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.
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.
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.