Sunday, March 31, 2013

Everything Is Illuminated

I've been going through some major stress over the past week-- good stress (or at least normal, healthy stress over huge but positive life changes which I will discuss at a point in the very near future because OMG), not distress. And once again, I find myself in the indescribably weird position of being caught between my instinctive reaction and my newly-learned alternative reaction, and once again, I am perplexed and uncomfortable noticing the very wide gap between them.

Yep, still watching the (sadly, quite boring) movie that is my life. From the balcony.

As you may remember, I (and other PTSR sufferers like me) tend to respond to high-stress or high-emotion (or, let's be honest, even relatively low-stress and low-emotion) events by retreating, mentally, emotionally, and even physically when possible. Flight! Run away! Go go go!

This isn't the same thing as denial, although denial is certainly a component. It's more than a cognitive response; it's a physiological, neurological response that takes place on the instinctive level, and it is actually beyond cognitive control if your lizard and intellectual brains are not on speaking terms. As, as has been established, mine are not.

I call it The Fog. I described it in this post, after the first time I actually stood back and watched it happen. The Fog comes in when I get triggered and swallows everything up and insulates me from the anxiety. It's the Way Out. 

In theory, it was the way my lizard brain learned to calm the waters and regain equilibrium after being triggered by a threat, no matter how minor that threat may actually be, sending me into soothing oblivion. 

In practice, it has only very recently occurred to me that the triggers are not the enemy. It's what happens when the trigger gets pulled that is the problem. 

It's not the gun at all; it's the bullet that'll kill ya. (although, while we're on the subject...)

That fog has kept me from feeling a lot of painful things. It has kept me from remembering them, even. It has allowed me to skip over some terrible moments of sadness, pain, frustration, disappointment, and fear over the last 20 years. It came here for a purpose and has served that purpose admirably. In many ways, it made it possible for me to survive.

But as you know, triggers don't just happen during the painful moments. "High emotion" is high emotion, negative or positive. The lizard brain interprets any imbalance as threat; the trigger gets pulled; the fog rolls in and everything gets socked in, swallowed up, hidden from view.


It turns out that it's the fog that's the real danger, not the things it obscures. Despite a carefully-constructed set of personal habits and coping mechanisms that depend very heavily on the opposite.

Well. Shit.

I'm sure this seems very obvious to you, and while I can't exactly say it's a surprise to me, after that experience last year, it hasn't been obvious for very long, and on top of that, there's a very big difference between knowing something and doing something about it. Especially when it comes to stuff that scares the living shit out of you.

And especially when it isn't something that merely seems difficult-and-uncomfortable-but-possible, like climbing a long  staircase instead of using the escalator, or eating a huge bowl of broccoli; but rather, insane, counter-intuitive, and impossible, like walking on water or flapping your arms and flying to the grocery store. 

Or eating a huge bowl of broccoli. I used that example incorrectly the first time. 


You know, no big deal. :/

So I find myself in a constant one-step-forward-two-steps-back situation, where I'm trying and failing and trying and failing to manage this stuff without freaking out or being a jerk to people or retreating into silence and depression or whatever else it is that I do when I'm feeling completely out of control of my head.

Which is NOT, as you might imagine, my favorite state of being. 

Trial and error is anathema to a perfectionist. We of the "do it right the first time or don't do it at all" disposition aren't into "try and try again" platitudes. Pssh. As if.

(This may or may not contribute in some way to our tendency to end up in a fetal position under the coffee table on a regular basis. I mean, I'm not a doctor or anything, so don't quote me on this. I'm just postulating. From down here amongst the dust bunnies.)

One of the weirdest things about standing in the gap between instinct and conditioning, right now, is that I have perspective on myself that I didn't have for years and years. I can see that fog from above now, and see how I succumbed to it so unquestioningly in the past. 

I remember knowing it would happen-- I'd be in a state of anxiety over something and know that in a moment, I'd be transported somewhere else and wouldn't have to deal with it anymore. Didn't know how or why, didn't bother to wonder about it, just waited for the escape and took it gladly when it came.

I think that back then, and maybe until this week, I thought that this was a way of gaining control. I suppose it was, by the part of my brain that saw threat only in the anxiety and not its cause, and eradicated it by shutting down the feeling instead of acting on, with, through, or because of it to change my circumstances or whatever else would have helped and eventually made the feeling dissipate the healthy way.

Sure, it was a form of control, but only an immediate, limited, false one.

What it looks like now, from the great divide between reality and traumatic response, is the exact opposite. Not control, but resignation. There was nothing active about that response. Not really. It was really me, giving up. Ceding control to an unknown force, without wondering how that was possible or why it was happening.

It didn't occur to me to wonder. I didn't know there was anything unusual going on. It seems impossible now, looking back, but I just didn't know. It's frightening to think of my unexamined willingness to just give over like that. I don't think I ever really saw the depth of self-delusion that required until now.

Anyway, despite all of this, I had a conversation with Dr. Oz the other night that put it all into a new perspective that I found very helpful and encouraging:

There's been, I think, a lingering fear or doubt in my mind that I was never going to beat this thing. That I would someday slide back into the grip of PTSR and recovery would never come.

What is abundantly clear to me now, maybe for the first time, for real, is that even if I stopped all progress right now, even if I lapsed back into some former habits, even if I never had another epiphany again, it's impossible for me to go back to the state of not knowing what is happening to me.

Whether I do anything about it or not, it's impossible not to be aware, now that I've seen the man behind the curtain. I can never unsee it again.

I can see how this might, for some, be an uncomfortable knowledge. I wondered, as I articulated it for the first time to Dr. Oz, if it might be hard to come to terms with it. But it isn't. Somewhat to my surprise, I find it a relief.

I'm an academic at heart, and I'm much more comfortable knowing than not knowing. The conscious awareness that I was acting without understanding my motivations is much more frightening to me, intellectually, than the instinct-level fears that caused that oblivion. I'd rather know than not. I'd rather learn than ignore.

The fact that I feel this with 100% conviction on a 100% intellectual level and emotions don't really come into it tells me that I still haven't figured out how to make those two parts of my brain play nicely together, but that's okay. I know that the two parts are there, and that communication between them is the goal. I can resist the fog-- at least, to some extent-- when it comes, and try to take my emotions for a trial run instead, as uncomfortable as that may be.

It's not perfect yet, not even close, but it's far preferable to oblivion, so I can't see it as anything but progress. And not just tenuous progress, but a lasting, permanent change. 

The light has been turned on, and everything has been illuminated, and if I don't quite know what  I'm looking at yet, the mistakes I make won't because I couldn't see, anymore, and the inexhaustible learner inside of me, after realizing this, is calmly reassuring all the other parts: we're heading in the right direction. It's impossible to get lost from here. Every move is a step forward; every trial, regardless of result, is a success. The fog may come and go, but the road is sure beneath our feet whether we can see it or not.

I keep thinking of that Robert H. Schuller quote: "What would you do if you knew you could not fail?"

I've never taken it seriously before, mostly because I've always felt like that state of mind wasn't rationally possible. That kind of "knowing" isn't knowledge, my inner skeptic insists. It's faith. 

But it seems to me, suddenly, that I've stumbled into it somehow, that knowing, when it comes to this journey I'm on. I sort of think I've reached that state with this work, as far as I feel, sometimes, from true resolution. 

And just this moment, I think I understand the real point of question: it's not the "knowing" that is important, but the "doing." Once again, it's not the trigger, but what happens afterward that makes all the difference in the world.

What would I do if I knew I couldn't fail in this quest to reclaim my life?

I'd give it an honest try. I'd see where it led. I'd do my very best not to ignore the answers that come, no matter what form they take, and I'd try to embrace them with courage and humor. I would believe that redemption is possible. I would dare to hope that my work could make a real difference, not just in my life, but in the lives of others.

And then I'd go sit in a coffee shop every Saturday with my laptop and a cafe au lait, and I'd write about it.


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