Well, Monday I had my first retraumatisation attack in quite a while, and Wednesday I had another, and the rest of the week I’ve been teetering on the edge.
It’s been a very humbling week. “And I was doing so well...”
I’m still feeling on the edge right now, but I thought I’d try writing from this position, and see what comes out. When I say edge, I don’t mean edge of the cliff – I mean the edge of retraumatisation. Fortunately, I have not been feeling suicidal.
Maybe what I share will help others of you dealing with forms of post-traumatic stress feel a little less loony – or less lonely in your looniness! – and maybe it will help others understand the experience a bit more. And maybe it will help me feel less lonely and loony too.
Of course, this corona virus crisis is stressing and testing most of our systems – whether they be economic systems, family systems, governmental systems or just plain old individual nervous systems.
Ah, just jump in, Stephen.
This week I’ve experienced levels of anxiety and dread and self-attack that I haven’t experienced in ages. This has been proper retraumatisation territory. And whilst at times it’s felt quite hellish, there’s also been this forensic reporter inside me, fascinated by the experience.
Fuck – this is how I used to feel a lot of the time. For several years. Sure, I could muster a brave enough face if I needed, and quite often “became myself” in social situations, but I lived with these levels of anxiety and dread, and with regular retraumatisation attacks, for hundreds upon hundreds of days. Having just experienced a few days of this territory again, I’m amazed that I survived. I really don’t know how I did it.
I used to wake up in the mornings not wanting to be alive. As if life was a curse, and as if the day ahead was an ordeal bequeathed to me by a careless god. I knew this wasn’t “the real me” – but I got so used to it that it almost became the real me. And I bundled it all up with an old and awkward sense of profound shame. It’s shameful to be so unwell. I need to fall apart. Pull yourself together. I need to fall apart. Pull yourself together.
It took me ages to realise – and honour – that I was suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress. In particular: the trauma of being sent to boarding school, and having to survive there, year in, year out. And then the more I read about trauma, the more I realised that all my personalised inner madness, that I’d felt so ashamed about, was actually quite a normal experience of living with unhealed trauma – including the sometimes debilitating amount of shame surrounding traumatic experiences.
Looking back, I can see that this week’s retraumatisation attacks had been brewing for a while – almost like an electrical charge rising in a nerve cell, or perhaps in a storm cloud. Loneliness and anxiety have been slowly building for a while now, and came to a head Monday, fuelled – ahem – by my morning coffee. My anxiety levels shot up really rapidly, and something in my being “tripped.” Suddenly every aspect of my life looked and felt bleak – utterly bleak. I wandered around in this convincing bleakness for a couple of hours, tightening the knot, not quite knowing what was going on, but when I looked in the mirror and saw such a ghostly version of me staring back, I suddenly realised: “Fuck, I’m having a retraumatisation attack.”
Fortunately, over the years I have developed a tool kit to manage my condition. And I’d recently updated my “In Case Of Emergency” cards, which were still lying around in my kitchen. I picked them up and read them one by one...
Feeling really distressed and/or dissociated?
Everything totally bleak?
Then you’re probably having a retraumatisation attack.
Ah, that explained the bleakness. And the dread. That deep, bone-aching, stomach-kicking dread – as if something awful and humiliating and uncontrollable is just about to happen. As if everything is bound to go wrong.
I can still feel the tendrils of this bleakness and the dread, as I’m writing, but they are slowly loosening their grip. Sometimes they feel like the tendrils of an ancient curse.
Remember: This too shall pass
Not just good advice for getting through bad trips and whities. Good advice for retraumatisation attacks too. And the fact that it was actually me – another, saner, wiser version of me – who wrote this, with real knowledge, really helps. This isn’t my stoned mate talking to me – this is me. A kind and caring version of me, who has gone to the effort to fine-tune and print out cards that will guide me through this time. I’m weeping as I type this, touched by my own kindness.
Because unhealed trauma can feel so cruel. And people with unhealed trauma can be so cruel to ourselves. And so, so hungry for kindness.
And whilst it may feel fucking awful right now & shockingly convincing
(a) This is not real
(b) This is not personal
(c) This is not the real you
Oh my, it is shockingly convincing. The retraumatised state is so shockingly convincing. Whatever old trauma is still buried in your system, when it surfaces – it can feel like you’re actually reliving the original terror or desolation or disaster. I know there’s lot of fancy brain science to explain this. But – and this is really hard to convey to people who haven’t experienced it – the experience does feel so fucking real, and so confusing when overlaid with present-time reality. I am currently safe and sound and surrounded by beauty, and in touch with my friends, but my system is going: something life-threateningly awful is happening, or, something life-threateningly awful is about to happen... It’s like inhabiting a temporary madness.
IGNORE ALL thought processes & conclusions that are not 100% KIND
(i.e. probably 99% of them)
Oh my, this is such good advice. Ages ago I realised that I can’t really stop the thought processes, or their conclusions, but I can – when I remember – not take their conclusions seriously.
Any subject right now – the world, corona virus, work, money, love, home, purpose, writing, health, old age, festivals – leads to terrible conclusions right now. You could give me a feather and I’d poke myself in the eye with its shaft.
This is not a good week for making any policy decisions. Please call back when feeling more human.
Oh, there is a lot of old violence within my system. Because I had to ram down so many survival instincts and strong emotions just to get through a boarding school day. Day after day.
There’s a dynamic meditation that I do, about an hour long, and it’s been really vital this week. Monday’s session I discovered an old urge to hit myself, and allowed that out into the open (without actually hitting myself). Wednesday’s session I discovered an old urge to punch and batter my dad until he took me back into his protection. Today I was back on the steps of my boarding house, screaming the “No!” that I never could scream.
It takes patient work – and both vulnerability and courage – to face and allow and integrate these old urges and energies – but, properly integrated, I’m beginning to discover that they can actually act as fuel for the journey, rather than obstacles to be pushed back down or pushed away.
Still, confronting one’s own inner violence ain’t for the faint-hearted, particularly if you have a peace-loving self-image (or public image)...
Be gentle and kind
Love the wounded boy
Go for a walk
Tell a friend
Let Nature hold you
Have a cold shower or swim
Fortunately, I have been really developing my kindness practice this year – towards myself and towards others. So my gentleness and kindness muscles are up and working. It’s good to practise these qualities during the good times, because you definitely need them in spades during “bad times” like this week. My fallback position is to act kindly, even if I’m not feeling kind.
I can sense myself holding back on writing about loving the wounded boy who seems to exist inside of me. That old macho part of me that judges such inner work and delicate language as sissy – boys don’t cry, and men don’t need to access their inner child. Funny to feel that sort of old school male self-censorship arising. Ho hum. Brick by brick shall we dismantle our prison walls.
Because, in my daily solo life, learning to love my inner boy is actually one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever done, although I do sometimes grieve at how much pain is held in his young body – and therefore my adult body too. I’m learning the patience of a parent nursing an unwell child. And the unconditional love too. He did so well to survive what he had to survive. And he still needs so much love and reassurance and safety and welcoming and space – to feel what he could never feel, and to say what he could never say. Every day I remind him that he is welcome. It wasn’t always so.
A big challenge when actually retraumatised is to find the inner adult space that can hold the child – because sometimes my adult self so fuses with the traumatised child that they’re practically inseparable. Loving the wounded boy also becomes loving the distraught adult. Which begs the question, who is loving whom, and who am I really? Seriously, when I find myself holding both my weeping adult self and my weeping child self, I sometimes go existentially dizzy. And then when I let that version of me be held by Life...
Telling a friend is really important when I’m having a retraumatisation attack – someone who will check in with me until an attack passes. But I still find it really difficult to make that call. I told a friend on Monday, but didn’t on Wednesday – I think I felt a bit of a failure at having two attacks so close apart. Failure? Failing what or whom? More of that old self-cruelty arising. As I said, it’s been a humbling week.
It can be problematic with friends, though, because everyone’s understandings of trauma and post-traumatic stress are different. Similarly every friend has a different relationship with emotional discomfort, and with their own inner wounds. If you break a leg, everyone knows what to do. But if you regularly break apart, well, you get dozens of different reactions.
Over time I’ve worked out who can cope with what, and what sort of responses I can cope with too. And I’m slowly, slowly learning to ask for what I require too – after all, it’s an infantile fantasy to assume that people know what you need. Vulnerability is the key. And the biggest challenge. Fortunately, I’ve got a handful of people that I can call if I’m really wobbling, and they know how to handle me. Mostly I just need someone to keep a loving eye on me until the worst of the wobbling is done.
Actually, the frustrating thing about this week is that I can really sense that a good, long human cuddle – we’re talking horizontal and at least half an hour – would re-set my nervous system. I’m hungry for animal warmth and co-regulation. I’m sure I’m not alone.
A cold shower or a swim in the sea sometimes works wonders. Can literally end a retraumatisation attack just like that. Alas, that hasn’t been the case this week, but each time I’ve spent in or under cold water has definitely calmed me down a bit.
It took me ages to realise that retraumatisation is fundamentally a physiological issue. I wasted hundreds of hours trying to work things out in my mind – as if some accurate insight would suddenly settle my nervous system.
Oh yeah, DIY and making stuff with my hands helps too. Keep it physical and keep it outside the knot-tightening head.
Transmute those old beliefs:
This is unbearable
I can’t cope
I can’t ask for help
There must be something wrong with me
I deserve to suffer
I am all alone
I cannot trust any one
Life is punishing me
There is nowhere safe to go
I am safe
I am loved
Life loves me
I am Love
Trauma is not only a physiological phenomenon. Whatever our age, it seems to me that we make up “beliefs” in order to deal with the trauma. It took me a couple of years of observing myself during retraumatisation attacks – and allowing myself to voice these things – to discover my particular set of survival beliefs. I keep on updating them as new insights emerge.
The sad thing is, not only did little me feel compelled to formulate such beliefs in order to survive, I can see that they have driven so many of my allegedly-adult life choices. No wonder I’m the rip-roaring success that I am. As always, the challenge is to be kind and loving towards these beliefs, and to the one who believed them, whilst not believing them any more.
I LOVE YOU
Life loves you
your friends love you
I really like this last card. It’s literally a message sent from a kind me to a struggling me. It reminds me of reality, even if I’m not quite in touch with it at the time.
Well, what a difference a night makes. Actually, what a difference a Zoom party makes. Yesterday was my mate Nick’s birthday and I’d agreed to play an opening set at his virtual birthday party. We both checked in during the afternoon – it’s been a difficult week for both of us – but I said I was still up for playing, and quite enjoyed spending the evening listening to tunes.
I’ve been to three or four Zoom parties now, and it seems like we’ve got the hang of it. The DJing, the dancing, the communication, the constant (and often very funny) visual mutual entertainment... and there was a point later on in the evening when I was dancing away in my cabin, and feeling delightfully light in my body, and looking at the screens of twenty odd other folk, and I really felt the collective joy and vibe that we were all emanating and sharing, and I suddenly realised, “Oh, I’m back.”
It was as if a part of my soul had returned. The part, or parts, that had been missing all week.
And when I awoke this morning, despite having had several hectic dreams, I realised that I was still “back.” Although I still feel a bit shaky, and vulnerable. A paranoid hint of: this OK reality is less real than that desolate reality.
But I’ve done my morning walk, sat in the arms of my new lockdown oak friend, done my morning exercises, and... I feel reasonably human. Just the normal levels of lonely lunacy. And I feel sweet and gentle and kind and generous too.
Wow, it really is like being two quite very different people.
I’m not going to write much more. The day calls. And I’m not too sure if I’ve got any sensible conclusions or suggestions. I just sat down yesterday with a need to write about this week, and here I am.
Maybe it’s worth saying that my pre-existing levels of self-isolation and my DIY approach to trauma work are – how to put this kindly? – not to be recommended. In many ways I’ve been using poison to cure poison. There are healthier and kinder ways to do this work. But I might as well share some of my experiences – fuck, I would have been very relieved to have read shit like this in my darker days.
Oh yeah, I had this thought this morning in bed. What advice would I give to someone who wants to support a friend who they know, or suspect, is dealing with unresolved trauma?
Well, everyone is different. But here’s a possibility. Access the most unconditional love you can – by all means necessary. Unconditional love for yourself, and unconditional loveyou’re your friend. And then contact them and say something like, “Hey, I can see that you’re struggling, and I was wondering if you want to talk about it?” And if they do, you could say something like, “Could you tell me what it’s like when it gets really bad? Because I’d really like to know and understand. So that I can love and support you.”
Ah, just reading that out loud makes me cry. Yeah: be prepared for tears. Don’t try to fix anything. Hold them if you can and if they need.
And then... maybe at a different time – and preferably at a time when they’re feeling relatively OK – ask them if there’s any simple support you can give them when times are really testing, or even – if you’re prepared to make such an offer – in general. And don’t expect them to know what support they need. In which case, take a risk and make some intuitive suggestions. And keep the conversation open.
And then practise love and patience. Love and patience. And if you don’t know anything about trauma, then do a bit of reading. And every now if you feel they might require a bit of kicking up the arse, or truth telling, make sure it’s coming from your wisest most loving self. And make sure they want to hear it. Be aware that suggestions – however well-meaning – can feel like attacks to someone who is going through retraumatisation.
Having just indulged in some generalisation, how much of what I write is generally applicable I really don’t know. I’d welcome feedback from others.
But if you’ve made it this far, and have found my amblings and ramblings at all useful, then I’m happy typer.
May we all be well in body, mind, heart and soul
May we all know the deep peace that dwells at the heart of all beings
May Life move through us all with beauty and grace and joy