NAVIGATING CPTSD: MY TOP 10 PRACTICES
[APPENDIX 1 from Homesteading in the Calm Eye of the Storm, A Therapist Navigates His CPTSD]
Many readers write to me asking about the key to CPTSD recovery. As I wrote in Complex PTSD, I think there are many keys. Here are the top ten practices of my ongoing recovery. Thankfully the amount of time I need to dedicate to them has steadily decreased over the years.
I use the words "practices" to emphasize that there are no fast fixes, singular solutions or final arrivals in CPTSD recovery. As unfair as it often seems, recovering is ninety percent perspiration and ten percent inspiration.
Milking Self-Kindness and Self-Protection out of Grieving
I go on endlessly about grieving because it's brought me unparalleled relief. Most of the silver linings that I discovered about my trauma appeared on the other side of grieving.
I am often tickled by the irony that a good cry leaves me feeling stronger and more confident. For decades, my tears dissolved my fear and confusion, and left me with a clear and hopeful sense of direction.
When I was 29, I was devastated when I saw my beautiful black Labrador, George, die under the wheels of a car. George! How I wished back then for someone who felt as safe and comforting as him. Miraculously, the overwhelming pain of his brutal death was washed away by a monsoon of tears.
George's demise opened me to the value of emoting. Previously my emotions were a great source of fear and shame. I almost always avoided them with a desperate repertoire of tricks.
When my tears sprung forth that day, I was baptized with the Holy Spirit of grieving. Never again did I resist my tears. From then on I hungered for them until they became easily accessible.
When I was 39, my mother and my best dog, Herbie, died in short succession. My grieving for Herbie, who unconditionally loved me for ten years, totally eclipsed my grieving for Helen. In the heart of my mourning, I wrote this poem.
Herbie died and left me to find a new ride…
Left me with a precarious lead off first base…
Left me yearning to be picked off.
I see the pitcher chuck a knuckler
And mesmerized, I watch its loco dance.
I hear the stitches tumble a tune upon the air:
"Hey Pete, it sure is sweet and free up here."
I never dream of my mother, but my Dreamtime has been graced generously over the years with comforting visits from Herbie.
I well up now with tears of gratitude for Herbie, my high-grade social lubricant. Kind people were continuously drawn to this boddhisatvic dog…this mottled cattle dog of alluring homeliness. Herbie helped me many times to connect easily with her admirers.
A few tears escape their wells as I remember her being lost in transport on a plane. The Airline kept sending her to the wrong airport, and I goose-chased her for two days from city to city before we reunited.
When I opened her kennel, she sped around the airport floor in circles, skidding on the slippery linoleum in long tangents…then scrambling back into circling.
She ran in unbridled joy at our reunification. Unable to contain her feelings, she manically lapped the waiting area a half-dozen times.
As I write, I flash back with compassion to my six-year-old hyperactive self - running around a car for an hour to escape the bully, Michael Carmody. He couldn't catch me and I dared to laugh at him in his frustration. Sweet tears of grief sweetened with relief hallow the rebooting of these memories.
My tears - from the first drenching onwards - reliably rebirth me out of flashbacks. Crying is my get-out-of-jail-free card. It still occasionally rescues me from the death-pall of the abandonment depression, and revives my appreciation for being alive.
I'm sure that grieving saved me from an early grave. Before my tears were easily accessible, I only had "accidents" and risks gone bad to release my pain. As my knack for grieving grew, my recklessness dried up and blew away.
Yet no matter how wise my choices, how mindful my actions and how supportive my friends, life will deal me, like everyone else, an unfair slew of upsetting surprises.
Grieving is my tool kit par excellence for dealing with fortune's outrages. Over and over, I find refuge In the Calm Eye of the Storm…of tears.
Whittling Down the Critic
My critic ruled the roost of my early life. Denial and minimization were its allies, until I realized I had become numb to its domination. In one transformative epiphany, I flashed: Oh my God! This critic is so hellaciously huge that it is the boss of me! I am perpetually over-focusing on the negative!
Something powerful awoke in me and I thought: This is unacceptable! I will take back control of my mind…become the captain of my brain…exorcise the internalized drill sergeants of my parents and the Catholic Church. will no longer salute the twisted flags they have brainwashed me to enshrine! No more unconsciously locking into step with the critic's commands and judgments.
And NO to perfectionism and its all-or-none thinking! NO to all those false alarms of seeing danger everywhere! NO to only seeing what's wrong with me, with others and with life.
Early on my rebellion against the critic seemed hopeless. For a long time it seemed that all my efforts were making it worse. In truth, I was stuck in a gradually unfolding process of discovering its enormity.
Like many of my clients, this failure created new reasons to hate myself: "I can't do anything right. What's wrong with me? Why don't I just choose to love myself."
After breaking the record for spinning out in that nasty whirlpool, I finally saw my self-hate as my parents' most poisonous legacy. Being continuously hated by them trained me to hate myself. "The gift that keeps on giving" has many references, but no "gift" is worse than being inculcated with an inner critic that eternally frowns at you with disgust.
During the early years of critic work, I gave up the fight many times. How could I hope to conquer this multifaceted foe! Maybe I should just go back to joking about being so self-critical, like Woody Allen and everyone else. Who could blame me? As my client, Mary Alice, once said: "That sucker has so many different ways of attacking you, it's like playing whack-a-mole!"
Many tools eventually helped, especially grieving self-compassionate tears. But shrinking it was glacial until I shifted into angrily counter-attacking it whenever I caught it biting me.
The success of this fighting increased dramatically when I started visualizing the critic as an ugly two-headed beast: Charlie on the left and Helen on the right. I brought in the big guns when I added disgust to my anger - imagining that I was contemptuously giving them back their shame as well as their intimidation.
Innumerable times, I "dissed" them scornfully: Piss off Charlie and Helen! You heartless a-holes! You're a nasty pair of cowardly child-beating bullies. Shut The F UP!
Over and over, I countered the critic with contempt, mostly in the silence and privacy of my own mind. Over and over I imagined myself screaming at the critic with my parents' favorite insults.
Before long this practice spontaneously triggered deep empathy for my child-self. I then translated this empathy into contradicting their slurs. After a moment or two, I'd move from anger into compassion for myself. I uttered many versions of: I love you little Pete. You're a good kid. You're smart, witty, resourceful, and so on. I am here for you and on your side no matter what.
I repeated versions of this two-step process full-heartedly at least ten times a day, and within months the critic began to noticeably abate. Within a few years it disappeared for lengthening periods.
One day as it tried for an encore, I saw it as a one winged fly that could not lift itself off the floor. I laughed at it: You're a pathetic envoy of Helen and Charlie. Do you really think you still have any "cred" with me!?
On another memorable morning, I awoke in an intense flashback of self-disappointment and was soon rescued by this unprompted self-defense: So Herr Critic, aka Helen and Charlie, you used to run the show all the time. Now you're lucky to get a few seconds. You used to be a class-5-rapids, but now you're a seasonal trickle in a place where it rarely rains! So, PLEASE, let me invite you to GET THE HELL away from me! And POOF! Like magic, I was back on my side again.
Now it is almost always easy to dismiss the critic. It's so weak, I rarely need the empowerment of anger. When it occasionally rearises, my current favorite response is a condescending response: Oh! It's Mr. & Mrs. SMALL POTATOES again…trying to make a crisis out of something minuscule…something that truly is just SMALL POTATOES. I co-opted this phrase from my mother who used it to put down anything I did well. I use it instead as a reminder that her criticism is next to nothing to me now.
O, how far I've come! My mindfulness usually spots toxic criticisms immediately and I effortlessly let them wither away. Simply noticing the critic lures it into the quicksand of my healthy self-protection. I have whittled it down from commander-in-chief of my psyche to a mere shadow of its former self.
Now and for the last two decades I almost always feel like a good enough person.
Like many survivors, my recovery process began unconsciously with a spiritual quest. I needed to find something profoundly good about life to counteract the soul crushing effects of my family.
But striving for enlightenment was a salvation fantasy, and only helped marginally with my CPTSD. My Icarus-like flights into the Light did however give me powerful subjective experiences of a Benevolence at the core of life.
Trying to permanently merge with this Light however, melted my waxen wings and repeatedly sent me plummeting into the sea of my abandonment depression.
The Icarus in me won some and lost some. When I caught enough glimmers of the Light to know that an ultimate good exists, I felt buoyed enough to journey inside - to search for something worthwhile at my psychological core. When I finally learned to meditate effectively, I gradually found Spirit within.
Now my flights-into-light are sojourns inside to find an inner glow. My ongoing meditative practice regularly brings me helpful insights, restores my equanimity and self-acceptance, and occasionally provides me glimpses of THAT which is so much greater.
My ultimate flight-into-light was an eight hour Enlightenment experience with LSD - an experience of feeling transcendently at one with a loving God that permeated everything. [What a surprise years later to read that Freud knew of this experience: "…the oceanic feeling…the sensation of harmony and interconnection with the universe."]
This LSD journey, described in Chapter 6, impassioned me to search for permanent enlightenment. Luckily my quest short-circuited two years later, but I had enough tastes of God as Love to convince me that life is a stunning gift from an unfathomable and generous Creator. Like Walt Whitman and other poets, I increasingly saw love and beauty in life's ordinary and myriad details.
Delusional or not, I feel lucky to believe in a Benevolent Creator. This is not a choice but a profound subjective sense of knowing. The years before my huge epiphany - especially the Catholic ones - were desolately empty without this deep sense of a Higher Power.
And even if in death, my light is completely extinguished, I gained immeasurably from this vision. It blessed me with an increasing capacity to appreciate being alive.
Books were my first teachers. They "introduced" me to compassionate adults who helped me with their wise and kind words. For decades I read my way into a better relationship with myself.
The book that took the lid off my denial about my childhood trauma was Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child. Reading it also took the floor out from under me, and dumped me into the bottomless basement of my abandonment depression:
An emotional maelstrom
Squared, cubed and taken to the highest Parental power.
A childhood full of hunger
unsootheable by food
cranking in the canyon of my belly.
Hunger born in an emotional famine
suffered in solitary confinement
behind the bars of a prison crib.
As horrible as the discovery of this unresolved pain was at the time, the ensuing Dark Night of the Soul awakened me to the grievous damage caused my parents' abuse and neglect. Denial died, and I was lost in a sea of overwhelm for months.
Recovery by Gravitz and Bowden subsequently gave me a sextant to begin navigating this sea.
John Bradshaw's books and videos released the pause button on my arrested development. His PBS videos on the dysfunctional family and inner child work were like a series of waves that I rode deeper into recovering.
Working with this material helped me recognize how often I went down the rabbit hole of self-hate. How awful that this eventually devolved into hating myself for hating myself.
Thankfully, I finally realized that self-hate had been a childhood requirement rigorously enforced by my parents and the clergy. No wonder this habit was so hard to break! Gradually it began to crumble as I forgave myself over and over for repeating their brainwashing, and then invoked unconditional self-acceptance.
Other recommendations that I have for Bibliotherapy are contained in Chapter 15 of my CPTSD book. Let me also note that I am sure that many other valuable trauma-recovery books are now available, but I have not had the time to explore them.
Writing that Helped Me To Right Myself
Journaling was loving mothering and therapy for me. I could always bring my whole self - as small as it was as at first - to my journal and explore all my concerns. To this day, I still occasionally journal to plumb a gnarly issue.
Journaling taught me to bear witness to myself - to validate that I was born innocent - unfairly deprived of a child's birthright to be loved. Through no fault of my own, I got the joker from the parenting deck. Journaling helped me grieve this terrible loss. My four foot stack of journals is in many ways a history of how I reparented myself for fifty years.
I love writing. It feels like flirting with the unconscious - and on lucky days connecting with the Higher Self. My Muse often surprises me with unbidden jewels. Occasionally, they scintillate and make me teary.
These wondrous and numinous tears feel like proof of God's existence. A Jew or a Christian might say: "God created us in his own image…wanting us to also be creative."
Occasionally an inspiration makes me laugh aloud: "I didn't know I knew that." Wherever this inspiration comes from, I'm sure it's not only my ego coughing up a new mixture of ideas it has heard before.
Meditation: There's No Boogeyman in My Inner Closet
At my first ten day meditation retreat I was cooped up inside myself without distraction or diversion for ten straight days. Damn! That was intense. But it left me knowing - at least most of the time - that there was nothing wrong with me - nothing inside me that I had to flee, hate or be ashamed of.
Ten years later, during my second ten day retreat, I anchored that understanding by practicing… 24/7… this guidance from Galway Kinnell:
Is what I want
From that time on, I learned to use Vipassana to rescue myself from thousands of flashbacks. For me, the quickest way back to calmness is to fully feel what I am most reluctant to feel.
Now when I get triggered into a flashback, my dominant urge is to find a safe place to meditatively feel into the sensations and emotions of my upset as fully as I can. Within twenty minutes, the flashback almost invariably resolves and I am once again at peace with myself.
Stephen Levine's Who Dies and Jack Kornfield's A Path with Heart are two great books that teach this invaluable skill.
Getting and Giving Individual & Group Therapy
I needed to be reassured by many good-hearted authors before I could face the fear of seeking help from a stranger. I was a client of various therapists off and on for twenty-five years. Without that experience, my effectiveness as a therapist would have been quite limited.
Receiving and providing therapy have been the yin and the yang of my ongoing training…training that informs me about what can and cannot be accomplished in psychotherapy.
Numerous helpful short-term therapies, and co-counseling with my friends Randi and Nancy, made me want long-term, depth-work psychotherapy.
As described earlier, my first foray with Kleinian Dr. L was awful. To avoid repeating this, I had test- sessions with seven highly touted therapists.
In one interview-session after another, each renowned therapist tried to distract me from venting pain. It was so hard to believe. Each paid lip service to welcoming grief, but when my feelings surfaced, they apparently could not go where they had not been.
After the sixth, I despaired about finding a therapist who would welcome my emotional pain. I reread some of the therapist-writers who insisted that shame about emotional pain could only be worked through with a supportive witness. I scheduled a seventh appointment and mercifully I finally found Gina.
Hundreds of sessions with her over five years brought me profound relational healing. My toxic shame lost its life support system. My toxic critic became an endangered species, and at times I almost disliked automatically shooting it on sight.
Through my experiences as a client, I discovered in the laboratory of my own psyche what actually helps. What especially struck me was that all my helpful therapists reparented me to some degree.
As an extra bonus, many also served as role models on how to do therapy. Thank you, thank you, thank you Derek, Bob, Randi, Nancy, Gina and Sara for your psyche-renovating help - for helping me truly befriend myself.
As a therapist I noticed that most clients suffer shame and self-hate over similar issues. I heard endless self-flagellation over the same minor flaws, "bad" feelings, taboo fantasies, and small potato mistakes. So many humiliated confessions about such common harmless human imperfections!
How tragic that perfectionism shames us into hiding the same innocuous "shady secrets." As I consistently felt no judgment about my clients "flaws", the glacier of my own self-judgment gradually melted into a snowball.
I have facilitated more than thirty thousand therapy sessions, and frequently experienced healing in the manner I describe in Appendix 2. How blessed I am that I have had so many clients who I easily care about and respect.
A great turning point occurred decades ago when I learned to quickly nudge bona fide narcissists out of my office. Dyed-in-the-wool narcissists do not seek transformation. They only want adoring listeners whom they can control and suck dry. Too many become even more entitled from the process of therapy - believing that everyone owes them fifty minutes of uninterrupted listening.
What a boon that so many of my university courses featured group therapy. Sydney University was way ahead of its time.
Antioch was the most profound. At Antioch, Will Schutz taught me to do anger work in a way where no one hurt themselves or anyone else. I often left group feeling purified by the cleansing flame of therapeutic angering. What a privilege to pass this gift onto others!
My disappointment in the poor quality of JFK groups was tempered by the sheer quantity of experience. JFK shortcomings matched the old saying: "Good and bad experiences are like the right and left hand. The wise person uses both to his/her benefit."
From JFK, I learned to avoid the mistakes that commonly spoil group therapy. I guarded my groups from being hijacked by narcissists. I immediately stopped shaming and scapegoating behaviors, and divvied up the time so that all members shared equally.
I was also a member of many support groups. Really liking and being liked by others with similar vulnerabilities helped pry perfectionism off my self-esteem.
My men's support group was the heart of my created family for fifteen years. My imperfections were met with nothing but kindness. I cannot thank you guys too much for your healing support!
This all culminated with an ACA/Codependency/CPTSD support group that I lead for twenty-five years. It was by far my most potent experience of the hub of mutual relational healing [see Appendix 2]. Members often grieved together about the pain caused by their selfish parents.
They cried together and they angered together. They healthily blamed their parents for forcing them to fawn and abandon themselves - for making them easy pickings for exploitative narcissists.
The group's mutual empathy shrunk their inner critics and bred self-kindness. Most members went on to find at least one other island of human safety in the world outside of the group.
I was not a "working member" of the group, but often felt vicariously comforted and healed by group commiseration. I treasure everyone who "graduated" from this group. I wish I could name them for posterity, but of course confidentiality prohibits.
Sometimes when I flash back into alienation, I remember all the groups that gave me their esteem when "mortified" was my middle name. Accordingly, I often advise survivors to join a support group - on line or in vivo. Many respondents to my writings have testified to the helpfulness of such connections.
Self-Reparenting: Finding an Inner Mom and Dad
I am forever indebted to John Bradshaw for exposing the epidemic of traumatizing parents. Such parents create children who grow up developmentally arrested in myriad ways. Bradshaw gave us many reparenting tools to meet the unmet needs of survivors of such abandonment.
Over time, I also discovered tools of my own which I used to reparent myself and my clients. I taught many clients through modeling to take over the job of ongoingly mothering and fathering themselves.
In my own recovery, my critic upped its scoffing to a new level when I first heard about inner child work. I had to bypass my inner child at first and just work with the concept of healing my developmental arrests.
Thankfully I eventually whittled down my critic and built a profoundly therapeutic relationship with my developmentally arrested, infant, toddler, preschooler, primary schooler and adolescent.
Through continually evolving my ability to nurture, love and protect myself and my various child selves, I customarily feel a sense of safety and of belonging in the world. [Guidelines for this process can be found in Chapters 8 & 9 and Appendix C of The Tao of Fully Feeling.]
The Created Family: Healing the Loss of Tribe
The love of my grandmothers and my sisters, Pat, Diane and Sharon, helped keep my heart alive despite all the parental and clerical abuse. Growing up in New York City as a baby boomer gave me access to a wealth of kids on the street, and I had many safe enough friends, although I also had to learn to steer clear of numerous bullies.
Moving to Dover, New Hampshire as an adolescent opened the door to more supportive friendships, especially the one with my lifetime friend, Bruce McAdams.
Even the army brought me many good enough friends. I also met many kind and respectful people during my travels. All this gradually restored my trust in human nature.
Communal living greatly bolstered this trust. Fifteen years with kind roommates soothed me with relational healing. How lucky I was to come of age during the hippie times. I was especially fortunate to live for a decade in Australia while the Hippie Zeitgeist of loving cooperation still endured.
During this time, many layers of my deep CPTSD fear of people dissolved. Empirical proof accumulated that destructive narcissists like my parents were a small part of the population. I bet they are less than ten percent.
Sadly, communal living ended for me thirty years ago. Happily, it was gradually replaced with a looser sense of tribe. I experience my current clan as concentric circles of intimacy. My inner most circle is my wife, son and a handful of close friends with whom I can easily be my whole self.
The next circle is a group of old friends I see infrequently but immediately feel close to when I do.
Outside that circle is less intimate friends and family members with whom I am usually comfortable via many years of safe interactions.
A final superficial but warm circle is safe-enough acquaintances from my neighborhood, my son's school and my membership in community organizations.
Intermingling with various arcs of this circle are the many people I no longer see but still hold dear in my heart.
When I am actively engaged in flashback management, I sometimes visualize a human mandala of all these circles as Step 10 [Seek Support].
Gratitude: A Realistic Approach
Yesterday I laughed aloud at a cartoon in The New Yorker. Moses, with the Ten Commandments in hand, was looking up toward God and calling out: "Now, how about some affirmations to balance out all this negativity."
Twenty years ago I began my end-of-the-day gratitude practice. Upon laying down each night I spend five minutes using my breath to relax me. To better appreciate the day, I then recall ten things for which I am grateful. Even on gloomy days, I usually find ten worthwhile things.
Usually it's simple stuff: an especially sweet pear, something funny that Sara or Jaden said, a new flower that bloomed in my garden, a cloud with a striking shape, a sense of being healthy when I stretched, a dull radio background sound that suddenly morphed into a tune that begged for my accompaniment.
Gratitude is a thought-correction practice that gradually eroded the negative noticing of my toxic critic. Now, I refuse to let all-or-none thinking throw out the baby of daily niceties with the bathwater of normal disappointments.
Here is how I keep this practice fresh. I accept that I do not always feel gratitude while I am expressing it. As I argue in my first book, our feelings are rarely a matter of choice. But gratitude is more than a feeling.
Gratitude is also a health-inducing perspective that with enough practice grows into a belief. So while I may not feel grateful for my wife while we are struggling about something, I almost always know she is a blessing in my life. And although life can bring unpredictable difficulties, bounteous wonder usually tips the scale and makes me grateful to be alive.
Sometimes I have difficulty with the homily "Stop and smell the roses." In my old all-or-none days, I was bitter when their perfume did not rescue me from feeling bad. Nowadays though, I still love flowers even when they do not move me. And, I still dislike it when someone tries to fast-fix my pain by pointing them out.
On a larger scale this is true of gratitude and love in general. At times Monet's paintings, my favorite songs or even kindnesses from others do not impact me
Yet, in a wider spiritual sense, I am always grateful for these gifts because I know from experience that sooner or later I will fully appreciate them again.
So, I accept the cyclical nature of feeling love and gratitude, knowing that I will repeatedly be moved by the bounty of the world. Color, flowers, nature, food, panoramas, music, movies, kindnesses, pets, and so on, will inevitably move me again even when they momentarily leave me cold.
Back in the late twentieth century, the practice of Be-Here-Now [based eponymously on Ram Das's book] was considered to be the height of wisdom in many spiritual circles. Invoking "Be Here Now!" was supposed to make you instantly return to feeling grateful and loving.
I soon came to hate this phrase however, because I hated myself for not being able to do it on command. Even worse, be-here-now was often callously shoved in the face of anyone who was having a hard time.
Once in a JFK group, a student sporting an ascended master persona told a woman distraught about the recent demise of her twenty year marriage: "If you weren't so attached to the past, you wouldn't be so upset. Try to Be Here Now!"
Over time, "be-here-now" morphed into "just be grateful!" which in turn acquired a flight-into-light subtext: "If you just get your mundane head out of your unspiritual ass, and flip the gratitude switch, your pain will instantly vanish."
Unfortunately I still regularly see this shaming corrective use of gratitude…especially in Marin County, the nesting place of the world's largest population of flight-into-lighters.
For my own use, I have ironically converted be-here-now from an elixir to a reminder: Be here now, Pete. Drop down into that pain and feel your way through it. Usually this soon restores me into authentically being here now.
Don't Sweat the Small Stuff is a more modern version of be-here-now. It's a great book title and idea by itself, but it's instantly ruined by the book's small print subtitle: And it's All Small Stuff. Hopefully at this point I don't need to explain the nonsense in that.
An anonymous reader sent me this poem.
In which I count to ten, grateful that:
Spider webs catch sunlight and moonbeams.
Long-lost lovers sometimes reappear.
Women make an art out of friendship.
Wisdom wanders the world planting stories.
People transform pain into blues.
Sloths are not extinct.
Turkey contains serotonin.
Frequently accidents are not as bad as they might be.