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.

 

 

It’s Tough Being Switzerland, (even though I #believe survivors)

 

alpine beautiful bloom blossom

I have mixed emotions about the #metoo and #believesurvivors movements. I empathize with and support other survivors through prayers and well wishes but I really just want to ‘be like Switzerland’ (neutral) in regard to the whole worldwide movement thing.

As an assault survivor I do not want my name, or my trauma, to be made into public fodder.

I know that many other survivors also don’t want to go public with their stories using their ‘real’ names (fearing for our lives is a reality for some of us). Add a bunch of public attention…and victims who wished to remain anonymous are often nosed out by reporters.

From the start I feared this would end up being all about the ‘left’ versus the ‘right.’ Religious versus heathen.

It pretty much has now. And that’s painful to watch.

On the one hand, I appreciate the awareness and the support of so many survivors coming together. I know how desperately victims and survivors need to hear three simple words: “I believe you.” Those three words can be the difference between recovery and an even darker hole.

Others see the pain the family members of accused perpetrators are going through and get angry at the people coming forward with past claims of abuse.

I suggest feeling empathy and sadness instead. Because the reality of sexual abuse is that there are MANY victims, never just one. Perpetrators’ children and spouses suffer greatly as well, even if they were never perpetrated upon themselves. Spouses and children of victims suffer too. This is a testament to the horror which is sexual abuse.

Now that this topic has been pushed into the public conversation, many feel they can give their own opinion…whether or not they have lived through it themselves, or whether or not they actually know the people paraded about in the news.

I live in Middle America, where it is more red than blue. My Facebook feed is full of memes about alleged perpetrators being innocent and alleged victims being liars. There is even a ‘joke’ going around that George Strait sexually assaulted Emmylou Hayes…and other memes urging me to ‘support Kavanaugh’s family’. One minister I follow referred to Kavanaugh’s accusers as ‘harlots’. That was very painful to read.

So today when a Facebook ‘friend’ shared a photo of Dr. Ford’s lawyer walking behind Hilary Clinton with a ‘does this surprise anyone’ headline…I thought to myself:

Nope. It doesn’t surprise me. I saw this coming. I suspected the me too movement would become a toxic political ‘football’ and that the ones hurt the most by that thing flying around would be survivors (who may be triggered by public vitriol).

Plus, I went through a big ‘end times’ phase before I got sick with PTSD. During my studies I learned things like thesis + antithesis = synthesis. I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it’s probably already too late for that. So: I sense the Hegelian Dialect is at play here.

What is the synthesis we are being pushed toward?

Hang on, I’ll get there. First of all, I believe the escalation of sexual abuse, particularly in the Christian church, is an act of pure evil. It is by design. It is one of the ways the enemy is seeking to destroy Christians before his time is up. And it’s working. Because not only is this evil damaging victims of abuse. Ministers and church goers are being swayed by their emotions (through well-placed memes and photos) and taking up the mighty sword of ‘the pen’ in hasty response. (Things we post on Facebook and blogs are ALL self-published materials–by us, even shared memes from others become our property and responsiblity when we share them). Engaging in public battles we can’t possibly know the real facts about, is not normally seen as Christ like behavior. But yet it is applauded tine and again by Christians. As in most things; there is a proverb for that.

Therefore, I am afraid that we are collectively being ‘synthesized’ (thesis+antithesis=synthesis) to accept chaos and lies as normal.

Liar. From the one side.

Liar. (and: harlot) Shouted from the other side.

What to believe? Who to believe?

Everyone’s trust becomes ruined. Which is why I have a hunch this is a battle that Satan himself encouraged just for the love of chaos and the churning out of more lies.

John 8:44 When he (Satan) lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

Oh, I’m not some kind of saint here. A part of me really wants to get personal and use my own sword in the debate, since I have also been called ‘crazy’ for claims I have made about my own past abuse.

But I don’t know Kavanaugh or his accusers, I don’t trust any media outlets right now, and so I cannot opine one way or another. A ‘that is really awful’ and ‘I am going to trust God to sort it out’ response seems the only wise Christian response, to me. So I hope to remain like Switzerland, even though its getting tougher all the time. As long as I have Jesus as my rock though, I don’t need a view of the Matterhorn.

1 Corinthians 14:33 For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace.

Matthew 7:14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

 

 

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.