You are an insomniac who has gone to bed on an ordinary August night. -Carolyn Forché
November 29th was the 1-year anniversary of my blog. I was busy in the last year- I wrote, went to therapy, confronted my parents, changed jobs, volunteered, read, watched movies, and ended another debacle of a relationship. I have a 100+ page Word document to show for it, and a lot of changes in life and the way I think about it.
I enter year 2 with an official diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I'm seeing a psychologist and finally getting treatment for it. It is a relief to understand that the memories that seem to come from nowhere, and leave me trembling and disoriented, my heart pounding, gasping for breath and feeling like a helpless doll, are flashbacks. I am reliving it, sometimes 3-4 times a day. I never talked about it with anyone before because I thought it was just another part of my crazy life I could do nothing about, like the fear, anxiety, depression, and feeling of disconnection from my life.
Year 1 was about dealing with the people in my life. Now it's year 2 and its time to deal with me. I'm scared. Part of my PTSD treatment plan is to explore my flashbacks- what they are about, the feelings I have, why these experiences, and what are they trying to tell me. Last week I described one of flashbacks to my psychologist, having to do with my great-uncle who sexually abused me. I had told my psychologist that I felt disconnected from the feelings I had when I was a child, and she was asking me questions about how I felt and what I needed in that situation that I couldn't get. I was trying to connect with what I was feeling that triggered this memory to keep coming back.
As I talked, I felt very small; my voice was timid. She asked me if I was afraid, and I tried to tell her how I was so scared that I couldn't stay in my body, and I would feel myself floating up and behind myself so I couldn't feel the terror gripping my throat and pressing down on my chest. I started to cry. No, actually, I was sobbing. She was asking me questions, but I couldn't understand her. Then the colors in the room became very bright, and my body felt far away. "Are you in the flashback? Are you disassociating?" she asked. "Yes, yes" I said, feeling panicked and confused. "Do your breathing exercise,” she said.
I closed my eyes and tried to breath deeply, calmly, but I was crying and gasping for breath. My arms and legs were tingling, and felt heavy. My head felt somewhere else, like it had floated away from my body. After a few minutes, she asked if I was back. I lied and said yes because I didn't feel like I was capable of coming back, not in that room, not as long as I was still talking about it. I had mostly stopped crying, and that was about the best I could do. She told me over arousal caused the bright colors, and the over arousal was caused by anxiety. She reminded me of the 3 types of PTSD symptoms- intrusive thoughts about the trauma (flashbacks, for example), psychic numbing (dissociation), and anxiety. She also said that I withdraw into myself when I'm upset because I'm the only person I feel safe with.
It was freaky, trying to stay with a flashback like that. Usually when I have them, I go numb so quickly I don't feel much, and just cry a little. It seems clear that something my body is still experiencing is so threatening to my brain that I just shut down. I don't totally understand what triggers it, but it seems to be fear.
I'm afraid of reliving the isolation I felt as I child, with no adults who would care for me, listen to me, or protect me. Luckily, I have some friends who are there for me. With most people, though, I fear even more what they might do if I let them in. I was vulnerable with my family- I had no choice because I was too young not to rely on them. Just look how that turned out, and how betrayed I feel to this day. Boyfriends have called me emotionally distant, defensive, and guarded. I don't have a sense of security or comfort in most relationships.
My great-uncle treated me like his personal plaything, reveling in my protests and attempts to get away, and my dad kept me in constant terror of what he might do to me. He made me stand, facing him, without flinching, while he screamed in my face threats like that he would punch me so hard my head would go through the wall, he would beat me with 2 by 4's (he explained what those were when I was 7), and that he would kill me. I can't fully describe how savagely he beat me when I was 17, but I thought I might die. My mom never protected me, and was either unavailable or belittling. I was under constant attack, verbally, physically, or sexually, for the first 18 years of my life. Living on the streets didn't improve my sense of security either.
If I could work out the fears I have and get over the PTSD, it would be a huge breakthrough in my life. It feels like such a monumental challenge, though. Of course, I know that my family can’t hurt me like that anymore, but psychologically, I'm trying to protect myself, as if I am still a helpless kid who lives at the whim of other people. I have to fight my own defenses to realize things are different now, but I have a lot of history to overcome. It's daunting. I still believe I can do this, but it will take all of my emotional resources (whatever that means). It requires a huge commitment to this whole recovery process, but I'm not willing to turn back now. And so begins year 2.