Sudden terror grips. My body goes stiff. A combination of tachycardia inducing adrenaline that shouts, “run!!!” and a counteracting numbing agent course in tandem through my body. Run. Freeze. Run. Freeze. A shift of consciousness sweeps over my mind. The ME I know and love, the ME that exists in present reality knowing she is both real and safe slowly fades to the sideline. She becomes a frozen and silent observer of a stranger’s thoughts. Real ME is aware of the switch, she is aware that the thoughts she is observing are coming from the dreaded stranger, the one who convinces her she is in grave danger, that the person she loves is a deadly threat, that she is not real, not in control, not sane, not safe. Real me tells my body to breathe. Whispers from the sideline that it’s all a lie and will pass. But it FEELS SO REAL. Nothing ME logically says or does convinces the stranger that they are mistaken. For now, at least, the stranger has his way at the circuit board of my mind and body. Whether a thought was the trigger, something someone said, a memory, a smell, a sensation, a person, a relationship dynamic — the result is the same. This can happen countless times in a single day. I feel like a captive in my own mind and body.
If just telling myself to not be afraid was enough, I would have been free years ago. If repeating positive affirmations or biblical verses about not possessing a spirit of fear were sufficient, if a parent’s love was enough, if an amazingly patient and supportive partner was enough … I wouldn’t be typing right now. When well-meaning, loving people in my life tell me that I just need to tell that part of me, “NO!” and refuse it anymore influence in my life, I agree. That bastard needs to go! But when minutes, hours, or days later a trigger startles the sleeping stranger awake once again, no amount of “NO!” will keep him from his course of madness.
I know that one moment you see the strong, joyful, full-of-life me that you love… then suddenly, a terrified stranger. You wonder how I can go from strength to weakness at the drop of a hat. I wonder the same thing. But I promise I’m always trying.
How badly I wish everyone knew that I would do ANYTHING to make this stop.
Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D., one of the foremost experts in trauma and PTSD research and treatment, and author of New York Times bestselling book The Body Keeps The Score, explains the experience well in his interview with David Bullard for psychotherapy.net.
“Trauma is much more than a story about the past that explains why people are frightened, angry or out of control. Trauma is re-experienced in the present, not as a story, but as profoundly disturbing physical sensations and emotions that may not be consciously associated with memories of past trauma. Terror, rage and helplessness are manifested as bodily reactions, like a pounding heart, nausea, gut-wrenching sensations and characteristic body movements that signify collapse, rigidity or rage.”
Personally, I experience all of these at varying times and in varying degrees. Because rage scares me, I experience it in my mind. It comes through the stranger’s thoughts. I will suddenly go from feeling emotions of love, peace, and balance to feelings of intense self-protection, suspicion, and hate towards perfect strangers and those I love. I will feel an intense impulse to verbally assault them and lash out in anger, convinced that they are an intolerable threat either physically, mentally, or emotionally. Instead, I label it as a PTSD thought and hold off on acting out on it. While this keeps me from needlessly harming others, it causes me an intense amount of mental fatigue, muscle fatigue and exhaustion in my body. This total collapse of mind and body only leaves me more open and susceptible to ongoing distorted cognitions. The cycle can appear endless and leave me feeling defeated.
Because my triggers often happen within the content of my most intimate and personal relationships (friends, family, children, partner), I also battle intense feelings of guilt…
“How could I feel this way about them?”
In the moment, my negative emotions feel just as genuine and real as my true feelings of love and thankfulness. I can go from thinking about just how wonderful they are and how much I love them to feeling completely numb and emotionless. No thoughts or feelings of love to be found. Eventually, the cycle becomes too much, I fall into a deep depression and shut the world out for awhile. This is just another reaction from a mind and body that believe they need to survive imminent danger.
Trauma not only turns you against the world, it turns you against yourself.
My afternoon has been spent in heart-wrenching prayer and physical rest. I have cried out not only for myself but for all those suffering from PTSD and other mental illnesses. I hurt for those who do not have the support of tireless loved ones as I do. Without them, my will to live through what some days feels like endless torment would have given way to an eternal escape. With them, I have a reason to … keep going…keep seeking help… keep learning new ways to think and cope…
keep believing that one day my journey through the darkness will lighten the load of other travelers along the way