Getting Over Hysteria

Mom and the big pan of Pierogis we just finished making!

Mom and the big pan of Pierogis we just finished making!

We all have triggers. They can be aromas that remind us of days gone by. Like the smell of onions and garlic cooking that sends me to the times when Bill, my mother, and anyone else who wanted to take part, came into my kitchen and helped me prepare our best-loved food, pierogis. This traditional Polish dish of pockets of dough stuffed with delicious fillings has always been a part of our holiday celebrations. My favorites are the sauerkraut ones, with caraway seeds, and lightly caramelized onions. There were also those stuffed with mushrooms sautéed in butter with loads of garlic.

The smell of watermelon can also set off visual memories of the days in my youth when I lived on the shore of Long Island Sound. My free time was taken up with swimming, waterskiing, digging clams for supper, and the gritty feel of sand in my shoes.

Calendars can be triggers as well. The dates when loved ones passed away can set off another round of grieving for our loss, disconnecting us from holiday cheer or a season like spring, when everything is supposed to come back to life again.

Mom in 1997 before she became very ill.

Mom in 1997 before she became very ill.

I am sometimes triggered by seeing people who look like my mother, father, or the brother I lost six years ago. There is an advertisement for a senior community on a local tv station, in which a lovely gray haired woman is looking happy and reading a book as she sits in a rocking chair. She looks just like my mother before her health started to fail. Every time I see it I feel sad wishing I could go back in time and change the way things turned out for her. But alas, none of us has the power to do that.

Words can also set me off — like hysterical. The Cambridge Dictionaries Online says hysterical is the inability “to control your emotional behavior because you are very frightened, excited, etc.” It can be uncontrollable laughter or the shock and grief you feel when when you learn of someone’s death.

In the old days the word was defined as a neurotic condition, especially of women, caused by a dysfunction of the uterus. Whenever a woman became upset and cried, she was said to be suffering from hysteria. Many a woman found herself admitted to hospital and stayed there because she was too emotional.

Hysterical is what my mother called me whenever I cried as a child. And I don’t mean sobbing or bawling. Whenever she saw a tear on my cheek she said I was being hysterical. The day she called me to say that my father had been diagnosed with stage four bladder cancer and I began tearing up and sounding unhappy, she handed the phone to my dad and said, “Here, you talk to her. She’s hysterical. I can’t talk to her when she’s like that.”

Wouldn’t most people cry when they’re told that a loved one has a terminal illness? My reaction to those comments of hers always made me angry. I felt shushed — as though my feelings were stupid and didn’t matter.

I may be an emotional woman, but I do not suffer from hysteria. My mother was also an emotional woman. She had been abused as a child and lived with my father’s PTSD for over the forty plus years of their marriage. But she never cried in public or admitted a hurt. She hid her sorrow, grief, and pain from herself as well as onlookers. She self-medicated with alcohol which released her emotions in the form of anger. Using booze, she was able to let go of her pain for a while. But it always came back and the cycle of drinking began again.

Though I use the word hysteria and can laugh hysterically, almost wetting my pants at times, I still occasionally have trouble with both words. They can come out of the blue in innocent conversations and hit me hard. Just like the way the smell of onions and garlic sautéing can get my stomach rumbling, those simple words can make me feel stupid and unimportant. Awareness of those triggers helps me overcome emotional reactions. When a word sets me off I pause, remembering it is just a word and has nothing to do with the present and its context that I carried with me over the years. I can let it go and move on.

Do you have words or other things that can trigger reactions? How do you handle them?

Read about my relationship with my mother in my memoir, Scattering Ashes, A Memoir of Letting Go, due out in September.  It is available for pre-order on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Be Grateful, Stay Sane

DSC00487.JPGIt’s the time of year when all of us start looking forward, wondering what the new year will bring our way.  Though I prefer to live on a day to day basis, I’m  preparing for the big renovation we’ll be doing here in January.  I’ve got things to pack up and sort out. I need to figure out how I’m going to handle certain problems like continuing to eat the healthy way I do while not having a fully equipped kitchen available to me.

For part of the time we’ve decided to get a room at the nearby Residence Inn where we’ll have a small kitchenette and our dogs are welcome.  I’m making double recipes of things like soups and freezing the left overs so that we’ll have some good quality food while we’re there. But if the project takes longer than they say it will, we’ll need to move back home, rather than spread our budget to its breaking point.  It’s all going to be costly, and we don’t want to go overboard.

While part of me excitingly deals with details like paint colors, choosing a new bathtub, and lighting fixtures, another part of me is freaking out. “Everything will be a mess. How will I organize the things I ‘may’ need on a daily basis? How will the cat adjust to the noise and invasion of her space?  Will I be able to keep my cool without living with the debilitating anxiety that often overtakes me when I’m living in a transitional space?”

I’m easily triggered by what is happening around me and having my house torn apart will not be an easy.  I was a building contractor’s daughter and have lived this kind of life many times before. The idea was that once a house my Dad was building was under roof and halfway finished we’d move in and work on finishing it up until it was done and the buyers took over.  We’d move on to the next unfinished home often living without doors on bathrooms, cooking on a camping stove, and once again waiting to move on the next site. I also know that projects like this usually takes longer than first expected. We’ve been told it will take four weeks.

I’ve come a long way in recovering from my PTSD and I think I’ll be fine.  I can easily recognize triggers and change the direction of where I’m headed quickly. I’ve learned a lot about patience and the things you can’t do anything about like ice storms, power outages, getting the flu, or simply feeling sorry for myself. What ever happens, I know I’ll get through it and will learn a few lessons along the way. New life lessons are always a given.

I’m preparing by designing a plan that will help me focus on being comfortable throughout the project.  I’ll get back to meditating on a more regular basis, make a few artist dates with myself, keep working on my book in my studio, which is over the garage not in the house, move a cot up to the studio for an occasional nap, and just do the best I can. I may wipe out once or twice, but I’m only human and know I won’t fall as hard as I used to.

I plan on staying mindful and somewhat balanced by sharing things that I am grateful for on my Facebook and Twitter pages, on a daily basis, until the project is done and I’ve moved back into my house. I’ll start on January 1th  in preparation for the the first day of work which is scheduled for January 6th, when the slate tilesd floor in the kitchen will most likely be demolished.

I’m calling it, “Be Grateful, Stay Sane Month.” It will hopefully be a way for me to keep my attitude positive during a possibly trying time. If any of you would like to join me please do.  Simply post things you are grateful on my gratefulness posts on Facebook or Twitter.  It will be a great way to start the New Year.

On Trauma, Triggers, And Thanksgiving

IMG_0934You’d think that by age seventy-one things would be different.  But, no, there are triggers that still get me wound up so tight I could burst.  Take Friday evening for example. I was on the phone talking to my friend, Sharon.  We started having weekly conversations back in 2010. She lives in Florida and I live in Virginia, so we can’t talk over the fence the same way I can chat with my neighbor, Harmon, who is also a dear friend.  Sharon has been traveling of late and we haven’t talked in almost a month.

I was sitting in my new chair (an early Christmas gift), enjoying Sharon’s musings about her travels. Both of us agree that life is tempestuous and both have a growing number of people we know who have been diagnosed with cancer.  It just doesn’t seem fair to either one of us, but then no one ever said that life would be fair, or a bed of roses, or without pain and unhappiness.

I’m at the age where I know better and have decided that I can’t worry about what is going to get me …an asteroid falling out of the sky or being hit by a dump truck full boulders, rendering me paralyzed from the neck down.  Life is what it is.  It has cancer, asteroids, boulders, dump trucks, along with a gazillion other things that could kill us or make life totally miserable.

Mind you, I always have and will probably continue to cry, carry on, and complain with all my might if and when something awful does happens to me.  But I’m working hard at being grateful for everything that I have, including the best family and friends in the universe.

So it took me by surprise that as I sitting in that cozy chair, talking my heart out, that I was being triggered by Bill’s sudden dash through the living room and out to his car. He looked befuddled and mad. He tore out of the driveway as if there were an emergency.  I started feeling my old companion, anxiety, arriving on the scene. My gut started feeling jittery and filled with rocks. Though I was still listening and talking to Sharon, another part of me was trying to figure out what I had done wrong to make Bill so mad.

Then I realized that Bill’s behavior had brought on a reaction in me that became ingrown years ago. My father was a tyrant.  To him, talking on the phone for more than two minutes was wasting time.  Staring into space was a mortal sin and taking naps was not acceptable.  When my dad was around, my brothers and I always had to be doing something “constructive.” If he caught us doing nothing, his face would become hard and frightening.  He would  yell at us and quickly gave us jobs to do. We were never relaxed when he was at home and it got to the point that one of us was always on the look-out, warning, “Here comes Dad.  Look busy.”

Had I been ten or twelve as I chatted with my friend, I would have quickly hung up the phone, charged into my bedroom, and pretended to be doing homework.  We all got pretty good at pretending and I’ve always been amazed that none of us ended up acting on the stage.  But it sure developed into a pattern in our lives. I’m beyond thankful for being able to recognize when I’m being triggered. Most of the time now, I may feel some anxiety or fear at first, but can quickly acknowledge that I’m safe and that no one is going to hurt me or tell me that I’m doing something terribly wrong.

Bill popped back in the house waving a bag of fresh Italian parsley in his hand. He was wearing a wide grin on his face as if he’d been out fishing and caught the biggest fish in the pond. I was still talking to Sharon and by then had calmed down.  I hadn’t hung up and hidden in my room. Bill had been preparing our dinner and when he discovered we had no parsley he went out without interrupting me to get some.  And yes, he had been a bit mad when he realized we didn’t have what he needed. But it wasn’t about me. It was about the inconvenience of having to rush out during traffic hour.

Life is all about things like that. I don’t enjoy being slammed back into my childhood by someone else’s behavior, but I’m accepting and grateful for being able to recognize when my cells and nervous system are simply reacting to something they remember from long ago. If you’d asked me five or six years ago if I thought I’d ever recover from the trauma in my life, I would have bitterly said no. But working with a therapist brought me back to my senses and I’ve learned to be mindful of my own behavior.

So yes, I have changed. Life is all about typhoons, tornados, friends dying, and not getting what I want. But it’s also about red roses that fill the air with their sweet essence, dear friends, and a husband who shares the cooking of meals and holds me tight when I’m scared.

 This Thanksgiving I’m especially thankful for you, dear readers, for the sun that rises daily, and my wonderful family.  May the holiday find you all filled with peace, love, and happiness.

And if you’re driving watch out for the weather along the East Coast.