When traumatic experience results in a recurrent unconscious creation of a defensive response, it may feel like we are only partially present in our everyday experience. The cognitive aspect of our mind, the part that can make sense reasonably and logically of what is happening in our lives can feel separate from the part of us that actually responds. The words we say may be what we wish to say, while the affect is hooked beyond our control to that part of our psyche that is hell-bent on protecting us. That’s what I live with, what I’ve lived with most of my life, and which became intensified with each added trauma of my adult life.
I was sexually victimized as a child by strangers, and by things I witnessed. When as an adult I found myself in situations that mimicked the contextual aspects of my childhood traumas, I would either become withdrawn and dissociative, or the tone of my voice would take over as a sort of policing of my boundaries. As I was re-traumatized in abusive relationships, recurring and bizarre physical accidents, and the coercive double-binds of micro-aggression in the academic workplace, it has taken great effort to be present with my colleagues without that vocal tone–one that is NOT present in settings that for whatever reason do not mimic the danger and incomprehensibility of the experiences which my mind could not, and has not, integrate(d) as sensible.
A trauma, I have come to recognize, is that which occurs and requires a form of sense-making that is outside of our capacity to provide it. It’s too grotesque, or too violent, too betraying, too logically incoherent and imposed through coercion, power, or social force. The mind, like a computer that keeps trying to follow a root command which is at odds with the code that is provided, finds a loop, an “if-then” clause to keep trying. And in my case, it’s “If X…then disappear,” where “disappear” can be a full-blown dissociative fugue, a partial amnesia, or an inability to be affectively present and integrated during my interaction.
It is one thing to understand how these things occur and operate, and it has taken decades of therapy and work to become increasingly aware of the subtleties. It is quite another thing to keep working within settings where certain routines and patterns can and do trigger the responses, with individuals who may articulate supportiveness in theory, but who are little motivated or connected enough to be aware of the truth in the fact that my tone is not “my” response, but the prevention of MY response. Very few people care enough–and I truly mean CARE enough–to learn to know me, and choose rather to identify me with those interactions, where my tone speaks more loudly than my words, and nothing I can say is more powerful than the certainty with which their perceptions of my tone resist forgiveness, understanding, or listening to my words. I know this, and I’ve come to accept that it is easier to lose friends than my sanity trying to be heard while my vocal tone continues to set me up.
My PTSD is so outwardly minor compared to that of others whose triggers bring on physically violent outbursts or flashbacks. But it’s very parallel in process. This is not a contest. In the struggle that it takes to stay present with a commitment to my wellness, to contributing to society in a positive way, and to keep working in the presence of social dynamics that can re-traumatize, I have no interest in “winning.” My efforts are focused on attempting to maintain enough mindful clarity and spiritual presence and connection, to move on, rather than be drawn into the loops of iterative sense-making efforts and the internal agony of non-sense.
Yoga, prayer, breath work, journaling, time in nature and with good friends, and meditation–these all help me to stay present. In my work, authentic presence & engagement in work that does not call for pretension, denying of the truth, or expect support of leadership that is duplicitous…these are the things that are healthy and healing. And if you know someone with PTSD, remember to consider that your perception may not be complete. See if you can care enough to ask, to listen, and to believe rather than test or doubt; these things can be very helpful. I find it is far too much effort to lie to anyone, on top of my experience of PTSD. Why add even more complicated layers of non-reality to an experience that is already complicated enough?
Oh, and I’m not sad or angry. Really. REALLY.