All of us are in a different state of healing. We have all experienced trauma in some form or another. I can only speak to what I have experienced and what I am learning about how trauma affects me. I am not a medical professional and so I have a lot left to learn about PTSD. This is merely my very basic understanding.
The best explanation I have found that makes sense is if you look at a lion and gazelle in nature. The gazelle is grazing in the grass and catches a scent or hears the grass. It becomes alert, and looks around for the perceived danger. If the danger is verified it quickly springs away to safety and when safe again shakes off the excess energy, resetting the central nervous system (CNS). If danger is not detected and flight response is not necessary it does the CNS reset.
PTSD is a condition that for the most part is limited to humans. For various reasons we as a species shut down the CNS reset leaving our bodies unable to finish the trauma cycle. Whatever our experience is something is stopping us from completing what we need to release the trapped energy.
All of us have experienced the fight or flight to one degree or another. The adrenaline that makes our hearts race and our muscles tighten, ready for action. For some of us when we experience trauma, either by witnessing it, being victimized or both of these coinciding with a traumatic brain injury, the imprint of the chemicals that flood our body to prepare us for self preservation, the muscle memory and the chemical memory never leaves us. We flounder between a flat, numb affect and extreme reactions to everyday stimuli. The way it presents for each of us varies but the most notable is reliving our traumas over and over again. It is not just remembering what took place and being troubled. It is RELIVING every sensation. A war veteran may feel the splatter of his friend being shot. A victim of abuse may feel the pulsating fear and the perpetrator on them all over again.
Anything can be a trigger for us. It could be a certain body type we recognize, a smell, a taste or even just the timber of an almost familiar voice. Whatever the trauma was they are experiencing it over and over again. It’s not just images. Our bodies are continuously being flooded with those same hormones and chemicals as they did that first time. Imagine if you will a lifetime of gripping the release of a grenade. Someone else pulled the pin but you have to grip it and not let go for your entire life. Don’t release your grip or you’ll die. Your arm will weaken under the strain. You may try to adjust your grip but you can never just let go. This is called hypervigillance and it is exhausting. It wears on our loved ones and it wears on us.
Anger, depression, bitterness, feelings of inadequacy, pain, and so many more are all tag a longs. We are often labeled narcissistic because we are so obsessed with detecting danger to ourselves and our loved ones that it seems as if we lack empathy for others. This is actually the opposite of what we are. We can become so tuned in to others that the very littlest conflict in another’s life brings us back to what we have lived. Plus the physical effects of never being able to relax. Things like fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines and other phantom illnesses and pains are all very common. In a nutshell, our pain is real. Emotional and physical pain is a daily part of our lives.
Some people with PTSD are able to disassociate so well from their trauma that they are actually able to carry out a surface existence that to an on looker is perfectly normal. For awhile this may work for them. You can pretend to be ok but eventually and gradually the trauma demands being dealt with. When the result of trauma is PTSD the effects of reliving that trauma and constantly being immersed in the chemicals takes its toll on our ability to function.
After years of being told to “get over it”, being over medicated, misdiagnosed, labeled a victim, I am only now trying and succeeding in putting the shards of memories back together to make a whole window to look through. The goal is not to re traumatize but to understand who I am and maybe one day understand my own reactions to stimuli so I can correct my own thinking and one day have a more productive full life. I have to complete the CNS response to my experiences so they no longer have the punch of reliving them. The process requires strength and determination and there are many times I question my ability to do it. Every time, I start to think oh I got this, I’m fine, look at me I’m all better I get handed another grenade and some asshole pulls the pin.
I do not pretend to understand the events that make us who we are. I have spent years trying to answer the question why. No one can ever give a complete enough response that rings true to our brokenness. In searching for the answer I always found more pain and destruction.
My life has been an exercise in endurance and strength. It has been a repetitive example of what not to do. In the process I have managed to inflict as much pain as was inflicted and at times it all seemed too much to bear. I have had many moments of weakness and I am no longer trying to answer that bottomless chasm of a question. I am hoping that by writing my story I will be able to look at the events of my life without them triggering a fight or flight response.
One of the tools I use to complete the CNS response is guided imagery. With trauma after trauma and medication on top of medication the events of my life have been shattered into a million pieces and cast to the farthest recesses of my mind. During one of my meditative sessions I walked to the deepest depths of my heart. The landscape of my soul was one of a ravaged war torn civilization. As I walked through the deepest chamber, that was dark and cold, I see buildings in various stages of collapse, bodies cast limply from broken windows and fires burning from the ashes of some long hidden event. The fallen buildings represent the facade I had created to the world around me, the false persona of strength and confidence. The bodies crushed in the rubble and glass, represent the relationships my destruction had stomped across, the pain I left in the wake of my supposed self discovery. The fires were the actual traumatic events that weakened the buildings I had built. The bodies the buildings crushed are the relationships that have been destroyed. Each one of these fires needs to be looked at closely, each one needs to be familiar. I need to know what happened in my life. I need to smother each of the fires instead of feeding it with fear and self loathing. As I extinguish each of the fires with a blanket I can then clean out the rubble and limbs and create an environment where I can start to rebuild, with joy and happiness.
The other tool I use is a therapist who specializes in somatic experiencing. I have a tendency to get stuck in the narrative of my experiences and so my therapist helps me to focus on just the physical aspect of what I am experiencing and envision a different outcome so my body can complete the CNS reset. Somatic experiencing doesn’t change my history by magically making it not exist. It simply lets my system complete what it was unable to complete during the experience.
Looking back on all those grenades I was juggling I realize how unproductive it all is. Some of the grenades were duds. The pins were pulled and the threat was real enough but they just never went off. Then there were the ones I was convinced were real, they felt real enough but in the end, they turned out to be water balloons. I kick myself for all the missed water fights, all the laughter and fun I missed out on because I was locked in that grip just trying not to get blown up. Sometimes a water balloon is just a water balloon. Just as Don Quixote was tilting at windmills I was tilting at water balloons.