Memories can be wonderful … but not always. Sometimes they thrust themselves into consciousness without warning or invitation, knocking the air clean out of our lungs. Like a kick in the gut with steel-capped boots, an unwelcome memory can force us to your knees , gagging, or send us stumbling numbly in search of a dark, dark cupboard in which to hide … a cupboard that holds no Narnia on its other side, but only ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night.
Some time after the witching hour last night, a memory came to visit. I tried to grab it by the throat and force it back through the door of my dreams, but still it came … stealthy and relentless. And then came another … and yet another. Today I’m barely able to function.
Such is the reality of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a response all too common to survivors of verbal, emotional and psychological abuse. I wish I could tell you how to make it stop. Psychologists will teach you cognitive behavioural techniques (CBT) – the mode of therapy that is currently flavour of the month. It aims to mediate your emotions by getting you to control your own thought processes and attitudes. What the ‘experts’ don’t seem to understand, or tell you, is that the deep-seated feelings of horror and terror that result from years of cruelty actually circumvent the normal neural pathways. And that lack of understanding comes very close to ‘victim blaming’; it unleashes a barrage of guilt and alienates us from much needed love and support.
During my own (long-ago, pre-illness) studies of psychology, I learned that it is, in fact, not possible for researchers to determine whether the physical responses associated with anxiety – the release of stress hormones, which lead to rapid heart rate and pulse, etc) – pre-empt the feeling of fear itself, or whether the fear triggers the physical response. It’s the physical processes that make us shake with fear or paralyze us; that make us feel sick and our palms sweat as the blood thuds and throbs through our heads, leaving us spent. Researchers still don’t know whether the chicken comes before the egg.
Truth is, memories or events that evoke a trauma response trigger automatic emotions first … and the thoughts then follow. From there we scramble to make cognitive sense of them while our fight or flight responses are on auto-pilot, ready to take off like a jump jet. Add in the fact that stress (in all its forms – anxiety, fear etc) shuts down our normal cognitive processes, making it impossible to think straight, and we have a wrecking ball massive enough to demolish the very fabric of our being.
Under these circumstances I believe it’s virtually impossible to be rational – although I baulk at fully embracing that concept with its implication that we just can’t help ourselves. There has to be some level of personal responsibility, certainly, but there needs to be an attitude of compassion, too. Compassion not only from others but also compassion for ourselves. Sometimes we need to cut ourselves some slack. That doesn’t mean allowing ourselves to be out of control; to rant and rave at others; to get drunk and drive fast in an attempt to get away from ourselves; or to engage in any other forms of destructive behaviour.
What it means is to understand that the feeling itself is okay.
We are NOT DEFECTIVE! We are injured and may always carry painful scars that adhere to our souls … wounds that are easily reopened. It is NOT OUR FAULT. We are who we are. Survivors.
We need to accept ourselves with all our battle-scars even if no-one else does, and we need to nurture our own wounded inner child. Imagine how you might treat a little girl or boy who has been irrevocably damaged by some adult monster. What would you say to her? How would you soothe and reassure him? If you were harmed by an intimate partner and not by a parent, your inner child is still just as wounded. We all carry that vulnerable facet deep within us and it is this very precious, fragile part of our souls that our abusers hone in on in their attempts to destroy us.
Some of us turn to God and hand our brokenness to Him; the perfect parent; the ever-loving spouse who cherishes us in a way no human being ever can. He is the keeper of my soul and my only true solace when the demons of trauma return to torment me. He scoops me up and cradles me in His powerful yet gentle arms and kisses me like the wounded child I truly am.