What it feels like to be triggered

from my journal for May 6, 1992

Having a really hard time.  Dana & I tried to sort out the stuff on the back shelves preparatory to moving things into the new store room, but our styles of going about it were in conflict, so we both ended up feeling frustrated and disappointed.  Dana has a way of just blustering through, shoving things around, he would send all the things we don’t need to the dump.  This makes me feel pressured to make a decision, and I start to feel scared and totally blasted.

I can’t tell if I felt that way already, before we started, but it’s the old familiar panic — can’t breathe, can’t make my mind focus, can’t make decisions.  Feel totally overwhelmed.  Also feeling that unpleasant combination of lethargy and restlessness.  I suppose it’s not so much lack of energy as fear that anything I do will be wrong.  So I’m immobilized, but unable to rest.  I went for a walk with Dana and the dog, hoping that exercise outdoors might help, but it made me feel worse than ever.  So I tried to find a way to describe how I feel.

I feel totally overwhelmed.  I feel like a two-year-old, left by her mother in Grand Central Station, watching the adults rush by, no one paying attention to me, nowhere I can go to feel safe, I don’t know what to do, or whether my mother’s ever coming back, or how to look for help.  And I feel like I’m outside and can’t get back in, like I’d gone out on the roof of a very tall building and the door had slammed shut and locked.  I feel high up and exposed to merciless light.  I feel like I’m spread thin on the outside of some cylindrical shape — perhaps my body — and there’s nothing inside, or I have no connection to what’s inside.  I have a sense of my body as a hollow shell filled with thousands of beating wings, perhaps many birds, but they are not trying to get out because from their perspective there isn’t any out.  So what I’m experiencing is that the inside and the outside are completely disconnected.  I feel completely out of touch with my life, like I had suddenly waked up in somebody else’s life.  Dana seems almost like a stranger — on the walk I tried to tell him some of this, finally he reached out and took my hand which helped a lot — I had been imagining that he was very angry with me and that if I tried to tell him how it was for me he would begin yelling and screaming at me.  Yet at the same time I know he’s not like that.  When I said I was feeling overwhelmed and isolated and burst into tears, he suggested that it might be menopause, which is a very real possibility.  I woke up soaking this morning.  So who knows.  If I think it’s chemicals in my body, it’s perhaps easier to detach from it, but there’s still the fear that I’ll always be this way.  I don’t like the sense of isolation, the sense of my life being flat and dead.

I’ve just been typing up a passage from last year where I describe a similar state: both immobilized and restless, unable to sense any clear purpose or desire.  A frantic feeling of must do something, and absolutely no sense of what would be OK or correct to do.  Well, I see the double bind, and I see how that must have been a common experience of my childhood, created by my parents’ urgency that something should happen because they wanted/needed it, their complete inability to see that I might have needs/wants of my own and to make space for those needs, so that I learned very early not to get in touch with my own needs and wants when I experienced that pressure from them.  Of course I knew there was no point in asking them for help or guidance or even a clearer explanation of what it was they wanted me to do.  And that’s exactly the state I’ve been describing: I’m all on the outside, externalized, exposed to someone else’s demands, unable to get in touch with my own needs because the pressure to “perform” for them is so great.  Ah! that feels a lot better.  Seeing it helps a lot, seeing that the feeling of must do is just that old inappropriate one conditioned by my parents’ unfair, but unconscious, demands that I somehow “fix it” for them, make them comfortable — which is something that no one else could ever do for them, but there was no way that I as a child could see that, so of course I accepted their expectation as my life’s task.

Gosh I keep writing this same one over and over again.  So tiresome.  When will I get it.

This is a pretty good description of what PTSD feels like when you’re triggered.  I find the combination of immobility and restlessness sounds a lot like being activated and frozen at the same time.  I describe a sense of urgency, and think I may have gotten it from my parents, something I eventually recognized as “false urgency.”  A false sense of urgency can easily be created by being triggered, by something resembling something that happened in the past, thinking it relates to the present situation, and failing to see that whatever it is doesn’t really have to be done right now.

My sense of being trapped on the outside may be a result of being run by the reptilian brainstem instead of the neo-cortex.  In fact my body is reacting to activation of the amygdala, not to some sense from my inner self that I think of as the “real me.”  At this time, I had no idea that I had been traumatized, no information about the process of trauma, so all I had to explain what was going on for me was what I knew about alcoholic parents.  I really needed to have some kind of explanation, not knowing what’s going on, especially when it’s terrifying: “the old familiar panic — can’t breathe, can’t make my mind focus, can’t make decisions.”

Here is some more information about why this happens.  It came in 2019, and I posted it as Three Ways Trauma Changes the Brain.

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