The Ways We Grieve

Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash

Content Warning: Loss, death of a parent, death of a pet, infertility, chronic illness/disability

Grief isn’t always about death

Maybe you grieve the life you thought you’d have, or you grieve the loss of physical abilities due to an illness. You could grieve losing a great job, or a breakup with a friend or partner. And, of course, you can grieve death and loss.

I have lost (by choice and not) a lot in my life.

I no longer speak to my parents, after a traumatic, shame-ridden, emotionally abusive childhood and young adulthood. I grieve the relationships and unconditional love I deserved from them.

There’s this photo of me 
As a baby, maybe six months old 
My eyes are the most gorgeous hue of crystal clear ocean water speckled by the sun 
I’m holding a bottle 
I’m gazing off to the distance 
My father’s arm is in the foreground, but I’m not looking at him 
And my only reaction to this photo when I see it 
Is pain and crying
Because they do not love her
And there is no reason why
And she will think it is her fault for thirty years 
And there is nothing I could do for her then 
But I can hold her now
Rock her now 
Quiet her fears and make sure she’s warm now 
That girl is safe 
And I did something worthwhile with my life 
I saved a lost child 
From being lost forever

Caitlin Fisher

I grieved every month I looked at negative pregnancy tests piling up in the bathroom garbage can when I was married. I grieved the future I thought I’d have. Even though leaving was 100% the right thing for me to do and it would have been so much harder to leave the abuse if we’d had a child, I had to grieve that plan.

Realizing that I couldn’t bring a child 
Into a relationship with a man I had to take care of
Was a turning point for me 

Once I truly considered 
How much of myself would be gone 
For the sake of giving him a family 
I had to give the dream of you up 

The greatest thing I’ve done as your mother
Is to not create you 
Just because someone else wanted me to

You may never exist on this earth
But you saved me 
I grieve for what I never had 
But gave birth to myself 

Caitlin Fisher

I used to run half marathons and do intense workouts, and in my eating disorder recovery and fibromyalgia diagnosis I have had to rest my body. I grieve what I used to be able to do.

I lost my stepdad in March 2018, in the same week I left my abuser. I did not cry for him until Father’s Day, when I lit a candle and told him everything I had been through. The fact that I would never get to talk to him again shook me to my core. I grieve him. I grieve not being able to see him before he was dying, because my mother hid it from me and lied about him not wanting me to know.

Comes in waves 
Sometimes pulling you under
Sometimes mild enough to ride through 
Without too much undertow 

Hits you like a ton of bricks 
When you happen across 
A voicemail or a birthday card 
With a scrap of his love 

Is the cord pulling and pulling 
And the lawnmower won’t start 
And who can you call 
Because your dad is gone

Caitlin Fisher

And through all of this loss and all of these changes and more, the one companion by my side was always my beloved cat Zoe. I adopted her when I was 21.

Zoe, a siamese cat, rests her chin on Caitlin's hand. Zoe's blue eyes are half closed.

I started preparing for her death when she was about 13, because that’s old for a cat. But she was always in amazing health. The vet commented on her perfect blood work and how beautiful she was. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen came and went for her too, as playful as ever.

She was with me through two divorces, two MLM businesses, the cutting off of my parents, eight moves, the publication of my book, several breakups, several hookups, and a pandemic, among other things.

And I truly believe that she lived as long as she did to make sure that I was okay before she left.

She made sure I was safe. That I was happy. That I was ready to be okay without her.

And even though I had been “prepared” for her to die for years, and even moreso in the few months before she passed, I was not ready.

I cried every day for a week, and then each night at bedtime for another week.

I still grieve. I still miss her. I still expect her there, jumping up onto the couch before I’m even settled in with my coffee, climbing on top of me in bed before I’ve even pulled up the covers.

The only thing you can predict about grief is that no two days are the same and that it will lessen over time — but everyone’s timeline is different.

Grief is a boss fight

At first, grief is constant combat. You are outmatched. If we were playing D&D, grief is a boss fight and you are failing all your saving throws and getting hit every turn.

Over time, though, you start doing better in the fight. You start resisting the attacks and taking less damage when they do hit. You’re able to handle it without having to put all of your energy into it.

This doesn’t mean grief is gone forever. Sometimes grief will roll a 20 and knock you right back to like it was at first.

It’s okay. Let grief roll through and it will pass.

In those moments, do what you need to do. Take time off (if you can) and just lay in bed and feel the grief, the sadness, the anger, whatever feelings are there.

You are resilient and you will get through it. But fighting it off will only prolong it. You do have to open up and feel the feelings.

How to get through grief

Obviously, I deal with grief by writing. Anything with words is likely to help me process my emotions.

When I left my abusive ex husband in March 2018, I started writing poetry and now I have a solid two plus year document of poems, ranging from sad and grieving to angry to happy as I continued my healing process.

I also write essays and blogs about my healing process, and I talk to friends. I’ve been in and out of therapy to work through things as needed too.

There are so many ways to process grief.

Art. Writing. Therapy. Even medication for depression to get you through the hardest parts if it’s affecting your daily life long-term.

There is no one way to process your grief. It affects everyone differently.

But grief is trauma. Loss is trauma. And in recovery, it’s important to allow yourself time to rest and process what you’re going through.

You need time to heal, whether your healing takes the form of artistic expression, talking to a therapist, visiting someone or somewhere to get out of the house that’s too full of grief, or anything else.

But don’t leave it unhealed.

Grief can be part of your backstory, guiding you forward into a new chapter and inspiring changes. But if it becomes the all-encompassing feature of your life, you will miss out on the richness of everything else in your future.

Level Up

Though not specifically a grief healing tool, my Level Up course helps you put your life story on paper to become the hero of your story and make a plan to move forward through traumatic experiences. You can learn more about it on the Course page.

The Importance of Rest (and I Mean REAL Rest)

Image description: A person is laying asleep on their stomach in a bed with a fluffy white comforter. To the right of the bed is a potted ZZ Plant in a tall green metal bucket. Photo by Andisheh A on Unsplash

We are all rest deprived.

And I don’t just mean that our sleep schedules are messed up.

I mean we don’t turn off our brains, we don’t play, we don’t take down time the way our brains and bodies need us to. Even when we relax with a movie or TV show, we are also scrolling social media or texting on our phones.

We are constantly pressuring and judging our own productivity, believing the collective lie that we have to be productive at all times or we aren’t empowering our true fullest potential.

We are always plugged in. We check email before bed and when we wake up.

In a society where productivity is paramount, rest is radical.

You cannot rest when enemies are nearby

Commonly in Role Playing Games (RPGs), whether video games or tabletop, your character can’t go to sleep if there are enemies nearby.

You cannot adequately rest when you are in danger.

And, in 2021, your body’s danger signals look a lot more like chronic stress than facing a saber tooth tiger outside your cave or a fight you have to survive.

The body’s stress response is meant to protect us and get us through life or death situations.

When the stress cycle is triggered, the body releases adrenaline and cortisol to enact the fight or flight response (which is more like fight, flight, freeze, or fawn). Once the threat passes, our body should go back to normal.

However, we’re living lives that have constant sensory inputs that are pulling our attention in a thousand directions. Even a ringing phone or a text notification causes a sense of urgency that pulls our attention away. On top of stressful lives, long work hours, and a general sense of impending doom and hopelessness ever-present on Twitter, we’re always on the edge of having something be our last straw for the day, the week, the month.

Long-term effects of stress on the human body include migraines, mental health disorders, heart problems and higher cholesterol, trouble breathing, skin conditions, hair loss, gastrointestinal problems, decreased immune function and cognitive ability, and increased risk of other illness and issues like Type 2 diabetes or even fertility problems.

Stress is bad for us. For our mental and physical health. For our families. For our dreams. Stress is killing us.

From survival to recovery

For those of us who have been in traumatic situations (an abusive childhood or relationship, eating disorder, sexual assault, loss of a loved one, ANYTHING traumatic), recovery isn’t possible until we are out and away from the situation where we were harmed.

To start recovering from the damage my parents did in my childhood, I had to cut off contact with them. (Not saying you have to go no-contact, but you do need to establish and stick to boundaries to maintain a healthy space for yourself to heal).

To recover from my abusive marriage, I had to get out and put not only distance but time between me and that situation.

To recover from my eating disorder, I had to stop dieting and exercise cold turkey and learn my body’s hunger cues from scratch.

To recover from burnout from a job that was taking and taking, I had to quit and take a solid month off doing anything with my brain. I didn’t write for myself for roughly six months.

When we are in survival mode, all we can concentrate on is getting through the conflict. Even if we are sleeping, eating, and playing while in the “good times” of those situations, the fact that we’re simmering in trauma and abuse in between means that we’re not really resting and recovering.

Whether we consciously know it or not, we’re always on guard for the next attack.

In Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs, you have to rest after a fight, to regenerate your health and magic abilities.

It’s the same idea here, in real life, when the fight is your micromanaging boss or your controlling mom or Mitch McConnell’s Twitter feed.

In a state of constant, recurring trauma and stress, it’s nearly impossible to get the rest you need in order to recover your resources and level up. 

If you’ve left an abusive situation (whether by physically leaving or by placing boundaries that prevent the abusive person from contacting you), you won’t “get better” right away. It takes time to get to a point where your rest is truly restorative.

Tips to improve your sleep

Try these ideas to get better sleep and embrace a healthier relationship with rest and recovery.

  • Establish a bedtime routine with little-to-no screen time
  • We tend to sleep in 90-minute cycles, so aim for 7.5 or 9 hours of sleep (6 hours is the minimum and should not be routine)
  • Reduce afternoon caffeine consumption
  • Gentle stretching can help relax your body and put you in a restful headspace
  • Listening to a sleep meditation can help you relax by giving you something to focus on instead of your mind racing and filling in the void
  • Magnesium supplements can help you sleep better
  • Try a weighted blanket to reduce anxiety and lead to better sleep
  • Use supplemental melatonin sparingly, as your body can become dependent on it and stop making its own — if you use it, stop after a week or so and try letting your body readjust to making it
  • Keep a notebook by the bed so you can jot down any thoughts that are keeping you awake (my brain loves to have a bunch of new ideas at bedtime)
  • Try a range of white noise sounds
  • Allow yourself to have a weird sleep schedule (if your daily life allows) — sometimes waking up for a couple hours in the middle of the night is fine, if you’re able to take a nap later in the day
  • Schedule your rest and recreation time to avoid burnout
  • Address any body pain with your doctor (my fibro can give me restless, sore legs at night but medication makes this extremely rare now!)
  • Seriously try to avoid screens, the blue light messes with your natural sleep cycles
  • Set boundaries around when you are available via text and email, and set your phone to do-not-disturb during those times

Level up your rest

Now that you have tips and tricks to sleep better, let’s also dig into the reasons you don’t prioritize your rest. These reasons are probably locked away deep inside your mind, whispering lies that you’ve believed your entire life.

My messed up relationship with rest goes back to childhood. I didn’t learn that it was okay to be tired and listen to my body’s need for rest, because according to my mother, “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.”

She didn’t really do downtime. Life was a series of chores, homework, and staying after school to avoid going home.

So somewhere deep inside of me, I believed for a long time that rest was only something I deserved once I had accomplished every single thing that needed to be done.

I believed I had to earn rest.

This is not true. You deserve rest whenever you need or want it. You do not have to earn it, burn out to be worthy of it, or ask permission for it.

Now I take naps rather than push through a task that will suffer from my lack of focus. I reschedule chores and don’t overdo my to-do list.

Work gets done better when I’m well rested and prepared.

Journal prompts for rest and recovery

If any of this resonated with you, you’re probably also in a rest deficit. Try exploring your beliefs around rest with these journal prompts.

  • As a child, were you able to play and rest freely, or did you have to do chores or meet other expectations first?
  • What do you do for pure, playful fun?
  • Do you feel that you have to earn rest? What activities do you do that make you worthy of rest?
  • How much sleep do you get per night, and how protective are you of those hours?
  • Do you have a bedtime ritual to relax and prepare for bed?
  • How is the quality of your sleep, and how does your sleep affect your day?
  • What does lazy mean to you? Do your beliefs about laziness keep you from resting?

Level up your recovery

I go into more detail about how to recover from stress and level up your boundaries in my course. You can reserve a spot for the next Level Up Your Boundaries course and find out more in March! Check out the course page for more details about how you can become your own hero and level up your communication, boundaries, and recovery from stress.

The Benefits of Getting Angry: 5 Anger Languages and What They Mean For You

A single orange flame dances in the center of the photo with a black background. Photo by Paul Bulai on Unsplash

We typically view anger as a negative emotion that we want to get rid of as fast as possible. Anger can feel like losing control, or like we’re letting someone get the better of us and keep us in a negative emotion.

And those are real aspects of anger.

But anger can also be covering up feelings of fear, betrayal, pain, grief, and other complex emotions that we won’t fully process if we don’t let the anger pass through.

In my course, participants classify themselves as a character type common to games, like a Druid, Wizard, or — most applicable to this blog — Barbarian.

The Barbarian, in a gaming context, is a character with brute strength, a fierce fighter that can go into a rage mode and take down strong enemies.

The adaptation for my course is someone who fights back against an abusive person, and who may shut down and walk away from relationships at the first sign of conflict because at the first sign of anger, they feel out of control like they did in a past traumatic experience.

The Barbarian’s recovery into a more healed version of themself with healthier boundaries and communication will rely on processing of the trauma behind their rage and anger.

But anger only controls us and keeps us from healthier relationships when we don’t understand what it’s doing: trying to protect us.

What is your anger protecting you from?

Anger is like a protective fire around you. Guilt, shame, fear, grief — they all burn up before they can touch you and hurt you. That’s what your anger wants to do for you.

We tend to try to rush it, to get away from anger, because it’s uncomfortable to sit in a negative emotion. We want to be happy and cheerful and calm and totally okay. But sometimes we’re not okay!

Let yourself feel angry for a few moments. Feel where the anger settles in your body. Talk to it if you’re so inclined — “Hey anger, I know you’re pissed about the neighbor being super loud. It’s very annoying.”

By paying attention to your anger, you might notice patterns. If you get angry very easily, multiple times a day, that irritability might be a sign that your mental health is suffering from stress or anxiety.

You might also notice that the anger dissipates and has a deeper feeling underneath. This is the feeling that anger was trying to protect you from.

I feel angry at my abusive ex-husband. He messed with my head for years, controlled me, took credit for my achievements, and exhausted me with mental gymnastics that left me too burned out to realize what was even happening. I am ANGRY about it, and that anger is justified. A person deliberately harmed me for years of my life, and harassed me after I left the relationship.

But under the anger is a series of more complicated feelings.

Grief for the forever marriage I thought I had built. Grief for the baby I never had and never will. Grief for the mother-in-law I lost. Grief for the cats I left behind.

Betrayal and pain that someone who said he loved me was actually harming me and making me feel crazy when I tried to communicate. Confusion as I wonder if any of it was ever real. I feel used.

Disappointment in myself that I didn’t see it sooner. I have a lot of compassion for myself here. I couldn’t have seen it any sooner. He was textbook in his technique, and with a history of abuse I was a perfect target. I wish I could wrap my former self up in a huge hug and tell them that it’s not their fault. (I guess I can! Self, it is not your fault. I love you so much.)

Tired. I feel tired when I think of everything I went through in that marriage and to escape it. In the first year after I left, I talked about it a lot. In the second year, sometimes I’d start telling a story about something he did and I’d just stop, because I was tired of giving him the space in my mind. He made me tired, and I’m still tired, but I’m getting less tired.

All of these emotions and feelings are underneath the anger, once I let it burn bright for a moment and fall away.

What’s your anger language?

Just like love languages, attachment styles, and apology languages, the way people express their anger varies from person to person and can cause conflict when people’s expectations don’t line up.

The Slow Burn

A Slow Burn type takes a while to talk about their anger or process it. On the plus side, this means that when they do bring it up with the subject of their conflict, they can approach having sat with their feelings for a while. However, if they don’t actually do the work to process and work out their feelings, they might just sit on this anger forever and will eventually need to let it out. And that might not be pretty.

If you’re in a traumatic situation, you might not even realize you’re angry until time has passed and you are in a safer situation. I had one very calm breakup and was surprised to find my self absolutely pissed at that ex after I had been gone for about a year. It took me that long to feel safe enough to feel all the feelings.

The Short Fuse

The Short Fuse is someone who goes from stimulus to expression very quickly. On the plus side, this can mean that they don’t shy away from talking out a problem right away. But they may not have time to feel all their feelings and might get more angry if their partner isn’t ready to talk it out yet.

People tend to have a shorter fuse when they are under more stress in their overall life. Even if your main anger language is something else, sometimes we are all the Short Fuse.

The Flame Stoker

The Flame Stoker seems to embrace anger and conflict, firing off snappy comebacks and personal attacks to provoke the person they’re talking to. This anger style is usually symptomatic of a highly stressful and traumatic life.

A Flame Stoker likely grew up in a family in which anger was the most common emotion displayed, and they may have been bullied at school and home. To stay safe, they had to be ready to be on the defensive at a moment’s notice.

Without a model of healthy anger management, they are still stuck in old patterns. The Flame Stoker would benefit from therapy to process the ingrained trauma patterns and anger outbursts so they can achieve healthier communication when they feel threatened or angry.

The Candle Snuffer

The Candle Snuffer tries to blow out their anger as soon as they feel it, leaving a residual smoke puff of unprocessed emotions. This type of person doesn’t want to feel anger because it’s uncomfortable, so they try to suppress and ignore it.

They may have had to walk on eggshells in a traumatic home or relationship due to a parent or partner’s explosive outbursts, so they never were able to express themself without a healthy model.

The Candle Snuffer is the sibling to the Flame Stoker, both raised in unhealthy dynamics without an example of how to be angry in a healthy way.

The Hearth

The Hearth had a healthy, securely attached childhood — or has been through a ton of therapy and processing work to get here. The Hearth lets anger gently burn and allows it to illuminate the conflict and other feelings underneath. The Hearth treats anger as a functional emotion rather than anything to be controlled or tamed.

Note: If you act in aggression (hitting or yelling at a person, animal, or object, throwing and breaking things, etc), consider seeing a therapist about anger management ASAP, because physical or verbal aggression is abusive.

Journal prompts to process anger

Because anger can be tough to sit in and feel all our feelings about, journaling can be a helpful way to process the anger itself and the feelings underneath. Try these journal prompts to dig into something you feel angry about.

  1. What is my anger language? What are examples of the ways I have handled my anger in this way before? Do I use my anger language in a healthy way or an unhealthy way?
  2. What is my anger about this situation protecting me from? What’s underneath?
  3. Where does my anger sit in my body? Does it have a color or temperature? Does contextualizing it this way make those feelings change?
  4. What were my parents anger languages? How did we handle anger as a family?
  5. What have my romantic partners’ anger languages been, and did I have healthier relationships with certain types of anger language partners?
  6. Have I felt this particular kind of anger before, in my past? Think back to other times in your life you felt like this. Is there a repeating pattern in my life?

Level Up Your Boundaries

Curious about what type of character you might be? You can reserve a spot for the next Level Up Your Boundaries course and find out in March! Check out the course page for more details about how you can become your own hero and level up the way you handle your anger, boundaries, and overall communication.

Avoiding the Side Quest: Turn Your Goals into a Quest for Success

Photo by Ricardo Cruz on Unsplash

Any gamer knows the siren song of the side quest. No matter what your noble goal is, the game designers have also placed several side stories to entertain and delight you along the way. Which is how you can end up well off the beaten path accidentally saving a village so that you can build a house to adopt an orphan to keep your dog safe while you’re out fighting dragons.

It’s also the reason that when you cleaned your room as a kid you ended up alphabetizing your CDs and going through the backs of drawers that haven’t seen the light of day since fourth grade — rather than actually tidying up your living space. It’s the reason you end up down a well of amazing ideas and can never stick with one to the finish.

We get distracted by side quests in our daily lives.

Sometimes it’s positive and productive. To avoid writing, I’ll do the laundry, run a load of dishes in the dishwasher, make a grocery list, make a plan for what I’ll write about and a list of great ideas for 2020, and even lint roll the couch where my cat has left a lasting impression.

Other times it’s just more fun to have a shiny new idea. It’s definitely better than the idea you were presently working on, right? You should do this instead!

Stop. Stop right there.

Don’t talk to that whimsical looking wizard in the tavern, do not go press X to see what’s behind the waterfall, do not pass GO, do not collect $200, and do not let your next shiny idea drag you away from your work.

How to stay focused

When you’re setting goals (and I truly love to set goals), pick one.

One goal.

Not ten goals. Not three goals. One goal.

And then make a 30 or 90 day plan to achieve the hell out of that goal. Break it down.

For example, my goal is to launch the new and improved Level Up course on February 1, 2021. My overall annual goal is to run this course 2–4 times during the year, so my 90 day goal is to launch it and run it within the first 90 days of the new year so that I can adjust as needed to improve future versions.

But developing and writing it, making downloadable guides or even printed workbooks for participants, recording video lessons, planning it, launching it, promoting it, and getting people to sign up — holy moly, that’s a lot of work.

It would be easy to just say it’s too hard and I don’t know how.

It would be easy to give up before I even try.

But the key to achieving your one goal is to make it your main quest. When you play a video game, each level or phase has its own milestones, challenges, secrets, and tools. The more you explore along your main quest, the more of your map you can see and access. The clearer the big picture gets.

Each phase of your goal will highlight new areas of your map too. You just have to do a little bit of pre-planning to make a basic outline. It won’t be all visible at the beginning, but you will know which direction you’re going. The more you follow your quest, the more of your map will become clear.

Your 90 day quest

How do you get started breaking your goal down into an achievable 90 day quest?

Identify all the pieces you need to figure out to make your goal work.

How long will my course run? Five weeks? More, less? Do I have enough content for that? What do I need to make sure I cover to bring value to all of my course participants? Am I going to make a downloadable workbook or print one? Where can I self-publish a workbook? How soon should I start promoting the course to open enrollment? Where and how should I promote to get my offer in front of people who will connect with my material?

So on and so forth. Write down all the questions that need to be answered. Write down all the tasks that need completed, no matter how small.

Then make a week by week plan. Take the big 90 day map and turn it into weekly progress on your quest.

Then make a plan to do one tiny little baby step every day. My tiny baby step is writing for ten minutes per day. If I do nothing else, I write for ten minutes a day right now. On a week when my map tells me I need to promote the course on social media, I can spend my ten minutes writing up some tweets and Facebook posts to tell people that enrollment is open. I can spend ten minutes recording a video talking about the course to get people excited and give a sneak peek of the content. I can spend ten minutes organizing the workbook material into a Google drive for easy access.

Break it down into little bite size pieces that are so simple, it doesn’t even take much thought to complete the task at hand.

You’ll usually find that you can go well beyond your five or ten minute task. You don’t have to, but if you’re really into things, work as long as you want to! Stop when you hit a natural save point for yourself that feels good.

Celebrate progress

Every time you achieve your baby step, finish a week in your road map, or hit a milestone in your quest, celebrate!

You just leveled up and achieved something. A new area of your map is available for you to go adventuring. It doesn’t mean you can’t come back later and finish something to 100%, but right now the key is to stay focused on the main quest without getting distracted by another shiny object.

Work with me one on one

If this kind of accountability and goal-setting feels good to you, you might like working with me for personal coaching. My one-on-one clients enjoy a weekly phone or video call to stay focused on their 90-day quest to success — whether it’s launching a course, sticking to a writing goal, opening a new business, or anything in between.

Start your adventure with a free 30-minute consultation to see if coaching can help you reach your goals! Check my calendar and book a time here.

Surviving Trauma is Like Playing Dungeons and Dragons

Photo by Alex Chambers on Unsplash

In my ongoing quest to help people understand mental health struggles and triggers, I came up with this idea based on role playing games for people who easily understand the concepts of stats, critical hits and failures, hit points, levels, and character weaknesses. Even if you’re not a tabletop role playing gamer, this idea applies to basically anyone who has ever watched Pokemon cartoons or played any video game. I’ll mostly be discussing emotional abuse by a parent, but these ideas can apply to many types of emotional manipulation in a variety of relationships and throughout a person’s lifetime.

Stats and Classes

At the onset of most role playing games (RPG) like D&D, you’ll determine your character’s attributes, which usually go something like this:

  • Strength — Raw physical strength
  • Dexterity — Agility and grace
  • Constitution — Health and hardiness
  • Intelligence — IQ/raw intelligence and education
  • Wisdom — Common sense and spirituality
  • Charisma — Strength of personality and leadership abilities

Have you ever noticed that people tend to praise children with traumatic pasts for being wise beyond their years, great in school, or particularly mature? These kids have usually leaned into wisdom and charisma as coping mechanisms, often relying on their raw intelligence to garner praise and attention at school while they lack support at home. It’s possible that abused children put on a charismatic face at school or in public to keep the secret of abuse.

It’s pretty easy to make the leap into assessing your childhood self in similar terms. Your childhood intelligence and wisdom focused on seeing trends and patterns in your abuser’s behavior and avoid incidents, while your childhood charisma may have taken the brunt of the attacks, wearing your personality and confidence down over time. Compare these attributes to your adult self now and see the ways in which you’ve embraced your creative passions and overcome the damage to your mental and spiritual wellness. Or perhaps your mother harshly judged your body image as a child and now as an adult you focus a lot of time on your health and fitness, by prioritizing strength or dexterity as your primary attribute.

Another D&D parallel of note is that sometimes your character is at an advantage or disadvantage. Separate from skill and attribute, these characteristics are situational. For instance, if your character is knocked on the ground, you’re at a disadvantage for attacking and your enemy has an advantage over you. From an emotional trauma standpoint, disadvantages are common in childhood, especially if your abuser is a parent. But as you learn to put up boundaries, have the ability to leave the situation if your abuser is trying to manipulate you, or simply learn to ignore their attempts to provoke you, you take the advantage for yourself and you’re able to disarm them and keep them at a disadvantage.

One technique that can help you maintain an advantage over a manipulative or abusive person is the “Gray Rock” method. Simply put, you just act like a boring rock all the time. If they say you’ve gained some weight (trying to upset you and critique your body image), just say “Yes, I have.” Aw shucks, you didn’t take the bait. If your partner tries to derail a conversation by saying “Maybe we’re not meant to be together” (attempting to create an emotional tangent and avoid the issue at hand, which is not remotely a breakup level concern), say “Maybe we aren’t.” Your partner will likely admit they don’t actually want to break up, and you can get back to the conversation you need to have without derailing to avoid the discussion.

Your “class” in game terms is the type of character you play, which could be a fighter, a wizard, or lots of other options. These vary game by game, but they boil down to three main types: Tanks, Healers, and DPS. A tank or “heavy” is the character with high strength and a lot of hit points who will stand in the front line and draw fire from enemies. The tank is frequently accompanied by a healer, who helps the tank to stay alive while under attack. A “DPS” character does the most Damage Per Second and is often a smaller, more agile character that can get close to enemies for high damage attacks, or perhaps an archer who can attack from afar.

Before I get too into the metaphor here and start rolling dice, my point about class is that when there are multiple children or people in a traumatic or abusive household, they’ll often fall into different class archetypes. An older sibling may stand up to a parent to protect a younger sibling (serving as a tank), while another may take on a comforting or nurturing role after an angry tirade (serving as a healer). As children grow up and leave traumatic homes, they may still fall into these roles and swap as needed, one helping to heal and support the one currently taking fire from the abuser.

Strengths and Weaknesses

When you’ve been abused, especially emotionally or mentally abused, you’re going to come out of that experience with inherent strengths and weaknesses. Maybe you’re great at adapting to new situations and you have an extremely resilient personality. Maybe you’ve developed a charismatic persona that helps you make friends and give presentations at work. Maybe you have good instincts to realize when a situation isn’t safe.

Allowing children to scrape a knee or take a small tumble has been shown to improve their coping skills and self-sufficiency, and children who grow up in an abusive home tend to show similar advantages later in life when it comes to resilience. All this to say, childhood trauma doesn’t define you, and you are stronger than you realize. You are a survivor.

On the flip side, abuse will almost always ingrain some triggering memories in its survivors. These are the weaknesses on your character sheet, the things that may knock a few extra hit points off when your peers can deflect the attacks. If you saw the 2017 movie Jumanji, you may recall that each character has weaknesses and strengths, one of which is mosquitoes. Just one bite from a mosquito is enough to end this particular character’s current life, though it wouldn’t affect the other characters at all. This is how triggers can work; each person who has experienced trauma (whether a combat veteran, cancer survivor, house fire survivor, childhood abuse survivor, etc.) will react to their own weaknesses or triggers.

My personal triggers and weaknesses include heavy sighing, loud sounds or voices, and the words “ruin” or “worthless.” In my case, I grew up with an emotionally abusive mother who prioritized a clean home over all else, and if my sister and I hadn’t cleaned to her standards, it wasn’t rare to hear our mother stomping through the house while sighing and muttering about those worthless, good-for-nothing kids of hers. If she was doing household chores, we had better damn well have been doing something too. Loud clattering of dishes and doors while she did what we should have done echoed through whatever house or apartment we were living in at the time. And God forbid you wake her up by being loud (even if it’s the dishwasher running as you get a head start on tomorrow’s good deeds).

I’ve seen other mental health advocates discuss their triggers being bleach, broth, and gelatin desserts (this person spent months in the hospital, smelling disinfectant and bleach while being fed a diet of broth and gelatin). A friend dyes her hair bright, vibrant colors so she doesn’t see her mother in the mirror. After my ex-husband lost his father, he stopped watching TV shows that had a parent dying as a plot point (Ok, it was This Is Us, and I do not blame him).

Leveling Up & Countering Attacks

In any video game, role playing game, or Hero’s Journey story arc, you have conflicts and boss fights. In the Star Wars saga, you’d have a pretty boring plot if you meet Luke, see Luke and Darth Vader have a fight, and Vader instantly kills Luke because he’s so far ahead of Luke’s training and abilities. You need the character development, you need to see Luke “leveling up.” In Spyro the Dragon, you fight each level’s boss before eventually getting to the final world and defeating the major villain of the whole game. (I’m a 90s kid and I’m going to need you to deal with that).

Overcoming abuse is similar. If you’re a child with a narcissistic or otherwise abusive parent, you’re a level one or two human, just learning basic skills and coping mechanisms. You don’t know any attacks or defensive moves, you’re just figuring things out as you go. Your abuser is a level twenty boss with finely tuned attacks and powers of manipulation, which seem like magic when you’re that young. Each guilt trip, manipulation, and disproportionately harsh disciplinary interaction leaves you feeling like you messed up and deserved it. This is trickery and mystique from a high level magic user — and no one expects you to be able to deflect those spells when you’re just a kid.

But just you wait, because the older you get and the more you start to extricate yourself from this Confundus charm (Harry Potter, for those following along at home), the more you start to level up — exponentially. And the amazing news is that your abuser is probably stuck at their level for the rest of their life, because they’ve got decades of that being enough and they aren’t exactly motivated to pursue emotional or personal growth.

Every book you read about toxic parents and abusive relationships is a level up. Every time you calmly end a conversation with a manipulator without giving in to the drama they’re trying to inspire, you level up. Every time you seek support for yourself, with medication, or a therapist, or a support group, you level up. Eventually you’ll be leaps and bounds ahead of your abuser’s level and they’ll be effectively powerless against you.

This doesn’t mean you’ll never have a relapse or backslide into old habits. You spent years in a survival mode that worked for you and defended your deepest identity against this person, and there’s bound to be a flaw in your armor somewhere. You still have those weaknesses on your character sheet, but the more you level up and continue to improve yourself with training and experience, the less those weaknesses will affect you.

Each attempt of your abuser to get under your armor and take away your health points is a roll of the dice. Your attacker may have a flimsy attempt to poke a sore spot, but they’ve only rolled a 4, and you remain impervious to the attack. But every once in a while they’ll roll a 20 and you’ll get smacked with a critical hit. The higher your level and the more you work on yourself and your coping strategies, the less damage these attacks will do. And remember — you are not broken or damaged, you are surviving.

Building Skills

Another important part of any character creation or video game adventure is the development of skills. Often your character will develop skills as the game goes on, like in The Sims, spending time reading, exercising, or doing other tasks will fill up skill bars and help you become an expert in different topics. D&D character creation includes skills like Arcana (Magic), Deception, Insight, Intimidation, Investigation, Perception, Performance, Persuasion, Stealth, and Survival.

It’s an easy jump to see how honing a few of these skills can help you to overcome and exit an abusive situation. The first step in escaping abuse is to understand that the situation is actually abusive. It’s tough when you’re a child, because you basically assume this is how every family works. As you grow older and learn that this is actually not the case (maybe you talked to someone who experienced a similar childhood, maybe you talked to a therapist, maybe you read a book), your Perception and Insight skills develop and you’re able to spot manipulations from a mile away and better defend yourself. And remember, as you level up, your abuser’s Intimidation and Performance skills won’t work as well on you anymore.

Whether you’re a seasoned gamer or someone who has never played a video game in your life, I hope these parallels have helped you to understand that healing from abuse and trauma is possible as you develop skills and coping strategies. Trauma is certainly not a game, but games and media can help us process and understand our experiences in new ways that bring us closer to healing.

This post was originally published on Medium

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