I’m seeing my therapist tomorrow and I’m nervous.
We’ve been circling around the issues. In the first few sessions, she constructed a sort of biography, questioning me about times in my life from my earliest memories up until the present day. She was doing this to identify trauma, and expected that it would take just one or two sessions. Four sessions later we were still going.
I’ve never considered my life unhappy, its been more good than bad. But, along the way there has been trauma. We’ve identified 8 distinct events, any of which, according to my therapist, would be enough to really mess with someone’s head. (She put it more professionally than that). Apparently the amount and type of traumas I’ve experienced is actually quite extreme, and therefore it’s completely justifiable for me to be finding it hard to cope. So that’s validating: I have a legitimate reason not to be functioning.
But, it’s also weird. Life just happens, and while yes, there have been some difficult experiences, everyone has difficult times. I knew a couple of events in my life were extreme, but I didn’t think I’d had more than my share. In fact, I’d been denying a lot.
Its disempowering to consider oneself a victim, and so I’d come up with all sorts of excuses and explanations for what I’d experienced. Its easier on the ego to believe that if I’d just made different choices things wouldn’t have happened the way they did. That gives me a sense of control. To acknowledge, as I’ve had to recently, that no I didn’t bring any of that on myself is hard. I feel diminished and also angry. The world seems a more frightening place.
I’d made excuses, rationalised it all and just got on with my life, because what other choice did I have?
But, out of the blue, about 8 weeks ago, I read something in the newspaper that acted as a trauma trigger, and I was back in one of those moments, with all its fear and distress.
I like the Wikipedia definition of trauma triggers because it comes pretty close to what I’ve been experiencing.
A trauma trigger is an experience that causes someone to recall a previous traumatic memory, although the trigger itself need not be frightening or traumatic and can be indirectly or superficially reminiscent an earlier traumatic incident. Trauma triggers are related to posttraumatic stress disorder, a condition in which sufferers often cannot control the recurrence of emotional or physical symptoms, or of repressed memory.Triggers can be subtle and difficult to anticipate, and can sometimes exacerbate PTSD. A trauma trigger may also be referred to as a trauma stimulus or a trauma stressor.
After I was triggered the first time, it seemed all sorts of things would bring back unbidden memories. Day after day, night after night, I’d find myself thrown back into the most painful experiences of my life.
Things calmed down for a while, but last Monday, when I flew to Brisbane for the Edutech conference, I was triggered again, and again, and again.
By the end of my first evening there, I was in such a state of terror that I could not sleep. I huddled against a wall in my hotel room, gripping a kitchen knife, and checking the doors were secure. It felt crazy, because I knew on one level I wasn’t in any danger and should just go to sleep, but the fear which had been unleashed was too powerful. I think I had 2 hours sleep.
The next day the triggering continued. The most subtle and unexpected things would set me off. A sudden movement out of the corner of my eye induced terror, a 13 year old speaker triggered painful memories of my life at that age.The crowded expo full of strangers brought me back to the isolation I felt as a fifth grader being bullied and intimidated at school.
I spent the day alternating between fear, distress and frustration at not being able to properly enjoy or benefit from being at such a great event.
I’d calmed somewhat by the time I returned to Sydney, but Thursday was still hard. I walked to our local shopping centre at around 5pm, just as commuters were starting to arrive home from the train station. Every time I’d see a man walking towards me along the footpath, I’d tense up, on edge and panicky, unsure if I was safe.
My therapist wants to use a form of Radical Exposure Therapy. She says it has longer lasting and better results than cognitive bahaviour therapy,which in my case, she thinks will act as a bandaid.
For real healing to occur, she believes I need to confront those traumas in a safe environment and re-experience the emotions that went with them. Apparently, through exposure, we can reframe the memories and process them so I don’t find myself reacting to things in the present as if they were traumas of the past.
The idea of really confronting those traumas, of having to explore and FEEL what happened scares me. Reliving the experience? I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
Last week, she attempted to have me remember in detail one of the events. It was too much for me. Even the thought of remembering was painful. Tomorrow, we’ll be trying again.
I know I need to confront things. Burying them like I had, clearly didn’t work, and if I don’t deal with them, I guess I’ll keep on getting triggered. But I’m scared by the prospect of re-experiencing trauma. It’s going to get harder before it gets easier.
Wish me luck.