PTSD Triggers, Trauma, and Travel: “It Never Goes Away” (& how I am managing that fact.)

beach blue car combi
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(Trigger warnings throughout this post and I apologize for the length — sometimes writing for ‘me’ gets wordy–and I appreciate any readers who will actually plow through this one).

Juanita Broaddrick has shared about being a rape survivor and when I first owned my own story, I stumbled upon hers and was engrossed in it. (‘allegedly’ Bill Clinton* raped her in 1978– he denied it but I believe her, not him). Anyway,  she wrote that it (the rape) ‘never goes away’. It clicked with me, being both at once depressing and also legitimizing for what I was going through myself. 1978 is a LONG time ago. But in reading hers, and other stories, I began to see that owning your story is so very difficult because once you do — it will never go away again (delusion/denial/dissociation allows it to ‘sort-of’ be gone).

*yet another reason why I am not political anymore — in the last presidential election both sides had way too many ties to rape and/or sexual assault claims.

Traveling triggers my PTSD. Traveling also relieves my triggers and has been one of my favorite ways to deal with things like family drama during holidays, certain seasonal events with bad memories attached to them (for which I prefer being out of town), and my health (which benefits from milder climates). Many of the blogs I follow have shared similar thoughts about travel; so perhaps traveling is a common tool amongst trauma survivors and/or the chronically ill.

First off — as many other blogs have already shared — I am aware that not everyone is on a chronic illness spectrum that allows it, and/or has the kind of extra finances on a regular basis — to include frequent travel in their own box of coping tools. I am trying to be sensitive to that, while also being real and honest in sharing my own story.

There is no doubt that our healthcare system and what we actually know about health in general is in real crisis. More and more it is only the wealthy and/or the very smart/highly educated who are able to navigate through their health issues with any real success. I believe sharing our N=1 stories, with the paradox/gift that is the internet, is one tool God is giving us to fight back against some of this oppression. And that motivates me. Another motivator is more selfish. I find great help for ME by writing out my thoughts until they make better sense. And so here goes:

Travel is great; and travel is terrible. There’s nothing like a reset in a different location far from home to clear my mind and my body. But, there’s nothing quite as horrible as being triggered far from home.  You’d much rather be in your safe chair in the living room with the shades closed. Your own bed. Your favorite blanket…equally awful is booking a room that looked great online and turned out to be so run down the stained shower stall triggered events that happened in the squalor filled, imposed poverty, bathrooms of my youth.

ALSO not pleasant.

I hate that I am so ‘high maintenance’. That is NOT me at all. I am a big fan of simple and I believe less is often more. I’d rather simply spend more time with my husband than have him valiantly work long hours to pay for frequent escapes and vacations that meet all of my (many) ‘needs’. But I hate, even more, being reminded of my trapped childhood inside a house without locking doors and window coverings (there was frequent voyeurism) and an environment so utterly devoid of care that it was squalor from the time I could remember to the time I finally said NO to enduring holiday dinners in a filthy kitchen that smelled of cat urine combined with rotting tuna and cabbage. And so we usually travel like we eat: as basic as possible but very well, and constantly considering all my ‘avoids’. And I thank God for blessing us enough to keep doing it.

To have a triggering episode (physical or mental) while away from home can be THE WORST thing ever. And so I end up having less actual vacation time than I feel my body and brain could benefit from because I inevitably blow the entire budget on non-triggering accommodations and foods, alone. My main travel rule is nothing less than ‘3 star’. And my husband can tell you where the cleanest gas station and restroom stops are in cities which are hours away from ours. I’m thankful he remembers these things as I don’t always remember it — even though bad restroom stops are huge triggers for me.

Complex PTSD, for me anyway, is this strange combo of amnesia and photographic memory.

Our last winter vacation included a lot of open air, high balconies. These were very triggering for reasons I couldn’t immediately identify. I worked through it. I eventually saw some root issues I hadn’t seen before–like a lot of trust issues with myself, with strangers and also with people I know (I kept having obsessive thoughts that someone was going to hurtle me off a rooftop–or that I would hurl myself off accidentally or something too). I am still working on my fear of heights and have accepted that me jumping out of an airplane to try and overcome it just isn’t happening. EVER. I do have better insight into what is causing it all, though. But my body, which had been doing fairly well prior, physically tanked on that trip and then really tanked after returning home.

The trip I took this summer, after radically changing my diet, was noticeably different. It involved a lot of driving, stretches of poverty-stricken areas, and a lot of switching of hotel rooms. At one roadside restroom stop (after dark) the only bathroom was located away from the service station in a dimly lit corner of a parking lot. I hesitated but I really had to pee!

When I entered the dirty bathroom a woman, my age but aged far more than me, was just leaving and she was sobbing openly. “Why would someone do this to me? I really need my medicine!?” Someone had just stolen something or other from her handbag. I offered to help her, I asked her what kind of medicine it was (thinking I could maybe give her some of my own stash of Advil and minerals, etc. and then quickly realized it was not a simple over the counter ‘medicine’ she’d had stolen…) but just as my eyes were opening wide and making that connection, she blurted, “oh don’t even worry about it” and with two hurried steps, into some bushes beside the unlit restrooms, she was in utter darkness and I had no idea where she even went. I used the restroom anyway, in anger, squatting over the disgusting toilet and clutching my own purse in my lap and thinking to myself that if some drugged up cad was going to try and accost me, he was in for one hell-of-a-fight before he was gonna take my purse or my dignity.

The old me had returned. The scrappy, brave, don’t push me, tough girl who grew up with scraped knees and a mean left hook. Those haven’t been my thoughts in well over a decade now. I wouldn’t have even considered that bathroom a year ago, and would have insisted my husband accompany me if I had no other choice. Because I’ve been crippled on a very physical and physiological level — by fear and body pain — nearly to the point of defeat.

In the area we recently traveled, most three star properties, which I knew were my limit, were the equivalents of two star and less in other locations. Everywhere I went, memories were surfacing. Weird ‘feels’ were constant. Hairs standing up on the back of my neck every hour or so. I was definitely flaring PTSD-wise. But, strangely, my neck was NOT tight, my muscles were not in knots and I slept fairly well considering. Plus, summer itself is triggering for me as the worst of the abuse episodes happened from extended family members who would take me on trips (to isolate me) or to their homes for extended stays, usually in the summer when I wasn’t in school.  So it is hard to say what exactly the triggers are sometimes — because the way the wind blows through the leaves in the summer can be enough to trigger me.

Yet this last summertime vacation was so triggering based on the locations we traveled through. The change in landscape from where I live, and being brought back to childhood by the sight of a certain kind of plant, a lack of trees, restroom breaks with toilets that didn’t flush (or sobbing women who’d just been mugged), and/or a distinct color of rocks and soil, was jolting.

Yet, I did notice that I wasn’t as jolted as I had been for so long now, either. And I slugged heavy bags, and coolers of food and water, in and out of vehicles and hotel rooms for days, without any upper back pain. I didn’t have dizzy spells or nausea. I slept ok and when I didn’t get enough sleep I could still function the next day. My neck wasn’t killing me the entire time. I only took two Advil, total, in over three thousand miles of travel. The hardest part of the trip was finding decent food as much of what we could find in gas stations and roadside restaurants was on my avoid list. So I just ate a lot of steaks. Crappy ones at that.

And I know that I know, now, that a lot of the physical manifestations of PTSD came from physical toxicity and that can be healed through diet changes. I KNOW this based upon my traveling experiences alone and the differences between last winter’s vacation and this summer’s road trip. Wherein on one I was eating my old diet and the other — a diet which eliminated known toxins.

But, if my experience is indicative of a larger pattern: I don’t think my PTSD went away. It just isn’t as hard as prior. Which is a gain, but it is still hard.

I do not think the actual PTSD triggers will ever go away– no matter how carefully I watch my diet. Evil is still evil and it is everywhere and in some spots of the world it is definitely more concentrated than others. I am coming to believe that my PTSD is the devil’s toll for living in a world over which he rules. Certain parts where his dark influence is greater than others are those very parts wherein I will be more triggered.

I am accepting that. As a Christian my hope for eternity is in Jesus. In this world, my hope is also in Jesus, who brings light to the dark. Pretty sure that He is telling me my daily bread is going to have to be carefully managed and that that’s going to lift off the heavy yoke that I feel has been over my back and my shoulders for life — since suddenly I can sling a heavy suitcase and not have any neck tension whatsoever. And since I was prepared to fight myself with a potential restroom stalker rather than run and hide under my husband’s cover.

But I’m still gonna insist on staying in three star and above hotels, and I don’t think I’m ever going to drive through certain parts of America ever again, either.

 

 

I just wanted the summer off…

brown clubmaster sunglasses on blue towel
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…But it isn’t happening. I stepped away from my career and planned a real break for myself to further heal. I envisioned a book in hand, iced lemon water, my behind parked on a partially shaded lounger (I like to sun my legs–for vitamin D purposes). So far I’ve only read two novels in June, (neither one under an umbrella). The amount of novels stacked on my ‘give away’ and the ‘it’s a keeper-find room on the shelf’ pile is a barometer of how much time I took ‘off’. (TWO is incredibly low!).

And now June, that glorious stretch of sunny mornings full of smells of flowering trees and light-sweater-evenings; yes, that June– is on her very last breaths.  As always, she peaked without notice and promptly faded. Like a pink sunset turning purple over rolling green golf course hills; the kind that everyone admires for, oh, about an hour in between ‘other stuff that needed to get done’, like actually finishing hole 17 and 18 before it’s too dark to see the balls.

Sigh.

I’ve got three ‘dates’ today and two other friends in my text messages wondering when I can chat or meet up this week. Coffee with a neighbor in a short bit, a young man coming to weed my garden at lunch time, another young man we ‘sponsored in the game of life’ coming and going from my back door whenever it strikes him (long story–too identifying to share details), and a baseball game later this afternoon. Phew. I don’t know how I let myself get this active again. This social.

I like to hide and write and read and heal and do things that no one but me even knows about. Leave anonymous comments on blogs… The usual introverted socially awkward and anxious-personality things to which the rest of us here in blogville might relate. But most people I know on a face to face level–don’t, it seems. They like to stay busy from sun up (ridiculously early this time of year) to colorful sundown (quite late this time of year). A friend recently sent me a photo of her workout stats. It was seven in the morning. I replied that here I thought I was doing well rolling out of bed at seven. (Being showered and presentable to others before nine is like running a marathon, for me).

But what I really wanted to say, to her and to near-everyone else who flutters around me like stressed out butterflies afraid to land on something and sit still for a minute– is this: why are you insistent on pushing through all that pain and then wearing the results of ignoring said pain like a badge of highest honor? I know your knee hurts you; badly, because you complain about it all the time. Why keep running on bad knees?

It seems a lot of people are hiding from painful things behind a wide smile and an offer for coffee. I know they are actually quite tired, underneath all that caffeine. I know many bodies, including my own, have been running on sheer adrenaline for a long long time. Because we are starting to get deep wrinkles and thinning hair and near every woman I know snaps openly at their husbands. In public. Like it’s normal or something to be that way.

Why is it that our basic human nature likes to pretend we aren’t feeling any pain. Is that pride? or is it just plain dumb? Scripture says ‘all we like sheep have gone astray’. Farmers have told me there is no dumber animal; than a sheep.

For me it was some combination of both pride and stupidity. I kept running and planning and making more ‘dates’ to do more things leading to all sorts of nervous breakdown stressed out moments. Thinking if I just push my way through life, like the strong girl I was, then those yucky feelings, those twinges of physical pain, those bursts of emotions–will go away like a stray cat that you refuse to feed.

Annoying things don’t just go away. Strays eat from your garbage when no one is looking. And stress accumulates everywhere, the more you ignore it, the deeper it accumulates into your very being; changing molecules and cells and personality until you become someone you never set out to be. All I have to do to guarantee I will snap without provocation, at my husband (or grown children), is to let myself get ‘too busy’ for my own tired and worn out britches. Bam. The meltdown happens. Every. Time.

I miss my quiet time, I miss blogging regularly, and reading others’ blogs. Getting into my novels in the partially shaded sunshine. Hanging with God because I have made time for that. Finally. Until June happened and I let myself get caught up in the busyness somehow. And right now I really wish I could sit still for a long while and catch up better here…

But I have a date and I already sent a text saying that I was ‘on my way.’ Perhaps I can achieve some semblance of summer over coffee with a friend. I’ll insist on sitting outside; at the very least.

 

 

 

Inner Vows (and why I am renouncing them in my recovery).

close up of padlocks on railing against sky

Here are some examples of what an inner vow might look/sound like:

I will not let myself get hurt again.

I will not let someone catch me with my guard down again.

I will protect myself better next time.

I won’t find myself in that compromising position again.

You really can’t trust anybody!

When I first heard about breaking inner vows in therapy, I was confused. I also questioned if such a thing made any real difference. I mean even scripture says to guard your own heart, right??? I thought that’s what I was doing when telling myself to be on better guard next time…

Then I randomly came across the subject of vows and pledges on a Jewish blog. Once a year on Yom Kippur (Jewish New Year), ceremonies include renouncing all the vows and pledges which were made the prior year, including both intentional, and unintentional ones. Indeed, not making hasty vows, not swearing by God or anything in heaven or on earth, letting your yes be a yes and your no be a no — is clearly affirmed by Jesus Christ Himself! Without getting into a huge theology discussion here (feel free to do your own study–it’s a fascinating subject!), there is very real power in words. Particularly if we phrase them as promises, declarations, and/or oaths.

Therefore I began to see what my therapist was getting at. I noticed just how many intentional, and also unintentional, inner vows I had made over my lifetime. I was shocked. And I still ‘go there’ quickly as a defensive response.

In short: I couldn’t control what had happened to me in childhood and I still have very little real control over other’s actions toward me. In an effort to regain a sense of control I made oaths to protect myself. In so doing I also cursed and bound up my ability to receive and give love in relationship with others. Like putting a lock on my heart and tossing the key. The curse needed to be reversed by the one who made it (me), if I was to experience a fullness of heart and come out from the ‘numbing’ effects of abuse and anxiety disorder. I think I’ve been doing that, now. Plus I’m learning, and trying to put into practice, passively accepting hard things — without numbing out again, or, to use scriptural terms: hardening my heart in response.

I thought, myself, all of the above examples of inner vows, and more too numerous to write down. I even said many of these aloud in conversations with others. The issue being that even the quiet unspoken pledges I had made held very real power in my mind and heart. They shaped my relational behaviors. I know better now. But actually living life without making such statements and declarations is an ongoing process. Which is why I was so intrigued by the Jewish practice of erasing all the intentional and unintentional vows each new year!

Part of renouncing is sitting down and doing just that–admitting and renouncing the oath you once made to yourself. The other part is not relying on a simple statement you repeat once a year but actually working out a vow-free life; in real life–for me that means making myself vulnerable (easing into it–starting slow and letting trust build naturally), finding friends and loved ones who have already proven themselves to be ‘safe’ with a small amount and opening up more and more. It also means recognizing those who are not safe spaces and guarding my self around them. Then choosing better use of my time without feeling guilty about doing just that and without needing to make an actual vow (because I am fully trusting myself, and God, in that process).

It is a practice and a process to give and receive trust. To know who is trustworthy and to not feel guilty about ‘moving around’ those who have proven they are not.

Inner vows were binding me in so many ways. I’d give trust away too easily to all the wrong people and places (Social Media is generally not a safe place to share the depths of one’s heart, for instance) and then knee-jerk hole up all over again with a fresh litany of pledges and oaths to avoid this or stay away from that in the future.

Anyone else pondered this subject of making declarations and inner vows?

Please feel free to share any other examples of inner vows and ways to break them.

 

Songs, Psalms, George Jones & Sister Sinead (O’Connor)

The buried truth was so strong and it needed air so badly that it was music which snuck behind all my defenses and fed it.

silver colored microphone
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Each morning I (try to) read the daily Oswald Chambers devotion, which is a classic Christian devotion book and is also found online (utmost.org). This year my husband and I both decided to (try to) read through the Bible in a year, by using the reading plan found at the bottom of the utmost.org daily devotion. Having it online and laid out so concisely makes it easier to (try to) stay devoted.

In accordance to that plan, I’ve been reading through The Book of Psalms since July 11th. And today, again, September 3rd, there were more: Psalm 140-142. I knew that psalms had to do with singing/songs/worship. But I hadn’t known how long it would take to read through The Book of Psalms on a reading plan, or how doing so might affect me. I am starting to understand how big of a role music plays in our relationship with God, and in healing the brokenness of that relationship.

If you have been following along, here, you will see that I reference songs often. I think reading Psalms each morning has had a lot to do with this focus.

My husband is a Country Music fan. The old school stuff. Not necessarily the newer artists (although he finds some he likes there too). George Jones. Johnny Cash. Kris Kristofferson. When we first met I was leery of his taste in music. My peer group at the time liked  80’s rock music. Skid Row. White Snake. Def Leppard.

Still stuck in an abusive home at the time; I didn’t know how to have my own likes and dislikes. I liked what my friends liked, thinking that would make them like me. After quickly falling in love, I switched loyalties and started to like the style of music my husband (boyfriend at the time) liked.

Things changed as I aged. I started deciding on things for myself. Like music. Hairstyles. Clothing choices. And how I wanted to worship God.

Then I got sick from PTSD and things changed further. Crawling back out of that hole was nearly impossible. Being told by therapists that I was choosing to feel anxious ticked me off further. Who would CHOOSE this? When I am flared, in fight or flight, I do not feel like I have those (choices). It feels like everything is just happening on its own and like my life is completely out of my own control.

“You are choosing to feel shame.”

“You are choosing to get angry.”

“You are choosing not to trust your husband.”

These were things I heard in therapy. I wanted to scream back, “Well where was my choice when I was molested by so many family members?”

But I also wanted to be able to go to the grocery store by myself again; without sitting in the car beforehand in a panic.

And so I listened to my therapists and started changing the way I was thinking. What choice did I have at that point? Not many.

In time I saw the truth in what they were saying. I started to listen, and put it into action. My mind was filled with a back and forth between my therapists voice: You are choosing to feel shame. You are choosing to get angry. That was compounded by the melancholy twain of George Jones lamenting, “I’m living and dying with the choices I made.” (My husband loves the George Jones song, choices, and so that song has played on repeat in my head during my recovery.)

OK. I get it. I make my own choices. But that’s scary, as I was never allowed that as a child; when most people learn how to do that for themselves in the safety of a loving environment. And I’m still mad about what happened to me.

Then things started to click. And change.

I ‘got’ why I had been drawn to certain songs in my years of outright denial of past abuse.

Certain songs had spoken to my inner angst.

The song Amen by Kid Rock was one that I used to listen to over and over; volume on high. That was years before I ‘owned’ that I was a victim of clergy sexual abuse myself. The lines ‘wolves in sheep clothes pastors’ and ‘I’m scared to send my children to church‘ sent oxygen to the fire, which needed to rage, inside of me.

After I’d reverted to being a teenager, listening to music for hours on end, at way too loud of a volume, I tried to be an adult again. And I kept trying to put that fire out and do the expected things with my life.

But the buried truth was so strong and it needed air so badly that it was music which snuck behind all my defenses and fed it.

Now I don’t feel as much connection to the song Amen by Kid Rock. Because he uses God’s name in vain. At the time, it felt good to let myself vicariously blast out anger by using God’s name in vain too. It doesn’t anymore. It’s the opposite for me these days.

Other songs still mean a lot to me though. Even they, are now fading as I recover further.

Kris Kristofferson put out an album a few years back that I ended up outright stealing from my husbands stack of beloved cd’s.  I would spend hours listening to it and I especially loved the song Sister Sinead. The song is in reference to the infamous moment when Sinead O’Connor ripped up the picture of the pope (on live TV).

“…She told them her truth just as hard as she could..her message profoundly was misunderstood…and humans responded all over the world, condemning that bald-headed, brave little girl.”

“Maybe she’s crazy and maybe she ain’t. But so was Picasso and so were the saints.”

I related to that song on such a deep level. Hearing Sinead O’Connor share recently about her own childhood abuse breaks my heart and I pray that she is finding healing for her own past traumas. It is also sobering to know that when people are given a public platform, before they have healed from their own past, it often doesn’t end well.

After I opened up about being a victim of sexual abuse (and that one abuser was a minister), I understood why I had always connected with the Sister Sinead song. The song honors the rage that victims feel over their own child abuse. She stood on a very public stage and spoke out against the sexual abuse of children in a church setting. Long before the big movements have made such things a bit easier. Except her public venting of that rage just seemed to make everything worse for her. And she still doesn’t seem to have coped with her own past very successfully.

In contrast, I am thankful that God allowed me to rage, through music and to private mentors and people who showed great patience with me, so that any public outbursts which tempted me didn’t lead to even further destruction of…me. I pray it may be that way for others. That we may avoid the public stages which beckon us to shout, and instead find quieter but still effective ways to deal with our rage, on our journey toward forgiveness and healing.

For me: music helped. Even before I realized it was helping!

Just like you can flip the Bible open and will likely land on a psalm (song)…if you flipped open my life, you would see that music and words and lyrics, of many stripes and styles, is also right there in the middle of my journey… of making choices; and choosing truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feasting in the Presence of Enemies

The 23rdPsalm has been a lifeline for me in my recovery from PTSD and anxiety disorder.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Inevitably the things which make me anxious or fearful are the very things I want to change, as if I were God and knew exactly what needed to go in my life.

I wish my family relationships were healthy; I wish this pain in my neck would go away; I wish I didn’t feel so much fear simply going into the grocery store.

Wishes are basically wants. Saying aloud: the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want prompted me to replace the thoughts above with acceptance, trust, and hope.

I accept that many of my family relationships are not able to be healthy. I have told the truth about past inter-family abuses and those responsible have not responded with truths of their own. That is not my fault, nor something I can control. I accept that I still have trauma effects, some body pain and various symptoms of elevated stress. This is how it is right now. I don’t like it. Yet, I do want to be in this present circumstance because it is what my Lord Jesus has led me to, in this moment. I shall not want it to be any different than it presently is, for I am not God and do not know all the reasons why I am where I am right now.

He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.

Yes, even in this present circumstance of lingering physical and emotional pain and discomfort; I have been led to green pastures, led to refreshing waters. They are there before me; and they do soothe me.

In the past few years of ongoing recovery I have recited the entire psalm often, to center myself back in Christ. It has been so helpful, for me. Yet, I confess that this was so comforting that sometimes it became more palliative than truly heartfelt. So I have recited the psalm without fully realizing what I was declaring. Particularly this portion:

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

Last week it finally hit me; hard.

A long wooden table spread with so many good things. Surrounded by loved ones. Laughter. Gaiety. Openly living. Freely sharing what is in my heart. Not hiding the truth. Not being ashamed of my past; nor my present failures. Because Jesus blood has washed me clean and there I sit white robed at a public place of honor. God’s table.

God’s table.

That He prepared just for me.

That table was not hidden away in an upper room or lit by candles in a darkened cave. It was out in the open; where anyone could view it. The giftings God had poured out for me were in full access to the very people whom the enemy had used to try and destroy them all.

All of which made it ok to live life in the wide open again. To feel joy. To laugh. And to trust.

These days, I’m rarely scared to go to the grocery store. I’ve returned to doing daily living things without even thinking about the fears which once overwhelmed me. But, in other ways, I still want to hide. That revelation about feasting before my enemies changed things. Inside things. Dark crevices of the heart things. It made me want to start sharing my writing again. It made it ok to live life again. To answer the doorbell every time instead of ignoring it sometimes because I have a bit of a headache. To feel joy. To laugh.

To know that all of this is by God’s design is staggering to me. For He is the one who sets the table and overflows it; right there in the presence of our enemies. Openly. In public. Like an original ‘internet’; thousands of years before electricity. It is His pleasure–to put the feast He prepares for us on public display.

Were it by my design, I would have just set the table up right there in the cave, and carefully selected the guest list, and kept near everyone who I didn’t fully trust away from even viewing any of it, let alone being within grabbing distance.

Thankfully; although my pride and fearful need to be in total control sometimes still acts like it— I’m not God.

For more on the subject of feasting before enemies, David Wilkerson has a great essay.