all survivors of sexual abuse. I urge woman and men who suffered sexual abuse as a child to recognize the bravery you had. Allow yourself to feel like you did once before. It is still possible to see the world through the eyes of a child while holding the wisdom as an adult.

The Awakening of the Mind: Finding Your Way to Stability

Enlightenment waking up blog pic

My journey to stability in the face of my mental illness has been both a blessing and a curse. I have sat and wondered for many years how it would feel to just fucking be normal. I had no idea what “normal” was but I longed for some peace and release of the chaos within me.

I was an avalanche of destruction. The speed and force of how I moved made it impossible for me to see or think about what I was doing. How the hell do you stop and avalanche when you don’t see it coming? To this day I think about what I failed to see. I let it start to consume me until the headache shuts the swirl of questions down.

The medicine I was prescribed had for me become, “optional” for too many years. In a moment of clarity I made a decision. I would be healthy. I would take the pills, see the doctor, and I would take control. Sitting here now I can say that clarity of a stable mind comes with a price.

The beauty of a chaotic mind is that you don’t give two shits about consequences. There is no forethought as to the outcome on yourself or those around you. Spontaneity is fun, is easy, and lacks any hesitation. There is a simplicity that comes with oblivious euphoria. What is that old saying? Oh yeah, “What goes up must come down.” The crash has been far worse than the fall.

As the chaos in my head has cleared I have seen the complexity of my bad decisions. There is no denying that I became someone I now cannot recognize. I allowed others to use my mental illness as a weapon against me. I became a puppet of sorts with strings pulled in obscure directions.

With the silence that comes with my med compliance I feel an ache in my chest thinking of all the sacrifice that I allowed. This place, this space has been a prison and finding the key has led to emptiness. Enlightenment is not the as easy as I imagined it to be. There are no damn shining lights and trumpets sounding off in my victory. Instead I am given a play by-play hindsight vision of all the mistakes . I am now left to find my way out.

First things first: Get the hell away from all the people who chose to utilize what they saw as a weapon. This means that I have to get a divorce. The person who vowed to love and cherish me for all eternity has find fault in my new-found sanity. Spontaneity has been replaced by caution and grown up thinking.  Gone are the days when I felt afraid. I am strong. I have gained acceptance of my mind and awareness of how to feel myself in ways I never thought possible.

     It’s funny how people liked me better when I didn’t value myself to see what assholes they were for using their ignorance as a way of stigmatizing me. That shit is OVER! I have managed to make it 42 years. I have survived all the things that could have put me over the edge. I have come out of the darkness of my mind and I have stopped my avalanche. So for those people I say: “Kiss my ass.”

     I am not a size 4 anymore and I don’t care. If my ass had to get larger because the pills made me better than so be it. I won’t allow anyone to tell me I looked better before because I love myself now. I will embrace who I am now and let go of the person I was shaped to be. I am in control of where I go from here and I am happy to go it alone. Now I can be with myself. It fucking feels amazing!!!! To be ok being alone is what all of us should be able to do.

I am now ready to delve into all the feelings I have been unable to feel for all these year. No one should have to pretend to be what they are not. Walking on egg shells because you feel the eyes of judgment on you is no way to live. If we as individuals  living with a mental illness can see ourselves for who we can be, life can be better.

Stigmas are made to be dissolved. It has happened throughout our history because people stood up as one. We lend our voice to those who have yet to find theirs. We are a voice of millions and we can be heard. Our illness is not a weapon to be used against us as to break our will. We are not weak. Everyday we wake up and go through the hell of our minds we prove how strong we truly are.

The weight is heavy. Facing the mistakes that we were unable to stop is suffocating. That leap of faith in our true strength needs to be made. The road is hard and painful and comes with knowledge that we have to accept. What I can tell you is that we are in it together. No matter who has told you that you are alone, you are crazy, you are a piece of shit, or that you don’t matter. I am telling you that you DO matter.

You matter to me and to every person who needs you to use your voice to help them find yours. My life is my own now. I have been disappointed in myself for bad decisions I have made but I have made peace with what I cannot change. There are no do-overs but you CAN take control of where you go from here.

What are you waiting for???? Go on…be a BAD ASS!

Bipolar Goggles

cropped-bipolar-goggles-cover-pic2.jpgBipolar Goggles

Amazing ways animals help people wih PTSD and mental illness

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The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is conducting a $12 million study to determine whether service dogs can be an effective treatment for PTSD. The VA currently does not fund or support the use of service dogs for veterans with PTSD, claiming no evidence exists whether service dogs “help PTSD sufferers get better or just feel better.” I have to say, as a person with PTSD, either of those options sounds good to me. I don’t really care if I “get better” or just “feel better,” especially considering many of the standard treatment options for PTSD at the VA do neither, and in fact, can make things worse.

Did the VA forget the 10 empirical studies done in the last 10 years on the usefulness of service dogs in child abuse survivors and military veterans? The most prevalent outcomes were reduced depression, PTSD, and anxiety when the patient was involved in training the dog themselves, connected with the dog by telling it about their trauma, used their interaction with the dog as a metaphor for interacting with their usual social partners, and brought the dog to therapy sessions. That worked. But the VA study is doing something very different:

“Dogs in the study are being trained to sweep a room for threats before the veteran enters. They’re also required to block—keeping people away from the vet.”

 

That is not a service dog. That is a guard dog. One of the most devastating symptoms of PTSD is emotional numbness and feeling disconnected from other people—something that a service dog can help remedy, but not if they’re trained to keep everyone away.

“Training a dog to watch your back, and sweep, and block, is supporting those symptoms and those thoughts,” warns animal-assisted therapist Rick Yount.

 

In a congressional hearing last week, “The VA contends that there is insufficient evidence that service dogs help those with PTS[D].” To give the VA the benefit of the doubt, they are extending their study to go through 2019 based on “ample scientific findings and ongoing research suggest that the VA is wrong.” But whatever the outcome of this flawed study, nothing should discourage the use of animal-assisted therapy, as animals can and are helping people right now cope with PTSD, depression, anxiety, OCD, Alzehiemer’s disease, and schizophrenia—and those benefits don’t even necessarily have to come from trained service dogs.

So what’s the difference between a service dog, a therapy dog, and a pet dog? First of all, dogs aren’t the only animals used in animal-assisted therapy, which is the term for any type of therapy that involves the use of an animal—horses, birds, elephants, rabbits, fish, and all sorts of other animals have been successfully used in therapeutic interventions for physical and psychiatric impairments. But we know a lot more about training dogs, and they have some unique abilities that make them ideal therapy animals.

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines service dogs as any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. These service animals can be trained to pull wheelchairs, sense changes in blood sugar for people with diabetes, sense the onset of seizure activity in people with epilepsy, bring their owner medication at certain times of the day, provide balance on stairs, and aid people with visual impairments. Obtaining and training service dogs can be quite expensive, as they are specifically trained to accommodate a person’s unique disability needs, but the benefits can be life-saving. Psychiatric service dogs and emotional support animals, trained to help people with life-limiting psychiatric disabilities, fall under the service dog category and must be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional. The good news is that for many psychiatric disorders, a therapy dog is sufficient to provide assistance.

Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs can be considered pets and a person doesn’t have to obtain a specially trained animal. In fact, training the animal yourself has been shown to be part of the bonding in the healing partnership that can develop with a therapy animal. A therapy animal, commonly a dog, is obedience trained and screened to interact favorably with people. Therapy dogs can provide support to their owners, but they can also be brought to hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and disaster relief areas to support people in individual visits. Therapy dog visits to hospitals and other patient care centers have been shown to improve mood and pain in patients with fibromyalgia, promote a more rapid recovery in children after surgery, reduce depression and anxiety in hospitalized mental health patients, reduce anxiety in women with high-risk pregnancies, and improve memory and socialization in Alzheimer’s patients.

Having a dog has been shown to facilitate positive human-human interaction in both people with psychiatric disorders and healthy individuals. Children with autism, who can have difficulties interacting with people, interact more with other people and have greater use of language skills in the presence of a dog. This effect, called the “social catalyst” effect, has been shown in children, adults, and the elderly with other psychiatric diagnoses as well. The presence of a friendly animal has also been shown to increase trust toward other people and decrease aggression. Animal assisted therapy consistently reduces depression and anxiety. Direct evidence shows that interacting with a companion animal positively affects hormonal stress responses including those involving cortisol and adrenaline—the presence of a dog can lower blood pressure and promote a healthier heart rate. These changes are even greater in the presence of a dog than they are in the presence of a friend or spouse!

My area of expertise is in the effects of trauma on the brain—particularly post-traumatic stress disorder—so this is where most of my knowledge about animal-assisted therapy lies. Despite what the VA says, animal assisted-therapy has been shown to reduce PTSD symptoms. One of the big problems with PTSD is reconciling the past with the present and knowing that the past trauma is no longer happening. Having an animal present can act as a reminder that danger is no longer present (by bringing one out of intrusive memories) and can act as focal point for mindfulness experiences in the present. Emotional numbing is one of the key symptoms of PTSD and animals have been shown to increase emotional capacity in humans. Another key aspect of PTSD is hyperarousal, which is promoted by increases in cortisol and adrenaline, both of which animal interactions can decrease. When living with service dogs, veterans with PTSD reported having better sleep and fewer nightmares. Children who have been sexually abused show decreases in anxiety, depression, anger, PTSD, and dissociation when participating in animal-assisted therapy. I have experienced all of these things with my PTSD after getting my own dog.

After getting my dog, Lady, I was able to go for walks/runs outside without feeling scared for the first time in 10 years! I felt safer in my home and slept better. I found that caring for Lady made me more willing to care for myself. The sense of purpose and responsibility in caring for Lady has helped me stay sober (3 years and counting) after a decade of alcohol dependency and has helped me process through fears of abandonment. If I’m anxious or scared, she comes to my side and I feel an immediate surge of relief that everything will be okay.

How do dogs do all this? One early hypothesis suggests that humans used to be partially dependent on signals from animals for signs of threats, so being with an animal that is in a peaceful state may make us feel more safe. Several recent studies have documented increases in oxytocin in people after petting a friendly dog or gazing into its eyes—oxytocin is a chemical produced in the brain that is released directly into the bloodstream to decrease stress hormones and aggression and promote social interaction, empathy, and trust (lots of oxytocin is released during romantic attraction or “pair bonding”). This oxytocin release is greater when the interaction is with one’s own dog compared to an unfamiliar dog, so the quality of the human-animal relationship is important.

I’m not suggesting that a service dog or therapy dog can cure PTSD or any other mental illness, but I think they can help create the environment of stability and safety that is required for other therapeutic interventions to work in healing or coping. Plus, animals don’t judge you for what you’re wearing, they don’t abandon you or say mean things, and they don’t kick you out of a restroom because you don’t look like a “real woman” (although they may sit next to you while you pee). Animals can show you what unconditional love looks like, and that is something everybody deserves.

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Apryl Pooley is a scientist by training, a writer by practice, and an artist by nature who strives to make sense of the world around her and help others do the same. She is a neuroscientist at Michigan State University where she researches the effects of traumatic stress on the brain and is author of Fortitude: A PTSD Memoir. Apryl lives in Michigan with her beautiful wife and two rambunctious dogs, Lady and Bean. Read more about her at http://www.aprylpooley.com. You can also find Apryl on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

me and Lady

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