Travelling back to my hometown
It has been over 7 years since we moved across the country for better opportunities for our family, but I would be lying if I said part of me was just searching for a place to feel safer. So My husband and my 7 month pregnant self rented a uhaul and moved our lives to our new home. Moving has given me a sense of security I felt I didn't have back in my hometown. The location where I was assaulted was less than a 20 minute drive from my home and only minutes from where we would shop downtown. Being able to minimize my anxiety going out in public has been crucial to my healing process. I used to worry every time I went to the grocery store, mall, coffee shop etc that I would run into "him"; I used to spend so much of my mental and emotional capacity theorizing what that situation would look like: Would I run? Would I scream? Would I be overtaken by rage? Would I freeze? Would he recognize me? Would he taunt me? Would he try to touch me? Look me in the eye? Would he smile? All these theories would rush through my head as I also scanned the public places for danger and exits. It was exhausting, sometimes it even felt debilitating. I couldn't numb my fear, no matter how well adjusted I thought I had become. I found myself checking into his social media to try to keep tabs on him to prevent ever having to see him again. Now these intrusive thoughts are more manageable, I am able to rationalize my way through agoraphobia, although I still struggle with hyper vigilance and the occasional flashback I have been able to fall into a routine that has given me my life back. It wasn't easy, it took alot of trial and error, strict regimens, counseling medication, support groups etc to get to this place and maintain it. Do I feel safe all the time? No. but I feel safer than I did before.
I used to dread going back home. I would build up every visit in my head to be worst case scenario but after a few visits over the year I have been able to figure out how to manage my travel anxiety as well. I have worked hard to identify my triggers so I can avoid them, I have learned to be more open with my loved ones that I trust, when I am struggling ( and let me tell you even after all this time it still can be hard to say the words "I'm struggling" but I am still learning not to make myself small in order not to burden the people who love me. Having a support system is important but if you are unwilling to let them in and ask them for help, you are not utilizing your support system to its fullest potential) The thing with learning to manage your mental illness is that when you are "doing well" for a long period of time sometimes you forget what its like to be triggered. Something that you were somewhat desensitized to when it used to happen daily takes longer to recover from and can feel more extreme than you remember. I tend to feel like I have lost all my progress and spiral into the " I will never be better" thinking, or the "why am I still so upset after all the years" self criticizing. I urge people all the time to be gentle with themselves, to show their selves the same level of compassion they do to other that are struggling but regarding this I have to admit that a lot of the time I am a hypocrite. I am my own worst critic.
So what is it like when you are caught off guard by a trigger you haven't been exposed to in a while.
For me it feels like I have driven into a brick wall. Part of me sees it coming I tense up, but my hands begin to shake, I fight the urge to vomit, I want to talk myself down but its too late I brace for impact. Since it has been years of learning coping mechanism I have been able to really hone my skills of pretending I am okay. I don't want to make a scene, I don't want to draw attention to myself, I don't want to admit that I really am so upset it feels like I can't pick up the pieces...even if I could I prefer to do it myself ( sometimes it feels like PTSD is my problem and I shouldn't burden others with it...I know... I am still working on that). So I wait until I have time to myself to open my pressure cooker valve in private, ( If I am in public usually the bathroom is the perfect place for this). I go in and I allow myself to get in my feelings, but only for a designated amount of time that I feel is appropriate, I silent scream, cry etc and then I look at myself in the mirror remind myself the date and time " it isn't 2008. you're safe" When I have let out enough steam I go back to what I was doing until I need to do this for a more extended period not in public.
The last time we went back "home" I had to face a trigger I had avoided for years; we had a commitment that forced me to be within walking distance of "where it happened". When I used to live in the area I would feel a draw to this place, before I knew the identity of my attacker the location of the attack is where I focused all of my negative feelings, my rage sadness etc. I only had to drive by this area one time in the last 8 years I had forgotten how much of a strangle hold it had on me. As I stared at the google map's directions I felt an instinct pit in my stomach, I wanted to scream " I am not going! I can't go!!!" but I knew I needed to, so I continued on. It felt like an avalanche of emotion that was burying me as I tried to furiously dig my way to the surface to take a breath, but I did it! Would it be easier to go back the next time something came up and I needed to? I don't think so, but that is okay. Trying to guess what I would do if there was a next time I had to face this particular trigger, wouldn't yield much of anything positive so I am choosing to only address it if it happens, my life and everything around me keeps moving and I need to catch up, I took a break from being okay but it was just a pause in the grand scheme of things, I am still moving forward. There is no one right way to continue on with your life after trauma what works for me may not be what works for someone else, but for now pushing pause when I need to, works for me. I will continue to use what works and adjust the rest as I learn more.
That night after everything had calmed down I had my first flashback in a long time. I crept out of bed and down the stairs and sat outside on the porch trying to shake off that feeling ( if you have experienced flashbacks you probably know exactly what I am talking about). I let myself process it all unfiltered until I was ready to come back and resume sleep. This right here took me a long time to accomplish...allowing myself to go back to sleep after a flashback felt like I was sentencing myself to being attacked again when I closed my eyes cause it always feels so real. Luckily with a lot of hard work I have learned how to set myself up for my best attempt to sleep depending on the situation sometimes its medication, or watching a funny video to distract myself, or mindfulness techniques and a youtube sleep meditation video...these things don't always work but they have decreased the amount of flashbacks I experience and I am grateful to have these tools to utilize when I need them.
So why did I feel the need to share this? Part one: sometimes I use this blog as a journal in hopes that maybe someone reads it and says I could have written this myself, I am not alone! part 2 is because I wanted to remind you or anyone who needs to hear it that when triggers catch us off guard no matter how prepared you think you are, it is okay. You are not losing all of your progress, you are not hopeless etc we are all a work in progress. If you are working to try to understand yourself or maybe just trying to get through a life that has demonstrated its darkness to you, I am proud that you are still hanging on and trying.
Be gentle with yourself when its needed and I will try to do the same.