Intrusive Thoughts

Part of the experience of trauma is that it’s difficult or nearly impossible to regulate intrusive thoughts. I never knew this was a phenomenon until I grew older and sought professional help. It explains why my whole life I’d heard criticism that no one was really voicing.

One example right now is how I’m paranoid about privacy. Part of that comes from growing up in church where adults scared me into behaving because Jesus was always watching. Nowadays, our society hands over its privacy for free so that corporations can monetize it. Data is the new oil. Whether it’s a fitness tracker, social networking app, or a personal blog, we don’t seem to mind how we broadcast intimate details about our lives. We’ve taken on these risks for decades prior, but only recently have they been weaponized against us. Edward Snowden helped reveal to the world how governments are tracking citizens of their own country or those of others, and in a large sense, there was a collective shrug and dismissal. Yes, it’s a crisis, but a lot of people continued on their merry little way. And with the critical mass that social networking has reached, choosing to not participate isn’t enough. People will still take photos of you and post them online. We live in the Orwellian world of constant surveillance, but instead of having it forced upon us, we invited it into our homes.

One aspect of mass surveillance that I take issue with is when it’s used to oppress the already-marginalized. Activists for the queer community, women, and people of colour are closely monitored while white supremacists roam free. One aspect of personal security audits is to evaluate your risk profile. There are different security requirements for an average citizen and a politician. In general, I think I’m twice as cautious as I need to be due to my trauma. I put a lot of effort into never breaking any traffic laws while driving because I never want to encounter a police officer. I make several backups of my information, both locally and remotely, such that I don’t expose myself to the risk of data loss. Friends have poked fun at me for wearing my tin foil hat when it comes to privacy, but I also don’t think they understand at a deep level the degree of vulnerability I feel on a daily basis. Feeling even a little exposed is a frightening position for me. A quick fix is to stop blogging so openly about all the ways people can and have hurt me, but that’s not the life I want to live. I must write. I must express myself. There are numerous areas of risk where I feel exposed, and though privacy is just one of them, it’s an important one.

Counselling helped me to realize that even though I feel a certain way about my personal safety, grounding myself in objective facts and reality can keep my mind from running away with anxiety. Reminding myself of ways that I’m able to protect myself, as well as how I’ve done so in the past, is a great way to empower myself and to lower my fears. It’s important to distinguish the hand-waving and minimizing people often resort to in order to slap a band-aid on an emotional wound.

"I had a rough day at work."

"At least you have a job."

There’s a time and place for taking perspective, and that’s after the emotions have been acknowledged and normalized. However, not only do I have to give credibility to my intuition and emotions, but I also have set up guideposts for them with cold hard facts.

After acknowledging my childhood abuse, I was faced with a decision. Either I could live a quiet and restricted life, or I could blast through it and try to live life to the fullest. I chose the latter, and I paid dearly for it. It’s still a constant battle for me to feel comfortable in my own skin because of the physiological impacts of my trauma. I have the tendency to get so absorbed in video games to escape the uncomfortable feelings that it can hurt other areas of my body. Sitting on the couch with controller in hand, playing for hours at a time, it becomes very painful once I finish a gaming session. I played Starcraft II for the first time in a while, and I left after one mission because I was feeling super dizzy. Sometimes we need to talk about our problems, and other times we need to shut up about them. Due to how my brain works, it’s better for me to resort to escaping my problems since I’m a bit obsessive.

My coping mechanism can be both the solution and the problem. If I don’t sleep well, I’ll feel disconnected from my body all day. Then I’ll turn to obsessive behaviours in order to feel reconnected with myself. I’ll eat delicious junk food until my tummy hurts from stretching. I’ll drink the hyper sweet fizzy sugar beverages. Binge eating and video games tend to exacerbate my anxiety, which leads to worse sleep. Sleepiness and exhaustion enhance our cravings for fatty and sugary foods, and Coke is my productivity drink of choice when I didn’t sleep well. Then it ruins my sleep. Right now, the gym is my saving grace because of how effective it is at tearing my mind away from my intrusive thoughts. Failing that, sometimes I need to zone out using various news feeds, but it only works when I’m bothered by small to medium issues. Otherwise, I would have to read for so long that my eyes hurt, which simply shifts the problem and usually still leaves my brain hurting from the original issue. That’s why dancing is so important to me. It combines physical exercise, friends, delicious drinks, good tunes, and tons of fun. Dance therapy.

We can dance if we want to, we can leave your friends behind

Cause your friends don't dance and if they don't dance

Well they're no friends of mine.

  • The Safety Dance

There is a positive aspect to having obsessive thoughts. I’ve learned to use it to my advantage, especially in aspects of design. I’m able to look at a problem and walk around, asking a hundred questions in order to crack the puzzle. It’s helped me design electronics and 3D models, and it helps me to learn and improve my performance in various areas at work. On the same token, it can be a challenge to turn off the designer’s mindset. It’s super annoying to look at everything and wonder “how would someone use this if they were hearing-impaired or colourblind?” While it’s a useful and worthy perspective to take at times, constantly thinking can be really annoying. Brains are stupid. What good have they ever done on this earth?

I’m happy to be in this space. I know what I need, and now I simply need to follow through. I never used to be able to escape those nasty feelings, and they would pile up week after week. That’s probably why you’ve read so much on this blog about what’s bothering me. Every once in a while I try to write about what I’m grateful for or what’s going right for me, and it’s a practice I’m trying to do more regularly. Healthy minds already fixate more readily on negativity than on positive thoughts. You could receive 20 compliments and feedback on one “area of growth,” and you’ll forget all about the nice things people said and only remember the bad one. It requires more effort for me to appreciate the little bit of life I got left.

I’m going to part time hours at work. I’ve been working too hard both at my job and in my marriage, so I’m going to let Carrie carry me for a while. I’m burning out. I feel like my mind is sending commands to my body, and all my body responds with is a shrug.

Me: "Let’s go brush our teeth and sleep at a reasonable hour."

Also me: "Nah, let’s eat instant noodles and watch Futurama until we pass out on the couch instead."

Not everyone gets a life partner who’s willing to pick up the slack. Carrie is fortunate to have me, and I’m lucky to have her. That’s a pretty good thought to allow to intrude on my mind.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le