It’s scary to think you’ve ‘gone mad’. It’s scary to think you have some serious, incurable ‘mental illness’. It’s scary to not understand what on earth is going on in your brain. And perhaps what’s even scarier is finding out that what is ‘wrong’ with you has a name: dissociative identity disorder.
The freeze responses teaches us that we ‘can’t’, and it’s an instinctive, natural survival response that helps us by immobilising us. After trauma, however, it becomes our default response – a habit. We believe that we ‘can’t’ when in reality we ‘couldn’t’ then but we ‘can’ now.
‘It’s horrible being triggered.’
I nod. It’s an understatement. There are no words to describe it. The trigger comes and our bodies and brains surge with the aversiveness of survival: everything tells us to get away. This is dangerous! This is painful! This isn’t good! Get away, get away!
If I said I could help you improve your life by 1% you might not be very interested. Especially if your life is filled with pain, suffering, dysfunction and struggle, you might think, “A 1% difference isn’t going to do any good! I need a 100% difference!”
That’s how I thought for a long time
All I did was walk into the kitchen and pick up a cloth. But the sudden waft of bleach flung me far, far back into some childhood memory. I switched to a traumatised part of myself. I had been ‘triggered’.
Courage. It’s the stuff of heroes, right? Frodo with the Ring in Mordor, William Wallace and the uprising, Henry V once more into the breach, ‘Sully Sullenberger’ parking his broken plane on the Hudson.
‘Courage’ isn’t necessarily a word we think is all that relevant to therapy, to recovering from trauma.
‘I don’t feel real. All the time—literally all the time—I feel like I’m living life from behind a glass screen, or that I’m watching life as it’s happening on TV but it’s not real. I’m always ten yards removed from it. I don’t cry. I don’t feel things. I feel like I’m in a dream. I feel like I’m going mad. Even now, talking to you, I’m not sure if this is really happening or not or if I’m just imagining it. The GP says I’m just depressed, but I’m not.’
‘I’m not seeing a doctor!’ I insisted with a look on my face that was intended to end the debate once and for all. As far as I was concerned, it was simple: I wasn’t going to the hospital, walk-in centre or GP surgery, because I couldn’t go. I couldn’t cope with going. Such was my abject terror that, unless it was a matter of life or death, I avoided all things medical.
The problem? This was rapidly becoming a matter of life and death.
I was brimming. And I hated it. I hated being upset. The surge of emotion through my body. Being out of control. The pounding heart, the air being crushed out of my chest, the pain-stretchy zinginess in my arms and legs, and the scream … the lacerating, shrill shriek of a scream in my head.
Being traumatised is a tough gig. Maybe one of the hardest. It’s exhausting, it’s debilitating, it affects every area of your life and it can feel insurmountable.
So it’s difficult to think that recovery is possible, even a little bit of recovery. Maybe it feels impossible to think in terms of significant recovery. And harder still to think in grand, magnificent, skyscaper-type ways about recovery.
‘Unfortunately, you’ve undone all the good you’ve done today.’
She was deadly serious and I was utterly perplexed. What was she talking about? I had spent the day delivering my training day ‘Dealing with Distress: Working with Suicide and Self-Harm.’ A tough day, but a good day. A day of hope for how to help people who see no other way through their pain but by taking their own lives. A day of guts-and-bowels emotion.
I used to think that one day, maybe one day (a long time in the future), I’d be ‘normal’ and then I wouldn’t have these thoughts any more.
Sometimes I would sit in bed, unable to move, unable to get up and get dressed and get on, because I felt so demoralised at the incessant torrent in my head. I was paralysed with the overwhelm of my self-hate. Ironically, the one thing I thought I was good at was finding fault with myself.