Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Ministry of Vigilance™

Hello! I trust your holiday was fun-filled and festive? Hopefully with booze and good food and friends and family (not necessarily in that order, but if that's the way you need it, you're certainly not alone in this world).

My holiday was lovely, although we were on the road for a long time and that began to take its toll on the small fries among us, after a while. But we got to hang out with my family and see the girls' first snowfall and help my youngest sister find her wedding gown and have an epic beer-and-cheese tasting extravaganza and watch my gloriously awesome husband play a gig at the House of Blues in Hollywood and spend a wild night sans-kids with my favorite cousin and his fantastic fiance in an amazing house in Laurel Canyon, just off the Sunset Strip.

So. All told, it more than compensated for the tricky back from sleeping in strange beds for two weeks.

Anyway, happy 2013 to you and yours. May it lead you exactly where you need to go.

I did have some interesting insights on my trip that I've been anxious to write about here. I found myself highly triggered a lot of the time from all the driving I did, which, surprisingly, is not something I'm usually conscious of.

I think I've written about it here before: I have definitely become more aware of of the fact that I DO get triggered by driving, although I manage very effectively to ignore it most of the time. It has only recently occurred to me that it's probably not normal to constantly expect the cars in front of you to explode or fly into the air or suddenly flip over without provocation or come to a sudden, screeching halt in the middle of the freeway.

Is it?

I am not actively panicked behind the wheel, but I've realized in the past 18 months that there is a whole department in my brain devoted to the business of constant horizon-scanning, freak-accident-anticipating, and defensive-maneuver-and/or-escape-route-planning whenever I am driving anywhere.

And I mean that: Whenever. I am driving. Anywhere. 

It has somehow escaped my notice (for, um, 20 years) that my hands actually ache from gripping the steering wheel so hard if I'm driving for more than a few minutes. My neck and back get stiff with tension from holding myself so anxiously in my seat.

That part of my brain that's always on the lookout (let's call it the Ministry of Vigilance, shall we?) sends a constant barrage of messages through my nervous system: 


To give you some idea of how deeply buried the Ministry of Vigilance™ has been, in the whole first year of my therapy I thought that I had somehow escaped one of the biggest symptoms and indicators of PTSR: hyper-vigilance.

Not me, I thought. I'm not paranoid.

Well. Well.

I had noticed-- and remarked upon in this very blog-- that my neck has the classic hyper-vigilant backwards bend, thrusting my head permanently forward (as well as off-kilter from my accident-related optical nerve damage-- it's a miracle I don't just fall over). I had noticed that. And so have quite a few chiropractors and x-ray technicians and other experts in fields that know such things.

But still! No paranoid, me! Not this girl! Not my bag, baby!

Ahem. So. It may, by now, come as no surprise to you that the discovery of the Ministry of Vigilance™ came as a big surprise to me. 

This is a testament to my--if I may say so myself-- fairly fucking extraordinary ability to avoid, deny, and ignore all things PTSR-related that go in inside my mind and body. I am so good at it, I can avoid noticing it while I am actually doing it. I can ignore it while I am suffering the physical effects of it. I can deny it even with radiographic evidence that I have seen with my own eyes. 

So on our extended trip over the holidays, I drove a LOT. First of all, the trip to my parents' house is around 400 miles each way, and we took a few extra side trips that added another 300 or so, and I drove everyone around the day we went wedding dress shopping and put on about 300 miles that day alone. My husband drove some of the time, of course, but I probably drove over 800 of those miles myself.

Lots of time to face the music, then. 

Becoming aware of my white-knuckle driving has not made it go away. It has, if anything, made it worse, because now that I'm aware I'm doing it, I am also intercepting some of those messages from the Ministry of Vigilance™. They are broadcasting loud and clear, those guys. They don't stop for anything.

So I'm now aware, uncomfortably so, of the undercurrent of panic sparking along my nerves and synapses. The nightmare scenarios that fuel my paranoia are no longer unconscious. I now engage with them a bit, which makes them a lot more vivid, let me tell you. I now get sudden waves of panic just thinking about driving, sometimes. No wheels required.

You'd think this would make me afraid to drive. And I guess it does, in a way. But this is one of those times where my compartmentalizing works in my favor-- I am still able to refuse it complete mastery over my mind and will. I am still able to get behind the wheel. I'm from Southern California, god damn it. That is what we do: Drive. Cars. Everywhere.

But I noticed it. I noticed it more on this trip than ever before. Remember, my parents live in the mountains, where my accident occurred. The highway to get to their mountaintop town is 12 miles long and rises about 4000 feet in elevation. There are places along the way where the outside lane is separated from a 1000-foot drop by a 3-foot high guardrail and a puff of fog.

My palms are sweating as I type this.

Remember also: I grew up there. I learned to drive on that highway-- it was literally the first real road I ever drove on as a 15-year old with a learner's permit. I raced up and down it thousands of times, before AND after the accident, with nary a thought of the cliffs and chasms. 

So it's notable, this panic, these sweating palms. It's Something New. It's an uncomfortable awareness that I don't like at all.

And yet. it's also an undeniable (even for me! Take that!) sign of Progress, capital-P, and that's not a bad thing. It even feels like more-than-adequate compensation.

After all, if I've learned nothing else, I know for certain that the road out of here goes through, not around, the difficult stuff. It skirts the cliffs. It braves the rapids. It takes the bridges and tunnels without regard for the wind or the dark.

And so, it is written, shall I.

One other thing I noticed on this trip, the thing that actually gives me a handle for managing this new, uncomfortable awareness of panic, is that while all of this chaos is going on in my brain and body, nobody in the car has any idea.

This is not about the people in the car, all of whom are brilliant and insightful and empathic (not to mention extremely good-looking), but about my insistence on Keeping A Lid On It™, which I am also really, really good at doing (see "avoid, ignore, deny," above). (See also "pulled self out of a panic attack by sheer force of will simply because calling an ambulance would have been a huge pain in the ass.") I am the master of the Calm Facade. So much so that I fall for the facade myself and believe my every, normal-normal-not-panicking word.

It's because of the Control thing, that internal part that Dr. Oz pointed out to me a few weeks back. The rational-sounding, authoritative-seeming voice that has, yes, enabled me to Keep A Lid On It™ so well, for better as well as for worse, all these years.

The voice I thought was my inner Wise Adult. But which is not. Sooooo not.

Controlly Kate™ (okay, I'll calm down with the ™ thing. I just find it hilarious. This is nerd humor, people) doesn't want anyone to know about the white knuckles or the panic because she... well, I'm not sure exactly. A combination of things:

1. Doesn't want to appear insane
2. Doesn't want to appear dangerous
3. (okay, fine) Doesn't want to appear vulnerable
4. Doesn't want to make anyone feel guilty for not driving
5. Doesn't want anyone else to actually drive**
6. Doesn't want to have to think too hard about the white knuckles and therefore deal with the panic so uses the above to avoid doing so

**This is an important and illogical truth. Controlly Kate wants to drive, although panicking all the while. I am not a panicky passenger. Well. I am a far less-panicky passenger than I am a driver. When I am a passenger, I am not longing to drive, nor am I freaking out about the driving of whoever is behind the wheel. But once I get behind the wheel, Controlly Kate informs me that there will be no relinquishing of the keys today. That's it. I'm in. Period.

I don't really understand that little quirk, except that it seems like a bit of misfired control freaking. But getting a good look at it has been useful to me this week for two reasons.

First: when I told Dr. Oz about it, she reminded me that my new awareness of the Control part-- and the Panic part-- means I can use those opportunities to let the Wise Adult step in and talk them off the ledge. 

Which would be easier if I were better at locating the Wise Adult in those moments. But Dr. Oz gave me a little trick: when I find myself in panic or control mode, pretend it's my daughter in that situation. What would I say to her?

"I know you're afraid right now, but I'm here with you. I will help you through this. I wasn't there before, but I'm here now and I know what to do. If it gets too scary, we can pull over. I know how to drive and I won't let anything happen to us."

"Make the Wise Adult bigger than the Control part for that moment," said Dr. Oz. "It's difficult to do, at first. It takes practice. But keep trying. Make her voice bigger. Let the other parts step back and let the Wise Adult take over. Eventually, the Wise Adult will be bigger, and the Control and the Panic can fade away. They were there for a reason, to help you through a difficult time so you could survive, but they're not needed anymore. It's time to let them go. Little by little. The Wise Adult is here now, and she knows what to do. Let them go."

It sounds silly, writing it out like this, but it actually works to calm that irrational part of my brain like nothing else ever has. When the Wise Adult talks, the Ministry of Vigilance listens.

Second: thinking about all of this, and how I snap automatically into Calm Facade mode when I get triggered, made me realize how essential not talking about it has been to the development and power of my PTSR. Not talking about it has allowed it to fester and thrive and poison my life. Not talking about it has been its strongest weapon against me.

And it's cut me off from other people. And it's cut me off from myself. And it's kept me under its control. And it's changed the way I think and feel and breathe and move and dream and grow and connect.

But no more. I began the cure before I'd even diagnosed that particular disease. This blog marks the end of that voiceless reign of terror. This connection I'm building with myself, with you, with the rest of the world means I'm slowly learning how to talk about it. Little by little, I've already started to let those other parts go.

And that is how I win.

I want to LIVE!


  1. Wow you've really got me thinking.  I've recently gone through an MRI and aside from a spine that is offset a bit, the doctorshowed me a neck that also curves forward.  I have also begun experiencing a bit of panic.  I have no ideawhat this is about.  Thanks Kate!  I have some searching to do.

  2. I can relate to your driving trigger. For me, it's whitewater. In general I'm someone who is very at ease and quite competent in my physical surroundings, most of all natural ones, but the sound of whitewater just makes me, well, turn and walk the other way. When I was 19 I almost drowned in a river (and an acquaintance did). Right after it happened, I couldn't handle showers or bathwater running, so this is a big improvement, but I still have a very chilly dislike of water in motion; and the faster it moves, the less I like it.

    So, I'm planning a hiking trip this summer in the Rockies and I'm super excited for it in every way, except the part I recently discovered in the fine print where the group is going whitewater rafting. Hmm. We'll see where this leads.

    I also totally relate to Keeping A Lid On It™. I am also a master of the Calm Facade, and this just may be the biggest problem of my life. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. (That's only slightly sarcastic, mostly sincere.)

    You mentioned in an older post that you're an INxP in the Meyers-Briggs. I'm interested in the role of cognitive functions/personality typing in how people experience, respond to, and recover from stress. I'm a fan of Meyers-Briggs and the Jungian cognitive functions behind the types, and I'm an ISTP myself. (Took me a while to type myself accurately but realizing it has helped me tremendously to understand myself.)

  3. KateTheGirlWhoLived29 January, 2013 23:18

    Thanks for your comment, Adriel, and welcome!

    Boy, does that stuff sound familiar. I'm so sorry to hear about what must have been a profoundly terrifying experience. I'm no doctor, but everything you describe sounds very typical of long-term PTSR. Which is completely understandable, given the circumstances.

    I can't recommend this book strongly enough: "Waking the Tiger" by Peter Levine. There's a link to it on my resources tab. I urge you to take a look at it. If you're anything like me, the table of contents alone will explain a whole lot about what's been going on behind that Calm Facade all these years.

    Interesting that you're looking at the role of personality typing in coping with stress.  I talk a bit about that in this post:

    I found a couple of studies (I link to them but I think I could only see abstracts, so it's not a ton of detail) that talk about  being shame-prone as a key element of serious PTSR. In fact, the military evaluates prospective candidates for high-stress/trauma positions (like black ops and stuff) specifically to find people who are not prone to shame, because they're less likely to suffer from PTSR.

    In that post, I talk about my comment to a friend at a party that before my accident, my personality was sort of "PTSR-lite," meaning that the framework for everything I'm going through now was there before the accident happened, and it was that much easier for these responses to take root as a result.

    All of this is by way of saying that I completely agree with you that cognitive functions and personality typing are implicated in our reactions (both conscious and unconscious) to stress, and to trauma as well. 

    I'm really interested in this subject, too, but have had a hard time finding a good resource for learning more about it. I'll ask my therapist this week to see if she knows of a good one, and I'll post about it when I find it.

    You're brave to be considering that trip this summer. I hope it's a liberating experience. Maybe Peter Levine and others can support your preparation to face your demons? Please don't hesitate to keep in touch through the comments here, as well. There are a lot of smart people who read this blog and leave great comments that have helped me along my way. 

    They may resonate with you as well.

    Again, thanks so much for reading and sharing. I hope you'll stick around and comment again!

  4.  Thank you, Kate, and indeed I will! And I want to say that both your story and your writing are incredible, insightful, and inspiring.

    I love that post, where you talk about shame and how it's related to PTSD. I have an introverted, shame-prone personality, too. I think in my case I definitely had undiagnosed PTSD for some time after my accident (in a serious way for months: I'll write you more about it sometime). I've been thinking about it, and I think that besides my aversion to whitewater, it's basically healed. What's been more troublesome is a serious social anxiety that nailed me out of apparently nowhere in my late 20s and has done serious damage to my self-confidence. Now that I'm learning about PTSD, which I never realized I had, I'm not sure the two are unrelated; and frankly I'm thrilled, because if trauma is the key to the onset of the social anxiety, it can also be a key to its healing, right?

    The social anxiety was triggered by a situation that was personally/socially traumatic, where the only close friend I had at the time completely turned on me. In my mind I saw the situation clearly, but for some reason it was still a terrible struggle to believe that I wasn't the monster or basketcase he said I was. And in fact that was the second situation of that kind I'd experienced. The first one was actually related to the drowning incident: the friends I was in it with somehow turned the whole thing against me in a completely irrational but deeply emotional way so that they blamed me, and they hated my guts. (And I just realized why: one possible symptom of PTSD: "persistent, distorted blame of self or others about the cause or consequences of the traumatic events". That's exactly it. It was simply part of their own PTS and their struggle to deal with what had happened.) So, it's interesting to me how much these things could all be related, and I'm glad they're coming up now. Coming to the surface means healing. And, incidentally, I had a major moment of success just this weekend; a moment I'll never forget as long as I live, and in which I saw the light at the end of the tunnel.

    Thank you. I will check out Peter Levine's book. And I will think about going on the rafting trip, even though even beneath the aversion to whitewater I have no real desire to go rafting whatsoever. Maybe I'll ask if we can go whitewater kayaking instead? ;) Or maybe in this case it's better that it's a group activity, and that two friends I like and trust will be there; not that I think I'd need support to get through it, but maybe I need to learn a lesson in trust.

    Also, I love your post about your kids on the playground, which is how I got here. I'm not a parent myself but someone who believes strongly in letting people young and old struggle with the challenges in front of them, and learn and grow and accomplish things through them. Isn't that what life is all about?! And that's why I'm hopeful about getting through anxiety stronger than I was before it.