Last week I saw Robert B. Weide’s incredible documentary Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time. It brought me back to my twenties when I voraciously read 13 Vonnegut books back to back. He is utterly brilliant.
When I heard that he had died in 2007, I remember saying, “How is the sun still shining or world still turning?” (Yes, I can be quite dramatic.)
Then I said, “So it goes.”
For those of you not familiar with Vonnegut’s vast body of work, he repeats this short, profound sentence throughout his most famous book: Slaughterhouse Five. Part science-fiction and part WWII history, this novel recounts his experience as a POW in the Dresden bombing through fiction.
While Billy was recuperating in a hospital in Vermont, his wife died accidentally of carbon-monoxide poisoning. So it goes. Billy was given an emergency furlough home because his father, a barber in Ilium, New York, was shot dead by a friend while they were out hunting deer. So it goes. There was a big German attack, and Weary and his antitank buddies fought like hell until everybody was killed but Weary. So it goes.Slaughterhouse Five. Kurt Vonnegut. 1969.
It was wonderful to be reminded of this famous sentence last week. Lately I’ve been writing a lot about emotional regulation and tools to deal with mental illness, grief, and psychiatric injuries. The most important tool in my toolbox is Radical Acceptance.
It took me nearly a decade to rebuild my life after multiple traumas, partly because my healing interrupted by the breakdown of my 15-year marriage, but I have built a beautiful life full of joy and adventure. Sure, there are still dark times, which will always come, and they will also always pass. They come more infrequently now and don’t stick around as long. This is largely due to three things:
- The correct diagnosis : C-PTSD
- The correct treatment, both pharmaceutical and therapeutical
- Emotional regulation and self-soothing tools, like those I’ve been writing about for the past few months (and will keep writing about for the foreseeable future)
The Perfect Storm
I use my two main tools (Radical Acceptance / If You Could Do Anything) multiple times a week but usually for little things that don’t cause emotional pain. Lately it’s been just dealing with an abnormally long bout of apathetic depression. Last night however, there was a confluence of events that came on the tail end of a hiccup in my relationship and work stress.
- A very exciting day at Coda Falconry, in which I got to fly several birds of prey, visit my beloved Loki the Raven, meet the baby raven Nox, and spend the day with one of my favorite people.
- More sun that I expected (I get exhausted from and sometimes nauseous in the sun).
- A torrential rain storm after the event, which I absolutely adored but also made it necessity to cancel evening plans with said friend because we were soaked.
- Getting charged £20 for canceling those plans an hour before the reservation.
- A delivery of the tap shoes I’ve wanted for years (I treated myself) only to discover they were too big, so I won’t have them for tap tonight.
Really great days usually cause “decompression” the next day as things go back to normal, which at the moment is being alone most of the time (petsitting in London for the summer). I once had a psychiatrist who told me I needed to manage the elation as much as the distress. Seemed ridiculous at the time, but I understand what he meant.
The rest are small disappointments, but as I quickly learned with PTSD, stressors are cumulative, just like trauma. Put all those things together in addition to the relationship speed bump, recent work stress, and lingering apathy, and you get a perfect storm.
So it goes.
My current therapist told me those who live with PTSD, and especially C-PTSD, can only handle so much stress (the S in PTSD). She likened it to a handful of straight pins. You can hold a lot of pins, but when you get one too many, you get pricked and then drop them all. (Like the proverbial straw on the camel, but I steer clear of idioms that contain animal cruelty or pain. For example, say “Two birds liberated by one key” instead of the murderous alternative.)
Last night I dropped all the pins and cried for the first time in a few months, which in turn had been the first time in at least a year. My silent tears surprised me, but they also challenged me to use my tools. After all, tools are easy to use when everything is pretty much okay. When things aren’t okay, that toolbox is harder to reach.
Emotional Regulation Toolbox
After allowing myself to cry until I stopped, as it’s very important to feel your emotions rather than avoid them, I started with a tool I don’t need very often anymore:
1. Name Your Emotions
Once you name your emotions, you can process them more effectively and gain insight into yourself. (Look for a blog post next week and the following going into this tool further.)
So I began, “I feel lonely. I feel sad. I feel insecure. I feel unlikeable/unloveable. It feels like friends don’t want to spend time with me. I feel pathetic. I feel old. I feel ugly.”
“I feel worthless.”
…and there it was… the source of all the other feelings. One of my core issues, as my abusers reinforced that belief for decades.
So it goes.
Now that I got to the core of my fears, I first said some quick affirmations that I was absolutely not worthless, but I was rather a kind person, good friend, and empathetic listener. Then I started with the second tool:
2. Radical Acceptance
When I find myself needing this tool for emotional pain, I settle in front of a mirror and talk directly to myself. Then I state my current reality and accept it.
“You are alone in a London flat in London. Something you had been looking forward to for weeks was canceled. You feel vulnerable and ashamed after opening up to <friend’s name> because of how you were socialized. You have Complex PTSD and sometimes find it difficult to leave the house, which made this disappointment all the more difficult to process. Anyone would feel this way in your position, Christine. It’s okay to feel these things, but this all still happened. It’s done. It cannot be changed.”
So it goes.
3. If You Could Do Anything
This is my go-to self-soothing tool. After naming my emotions and radically accepting my situation, I asked myself, “If you could do anything right now, what would it be?”
I had a few immediate options:
- Go to bed early
- Take a hot shower
- Practice my tap routine
- Go out with my other favorite person in London
- Work on my cross-stitch while watching The Flash
After assessing my energy level, both physical and emotional, I opted for the last one. A night in with silence and self-care. My partner, Brian, also said he’d take his lunch break to talk with me on Zoom since I was feeling lonely, and we had a very nice talk.
This all enabled me to go to sleep with less sadness/insecurity/anxiety, and I slept surprisingly well. Although I woke up feeling sad, I took my meds then went through the tools again. In the end, I had a lovely day with a walk to Starbucks, enjoying some of my favorite musical tunes, writing this post, and heading off to my favorite dance class in London’s West End.
The Past is Best Left There
There was a scene in the documentary where Vonnegut said he couldn’t bring himself to look at photo albums because he would be overcome with a profound sadness. All he saw what what he had lost, whether it be his mother, his sister, his brother, his marriage, or merely a happier or simpler time. (I’m paraphrasing.)
This reminded me of two things I say as well, as I rarely look at old photos or return to a past relationship: “The past is best left there” and “It’s all smoke, dispersed in the winds of time.”
This by no means suggests you should bury past trauma and not work through those things. It’s absolutely essential to face that pain. It’s about radically accepting those things happened, those relationships are lost, those people are dead. It’s about grounding yourself in the present, facing the grief, processing the pain/trauma, and making a plan to step forward.
As I sign off for today, I’d like to challenge you to try another of Vonnegut’s quotes:
“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”A Man Without a Country. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. 2005.
May you find peace.