Christmas 1980 marked a turning point in my life. I was newly widowed with two small children. During the day I plied my trade as an electronic technician. At night, I was Mommy. What a juggling act. I went from angstroms to angst on a daily basis. I tamed electrons during the day and sought to raise my kids on nights and weekends.
Hah, I find myself saying. Try juggling that one. I had no clue how to parent.
I was a miserable mother. After the death of my husband, I moved my young ‘ns into a new apartment and promptly told them, “You can’t get away me from here. There’s no circular path.” My oldest looked at me stymied, and said, “Huh?” I shook my head, apologized, and told him I was sorry.
“I don’t know why I said that, Hon,” I told him.
I had fallen back on an old trick I had learned as a kid without realizing it. When I went to view the apartment for the first time, I looked for exits; not for my kids, but for myself. That translated into the statement I made to my treasures—my kids.
That’s when I started taking psychology classes. Psychology helped me learn how to deal with my children in a positively, and it also began my journey towards understanding my hypervigilance.
Back then, Complex Trauma did not exist as a diagnosis. It does now. It was before much of the research done on the human brain. Kids were supposed to be resilient and bounce back from nearly anything. Now it is well recognized what constant fear can do to the developing brain. Neurophysiology is key.
My childhood of searching for exits had translated into an adult point of view; different, but the same.
I stopped working within months of my husband’s death. I could no longer focus on the microscopic circuits that had become my whole reason for existence. I turned my attention to my children.
I loved my children but had no basis in mothering. My years as a child taught me mothers were bad, and I was a mother. I clung to that belief for most of my children’s youth. I sought to make those years fun for them.
I have many distinct memories of raising my children, and a few stand out: bike rides on a weekly basis; all-day trips exploring Marblehead, a town just down the road; feeding slugs on the concrete of the back porch, those brown, mottled creatures that effused a sort of gentility to which I was not accustomed. As we explored our small world, I explored a new vision of childhood. It was magical.
Throughout this period, I continued to explore psychology. I went through periods of depression. I struggled to diagnose myself—a fool’s errand.
Trauma emerged only recently on the diagnostic horizon. It had been studied for years but had gained no notoriety. Prominent clinicians struggled to point to it as a significant factor. The Vietnam War had many victims; Its warriors being recognized as victims themselves. PTSD emerged as a diagnosis, and somehow it fit, but I had not been through that war. The war I experienced came through images that flooded me at times; images of running and hiding from those very people who bore me.
I imparted many diagnostic impressions over the years to clinicians which they hungrily supported. I was this. I was that. I went through a range of diagnoses.
Then came Dr. Christine Courtois who laid out a roadmap I could follow. There it was—my experiences in a nutshell. Only these were not just my experiences; they were the experiences of many. I reveled in her revelations. I was not alone.
Complex trauma often results in Complex PTSD if gone untreated. I finally had a viable diagnosis. What was done to me caused what I am; not some inherent flaw in my character. There is some movement by clinicians to denote PTSD as PTSI: Post Traumatic Stress Injury. Disorder just does not fit.
So there I had it. I suffer from Complex Trauma—a category reserved to those who suffer the ravages of severe child abuse, concentration camp survivors, and prisoners of war. I embrace my fellow survivors. And I suffer from PTSI—Post Traumatic Stress Injury.
As such, I suffer from hypervigilance. I am tuned into the slightest change in facial expression, body language, and voice tone. Any conversation that reveals deception blasts alarm. I run like Hell. If there is no escape, I suffer greatly. I keep chiding myself that I am an adult now, but you would not believe the circumstances that can imprison you within reach of people’s pathologies. I once confronted someone about his lying and manipulations, and he just shrugged. He had total control over my circumstance. I was terrified.
I still, to this day, survey my surroundings to ensure there is an avenue of escape. When I enter a room, sitting with my back to the door can be emotionally excruciating. I am always poised for flight, yet I freeze. I most often exhibit an outer calm throughout it all. Running is not socially acceptable in most instances.
Sleep is a bear. One clinician told me that he’s had people who suffer from hypervigilance tell him they refused to sleep. A sleeping form is in its most vulnerable state if you think about it. I often would go for days without sleep, allowing it to overtake me only when I had to.
My sleep is still most often broken as is evident in my always seeming to be awake to those of you who have noted my participation. I sleep for a few hours and wake, jumping out of bed as if it’s on fire. My bed has a platform that precludes any space underneath. My abode is a fortress. You would think I’d push out zzzs for hours. Not so. I still do not feel safe. Not in my own house or anywhere.
I believe hypervigilance is hardwired—a perversion of neurophysiology that will maintain throughout one’s life. Pathways in the brain are activated when survival is key. It is in our nature to survive.
Living in constant survival mode is exhausting, but I have chosen to accept characteristics which I believe I cannot change. Putting myself in a character’s shoes is easier. I have intimate knowledge of how people think. My background in psychology plus my hypervigilance gives me an edge. I take medications to curb my anxiety. But man—that sleep thing….
Time to try.
Copyright 2017 Joyce Bowen
About the Author: Joyce Bowen is a freelance writer and public speaker. Inquiries can be made at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sobre el autor: Joyce Bowen es un escritor independiente y orador público. Las consultas pueden hacerse en email@example.com
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