Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or more commonly PTSD: I wondered if that applied to me after years of overly exaggerated responses to everyday encounters, like my kids, husband, or anyone coming from behind or around a corner. I feel a rush of terror, let out a scream and jump away from the perceived threat as if my life were in danger.
Kids thought it funny and scared me purposely until I turned on them, snapping, “That’s NOT funny, stop it!” I attempted to explain, “I get scared very easily and become extremely frightened when you do that.”
It began to sink in that others don’t react as I do; my responses are out of whack. I read about trauma and its effects. Could this be it, so long after childhood?
Trauma causes post-traumatic stress, and one symptom is an exaggerated startle response. That must be it, but what’s the timeframe? I didn’t read anything about how long it lasts. A lifetime? Mine does. I read about veterans returning from war, the suicides, drinking, and the inability to hold down jobs or their marriages. I have deep empathy for them. But I wouldn’t compare myself to them. War? I can’t imagine what they saw or experienced. It’s no comparison. Or is it? I underestimate what was expected of me, how I was trained to feel, which wasn’t what I really felt. I was trained to act like I loved my attackers, so I lived in terror but had to hide it, even from myself.
Like leaves in the wind, parts of me scattered to places I couldn’t reach. How much energy does it take one’s psyche to repress a violent traumatic event, or more than one of them? I became two selves: one that cannot remember, and one that remembers but remains inaccessible. I broke in two, leaving fragments along the way, hard to pick up and paste back into one, not the same one anyway. I am not the me that I could have been had I stayed whole and safe from attack. Our psyche protects us by splitting our spirit or soul apart from physical and emotional trauma. But then we are left that way, broken, with no clue how to put ourselves together again, like Humpty Dumpty.
Could that explain why I don’t have the energy others seem to naturally possess? Repeated and excessive bursts of the hormone cortisol, meant to give us sudden energy quickly, to move us away from life-threatening danger, would spurt through my veins daily, depleting precious reserves. And draining that substance, which was meant to be used and resupplied much less frequently, took a toll on both my nervous and immune systems, burning them up. Chronic fatigue became normal. Though my body’s systems have healed somewhat, full recovery seems unlikely. The glands under my neck, and most likely elsewhere, pop out after very little stress. If I don’t pay attention and go at my own pace, I could weaken what’s left and cause even more damage. But it’s unfamiliar territory, respecting my own needs, because I tend to compare myself with others, and compared to them, I appear like a slug.
Energy used to protect my inner self from annihilation taxed my emotional and physical being, especially during my years as a nurse. But that didn’t stop me from trying to keep up with everyone, if that’s what it took to be “normal.” Being on edge, watchful, crouched internally and cowering in a defensive position for the next attack, exhausted my already limited energy supplies. Just carrying on a conversation with anyone who felt threatening permanently weakened resources over time—and nearly everyone felt threatening.
I craved social outlets, connections, and closeness, but when around others I buzzed anxiously. That feeling, like the excessive speed I experimented with in college, took precedence. I feared connections, yet needed them. I spent much of my adult life split, pieces flying about me like busy electrons, a carnival game trying to catch them and make them stick in the holes. Meditation began to bring the parts together, the feeling of wholeness brand new and magical, even if only momentary.
Meditating doesn’t take away pain, but rather takes me into it. Creative solutions to everyday dilemmas often occur. There’s new evidence suggesting it can help heal a brain damaged by PTS,1 but I knew none of the latest research over ten years ago when I began practicing meditation.
1 See Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius for more information.