Something I heard earlier this week reminded me of this. I have had people tell me that “worry doesn’t help” or that bad things are statistically unlikely. I know that because I’m not an idiot. I have chronic PTSD which means the bad things already happened and I’m living with the fallout. Luckily I have an awesome assistance dog who never says anything unhelpful and can give me the physical reassurance I need without causing yet more flashbacks or stress responses.
I guess I sound a bit tetchy today so please don’t think I’m having a go at anyone. It is incredibly frustrating trying to live with a booby-trapped brain, that’s all..
Sometimes I feel like a marionette on a stage. When I am alone, I am silent and when no one is noticing me I am equally quiet. Then comes the focus of someone’s attention and I must perform, just like the puppet when the audience are waiting and the curtain is lifted. I can be chatty and seem confident. I perform until their gaze has moved on and I subside into silence once more, my public face no longer needed. Please understand, that public persona is not false, it is one part of my whole. I am open and truthful whilst being “on” though it is incredibly tiring after a while. You see from my earliest memories I was trained to see my self-worth as being dependent upon my ability to perform to others’ expectations. My own thoughts and feelings were not relevant, were selfish, it was what others could gain from me that mattered. In that respect, as an adult I am known for being a considerate and caring person who is always willing to help others. I do this because it makes me happy to do so, but it is also the happiness of a slave that has never known any other choice.
Currently I am struggling in therapy to find a way to value myself as I do others. I do not know why it is so hard for me to make the leap that jut as others have an inherent value as human beings, then so must I. But in its place is a void, and I can only find my value by my usefulness to others. I guess I should be grateful. At least this mental screw-up is socially beneficial. I think it would be nice to be able to fill that void a little some day though..
I’ve now seen this in three unrelated places today, so I just wanted to say… For me personally, I do not like or use the term “trigger warning” or turn it into a verb “that’s triggering me” either. I find it unhelpful, not useful, and sometimes positively counter-productive.
Actually by alerting me that I might have a negative reaction, it is more likely to cause one. A bit like giving a child a new food and saying “but you might not like this”. It says that you are treating me as if I am still a helpless victim of things I cannot control rather than allowing me to make up my own mind about how I will react. I would rather be treated like an an adult than like a child. And even then, with children I give straightforward factual information and let them decide for themselves – or I decide and don’t expose them to the item in the first place. I don’t put on a horror film and say to Rhiannon – “this might be scary”. I just don’t put on something in front of her that I decide is unsuitable. She is a child and I have parental responsibility. If an adult friend comes round I might say “this film is a horror film, do you want to watch it or not”. To tell them that they might find it scary and then put it on would seem not to be treating them as an adult in my eyes.
This is most emphatically *not* to say that we should not signal upcoming content, that’s a factual statement that gives me a choice as to whether I wish to engage with something, just like the age rating or genre tag on a film. (“the following article is about child abuse, followed by a gap – just like the common practice for spoilers”)
It is the whole concept of “triggering” that I find disempowering and all too often used either as a form of narcissistic manipulation or an attempt to censor someone. Look at the recent court case where a famous pianist’s ex-wife tried to prevent the publishing of a memoir that included information about his abuse as a child, supposedly because his son could read it and get hurt by it. Or people telling others what label they can/can’t use for themselves because it is “triggering” for others… Like many many people I know with PTSD, it is simply not possible to avoid all potential “triggers” as the reaction is coming from inside our own brains.
I know that this is a personal reaction. I know that many people like to use this term. I felt it important to explain *why* I really dislike it and will not use it. This is not me having a go at anyone who chooses to use it, or indeed people who ask others to use it. I do use factual information such as tv programme synopses or book blurbs to avoid material that I do not feel able to cope with, or that I know I will find upsetting at that time. Like I said, it is the concept of “trigger warnings” as opposed to a factual flagging of upcoming content that I don’t like. This is simply how I feel about it, and as it’s my blog page I’m writing this on, I am free to express those feelings.
Or you could just shrug your shoulders and say that the phrase “trigger warning” obviously acts as a trigger for me… ha ha ha!
I have made a fair number of impressively sized life changes over the years ranging from country of residence to career path. Since my teens I have almost always adopted the “ninja life changes” theory of how best to go about the process: sneaky, silent and not telling anyone until it is a done deal. I have wanted to avoid other people’s disagreement with my choices affecting my actions. I have wanted to avoid being a person who talks about doing things instead of being a person who actually does things. This way of making and creating big life changes has worked well for me for over 25 years, so why am I now debating trying a different method?
Optimism. Maybe it’s to do with optimism. I used to be more optimistic than I am today. A number of major outcome-related disappointments recently has not led me to change what I believe to be right action, but it has possibly affected my expectations of the results. I will still do what I believe to be right; I simply no longer have the believe that anything but disappointment waits for me on the othe side of that action. That is a depressing conclusion to draw. And more importantly, that belief has been putting the brakes upon my try-new-things wheels.
Confidence. Maybe it’s connected to my self-confidence. I have been fighting with and living with a succession of serious relapses of chronic PTSD over the past five years. I have had to give up full time employment, and can just about manage working part-time. What makes me think I could go ahead and cope with the demands of a new career path, new training, new job and all that that entails? I can tell myself that a large part of the reason I can only manage part time work is that my work is no longer a source of energy and inspiration for me. My work has become a never-ending struggle against a system I do not agree with, disempowering and draining. But I need the required amount of confidence to believe that I am still capable of a useful meaningful contribution that I find envigorating and interesting.
Change. Or rather, Fear of Change. Maybe I am just in a rut and no longer have the youthful willingness for change in my forties that I had in my teens, twenties or thirties. That seems somehow insulting to all the energetic, enthusiastic, creative people I know who have a decade, or two, or three on me. Maybe change is harder as you get older though. And I can’t use the excuses of mortgage or kids as a reason to stay stuck in my current situation. The last massive life change I made was done across countries, and careers and with both kids in tow. Fair enough I was almost ten years younger but even so… I am familiar with fear, and change so I don’t think it is these that are limiting me now.
Myself. Maybe I am no longer a person who fits with the sneaky ninja method. Maybe who I am now needs more open support and encouragement from the people around me to make those big leaps into the unknown. Not people to point out all the possible flaws or pitfalls in my plans, as believe me, I have probably thought of all them and then some. Maybe what I need is simple, unconditional, straightforward support: emotional cheerleaders who will lend me some of their enthusiasm and optimism and confidence and capacity to change. The sneaky stealth change ninja in me feels that admission makes me vulnerable and open to yet more disappointment. The child in me wants to hope that a world exists where cheerleaders exist for me, and one where I can say out loud that I need their help this time around.
I wonder if anyone without ptsd would understand how much you can crave the oblivion of sleep and yet be terrified of losing control to the night haunts that stalk through your dreams.
To sleep is to open the door to horror, and yet I am tired and long for rest. My eyelid twitches almost constantly from fatigue; I force myself over and over again to release my jaws, to relax my shoulders and even to remember to breathe as the fear and tension activate the instinct to freeze. Don’t move and maybe you won’t feel. Don’t breathe and maybe nothing will happen.
The dread anticipation that has us holding our breath again.
I am the tug-of-war between tension and exhaustion. I am the stretching rope pulled equally from opposing and opposite sides. Eventually, if neither side gives way then the rope will stretch and start to fray. It will hold until the thinnest strand remains twisting and unravelling. Then a final snap and the rope breaks.
Moments, hours, days, weeks or even months later the rope is finally spliced back together. A new join where it came apart. Ready for the game of tug-of-war to begin again.
Our brain provides the electrical impulses that stimulate our muscles into movement. Some impulses are unconscious: heart to beat, lungs to expand and contract, eyes to focus. Some are so well practised that although they were once conscious, now we can rely on desire to create the appropriate impulses and the correct muscles will move in the needed ways. As toddlers we stumbled and fell but now, health permitting, as adults we walk confidently forwards expecting our bodies to perform the complex dance of movement and motion required to keep walking without falling.
But sometimes our brain keeps us frozen, paralysed by a state of mind that seems to disconnect our thoughts from our conscious movements. Sometimes our brain refuses to make the connections; to send the impulses; to pass the information onwards through the rest of our bodies.
Sometimes we are frozen by shock, or by fear. Sometimes we are held in place by pain. We hold ourselves so still as if it will mean that the pain will forget us and slip away to find fresh prey.
I hold myself frozen. I hold myself still. I hold myself against the pain which comes from inside me and so cannot be escaped. It paralyses my body and my thoughts. Tension tries futilely to be the barrier between my self and my pain. But the pain comes from within and so all my tension can do is hold it in, to try and stop it running off to tell tales on me. Tension Is the fighting when you cannot move, you may nor or dare not move. When all you can do is hold tight within yourself and hope that eventually this too shall pass.
My whole body is reverberating with the shock and pain of freshly awakened trauma. Peace has vanished and desperate survival has returned. Time. Mindfulness. Learning to relax. All these things I need. But right now it just hurts too damn much to be able to do anything but try and remember to breathe and hope that sleep will be quiet and deep and swift like an anaesthetic skilfully administered to the sickening patient.
Maybe I should not compare myself and my ability to function with people who have not experienced trauma in childhood? A friend suggested that to me a while ago and I did not pay much attention to it. Something in the past day or so has brought it back to my attention and I am revisiting the thought. Maybe I am being unfair to myself by comparing my ability to function with people without severe trauma in their past. My friend said to me that really I should be impressed that I am functional at all, especially that I am capable of holding down a job, paying a mortgage, raising two kids who seem largely well adjusted, kind and considerate young people. he said that given what I have lived through, it’s a wonder that I am not some alcoholic homeless social casualty, drug-addicted prostitute or long term psychiatric inpatient. I think his view is an exaggeration perhaps but I get his point. Instead of criticising myself so harshly for my inability to do everything well and measuring myself as a failure for my enduring PTSD and inability to sustain intimate personal relationships, instead of all that I could be being impressed with how well I am doing and with how many parts of life I am managing to do at least as well as the average person. Ah… But my inner critic says that if I am not perfect then I am worthless, and if I were perfect then everything would be alright and my parents would want me and show me the affection I so craved without demanding a price in abuse or emotional game-playing. If I were just good enough then maybe it would not have all happened. I wonder where and how in my twisted excuse for a childhood that idea first arose? .. When did I first feel that if I could just be good enough then the bad things would not happen? Was it the only way I could make sense of the displeasure of my gods, the controllers of my world? Was it the rationalisation of why I was hurt by my loved ones? Those all-powerful all-knowing authorities that ruled my life. Our parents are gods to our small, smaller selves. I know that it is common, even usual, for abused children to blame themselves rather than blame their care-givers as to do that would be to fundamentally undermine their universe. How much pain must a child be in to choose to judge themselves as unworthy failures out of preference to the alternative? To choose to hate yourself because it is better than destroying your own gods and universe? It is such an easy decision to make. I am small and weak; I can be wrong and bad and the world still survives. If I am not wrong and bad, then The world as I know it will be destroyed and the horrific truth will be laid bare with no place to hide from the soul-crushing reality that my parents were not good enough. That they failed to protect me and keep me safe. The omnipotent gods of my childhood are revealed as tacky fairground imitations. Worse still is that they chose at times to put their own needs to control, humiliate, hurt and dominate above the basic right of all children to be cared for.
I have moments where I can glimpse this.
Days and nights pass. The ability to sleep comes and goes. The breakdown of everything, well not everything but that’s how it feels, begins to pass. How to describe the experience of struggling to get out of bed. A mental challenge to form words and sentences, to move my body through the house. A feat of stamina and stubbornness to force reluctant hands to move through the motions of making food for the children. Barely functioning, head broken. And then slowly returning to mostly observable functioning only to find my mood and overall mental state slipping down between the cracks again.
20th November 2013
I am writing to you because I am struggling to understand your decision. Were you so easily swayed by expensive words? Were you so repulsed by the details of my life that you had to pretend that they were fictions? Were your memories so poor that it just took a week for you all to forget my words? Were you also fooled by the smiling predator sitting in his glass cage? Or taken in by the people who were willing to lie to protect him?
I am struggling to understand your decision, you see. I know that it took me two decades to wrestle with enough of my fears to be able to stand in front of you. It took all my strength to walk into that court room and not run, run, run as far and as fast as I could from who else was in there. It took all my courage and breath to take one step after another up the steps and to stand in the witness box and let the prosecutor with her careful scalpel slice open all my old scars so that you could see the details of my wounds and the damage done. And I stayed there, and displayed my humiliations in front of you. I willingly looked at the photographs of my pain, and the pictures of the weapon used to inflict some of that pain. I held nothing back; I kept nothing to myself. I did not shield myself from any of my terrors. I told you all the dirty truth, the full- and half-remembered truths, the parts I had struggled to recall and wished so hard to forget. And then I kept on standing, kept on breathing, kept on not running away as the defence pushed and pulled, prodded and poked with her vinegar soaked hands into those raw wounds. I held my head up and answered every grain of salt she tried to embed deep into that raw screaming flesh. And I stood there and let her do that over and over, and then over and over again. For a day and a half you watched her deliberate cruelty, and you sat there. In all, I stood there for two and a half days and exposed my hurts in front of the very person that had taken pleasure from them and in the nights between I howled into my pillow and hoped that no one heard.
And why did I do all this? Why did I agree to this? Because when I walked into that courtroom I took the small scraps of faith in humanity that I still had with me. I took with me the desperate belief that even I, used and damaged though I may be, deserved to be heard. I laid not just my wounds but my heart’s hopes in front of you. I trusted you…
Well I guess I should have known better. Trust is a thing to be broken like old dry twigs and set to burn away to ashes. Certainly your verdicts taste like ashes in my mouth. So I just want to know: why did you turn away from truth and swallow the lies? I laid my faith in Justice and you all as Her hands and you have failed me. And now I wonder if you left the court buildings at the end of that final day with any thought for the consequences of your actions. You, the jury, acquitted my father. And you, the jury, gave him permission to walk out of that court secure in the knowledge that he had got away with repeatedly raping and abusing his child.
And all I have left to say is that somehow I will survive you too.
Do old pains need to be expressed, acknowledged or made visible? What is it with us humans that creates a need to be witnessed by others in order to believe ourselves? And why has the mirror image become more ‘real’ that that which is being reflected? Do we truly not know a thing until it is seen or heard or acknowledged in some way?
Today I had a phone conversation with a friend and they told me that over recent days they had been thinking about me and my past. My friend acknowledged my past, and my hurt, and my successes in my life also. And I cried. I cried good healing tears, the sort that release pain and leave a measure of peace in their wake…
And this leads me to wondering if I need my pain and my accomplishments to be acknowledged. If I need my hurts to be seen before I can heal from them… That both feels right in some way and also brings some sense of vulnerability and exposure. And a little frustration. It would be more comfortable if I could do this all myself, if I needed nothing from others in order to recover from what was done to me. I don’t like the feeling of being dependent on others and when you have been a child victim then it really sits uncomfortably to think that your healing as an adult may be reliant, at least in part, on others…
It’s an idea and a feeling that I think I will have to sit with for a while…