It took me a long time to find a therapist I clicked with. Years, in fact.
Every new therapist I went to seemed more interested in diagnosing me than listening to me….at least that is how I perceived it. An immediate deal breaker was when a therapist suggested anti-depressants in the first session. Could you at least learn a little bit about me first?
That’s why when I walked out of my current therapist’s office after that first session, I felt relief. She looked at me attentively. She didn’t take notes (she never takes notes during session…she makes them after I leave). She just looked at me warmly and invited me to share what brought me here.
It was a full year of talking before a diagnosis even passed her lips. It was kind of ironic because right before it, I was feeling really good, having released many things during that year and putting several things into perspective. I even had the thought that maybe I was done.
Then it hit. A flood of memories came rushing in. They weren’t new memories, but as real as if they were happening in that moment. Something was happening, and I didn’t know what.
She said she wasn’t surprised. She calmly reassured me that the memories were flooding back because I now felt safe. A year of sharing and – in essence – testing her (her words) to see if she was the person that could handle what was buried deep inside.
This was her first utterance of a diagnosis: post-traumatic stress disorder. As she started to tell me what it was, I just calmly listened.
Most people are aware of fight or flight. When we experience life-threatening danger, our primal brains kick in to get us out of danger. We either fight our attacker and defend ourselves, or we flee and escape the threat.
When neither option is available to us, we play dead. We freeze. Most predators are only interested in live prey (vultures or other scavenger birds are the only creatures who seek dead prey). So by freezing and playing dead, the predator will back off, and we secure our safety.
The natural response after such an experience is to shake and release the extra adrenalin and other biochemicals released into our system. By doing so, we return to “normal.”
What can happen, though, is that without the subsequent shaking response the trauma gets stuck…in our bodies/in our cells. We are – in essence – still frozen…frozen in that time.
We can proceed for years (some people can proceed for a lifetime) in this state. We think things are normal, but below the surface they are not. We are hyper-aware of danger. We create coping mechanisms to protect ourselves in everyday circumstances. We may have out-of-proportion reactions to everyday incidences. We may be moving and functioning in society, but we are frozen.
We are frozen until we start to feel safe again.
In our intimate relationships, we can start to melt in the safety that our partner provides. That is both a blessing and one of the hardest things to deal with. For an unaware partner, it looks like stuff is coming out of left field. It can also seem like reactions are way out of proportion to the circumstances at hand.
But when we are activated (or triggered, although activated more accurately describes to me what is happening…the trauma is being activated), we are not in the present moment. We are in that stuck place. It is as if our bodies were literally frozen in ice 10, 20 or 30 years ago and we are just now being extricated.
All those years have passed, but we don’t all of the sudden jump to the present moment. Our bodies have never completed the trauma cycle – the shaking and release so that the danger subsides from our bodies. We can’t move into the present until we finish the trauma cycle.
The challenge for us is that we start to experience the trauma again, and our deftly honed defense skills kick in. Depending on the situation, we could be re-traumatized (even accidentally) instead of allowing the cycle to finish. We think things are getting worse, when – if we have the patience to let the cycle complete itself – will get better…much better!
This is the hardest thing to do. I describe it as an old-fashioned fun house. Everything is distorted because the difference between present and the past is completely blurred. The danger feels so real, even though it is only coming up again because you are now safe. As much as I’ve learned about myself and what activates me, it can still sneak up on me…and my Master. It is also especially difficult as I try to change old coping behaviors. It’s like going through detox in some ways.
Sometimes I feel so guilty for what I put Master through. I’ve told him I don’t know what gives him the fortitude to endure the worst of this, but I am forever grateful that he is providing the safety and guidance and love that allows me to release the trauma so that I can shine through.