Friday, October 23, 2015

Emotional Flashbacks and C-PTSD

Call them "triggers".

Call them flashbacks.

Sometimes they surface as painful but distinct memories. More often they manifest as a sudden hazy but overwhelming feeling... of doom? Of danger? Of despair? A feeling of something being wrong. A disturbance in the Force, perhaps?

Feelings of panic. Why is my heart racing? Now I'm sweating. I must be having a heart attack. Or a stroke. But I'm driving! Will I cause an accident? I feel like I can't breathe. Is my face red? My chest is so tight. Maybe I should pull over. Is my throat swelling?!

Pain. My muscles are tightening against my will. My joints hurt. I woke with an awful headache. My temples are throbbing. My ears are pounding/ringing. My jaw is clenched. My neck is stiff. Chest pain!

Confusion. Spacing out. Mental fog. Dizziness.
Those words won't stay still. Is this grocery aisle spinning?
Those lights are so bright, I can't see.
Have the lights always been so dim in here? I can't see.

What did he just say? I'm trying to concentrate but I can't think. 
That word--I can't remember that word! But I know that word! It has three syllables; it starts with "c"! What's wrong with me? Maybe I'm losing my mind. Something is seriously wrong!!

Desperation for an escape route.
I need to get out of this room, this seat, this car. 
I can't go in there. 
This place is too crowded.
This place is too open.
I'm getting off the highway at the next exit.
I can't stay here. I need to find people. 
I need to be alone. 
I need a drink. 
I need to sleep. 

Sudden anger. Inflexibility. Inability to cope on the spot.
Why would you do that?! I can't believe you would treat me like that!

Hyperarousal. Exaggerated startle response. Jumpiness. Oversensitivity to unexpected sounds or touch. Difficulty calming down. 

Many of us lived with these symptoms for years before discovering what they were. And even a diagnosis of anxiety or post-traumatic stress is only the beginning of learning to manage daily life. Like many other abuse survivors, I've spent years learning to cope with triggers and deal with panic attacks.

One therapist explains it this way:
"A trigger is an external or internal stimulus that activates us into an emotional flashback. This often occurs on a subliminal level outside the boundaries of normal consciousness, and is why recognizing flashbacks is both difficult but crucially important. External triggers are people, places, things, events, facial expressions, styles of communication, etc., that remind us of our original abuse or abandonment in a way that launches us into reliving the painful feelings of those times... When trauma has been severe or we are in an especially depleted state, resemblances can even be scant – perhaps all unknown men or authority figures trigger fear, or anyone noticing or looking at us triggers toxic shame."
--Pete Walker  (FAQ about Complex PTSD)

I still get triggered. Much less frequently now, but flashbacks are not really avoidable. My house is replete with triggers, after all. My fellow survivors know how external triggers can lurk in the most innocuous of places: a playlist, a fragrance, a bookstore, a menu, a wallpaper print, the fit of a sweater. And internal flashbacks, like shades of grief, can seemingly arise out of nowhere, interrupting even the happiest of times.

What has changed about my triggers is how I quickly I can recognize them. After decades of blowing off my emotions, I am learning to pay closer attention to my feelings and emotional shifts. Instead of my body having to go into full panic mode to get my attention, I can often sense subtle changes and respond before my nervous system maxes out.

This week, I was having a great time ice skating on my birthday. Feeling the cold air rushing against my cheeks, the blades beneath me gliding evenly against the ice. Moving my body to the rhythm of the music. Enjoying being myself while sharing an experience with my family. And then, out of nowhere, a snapshot from long ago showed up in my mind. I suddenly felt... sad. Overwhelmingly sad. So sad that tears began to spill out. And I let them come.

Once I accepted that I was sad, it was easy to understand why. I sat down for a minute to sniffle, get a hug, regain my equilibrium, and wipe my face. But after a few minutes of teary release, I was fine again.

Sometimes a flashback happens as I stand at my kitchen sink. Today one visited as I stepped out of my daughter's school conference. I felt a sudden sense of gloom, as if I'd stepped under a cloud. Deep inside, my heart ached. But somehow recognizing and labeling the feeling was enough to keep it from getting worse.

When I got home a few minutes later, I knew I was merely experiencing a flashback. Even though there was nothing upsetting about the conference itself, it's no secret that for many of us homeschool survivors, the education system is fraught with triggers! My inner child needed to be heard and reminded that she is safe.

Fortunately for me, Chris came upstairs at that moment and wrapped me in a soothing hug. I cried for a few moments and the cloud moved on. (If he hadn't been there, I could have gone to my next door neighbor for a hug, or done yoga poses, or colored, or written in my journal until the flashback passed.)

Afterward, I took time to celebrate my small victory. Gazing at the autumn leaves, chrysanthemums, and the last roses of the season from my back patio, I sipped a glass of wine and meditated once more on where I am and who I want to be.

Over the last few years I have practiced being honest, and loud, and brave. I've gained experience in standing up for myself and standing up for others against bullies who want to mistreat them, shame them, or take away their rights. I've practiced being my own parent. Self-protection and self-compassion were both new to me!

I'd like to spend the next year learning to self-soothe, strengthening my ability to be patient, and gentle.
Patient with myself as I take charge of my own well-being. Patient in relationships.
Gentle with my body, and more sensitive to my heart.
Gentle with others who are quietly but doggedly fighting their own hidden battles.

When I was a teen, and sheepishly even after I swore off all other Christian rock music, I loved the song "The Warrior is a Child" (Twila Paris), about looking stronger than one feels. Well, I finally found a secular replacement for that song in Madonna's "Joan of Arc". It has been a favorite this year:
"I don't want to talk about it right now
Just hold me while I cry my eyes out
I'm not Joan of Arc, not yet
But I'm in the dark, yeah
I can't be a superhero right now
Even hearts made out of steel can break down
I'm not Joan of Arc, not yet..."
Sometimes flashbacks turn us inward because we don't know who else is "safe". But this year more than ever, I've found that the more vulnerable I am with other people, the safer I feel. More often than not, the person I risk trusting also reveals a glimpse of their own secret wounds and insecurities.

This life thing is painful and none of us make it through without at least a few scars. Whatever our inner struggles, we are not really that different, even though our anxieties may make us feel that way!

We may not feel like superheroes most of the time, friends, but we are strong and getting stronger! And we're not alone. In the words of Sue Monk Kidd, "When we set out on a [survivor's] journey, we are often swimming a high and unruly sea, and we seem to know that the important thing is to swim together--to send out our vibrations, our stories, so that no one gets lost."

Courage is like a sourdough starter; the more you feed and share it, the more there is for everyone. When you, my friends and readers, let me know how you are learning to thrive despite your pain and even using it as a fuel to generate good and beautiful things, you inspire me to keep moving, too. Let's keep cheering each other on and signaling to each other from whatever point we've reached!



1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post. It makes me see some of my own struggles differently. Be well!