Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The A-HA Moment?

Just when I thought the major moments of revelation were over and I'd probably never have the huge epiphany that would turn everything on its head that I'd been hoping for, I went ahead and had it.

It wasn't quite the revival-tent, cripple-casting-away-her-crutches moment I'd envisioned, but I'll be damned if it doesn't feel like I've finally got the key in my hand that is going to unlock this mess.

First, let me back up and say that while I know there's no such thing as a magic bullet, especially for something as complex and pervasive as PTSR, I do think it's possible to line things up and construct the scene just so, so that you can hit a whole lot of targets at once if you have a bit of luck and your aim is true.

So let's just say, for these past two years, I've been lining up my bull's eyes and tirelessly, relentlessly perfecting my shot. Luck had nothing to do with it.

Last week, I had what began as a familiar and frustrating conversation with my husband and ended as one of the biggest leaps in understanding about my condition that I've ever had. Maybe THE biggest. From the outside, it probably looks like a smallish shift in perspective, but from where I'm sitting, it feels like the difference between thinking and doing. Like going from passive to active.

Like I've not only opened the door to the closet I've been trapped in, but also turned on the light in the hallway that leads the hell out of here.

Here is what happened: 

As happens in any relationship, my husband and I sometimes disagree.  I suggest something, he says no, or I have an idea, and he doesn't like it. This happens the other way around, too, of course, but when it happens like that-- him disagreeing with me-- I tend to react in a way that seems unreasonable, even to me.

First, I become a) filled with rage and b) immediately reminded of T and the way he used to undermine my enthusiasm and tear me down, just for kicks.

A few seconds later, the rational voice inside of me suggests that perhaps I have overreacted a bit, since my husband is NOTHING like T, nor are his motives, and his desire to go to a different restaurant than I want to go to does not, in fact, rise to the level of international incident.

Somewhere in there, I realize that I am having horrible thoughts about my husband that he doesn't deserve, and am confused about why it keeps happening, so I clam up and put up the walls. 

This does nothing to resolve my emotional reaction, nor does it hide from my husband the fact that I just freaked out and shut down during what seemed, to him, like a relatively unimportant conversation.

What it does do, though, is make me less likely to make a suggestion next time, just to avoid the whole nasty business (as we avoiders are wont to do). Over time, this has meant that I have withdrawn quite a bit, and even more so during these last two years of therapy, when everything has seemed closer to the surface and more fragile than before.

So when my husband gently points out to me that I have withdrawn quite a bit, I have this same type of reaction, but worse. Rinse. Repeat.

So last week, we were talking about something trivial-- what, I can't even remember-- and I found myself following that same, familiar route of unreason in my head: Why do you always say no to everything I suggest? Why are you condescending to me? Why do I bother saying anything? I'm not asking for your permission, I'm a grown woman!

And then: Wait, stop, this isn't T, it's not the same thing, he's not really doing that, where is this coming from?

And then, something new occurred to me: I'm reacting to him as if he's inflicting the same trauma on me that T did.

And even better: Why would I react that way? Not because I'm annoyed, but because I'm TRIGGERED. And therefore, everything that happens after that is not happening for the reasons I thought, and is not following the path I expect.

In other words, I wasn't having the interaction I thought I was having. And I never have been.

Holy. Shit.

Right then, I stopped what I was doing and tried a few of the grounding techniques Dr. Oz has taught me-- little things that bring your Thinking Brain back online and take control away from the Lizard Brain, which has hijacked your limbic system and is taking you through the fight-or-flight response:

  • Plant your feet on the floor, squeeze your hands, bring yourself fully into your body to remind yourself that you are here, not there, and the trauma is past, not present.
  • Breathe deeply to reengage your focus on the present.
  • Make a pool of saliva in your mouth. Your body stops doing things like this when it goes into fight-or-flight, because it shuts down all extraneous operations in order to devote all resources to finding an escape route (I mean, seriously stop and think about that one for a second. You have to admit: that is pretty freaking cool!). So by reengaging that process, you are forcing your functioning brain back online.
These things, I did. Right then and there. And you know what? The rage and confusion dissipated immediately.

Right away, I thought, holy shit, I wonder how often I'm dissociating like this, thinking I'm just irritated or upset, when I'm actually following a whole different game plan and have had no idea? Am I even having a genuine emotional reaction at all, or am I just responding primitively to perceived threats that now apparently exist even in the most benign conversations? 

How much of what I experience day to day is actually real?

How far into the fog do I actually live? How disengaged with the world have I become without noticing? Am I ever engaged anymore? 

WHAT THE FUCK?! Why have I not seen this until now?!

I took this little revelation to Dr. Oz the following evening. She agreed with me: this is happening A LOT more than I'd ever realized.

"It makes sense," she said. "It's not just certain types of engagement that trigger you anymore. Sometimes, just engaging at all is the trigger."

Wow. Well. The series of clicks that occurred then as things from the past several years suddenly fell into place in my head and made perfect, terrible sense was so loud, you probably heard it from where you are and just thought it was the wind or something.

So many things I've said to Dr. Oz or to others were suddenly explained so clearly:

"I used to really love to debate-- I was on a few debate teams in high school and used to debate issues with my best friend in college, just for fun. Now, I rarely speak my opinion and am very hesitant to take an opposing point of view." Nope, I was just getting triggered by the proximity of "debating" to "arguing" and disengaging from the discussion instinctively instead of understanding the error rationally.

"I am just getting more and more introverted as I get older. Sometimes I think I've gone too far, and have become socially phobic." Well, I have, and it's not because I'm introverted, it's because I'm triggered, so my Lizard Brain has compelled me to disengage and retreat.

"My memory/energy/stamina/ability to cope has become so much weaker in the past few years. It must be because of Mommy Brain or the fact that i'm exhausted from raising two preschoolers." Nope, it's because I live in an almost-constant state of fight-or-flight, and my brain isn't recording the normal things it should and is dedicating a disproportionate amount of energy to escaping the scene, which is not just furthering my disengagement but is actually, physically taxing far beyond what one would expect from normal, day-to-day living.

"I feel like I'm hardly ever just 'having a conversation' or 'experiencing a moment.' I'm always having a meta-experience instead. I'm watching myself have a conversation, or watching myself have an experience, but rarely actually doing those things authentically without a layer  or ten in between." Yes, because I'm rarely not triggered, so most of the time, I'm watching that stuff in the rear-view as I disengage, disengage, retreat, retreat, get the hell out of there.


In that moment, I realized that as much progress as I've made in my understanding of all of this, I had vastly-- vastly-- underestimated the number and frequency of the triggers in my life. I thought I knew what they were: moments of fear or extreme stress, moments of panic, moments of recall. 

It turns out that the list of non-triggered moments is probably about that long, and everything else-- everything else-- falls into the category of threat, to some primitive part of my brain.

This might seem obvious to you, but it didn't to me. I thought I'd had trouble engaging with the world because of the things that trigger me. It turns out that engaging with the world is the trigger. 

I've been on the lookout for the wrong enemy, all this time. Once again, I've attributed my troubles to the symptoms and not the cause.

You might be wondering, at this point, how I'm responding to all of this. 

Well, on the one hand, it appears that my problem is actually a LOT worse than I thought.

On the other hand, I feel like I suddenly, clearly know what I'm truly dealing with, and what's more, it is now a HELL of a lot easier to identify those moments where Dr. Oz's grounding techniques might be helpful:

Always. All the time. They are now my first response to every negative, uneasy, or ambivalent reaction to everything. 

I have decided, for the time being, not to trust my responses to anything. I don't know if they're real, or if the event that prompted them was what I thought it was. I no longer think, "I'm irritated/upset/uncomfortable right now because I don't like it when _____ happens." 

I think, "I am triggered right now, and I need to remind my body that I'm here and I'm alive."

And you know what? It's working.

In case you're wondering how that last disagreement with my husband turned out, it went like this: 

I didn't say anything at the time of my epiphany, but took it to Dr. Oz instead to check my thinking. After our session, I went home and told my husband everything I'd realized, and that I hoped it would help both of us to communicate with each other better-- he'd know I wasn't reacting to him, I'd know he understood why I was stopping to regroup myself every five minutes, and neither of us would have to avoid uncomfortable discussions for fear of misunderstandings.

And my husband, of course, responded like the champion he is: with unconditional support and love and encouragement.

Because apparently, despite my Lizard Brain's best efforts to fuck everything up forever, I still know how to pick 'em, ladies and gentlemen. And when I picked that man, I said yes to my own salvation.

I said earlier that I felt like I'd shifted from passive to active in a way I hadn't felt until now, and the reason is this: it suddenly seems, for the first time, like what I'm doing here is not figuring out what is happening to me and trying to make it stop, but rather, figuring out how my brain works and using that knowledge to create a solution that works better.

Does that make sense? I thought I'd gone from victim to champion or defense to offense before, when I started this whole thing, and in one way I had. But now I feel like I've done that on a deeper level. 

I've finally figured out that resolving this thing isn't about turning a sick brain well by making the bad things stop happening. It's about using the way my brain works now--because this is the way my brain WORKS now, not just the way it DOESN'T work-- and making it work for me instead of against me.

It's not about avoiding the triggers, or trying to disarm them. It's about teaching myself how to cope with them when they come.

Because they're going to come. And they're going to keep coming. And I am going to continue to be triggered by them when they do. And I swear to god, it wasn't until now that I truly realized that that is not the part that's under my control.

What I need to do is not teach myself not to get triggered, but teach myself how to recognize my body's reaction and retrain my brain to get itself back on track again when the inevitable triggering happens, instead of disengaging, retreating, and floating off into oblivion.

I thought I was supposed to stop it before it happened. I've been fighting it instead of accepting it and working with it, which is why I haven't made any noticeable progress in decreasing my constant overwhelm.

So, yay. This is me, triggered all the time. It's not the exception to the norm, it is the norm. I'm not on the lookout for times when I go into fight-or-flight mode, I'm on the constant duty of trying to bring myself out of it.

It turns out that even now, after all this time, I still have more to learn. Those layers, they just keep coming. I am one hell of a tightly-furled little onion, me.

But thanks to all of you who read these posts and share your thoughts, and to my husband, and to a certain group of Sherlock fanfiction writers, I'm still here, peeling away, digging down deep through those protective little shells to find the treasure in the middle.

I know it's in there somewhere. There's always a treasure, isn't there?

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