I'm Courageous For Escaping The FLEAs

Some months back, I decided that January was when I’d stop working so deeply on my emotional problems and return to work. It hasn’t worked out that way, simply put. Jobs are scarce, and I still feel dragged down by my problems. Overall, I had an overwhelming week. I accomplished a lot. I felt awful at the end of most days, but I also tried to feel good about what I was able to do. The two things I want to process in this post are FLEAs and courage. First, FLEAs is an acronym from r/raisedbynarcissists that stands for “frightening lasting effects of abuse.” Second, people keep telling me how courageous I was to take care of my deteriorating health, but I don’t feel like I am. I want to connect the dots and make sense of it because people say it to me a lot and I’m still not really getting it.

What are some FLEAs? Anxiety. Trauma and PTSD. Undesirable boundaries. Self-esteem, self-respect, self-image. Triggering. Trust issues. Trouble dealing with daily issues. Terror. Lots of T’s here. Feelings of intense fear and helplessness. The four main characteristic symptoms of PTSD are:

  1. Intrusion - re-experiencing past traumatic events in the present
  2. Avoidance - engaging in addictive and self-harm behaviours
  3. Persistent negative alterations in cognition and mood - blame of self; exaggerated negative expectations about oneself, others, and the world; persistent negative emotional state including fear, horror, anger, and shame.
  4. Hyper-arousal - physical and psychological arousal from persistent expectation of danger, including insomnia, hyper-vigilance, irritability, difficulty concentrating, fears, feelings of anxiety or panic

It’s only been two years of talk therapy, engaging directly with my childhood abuse. I started the week off with Sunday dinner, processing all the dumb shit my parents said to my in-laws during a recent visit. Josh is sad he lost a brother. I haven’t processed what that means yet. My dad still maintains his innocence, so he still feels he has nothing to apologize for. I have this vision of what I can accomplish in this world, but I can’t get to any of it until I can separate myself from the FLEAs.

Patience. I’m pushing myself really hard. There are really only four productive hours in an eight hour work day, but some days I work six or seven. When people deal with their abuse, it can take years and decades to recover. That is, instead of judging my recovery on what I’m accomplishing or not, it would be more helpful to consider where I would be if I didn’t work on my problems in the first place. I’m trying to engage with them directly now because I feel like I let them fester for so long. However, I might be better served by slowing down and pacing myself. Granted, once I unzipped my problems two years ago, I couldn’t control them for the longest time. Now that I’m somewhat back in the driver’s seat, it might help to leave some issues alone for a while. The gym is helping me to cope, but it’s also a ton of work waking up that early and putting in an honest workout and taking embarrassing pictures of my workout buddy. When you hear those guys straining really hard in the gym, one thing it can signify is that they’re trying to get real strong real fast. It’s fine if that’s your goal, I guess, but you risk hurting yourself if you’re not patient and if you don’t trust the process. Eat right, work out, and just keep at it long term. I pushed myself too hard last week in my squats. I thought to myself “This shouldn’t be too hard. I did this weight last week, so I should be able to go faster.” Nope. I got lazy with my technique, and I hurt my lower back. Go slow to go fast. If you rush, you risk hurting yourself and that recovery takes longer than if you had gone slow in the first place. And the gym is just one area where I’m pushing myself too hard. Being kind to myself means being patient with my ongoing recovery and return to work and cutting myself some slack.

Since I started working on and sharing about my childhood abuse, people have been calling me brave, but I haven’t really accepted or processed that attribute into my identity. I don’t feel brave. I’m presented with some big risks to my health and well-being, and then I deal with it before moving on. An old friend asked me not too long ago how I went about finding professional help. Before I graduated from school, I was burning out during one of my engineering co-op work terms, and I used the company’s employee and family assistance program, abbreviated EFAP or sometimes just EAP. Thus, that’s what I did again two years ago when my head felt like it was going to explode. In my mind, admitting I needed professional help was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. It meant accepting that I had some really big problems, bigger than for most people, and that I wasn’t capable enough to solve them on my own. Since then, every “major” thing I’ve done to help myself has paled in comparison. When I published the post “I was sexually abused as a child,” I didn’t feel as courageous as when I admitted to myself that I needed professional counselling. When I wrote “I quit my job” just a few months ago, one of my most popular posts, I didn’t feel as brave as when I broke down in tears, sobbing on the side of the highway when I realized that my childhood sexual abuse had followed me into adulthood. It makes sense that it’s brave because I’m taking a risk, giving up certain things like job security, people’s opinion of me, and so on, but emotionally, the harder thing was always admitting that I needed help. An unresolved problem from the past is an insecurity and sensitivity in the present. I’m starting to feel brave because of how hard the job hunt has been these past three weeks, but only a little brave. It feels almost as if I fell into the water out of my boat, and while I’m swimming to catch up and climb back in to keep from dying, people are applauding me for my bravery for not letting myself drown. Am I missing something?

Flappy Bird teaches us an important lesson about managing everyday stress. My counsellor taught me about the window of tolerance. Going outside of it causes your body to go into survival mode. When you go above it into hyper-arousal, you feel panic and anxiety. Go below, and you’re numb, disconnected, not rising to meet your challenges. You want to stay within your window of tolerance, where you retain control over your emotions, and it’s healthy to leave for short, manageable amounts of time. But long term, you also want to increase the size of your window of tolerance so you can handle more of life’s fun challenges.

One thing I learned from the book “Great By Choice” was productive paranoia. Luckily I have the paranoia down from the PTSD and hyper-vigilance, but making it productive is the key. It’s not helpful to process everything. I have to really focus on what will move me forward each day. It’s fun and easy to scroll through LinkedIn’s recommended connections list, but I’m not sure it actually adds any value to the job search. Sometimes I need to even stuff my emotions. (I know. Gasp.) Now that I’m more or less recovered enough to get back to work, I need do things that will keep my momentum up. Sleep is invaluable right now. Lots of these problems are solvable but just not in a few hours or a day. Sometimes it’s not even about moving forward necessarily, but moving sideways or backwards in order to move forward.

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Emotions in business. I have to limit myself to just one one-on-one per day. I had some extremely validating and rewarding conversations this week with some friends and old coworkers, but emotional work is so tiring. One understanding of professionalism is to be unemotional, but that’s not the full picture. Business is very emotional and personal but just not in the way we treat personal relationships. There’s certainly a different context and competing incentives, but once you play devil’s advocate, it doesn’t take long to see that emotions are everywhere in the workplace. Ask a manager who’s had to lay off staff in the last two years. Ask anyone who’s worked in teams if they had any annoying coworkers who didn’t consider the feelings of others. Didn’t the three Mighty Ducks movies teach everyone that personal skills are just as important as job performance? Empathy requires you to suffer or rejoice with somebody else, to match their feelings. It takes a person outside of their own little world where they’re the star of their own reality TV show into being merely an extra in someone else’s story. It requires the empathizer to sacrifice their own energy to ease someone’s pain or to delight in their good news. Empathy means moving from your own emotional state to meet the other person on their level. Having people validate my experience in the job hunt and my breakdown over the last two years is very satisfying, but it’s so draining.

When friends offer to help in any way, sometimes insisting and imposing, I reassure them that they’re already doing enough by just being a friend. If I need additional help, I’ll reach out once I’m ready because receiving help uses up a lot of energy. If I won the lottery, it would still provoke a lot of anxiety and stress because I wouldn’t know exactly how to handle that money. How much would I have to pay in taxes? What if I waste it all? How long would that money last? What about when “family” and “friends” come out of the woodwork to claim their share of the winnings? Who would my real friends turn out to be? What if my investments and bets turn out to be duds? How much could I reasonably put aside for our future kids? I don’t know how to make that money grow, so it would just sit in my chequing account until I figured out what to do with it. I’m smart with playing around with technology, but I’m not that clever with money and finances. In the same way, I have all these amazing friends that are willing to help me out, grab a coffee or beer with me, and talk about our problems, but I have to pace myself in order to not feel overwhelmed. It’s hard dealing with the new problems while I’m busy dealing with the old ones.

Then Jesus told them, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and don’t doubt, you can do things like this and much more. You can even say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. (Matthew 21:21)

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le