I don’t often have nightmares. I don’t recall ever having a triggering nightmare, although I don’t tend to retain memories of triggers so I may have just forgotten. That all changed the other night when I started awake at 3:30 in absolute terror. I had been dreaming that I was riding home with my mom and instead of turning left onto our street, she turned right and we were facing the street dead ending into a cornfield. Sirens were suddenly blaring, lights were flashing red, it was the end of the world, people were starting to appear, screaming, the car hit something, she was dead and I was crumpled in the passenger floor board.
It took over an hour for me to calm down enough to go back to sleep.
I rarely have literal dreams. I don’t remember having dreams that resemble flashbacks. I don’t have flashbacks. It was so literal, and so related to the car wreck that broke my brain. It was horrible and terrifying and shocking after I’ve worked so hard at recovery and have experienced something like that so seldom, especially after the 5 years it’s been.
I wrecked in early October. We’re approaching that time, and I don’t want to make a deal of it. One year, maybe year 3, it didn’t bother me and I seem to remember sailing through like it was past. That doesn’t seem to be true, and I think part of the difficulty I’m having now is related to an approaching trauma anniversary. Maybe because I’ve dragged so much up to deal with? Maybe because I’ve dug so deep? That answer feels like the right one, much as I hate it. I hear the body keeps score, after all. And I still need to read that book.
I still get triggered. Frequently. And I’m still surprised every time. Even more so when it’s not clear to me two hours later what exactly happened. Was it because I had dessert for dinner and the sugar tripped a wire? Was it because I did exactly what I wanted today and my body didn’t like it? Was it because I put myself out there and took a risk at work and my brain connected that to trauma somehow? Was it because I want better in an area of my life that I need to be patient with and the discomfort of having to be patient and keep working lit up a neuron path that reads DANGER?
Hell if I know.
As I’ve worked – so hard – to repair what I can of my brain, I’ve hidden at home a lot. Leaving the house for work and necessary errands is usually enough for me to handle, and it feels like a long time since I’ve been social. I don’t go out. I don’t have that many friends nearby (most of my close friends are in other states or countries and I keep them forever but also don’t see them often) and I haven’t really exercised in something like a month (the weight loss thing has made me stay in more than usual, and I reckon will keep me in until I can fully resolve that one). I haven’t always been like this, and it’s not a form of existence I particularly like, so I find myself increasingly pondering thoughts like, “I wish I were strong enough to do ___________________________ (fill in the blank).
It only took 9 words to trigger me so badly that I had to hang up the phone and fight for control of my brain. It only took 5 seconds for my body to flood with chemicals so hard that I could feel it happening and knew I had to get clear of anything that might compound the trauma I had just experienced (being triggered can be traumatizing) before I put myself at risk of losing control of my car again. I got triggered by a comment that conjured up a past horrific experience while driving on the road I nearly died on 5 years ago next month. There is no way to explain the pain and fear.
But I can explain that I knew how to manage it. I got off the phone quickly, I started breathing deeply, I reminded myself that I can perform mechanical tasks just fine when under extreme stress – and driving is a mechanical task – I reminded myself that I was safe from the thing that was terrifying my brain even if being on the interstate at a high speed was not particularly safe, that even if I wasn’t in control I never really am anyway so that wasn’t worth expending energy on, and if I wanted to drop my plans and go home, I could do that. If I wanted to pull off the road and get someone to come get me, I could. If I wanted to never talk to that person again, I could. If I never wanted to work again, I could. If I never wanted to drive again, I could.
I got to my work meeting and parked, then sat in the car for a minute to collect myself and check in now that I wasn’t focused on highway survival. It took 90 seconds before I started feeling tired and defeated. That kind of experience – going from focused and intentional to fighting for your life in the space of less than 10 words – is one that I’m still not sure how I survive.
What I can’t explain is how I called the person who triggered me back and made sure they understood that they can never use that phrase with me again. Ever. I can’t explain how I walked into the meeting and was fully present and engaged for five hours, including calling back a difficult client during the break and walking through what he was requesting. Or how I drove straight to another client’s office to sign legal paperwork needed required for a project, checked in on project progress and had a long chat with the admin about something I care nothing about (but she does) before I got back to my office to finish and submit an application that has a critical deadline more than 24 hours before that deadline. I turned right around on a phone call and addressed an asinine response from a city official to plans I had submitted, made the “corrections” to keep the peace (even if everything was right there in the documents and the revisions were a complete waste of my time) and finished up with a 10 hour day…10 hours after I was triggered.
I ate whatever the hell I wanted for dinner. Which amounted to half a baked potato and a slice of bread in addition to what was otherwise a normal keto meal.
PTSD is a living hell. But life goes on, and I’m going with it.
It’s not just weight loss.
Some friends asked if I wanted to join them in a few months for a short trip, and invited my boyfriend to join. I’m really looking forward to this, and a lot of the trip will be new to me. I couldn’t get boyfriend to commit to going, so I decided to book my own trip and leave him to join later if he wants.
Living. Making bold decisions. Doing what I enjoy. It’s what I’ve worked so hard to do – go on a trip with friends I know I’ll value for years, and for no better reason than they asked and I want to. So I let my boyfriend know I was going without him, booked my flights, and promptly had a meltdown.
Doing what I want, for me, is a trigger. Living a big life is a trigger. Doing things that hold connection and enjoyment for me is a trigger.
No wonder I stay home and work.
I’ll just add that to the list of neuron paths to reprogram…
You know when you have really good intentions and then a thunderstorm hits and you get jarred out of your meditative state and that’s the end of that for the day?
I finally felt so blocked by anxiety that I knew I had to do something about it, so I got comfortable and start to reprocess my thinking and my experience. It was nice at first to have the rain as a background (we’ve gotten a lot of rain lately), but after a few minutes of mental progress, lightning hit close to my house and startled me out of my calm. I don’t have a gunshot trigger, but I do startle easily at sudden noise and movement, so that was the end of my meditative calm. Damn.
But, after more sleep I’m a little better today, more calm and focused and more open to leaving the house and being in public while wearing actual clothes and not anything that makes me feel as invisible or unattractive as possible. My weight has inched back up slightly (those extra calories I was unconsciously sneaking in), but today it isn’t an issue for me to stick to the calorie plan and accept that the extra weight no longer serves me or the life that I want to be living.
I caught myself casually ignoring calories last night. I had severe anxiety and just leaving my room was hard. I went from high to severe while I made dinner and felt myself tipping over the edge to xanax level.
That weight loss trigger? Haha, yeah. So I was unconsciously disregarding that I was coping by packing on the calories.
But I noticed.
It’s so hard to reprogram triggers in the middle of severe anxiety. It’s so hard to do anything other than what reads as necessary to survival. I can work. I can feed myself. I can usually shower and brush my teeth. That’s about it.
Which is highlighting an urgent need to pause and make space to dig into this and face it.
After I go get my hair cut.