Trigger Warning: Physical Assault
If you feel like this blog started in the middle of my story, you are correct. This blog is a book I have written at least four times and have never completed largely because my memories aren’t linear. Trying to organize my memories and experiences linearly has caused me so many problems, that I have abandoned the attempts. Choosing a medium (blogging) that doesn’t have to be linear, I hope will actually play to the unique way a traumatic brain function.
Consider a life-altering experience, a car accident perhaps. As popular media has demonstrated these events happen in nanoseconds and are experienced as an interminable amount of time where minute details crystallize and are frozen suspended and experienced in slow motion by the person the trauma is happening to. Why? Well, back in the day when a nanosecond could be the difference between life and death, our brains learned to extend time perception, drawing it out and giving out bodies a chance to find some lightning sharp reaction that might save us.[ Slower Time Estimation in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; Carmelo M. Vicario and Kim L. Felmingham: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5762810/%5D
Living with my abusers I took to spending as much time outside as possible. Like many abusers, my biological father moved us to a rural secluded part of the North Georgia Mountains. I spent my time outside, hiking trails, and deer runs, losing myself in nature as far from my abuser as possible. One day, walking down a new deer trail, I started to step down but something in my periphery caught my eye causing me to pause my stride and note that a large snake was making its way across the trail I was on. I managed to hop and jump over the large reptilian slithering along its average day and then registered with a nervous giggle that it was just a large black racer or black rat snake. Perfectly harmless, still I was glad to have not stepped upon it. This extended time experience, allowed me to see danger, acknowledge the danger, avoid danger, and then dismiss danger in likely less than two seconds. But my experience of this event is a slow-motion movie I can easily call back to my mind in great detail from the knowledge that this was fall with a slight breeze and the smell of the first fires of the season on the wind. I was wearing a light jacket and discovered that black racers are actually black, brown, and iridescent I was even able to acknowledge that the racer’s last meal hadn’t been digested yet and was outlined in its cavernous belly, a mole most likely.
When I remember this event, I can smell the smoke of the burning leaves in the wind. Feel the wind caressing my skin, re-experience the shiver of fright and the euphoria of relief that it wasn’t a rattlesnake looking to warm itself in sunlight on the trail.
And this phenomenon is precisely what abuse survivors experience regarding their abuse. In my last blog, I stated that I sucked my thumb throughout childhood and into my middle school years. In stressed states, even today, I will rest my thumb along my jaw and self-soothe by blowing gently on my knuckles.
Before I had completely altered my habit of thumb-sucking, my family was piling in my biological father’s suped-up wood panel station wagon. The three of us, my biological brother (eight years my junior) and my biological sister (eight years my senior)were crammed into the backseat where I was positioned in the middle. My parents were arguing and it was summer. The car was stifling and my thighs had wielded with the vinyl seat. The argument in the front seat continued to escalate and I got more and more nervous. Cramped as I was between my biological siblings, I unconsciously started to self-soothe by sucking my thumb. Movement from the front seat caught my attention and with a type of morbid curiosity, I watched as the fist of my biological father came with unerring accuracy and hit me in my nose, breaking it. My mother grabbed tissues from the glove box and shoved them at me as the yelling in the front seat increased. The pain was excruciating and the sudden violence caused waves of cold dread to flood my body as I suddenly started shivering despite the intense southern heat. As a discussion started about what to do with my gushing nose while my biological father bellowed that I deserved it, the scene fades to black in my memory.
I know the nose wasn’t fixed until years later when I had it fixed after not being able to live without having a sinus infection. But the rest of that day, where we were going, if we ended up going, all of that is gone… the threshold of my ability to cope with the increasing stress was reached and my mind “blacked out.”
This too is common for trauma survivors. Unable to escape the abuse, there is a point in time when the mind just checks out completely leaving these gaping black holes in my memory. I have nothing but context clues to help me position this incident in the linear line of my life. I don’t know how old I was, but sometime before I was in 9th grade. I know the house where we were, it was the house before we moved to the mountains. We lived there for over ten years and where in those tens years this happened, I couldn’t tell you. I have no clue how old my siblings were. This leaves me with memories that are suspended in time and not tied to a timeline. I am fascinated by people who can tell stories about their childhood and give an approximate age or fixed time markers like the year in school they were. This seems like some magical ability that my life of trauma has disconnected me from.
I really cannot emphasize enough how the memories of my abuse are hung in time like someone has been blowing bubbles in the vast expanse of time. In the bubbles are memories and I am a smaller bubble floating ungrounded to any real sense of time as it holds meaning for those around me. Occasionally my small bubble self is overtaken by memory and within that bigger bubble, I experience the entire abuse again in vivid detail. Sometimes, I can disengage and be safe again.
A single bulblet unattached to harmful memories and unattached to happy memories or present events. Sometimes those that love me can ground me into happier memories that do exists on this linear timeline that is my actual life, but usually, the conditioned response that safety is a bulblet unattached to anything is too powerful to overcome and I float off into time, dissociating and blissfully unaware of the stress and pressure surrounding me.
This is the lasting effects of trauma, a person secluded in space and time, ungrounded. Learning to be grounded and not hyper-vigilant is a process that takes discipline and practice to reverse. Often in a world that is uneducated and intolerant of the physical, mental, and emotional effort required to stay grounded and present. What for you is just a day for me is like I am facing a bubble machine mercilessly spitting out memories that I am dodging and avoiding while staying engaged in a work meeting or listening during a class or fully engaged in a conversation. And this helps to attract a level of exhaustion that isn’t “normal” or even “acceptable.” So survivors plow through.
Today, I called in sick. And I am. Going about my life while the bubble machine blows directly onto my face was simply too much. My brain and my heart needed a break – a time out where I immersed myself back into that place where time isn’t counted and my safety is assured. The place in my bulblet that allowed for the emotional and mental rest my everyday life rarely allows for. After talking to my sister yesterday and tuning out half of her conversation, I realized I needed to stop the constant demands for my complete presence and give my emotion, mind, and body a chance to exist without stress or strain. I spent my morning sleeping until my body said to wake. I walked Cas [Dia’s Goldendoodle service dog.] and trained with him on a new skill. I crocheted on a project I wanted to crochet on. I plan to go sit with my best friend, Brook or sit in the presence of my husband with Cas at my feet. Someplace safe and emotionally, mentally quiet after eating a lunch of comfort food.
The problem is most work environments would not interpret my lack of presence at work for this purpose as “legitimate.” I mean it is hard to get a doctor’s note for what amounts to a mental health day. I am so fortunate that my boss is forward thinking and if she should read this would not penalize me for what I have done. She knows I will work an extra day to make up for this one or work extra hours. Ultimately I wouldn’t let my work tasks go undone. She also believes that I will come back to a more productive person at work. This is absolutely true.
This is a problem in America where having mental health issues is seen as a defect. How many others would work semi-regularly if only the work environment would support their mental health? The taboo of trauma survivors and the health, physical and mental, challenges are so underrepresented and underexplained that it seems like a pipe dream to think there is a future where workplaces take mental health issues as seriously as other chronic diseases and are willing to work with sufferers knowing they will end up with devoted and hard-working employees in the end.
My boss has my devotion, gratitude, and loyalty. If you can get that from a trauma survivor you have earned it and that devotion, gratitude, and loyalty will be unwavering.