Complex PTSD; Anatomy of a Trigger

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I have wanted to talk about triggers, the anatomy of a panic attack, and what that looks like for me as a person living with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, for some time.

Having been feeling very optimistic and experiencing a beautiful reprieve that drastically improved my attitude and strength was so blissful that I began to feel I had truly turned a corner in my healing journey, and though I knew it was still an important thing to share, I was not ready to revisit my suffering just yet. I wanted to give myself time to swim and splash in the healing waters. Sometimes the universe, (God) has different plans.

It is hard not to get angry. I have held onto my faith, even if by a thread at times, and I will continue to do so. Belief takes action. Anger is a default. I am willing to do whatever is necessary to change that. I start by not feeling guilty that I don’t want to communicate with my dysfunctional family who have no understanding of how this illness affects me, by not making excuses for declining social invitations, or answering phone calls. I am putting myself first.

During these past few months I have watched potentially triggering things on TV and been able to point them out, stay in the moment, and watch them pass. I have successfully dealt with a panic attack on the trail while riding by talking about my trigger with someone who would listen and allow that wounded child’s voice to be heard. But sometimes the painful memories, or the feelings of sadness and helplessness that they trigger, rise up from deep in the body in a manner in which they cannot be contained. My adult self disappears, as if suddenly held captive by this trapped energy that only allows me to see, hear, and feel as the child who survived this trauma.  I am blindsided. 

Dealing with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a challenge made bigger by the lack of information and support available. The difference with the Complex label has to do with the age and duration that the abuse took place.

The first thing I want to do when processing my painful, debilitating, triggered episodes, is to find comfort in knowing my symptoms are shared by others. This is so important to me because I feel like a freak in that fugue state following the trigger. Coming up empty in my search, I decided it was critical to explain what I experience, not just for other survivors, but for the people who may witness me in the midst of one of these episodes, as well as loved ones who struggle to understand.

There are two distinct responses to my triggers. One involves cumulative, excessive stress that I strive to overcome. I am determined to power through it, no matter how much it depletes my stores until something, either a situation, or words that hit the “no going back” trigger, causes my body to completely shut itself down. If I am standing, I will immediately slump to the ground and “freeze”. This is called the faint and freeze response which is the opposite of the fight or flight response. This happens in the wild when an animal fears inescapable death. They freeze, or play dead. In this state respiration slows, eyes become fixed, I am unresponsive, having retreated deep within myself where the harrowing enormity of what caused this can cause me no further harm. This usually lands me a visit from paramedics and a trip to the ER where Dr’s  and staff crowd around me, poking and pinching, using painful attempts to get me to “come to” . With each failure to get me to show signs of life, the methods increase in force, as they all stand by, utterly perplexed. One important thing to note is that I can see and hear everything going on around me. I cannot speak, I cannot move or even blink. I am paralyzed, trapped somewhere safely, deep inside, where I can wait until the threat has passed. I can feel the pain, it’s just a matter of enduring it so as not to be forced from that safe place. 

It takes a decent span of torture time before I make my way back  at the sharp prodding of a toe so excruciatingly painful that I bolt upright gasping for air and hyperventilating, as if  rising from the dead. It’s as if they have never witnessed any such thing. I must be the only person who has ever displayed such symptoms. I question my own sanity. 

One time a Dr kept applying very painful pressure to my sternum in an attempt to make me tell him my name, telling me they would not help me if I did not comply. Even with tears streaming out the sides of my eyes, there was no empathy for me. At that point they could have cut off a finger and I still wouldn’t have made a peep. 

There was one very kind older Dr during one of these trips. He seemed to understand what was going on. He spoke gently as he held my hand, and reassured me in a most loving way, that everything was going to be alright. I fell into a deep sleep after that, not from any medication being administered, but from the soothing nature of his words, which had been directed at the trapped, wounded child in me.

Western Medicine, particularly as it relates to ER protocol and training, is USELESS in helping people suffering from all forms of PTSD, and mental lillness in general. No wonder the suicide rates are so high. The pain generated from the flashbacks and memories of suffering trapped inside the body feel like unbearable torture. To know that there is absolutely no-one coming to rescue you from that battlefield is like fearing imminent death. In my usual state, I know that this threat holds no power over me.

That brings me to my second trauma stimuli response. They are always brought on by a trigger. These triggers can take the form of sights, sounds, smells, or actions that seem to trip a switch in my mind. It feels like instantly being in a different reality. I am looking out through my adult eyes, but I am seeing a memory from the past through my child eyes that witnessed it, complete with the feelings of terror and desperate need for rescue. Sometimes I am triggered and experiencing a trauma from my adult life, but the child shows up because I have been piggy back triggered; a double whammy that starts off as a traumatic memory from adulthood that then triggers intense fear and sadness from a childhood experience.

One minute I am my happy, witty self, engaged in whatever it is I am doing, the next I am overwhelmed by deep sadness, fear, and helplessness. I cannot shake it off. It comes on like a tsunami and I begin crying uncontrollably, gasping for air, covering my face,  as if doing so makes me disappear. Other times I hide in my closet where I can make myself as small and undetectable as possible, or if in public, I sit and hold myself, rocking back and forth, inconsolable. It is extremely humiliating. I am unable to communicate as my adult self. I am held captive, as an observer, powerless until those emotions subside. It doesn’t end there.  Something happens in my brain, leaving me despondent. It feels as if a wire has been cut. I am deeply depressed and cannot hold back tears. Physically, I am exhausted, as if I had just run a marathon and been tripped at the finish line. This phase of paralyzation varies in length from one day to several weeks.

The longer it takes me to recover, the deeper into Depression I go. I cannot simply “snap out of it” . I am not wallowing. I think it is like being struck by lightening. There has been an electrical surge that has altered my chemistry. I struggle not to loathe my setback, regretting having felt so triumphant and shouting it from the rooftops. I feel raw, skinless, unprotected and vulnerable. And my body feels heavy like lead.

I know that this negative, trapped energy needs to be released. Unfortunately I cannot afford weekly massages, which I believe would be a tremendous help. This is where horses have had the biggest impact on getting me out from underneath all the weight. Whenever I feel my mental illness robbing me of all control, I know that it gets restored whenever I am able to ride. The harder, the better. When I can do something that brings me joy, that I am good at, it gives me hope. 

“At times, it seems as though the depth of suffering and blackness, the downgoing, penetrates the psyche and breaks the barrier between the human and the divine so that the grace of the divine may respond.”

From PREGNANT DARKNESS; ALCHEMY AND THE REBIRTH OF CONSCIOUSNESS by Monika Wikman

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