Living in my body

I slept 9 hours last night at my friend’s quiet apartment near the mountains. I woke to a flash back, let my body move the feelings of raw and present fear, went out to the alley for a smoke under first light, made a cup of peppermint tea to soothe the tension in my belly, then spent an hour wrapped in a blanket watching an episode of Stranger Things to distract me for a while.

Now I’m sitting on the couch with a cup of coffee, listening to the playlist my oldest kiddo made about ending a codependent relationship. I listened to it while walking around Edinburgh so part of me feels the dampness of that air and the wonder I felt when my feet traveled cobbled streets and my eyes were drawn over and over again to the centuries old buildings that were the first ‘skyscrapers’ in the European world. It felt easier to listen to songs about loss and moving towards independence when I was an ocean away from my ending marriage and the long list of tasks to be completed in order to fully transition to a new life. Sitting here now, only taking a brief vacation from what’s still home, the mournful chords and lyrics like: “Try your best to slowly withdraw. Your body is a blade that moves while your brain is writhing, knuckled under pain, you mourn but your blood is flowing”, I feel the sadness and know there can only be brief distractions from it. I have to hold it and gently, in small increments, mourn what has died so I can embrace what is growing from the ashes.

I meant to get away sooner, knew I had to administer serious self-care to my overworked and neglected Self, but I also had to honor the trigger that came up last week and find a new home. I found a place but it took all of my focus, energy and communication skills to secure it. It was one of those weeks where months of growth are achieved. I felt a bit uncertain about the choice to put off caring for myself but my therapist reflected that getting a place will insure long-term feelings of safety and provide a space in which I can access the tools of care all the time.

Now that I’m finally getting the space I need, I can feel my increased ability to gently apply what I think of as first aid for C-PSTD. First there’s rest; I know now that I can’t even attend to the triggers, feelings and distorted thinking until I’ve slept. Then I have to treat any severe symptoms, like flashbacks or dissociation. Next is often rest again. I’ve accomplished those today and now I’m beginning the work of getting my cognitive brain online so I can look back over the week, identify the distorted thoughts and begin to challenge them.

I’m fortunate to have a very skillful therapist. She was able to take me from the space I was in when I arrived (angry about how hard it is to live in my body and have so many feelings) to understanding how events throughout the week brought up feelings tied to my early childhood trauma. Now that my mind is clear, I can see how last week’s trigger of feeling trapped contributed to the challenges that arose this week.

It gets old but EVERYTHING goes back to trauma. From a hazy place in my brain, I can hear the litany my therapist repeats:
You were not safe as a child. You were physically abused. You were sexually violated. You lived in a state of uncertainty all the time. Your father was an alcoholic and unpredictable. The physical abuse and sexual assault you experienced as a young adult served to reinforce the feelings of unsafety and your distorted beliefs about yourself, others and the world.
I want to say, “I know all of this”, and I do because I walk around in a body that knows it and a mind that understands it, but I’ve also spent a lot of energy avoiding the feelings and thoughts that make up this truth. I know it but I haven’t fully accepted it.

The lack of full acceptance of my trauma history and all that goes with that, makes it more difficult to identify and accept the distorted beliefs that arise out of everyday situations. This last week, I felt incredibly helpless and frustrated because I found a house but the homeowner was hesitant to rent to me because of my voucher and her biases about people on government assistance. As someone with little income and a disability, I have very little control over my housing situation. Besides the homeowner, I’m also at the mercy of HUD because they set the maximum amount they’ll cover and have to approve the place for safety. Having a home for myself and children is only second to basic needs like sleep and food, and someone else having control over whether that need is met, triggers the trauma of having no control over my safety for the first 23 years of my life.

Triggers Inform

I woke this morning to a flash back. They’re never actually visual memories when they happen in between sleep and waking. Instead, they are full body experiences brought on by whatever was happening while I slept and the worry I mull over as I wake up. I get hot. I vacillate between paralysis and uncontrollable clenching of all the muscles in my body.

This morning, the worry was about something my ex said last night. I’m under an intense pressure to find a new place to live or I’ll lose my federal housing voucher. I had just told him I was widening my search to nearby towns and he seemed to finally fully understand the stakes I’m facing. Out of what I’m sure is kindness, he suggested I try to get my case manager to allow me to use my voucher for the house we’re sharing now. Beside that being impossible, the thought of doing it triggered something much too big for me to process before going to bed.

What I noticed after he said it was a feeling of dread and panic, feeling a physical urge to bolt. I shrugged it off because I needed to get to bed and wanted a chance to think it over before making any kind of decision. The part of me that is frightened of not finding a place in time was tempted to try and make that work. But something deeper wanted to forget the idea had never been presented.

As I was going through the flash back this morning, tolerating and taking steps to soothe my nervous system, I began to identify the trigger. I took mental stock of the feelings in my body: my stomach felt (and still feels) knotted up and cramped; I had a tremendous amount of adrenaline pumping through my system; I felt like sobbing and at the same time felt I should stay as silent as possible. Getting out of bed and then wandering about until getting regulated enough to operate the cold water and sprayer took almost half an hour. I let my dog soothe me for a bit, sat up and rocked, then paced the house trying to find clothes in the dark, all while pulling at my hair and holding back sobs.

The only cognitive function online was this question: what moment in my past am I physiologically reliving right now?

As I picked up the sprayer and held my hair up, the answer came and it was then that I finally shook and began to let myself cry. I was living with an abusive man who would lock me in his house when he left to go to work. I didn’t just feel trapped, I was trapped. I remember wandering his house, stepping quietly on the old wooden floor boards even when he wasn’t at home.

Identifying the trigger hasn’t helped me loosen the tight feeling in my stomach, or relieved the headache I have from all the shaking and the shock of spending a full minute spraying ice-cold water on my neck while standing in the 58 degree kitchen in a thin tank top and panties. It has inspired me to take time away from the house to ponder the situation I’m in, how I’m responding to it, and what I need to do about it in order to take the best possible care of myself.

I can easily recognize that the triggered response, feeling physically threatened, is exaggerated. And yet, I have to take the physical feelings seriously. I have learned in therapy that my physical and emotional responses serve the purpose of being informative. If the thought of remaining in my current living situation triggered such an intense reaction, then I have to either attempt to resolve those feelings or commit to leaving and thereby eliminating the cause.

Why do I feel unsafe? I’ve talked a lot about this in therapy and it’s pretty simple. I have C-PTSD from multiple sexual and physical traumas and I need to be in a space in which my intimate partner is emotionally open with me and accepts and validates my experience. For many reasons, including the impact my chronic physical and emotional conditions have had on him, my ex does not share his feelings with me and I have spent the last few years feeling that my unceasing psychological work goes unseen and unappreciated. Now that we are getting divorced, he shares almost nothing with me and we just barely manage to get along on the most basic level.

Part of the reason I decided to leave was because feeling unseen also feels unsafe. So why would I choose to stay any longer than I have to? Here I am, finally poking my head up above the trauma for the first time in my life. I still experience the effects of the wrongs done to me but it’s a less frequent occurrence and when it happens, I am capable of managing them. I am beginning to have agency over my own body and mind and I can experience my life and the world without dissociating. I need to have my own space, even if that means compromising and accepting a living situation that is not ideal. The location may not be close to my kids’ schools, maybe it’s an apartment, or it’s smaller than what I’d like. It will be my space and I won’t feel like I have to step quietly. I am ready for freedom and an atmosphere in which I can discover myself.