We have to write this blog post somewhat frequently because we lose our grip on “real” vs. “not real” and–as importantly–why it matters. Sorry if you have read this type of thing before. This processing feels useful.
We keep getting confused about what “real” really means. When we have a dream, as we did last night, it gets coded in our brain as “real” because it happened. This is not a useful code. The dream was real in that we experienced a dream. What occurred in the dream–the content of the dream–is not real in that it did not happen in our real life.
We had a dream last night that did not seem like a nightmare. It felt kind of exciting. And it reinforced a mind state we would characterize as “unhealthy” if we engaged in the behavior in real life. But we didn’t. Why do we care so much about the content of our dreams?
We care so much about content–in general–because we are worried about reinforcing unhealthy brain circuitry; namely, we don’t want to reinforce the highway between the brain’s amygdala and the brain’s hind parts. This is the reptilian, ancestral response to stimuli–the PTSD response, hypervigilance. Instead, we want to reinforce amygdala to cortices routes. We want to process stimuli using our now-senses.
In an emergency text exchange with therapist today, therapist said that we should seek evidence that things are better than we think they are, that we are stronger than we feel, and that we are more resourceful than we believe.
This is gold. This is like printing our own money. When we can get feedback from a trusted, caring therapist during a crisis, then we have something to focus on. The goal would be to use our own resources in a crisis so that we do not have to rely on another. That ability has broken down during the past several months. Nearly completely.
We are so depleted, fearful, and lacking resources that we are considering all manner of options, some therapeutic and some detrimental. We stay safe by reaching out when things get too overwhelming.
Back to the dream. Here is a further distinction about the unreality of the dream: the person in our dream that engaged in behavior we do not condone did not actually engage in the behavior. It was just a dream, a creation of our brain. This is important.
While some dreams may be recreations of something real (i.e. you were in a fire and you dream about the fire), the dreams themselves are not more fires that you were in. They may feel real. You may have a stress reaction. And reminding yourself they are not new traumas is important.
If you dream that you or anyone else does something unsavory, this is not the same thing as actually doing something unsavory. This is important. You might dream you committed a crime, or–in our case last night–that you are the victim of unwanted behavior, and since it was a dream, that occurrence (the dream occurrence) is not a new episode of actual trauma. The dream might create a stress response, which is natural, and you can know that it is not, in fact, a new trauma.
This eludes us a lot. As we are writing it, we are thinking that we do not fully believe what we are writing! And we want to believe it.
You are not bad for thinking or dreaming bad thoughts. In fact, it is natural for the mind to be curious, especially if you have been the victim of abuse. Wondering about the perpetrator is natural. It does not make you a perpetrator. And if you dream someone is a perpetrator–and in real life they are not a perpetrator–then you do not need to take the dream as real. Yes, the dream happened, and its content is not reliable. It is a story. The players can be anyone. In our experience, we are usually most of the characters in our dreams–no matter what age or gender they are playing. Even when we dream about our parents we are usually dreaming about ourself!
Why reality is important: we are safe in it. If we think all of our dreams and delusions and flashbacks are real–that is, new and current occurrences of trauma–then we will never feel safe!
If we make decisions based on dreams, flashbacks, and delusions–anything that is not happening now that is also unlikely to happen now–we are not using our resources effectively. We will trigger stress responses–PTSD, OCD, dissociation–and reinforce amygdala-to-hind-brain highways.
We went to the parents’ house for Thanksgiving for the first time in several years. We had a flashback, and this is the weird part: the flashback was to nightmares! We didn’t flash back directly to the real traumas that occurred in that house; we flashed back to nightmares about some of the traumas! That is some serious “looking at your reflection in the mirror while looking at yourself in a mirror while looking at yourself in a mirror” shit.
If you don’t see how confusing this is for us, then please count yourself blessed and do not try to get your mind into this unhealthy state. If you do understand this confusion, then neither you nor we are alone. That is a relief, too. We feel as though no one understands this confusion. And we get so confused that we lose sight of “why it’s important.” To iterate: it is important to distinguish “what is really happening in real life NOW” from what happened in the past, from flashbacks, from dreams, and from delusions. Even when the flashbacks, dreams, and delusions happen in the NOW, they are not actual events taking place. The person who raped us is not raping us again in real life. It is the working of our mind. We might say that in essence that person is hurting us again, that their harmful actions continue. And that is giving up a lot of control.
We are experiencing unhealthy mind states that reinforce our victim status when, in reality, the trauma has ended. We can pursue new ways, healing and compassionate ways. We are pursuing them. We have been pursuing them. They are difficult. The after-effects of many of the traumas are worse than the initial trauma. That is, if we had learned to practice healthy mind states after traumas, we could have avoided amygdala-to-hind-parts highways. We did not. We are trying to learn now.
It is very hard. We get discouraged. We have lost some ground recently. We will try to get it back. Set the intention.
During the day, the stars are still “out.” We just can’t see them because our own star–the sun–blocks them out. At night, the sun is still burning; it is just shining on the other side of the Earth. The traumas of the past are over. Our brain is re-traumatizing itself over and over. This is causing unhealthy mind. Maybe we have new trauma, with a little “t.” Older Child moved to college. This is probably devastating, and we are so dissociative that we are blocked from seeing the correct stars at the correct time of day. We are seeing night stars in the day and seeing the sun in the dark of night. This defines unreality. Unhealthy mind states.
We are trying to figure this out with therapists. All three are having conversations with each other about how best to help us. This should be helpful, right? We feel left out of their talk. We feel overlooked. We feel not understood. We do not understand them.
This is a troubling time to have shaky ground underfoot. We want less suffering. Less suffering will come from practicing healthy mind states. How do we practice that? It’s hard to remember. Today, it is that we should seek evidence that things are better than we think they are, that we are stronger than we feel, and that we are more resourceful than we believe.
Things are better than we think they are: We are safe. We have no predators now. Abusers are either sorry, apathetic, or far enough away to be of no actual threat. The other kinds of traumas are over, too. We are not bleeding. There is no fire. It is not tornado season. We do not need police to keep us safe. We are older now. We have more resources. We can be safe now. We are safe in the real NOW.
We are stronger than we feel: We know we do not want to harm anyone. If we harm ourself, that would harm others. Harming us is against our values. Harming others is against our values. We can try to find these ways to practice healthy mind states. Use our senses on what is real. Look at a peanut shell up close, smell a candle, taste food, feel Spouse’s face, hug our Closies. We do not use our hearing as much for grounding because hearing is our hypervigilance sense. Hear the white noise machines. The fans. We have been resilient for decades. It may not feel strong to survive, and it is. We are strong. We survived! We got to Now! Great job! Being strong doesn’t mean not being afraid. It means finding love amid the tumult.
We are more resourceful than we believe: We can breathe, use our senses, repeat Metta, care for our body, look for evidence, seek help. We have lots of resources! We can do one thing at a time. Each of these resources is practice for safety NOW. Each will reinforce healthy mind states.
It snowed a lot this weekend. This is the same park we always go to; it is just coated in snow. It is the same world. The world changes. Some cycles are evident; others are less so. This is the same world. We are safe. The snow crunches underfoot. We lick snow off the tree branches and twigs! We are alive! We are alive!