Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water—triggers, PTSD, and healing

Last weekend my seven year old son arrived home from a sleepover with his sister and began telling me all that he had done.  He was happy.  I was feeling quite happy and I was enjoying his narrative when suddenly, amidst all of the other happy chatter he announced, “Oh, Rufus is missing.”  Rufus was my cat and he was what is termed in our family as a “kitty supreme.”  I watched him be born, the runt of the litter and ugly as sin, and he grew into a magnificently gorgeous cat with a disposition to match.  I loved him very much and I suddenly felt utterly shattered.  When we moved to Montana, he went to one of my older sons for safe keeping. When that son graduated college, and began a job in DC, he could not have a cat and left Rufus with his father.  Soon after, I got out of prison and wanted my Rufus back, but my first husband had now become too attached to him to let him go.  Rufus was now also declawed and was kept indoors.  Rufus loved the great outdoors more than most anything else.  Rufus had escaped his confines and was now gone.

Clearing the road of your past takes work.

Upon hearing that Rufus was missing, my mood plummeted instantly.  I went into a frenzy of trying to get more information from one of my adult kids but with no results.  I was upset with the way my son had delivered the news–he had the smallest of smiles on his face at the time–and that bothered me terribly.  I stepped outside to clear my head and make sense of the extremity of my feelings.   I was a jumble of feelings and I needed to sort them out sooner rather than later.  The first thing I realized was that I was reacting to something bigger than the bad news my son had told me, and his poor delivery.  He is seven years old, after all.  He has not yet mastered the fine art of sharing upsetting news.   It was at that point that I realized that as upset as I was about the loss of dear, sweet, gorgeous, Rufus, I had been triggered and there it was in a nutshell.  I was reacting to a past trauma that he been reactivated by the news of Rufus.  PSTD is a bitch like that.  Just when I think I have got it all dealt with, managed, and under control, something comes out of no where and socks me in the gut, leaving me gasping for air, and shaking my head hard trying to erase a memory I no longer want.

But there it was, the memory of an incident from almost four years ago, and one that disturbed me beyond words at the time, but horrifies me even more now.  We were still living in the “blue house”–the house of horrors.  There had been a bad storm that had knocked down many of my then husband’s Jerry rigged fences made of pallets held together with wire.  We had over 50 farm animals and they were loose and the fences needed to be put back up quickly.  I do not remember if my son was yet four or not, but it was sometime in November.  My husband and I were already sleeping in separate bedrooms, and I was already trying to find a way to leave him.  I do not remember what my son and I had done while he fixed fences.  I do not remember if this was the storm that knocked the power out for two days, forcing me to go to my first husband’s house to bake the seven layers for my son’s rainbow birthday cake.  I just do not remember.

What I do remember is going up to my husband’s bedroom with our little boy to wake him up.  He, my husband, began to talk about all the work of fixing the fences as he lay in bed.  On he prattled as I sat listening, and then with absolutely no change in facial expression, tone of voice, and without any words at all that might have prepared me, he began listing off names of animals.  I cannot remember how many names he recited, but it felt like ten or so.  Because of the look on his face, and the emotionless way in which he was talking, I remember feeling myself relax, certain that he was going to tell me they were all fine and back in the pens.

So, he listed the names with an almost cheerful expression, and I let down my guard, and when he finished the list of names he said in a matter of fact manner, “All dead.”  Yes, our little boy heard every word.  Yes, I freaked out.  Yes, I loved those animals very much.  Yes, I was utterly crushed and my reaction to the death of the animals obscured, for that time, the more disturbing fact which was that my husband smiled as he told me, and he did not care enough to prepare me for the horrible news, nor did he care that our little boy heard every word.  I have learned since that sociopaths are like that.  They do not care about anyone, or anything, but themselves.

Two or three weeks later I would be arrested for driving to the grocery store without a license.  I got pulled over because his car was not inspected.  While I was a complete idiot to drive without a license with my past arrest record, I now fully believe the car had not been inspected on purpose.  A month after that, I went to court thinking I would have a fine to pay only to find out that, because of a minimum mandatory sentencing law I knew nothing about, I was now facing up to five years in prison.  Later that night, he came into my room.  I did not want him anywhere near me.  He got into bed with me and leaned over me and said, “I am so sorry you have to go to prison.  I just want to hold you.”  He had a smirk on his face…a knowing smirk.  It was the smirk of someone who had accomplished a long hoped for goal.

Of course, I erased that smirk from my mind almost immediately, but it never left. It was over two years later, with the help of a trauma specialist, while I spent my six months in prison, that I spoke out loud of the smirk and realized I had been set up.  I can accept that now with a grace that comes from God, fully knowing that it was that arrest that got me out of that marriage, and that it was in prison where God blessed me beyond imagination, and gave me my calling.  It is a gift that I cherish, even when that smirk flashes into my head.

As awful as all of what I have described sounds, and it was awful, there is plenty of good, and hope to be found among all of this.  In the past, when triggered, it might have taken me days to figure out what I was reacting to, or more often, overreacting, and it might have taken me days to recover.  From start to finish, this PTSD trigger event was recognized, felt, figured out, and resolved within about an hour.   While I remained sad about Rufus, and am still sad, I was able to settle back into an optimistic mood and we have a good evening.  That is progress.  That progress is the fruit of some very hard work towards healing from a lifetime of trauma.  It was hard work, but at times like these, I am reminded of just how important, worthwhile, and life-giving the work of resolving trauma is.  It brings with it freedom that is far more glorious than my release from prison was, because while I was in prison, I came to see that I was finally free for the first time in my life.

Rufus—my kitty supreme…

The effects of the trauma in my life had manifest itself in many ways over the years, and had looked like many things.  There is a huge link between trauma and substance abuse, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and misdiagnosed mental health issues like bipolar disorder.  PTSD can come out in many forms and can mimic many things.  All of those things are prisons that confine and define us inaccurately.  PTSD can be healed with hard work, commitment, and the courage and desire to truly be free.  Triggers still happen, but they will no longer consume.  The experiences are integrated, and I move on, and I heal a bit more.  I thrive.  Today, I thrive in a way I never though possible.  If you are a trauma survivor, I encourage you to work to heal it all no matter how long it takes, or how much it hurts. I encourage you to become free.  I encourage you to thrive, not merely survive.

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26 thoughts on “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water—triggers, PTSD, and healing

  1. Amazing, awesome stuff, my friend. I’m so sorry for the pain you were in last night. You really did an outstanding job resolving it! And as far as the small smile your son exhibited–if it helps any, I do the exact same thing when I’m nervous. I *hate* it. It looks like I don’t care, and I DO. So while your sociopath ex does smirk to be cruel, well, I really wouldn’t worry too much about your son, my dear friend.

    I love you! Well done!

    • Thank you so much, El. It was last weekend that this happened. I couldn’t have written this yet last week 😉 As for the kid, he does that, too—smiles at funky times. I knew that’s what was going on then and I fully know that he has a conscience. I do not fret. He is a sweet and sensitive child who feels things very deeply. He just get better every day! Love you!

  2. Annie, I cannot begin to start to tell you how much I identified with this post. I too have PTSD and it was my ex who was the cause of it. The triggers can paralyse you and derail your train, but with hard and steady work you can make progress and learn to cope with them…then around them. You are thriving already…against the odds. A true Rebel Thriver for sure. I am so proud of you for being you and being so amazingly wonderful. xoxo Ella

    • Miss Rebel Trhiver 😉 My PTSD goes back to 5 years old and it just snowballed from there. The old stuff no longer gets to me, but the more recent stuff has been coming up now because the divorce if finally over and we are safe and sound. Safety is key in healing. It’s not going to happen easily if you are not in a safe place internally. You are doing the work, too. I *know* that with all of my heart 😉 Xoxoxo

  3. Annie: I’ve had a hard time figuring out why the crash of my computer has brought my creative life, which was so disciplined to a complete stand still. I think you hit the nail on the head here. It feels like loss. It feels like someone took my most intimate, private things and –without asking — took them away from me. It feels like that, and I’m reeling from it. Still. Still hoping the people in Texas will be able to recessitate my ruined hard-drive. My innards. This is PTSD stuff. The leftovers. It is touching something old and worn inside me, and I’m not sure how to move forward except set a timer and just try to write everyday. I’m feeling afraid agin. Afraid of having things taken from me. Afraid of losing my readers. Afraid of writing. Afraid of not writing. I’m locked up.

    I remember this place. This was 1989.

    I can’t go back to that. Auto-pilot. Avoidance. Self-destruction. I’ve come too far. As you noted, therapy can be a way out — but I don’t really have much interest in therapy these days.

    I have to have faith that this will pass as I fill my new hard-drive… And back that thing up! 😉

    • Renee, you can run, but you cannot hide forever. It will find you and keep finding you until you face it and feel it. Only then can you move past it and erase it as something that controls you. I know that I may sound redundant, but it takes work, and courage, and willingness. When you get to that place, you will know it and act on it. Sometimes is takes a whole lot of miserable to get to that place. It is always my hope that I can save someone the “whole lot of miserable” part, but in the end, it is a personal choice, and we all have different roads to healing. Have faith that you CAN do it. That is a good starting point!

      • Glurg. I’ve been to so many therapists. They move. And they I have to start all over again. So. Exhausting. And then I get to experience all the feelings all over again. Annie, I’m trying. Really. And luckily, I’m a pretty up up up person. But this computer thing has interrupted the rhythm of my life.

      • Renee, I am going to say that it sounds like you are not ready yet, and that is okay. None of the work you have done is wasted effort, but it took some time to get damaged and it takes as long, or longer to heal. Yes, it is exhausting, but so is living an unhealed, unhappy life. I know you are trying, and when you are ready, it will happen. Believe that.

    • Thank you for your comment. That is always my prayer—that people will know and believe that there is the greatest hope that healing will happen and that life can be a good thing–a happy, peaceful thing. Never lose that hope. It is essential.

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  5. Your experience hits so close to home, thank you for sharing it and showing how to work through. I have been doing some heaving lifting for what seems like eons. My problem, I tend to withdraw into myself when I am working things through, it makes those around me uncomfortable.

    • I used to withdraw, too, and to a certain degree, I still do. However, I make us of my time alone to do that inward sort of work so that when my little boy is home I can be fully with him. There is certainly no wrong way to do this work, with the caution that you don’t stay withdrawn too long. Have you even explained to the people in your life that you are working through some things and that requires a bit of solitude? I think most can understand that. In the end, their discomfort is their problem to work through, not yours 😉 Thank you for your kind words! Xoxoxo

  6. Love this piece! It gave me a slightly different perspective on my PTSD. The past, no matter how far back we go, always seems to catch up with us if we don’t deal with it. I haven’t found a way to deal with those demons yet; other than to pray and let God handle them.

    You’ve got a new blog fan. I’ll be following you, but not stalking you! : ) Love you, Annie.

    Robt.

    • Wow…good thing there is a picture there so I knew who you were—random guy professing love! LOL. Robert, without God’s help, I would not have had the strength to work towards healing. However, God insisted that I enlist the help of others and He sent amazing people. You are right, it will catch up with you. Love you, too! xoxoxo

  7. Brava, Annie! Congrats to you on the rapid processing of the trigger, and even more, for the recognition of that accomplishment! I think it’s important for PTSD thrivers to recognize our moments of healing, exactly as you have here. Thanks for sharing your processing with us, as it inspires me to pay more attention. xo

    • Thanks so much, my friend! It wasn’t always that easy 😉 Life is so rich now that I can finally afford to pay attention! LOL

  8. Hello…I ran across your blog and am so happy I did so! Your post spoke so clearly to me. We have much in common, I think.

    Your ability to remove yourself from your son and figure out your trigger is phenomenal -it’s obvious you have done considerable work to get to this point. Congratulations!

    I love how you carefully encouraged Renee not to run, or use her computer to hide behind. I rlate so well to how you want to save others the misery of waiting too long, but boy do we all take our own sweet time getting to rock bottom! 😉
    Love, love, love your blog!!

    • Thank you for your sweet words, Denise. Yes, we all do need to come to our own bottom. Mine was extremely dark and deep and it was a long, hard, fall. I would love to save anyone that experience, but am fully aware that the only person I can effectively manage is me. Everyone else has their own path, and I honor that. I love your blog, as well!

  9. I feel like I am falling down the rabbit hole….
    Every turn I take faces me towards “dealing” with my past. (which is also my present because of the way new events bring back old emotions) It’s almost surreal at this point and I’m not sure why I’m typing this out except that something must be changing, I’m in touch with things in a completely different way. Amazing how your blog and some other’s I’ve found have opened up places in me that I had quietly packed away from the world years ago. I have a visual of the white rabbit with his pocket watch, letting me know it might be time, it might be safe, I might be able to do this, other’s have…

    • Nadine, you CAN do this! I have complete faith in you. The thing about all of this junk that we hide from is that it refuses to stay put where we stuff it. As you mentioned, me events trigger old memories, and unless we start to untangle the giant mess inside, but pile of junk just keeps getting bigger. Once to get to the center of the pain from the past, new life events can be dealt with fairly quickly and easily. It is not easy work or fast work, either, but it is life changing, in the best possible way! Keep me posted and nice to meet you!

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