I weighed myself again last week and the numbers whispered back
You’re out of control.
This is why he didn’t want you.
Anxiety settles in like a cat on my chest. A little tail curls around the back of my neck, little claws pad into the fabric of my shirt. It circles round, its weight heavy, heavier, heaviest; I awake with a startled gasp for air.
It comes in waves for moments, minutes, hours. Out of no where, for no reason, or reasons I can’t understand.
There’s a fog, a hazy blurriness around the edges, the feeling that at any moment your throat might finally close in, the unstoppability of the tail curling tighter and tighter and tight—-
I blink a bit and try to watch from the outside. I squint into the fog as an observer, no longer the active participant.
From this vantage, I separate myself to watch the mental tantrum that trauma is throwing and feel the angry-toddler energy from afar.
I recall that today’s mental clutter might be inspired by years-past conditioning. I recall that last week may have been especially challenging, considering I’ve had to narrate my dysfunctional story at two separate meetings, with two groups of people, for two separate reasons.
The first, an initial appointment for the annulment process. The next, an interview for my ex’s work.
Thinking about, preparing for, and participating in these story-telling pow-wows has taken me over.
Do they think I’m crazy? Do they believe me? Will they be kind?
The breath comes shorter.
It’s no longer a cat. It’s the slightest threat of his hand on my neck, he’s above me, the sex, the choking the gagging the hands on the back of my head, forcing it down my throat til it hurts I’m at the mercy of his larger-than-mine hands his hands over my face til my vision blurs its all just a joke.
I show up at church, trying to explain what went wrong, very practically explaining dates and engagements and STDs and the reasons I shouldn’t have married this man in the first place.
I show up at coffee shops, trying to somehow explain that, sure, he might be good at his job, but no, I found him to be deceitful and manipulative and unreliable and rageful and really, no, no one else saw much of that behavior, it was reserved mostly for me, so maybe its unverifiable and it didn’t really happen.
Of course, everyone’s been kind, everyone has listened, no one has told me I was wrong. I still can’t turn off the nervous energy or the dreams or the circuit in my head running in loops warning me that everything is out of control.
I try to chase it away with sweat and yoga and reading and walking and writing and breathing and medicating.
It’s a little bit tiring.
I’m looking forward to the days these things don’t sneak up on me in such a visceral, physical way.
In the meantime, I continue to observe.
To be honest, it looks like quite the mess. There’s a party of diagnoses carrying on in my head and, I’m sure, a handful of fancy labels we could hand out like favors.
All I know for sure is that today I’m choking on anxiety and popping Reeses by the handful, trying to smother everything else.
Thankfully, the internet is a wide, wide world, and with gratitude towards to some handy YouTube videos and qualified mental health professionals I’m starting to hone in on why the heck I feel like I’m losing my shit.
There is a particular fancy label, C-PTSD, or Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, that has felt particularly helpful as of late. This particular cluster of ‘stress responses’ has not yet been verified by the DSM (diagnosis bible for psychology), but nevertheless has provided me a framework with which to format my experience a bit more clearly.
There’s a version of PTSD we recognize nowadays thanks in part to education and in part to war-themed movies/Grey’s Anatomy. Collectively we’re able to recognize flashbacks and violent outbursts and are happy to non-judgmentally support those who are struggling.
We also recognize that PTSD develops in times of threatened safety, where the brain sees danger and reacts chemically to prepare the body for defense. Vigilant ‘fight or flight’ mode activated.
After time, with repeated exposure, this vigilance has the capacity to convert to hyper-vigilance. The mind hears the same warning bells day in and out until it loses the ability to distinguish between real or perceived threat. Every bell is an alert to action, and certain bells engrain deeply enough to become triggering alerts to action out of proper context.
Cue Marine triggered to flash-back by ceiling fans posing as helicopters.
Worth noting- this ‘fight or flight’ response can be triggered by any threat to safety, and the same chemical reaction takes place in the face of war, car accidents, house fires, etc., etc.
Incidents are different, body responds the same.
Makes sense, right?
What was news to me was that the ‘fight or flight’ response can happen in cases of psychological danger (aka abuse) too.
It’s a little harder to pin down, as it’s a little harder to recognize psychological or emotional abuse. The process wears down the mind differently- there isn’t always one particular moment of danger. More typically, there are many, many moments over an extended period of time.
Also interesting- while the brain does not distinguish between different flavors of physical danger, it also does not differentiate between physical or psychological danger, especially when the situation is perceived to be inescapable. The body remains vigilant until the brain learns new modes of operating in a dangerous world.
With all that said, apparently there is also such a thing as an emotional flashback.
This is where the mind provides inappropriate responses to situations that have triggered the need for self-protection in the past.
Cue panic attack when your Bumble match doesn’t text you back. Sounds stupid, feels like real abandonment when you used to have a husband who didn’t text you back for hours, sometimes days.
Then after the anxiety-soaked meetings I had this week, I’m starting to identify more of those triggers in my own life. I’ve come to this conclusion: I don’t like submitting my story for critique in ways outside of my control. Writing here? Under my control. Feedback at a minimum, at least to my face. At church? In public? At work? No thank you.
I don’t like opening myself up to a place where someone can tell me I’m crazy. Yes, I certainly am attempting to move beyond requiring validation, but, yes, I lived in a world for many years where my experience was not considered to be truth. It takes a long time to move past that.
A sprinkling of other strange triggers I’ve been not-so-pleasantly discovering on this journey with anxiety:
My weight. I see the scale and my brain recites a mantra. I’m unlovable. I’m undesirable. I’m too much, too big. Worth cheating on. Worth leaving, ignoring, treating unkindly. I earned it, it’s my fault. I’m not worth looking at, I’ll stay away.
Online Dating. LOL all you want, but many ignored messages later my fixated brain and speeding heart tell me I’m alone. I’m abandoned, uninterested, unwanted. Intimacy is the ultimate danger and people, especially men, are not trustworthy.
Gym Paraphernalia. This feels silly, but I swear every time I hear a shaker bottle I’m back at home with him. I’m sure I’ll be alone for hours, isolated, starving for attention, neglected emotionally, not worth investing time in, not as worthy of care as a set of abs.
Vague Criticism. Unhealthy, yes, to respond to normal snippy family dynamics with shame. I made the coffee wrong? Panic. They’ll be leaving soon. They’ll be emotionally distant. They’ll be cold. Hide.
Other reliably anxiety-inducing triggers: Lying. Misogyny. Unreliability. Jeans that don’t fit. Movies where couples are fighting. Blah, blah, blah. An interesting rainbow of bizarre crap my brain has done.
I’m looking forward to untangling the rest of this mess, because this is freakin exhausting.
In the meantime, I whisper to my anxious cat, pet it and hold it and tell it it’s safe, again and again, over and over; he pads away to rest.