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

beach blue car combi
Photo by Nubia Navarro (nubikini) on Pexels.com

(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.

 

 

Smells are the worst…and the best!

woman wearing sun hat smelling yellow rose

Airplanes, buses, crowded waiting rooms, and other places where I might have to sit close enough to people to smell the garlic in their teeth from the salad dressing they ate for lunch (sometimes the day prior), yes–those confined public places are the worst for me. Because half a lifetime of traumatic experiences left me with a sense of smell so heightened my husband teases me that if things go south at our business, I could always get a job working alongside police dogs.

I frequently need to open windows at work, in car rides, or at home, to get rid of smells which are overwhelming me. My husband once came home from a Bible study event smelling like strange cologne that I knew was deifnitely NOT his cologne. He’d simply sat next to a man who was wearing cologne that evening, hadn’t hugged him, just sat there beside him…which is why “How in the world did you smell that?” is a frequent expression around our house.

This super-sniffer-power of mine makes life interesting. I’ve learned to travel with several scarves, and I spray them with a scent that I find calming before traveling, particularly on airplanes. If it gets too bad, I just wrap a scarf around my neck and breathe into it and go somewhere else in my mind. The scarf trick has saved me a few times. A flight from LA to Minneapolis once had me beside a musician (his carry-on was a guitar) with an exploding human head tattooed on his forearm, a green army jacket with grime on the sleeves, and the smell of hangover-vomit and weed on his skin. When he fell asleep with his mouth open I noticed, from the air drifts finding my nose, that he hadn’t brushed his teeth either that morning–after clearly vomiting bad food and booze from the prior day. And there was even a seat between us.

That was a long flight.

Thankfully, I had a scarf wrapped around my face to mitigate some of it.

When the PTSD was at its worst, smells were also the worst. They triggered such horrific memories. The smell of pickles on someone’s breath. The smell of hard boiled eggs, after a few days in the fridge.

On the flip side: as with a few things ‘anxiety disorder related’, there are some really great benefits to this super-power-nose of mine. Certain smells are instantly calming for me. Lavender. Bananas. Roses (but NOT rose-water: ICK). Lemons. Grapefruit. Peonies. A tiny bit of fresh eucalyptus (but not dried and not too much fresh or that has the opposite effect). The smell after it rains. Basil. Bread baking, cake baking, (anything baking really), cinnamon, apples, and all sorts of bath products (except the ones I can’t stand). Bitter cold winter days, when my nostrils nearly freeze shut and the line is so hidden on the thermometer that nothing harmful, or beneficial, could still live in the air.

That kind of sterile cold is the cleanest and best smell ever. It’s something only northerly dwellers might understand. Though I dislike being cold, when the temperature dips like that, the scent of that frigid air is divine. Almost as good as when a cultivated field starts to thaw in farm country and you can literally smell ‘earth’ floating on particles in the air. And so while scents can be triggers–they can also be great grounding and calming tools. The right ones instantly lift my mood and bring me peace. Smells add a richness to my life, and writing, that I am not sure others (who haven’t had trauma heighten their senses) experience.

A good nose is even quite beneficial at times.

I have smelled cooking fires before they started. Propane leaking from tanks before anyone else. Smelled rotten meat and other foods before eating it or feeding it to others…known exactly how many drinks my rebellious teenaged children, or younger mentees at work, had the night prior, (before they could dare lie to me).

Which is the point of it all. When the body is in heightened response to a threat, the senses are all heightened as well, to keep you alive and out of danger. So you may not see the danger yet but you can sure smell something being ‘off’.

Even though my stress levels have come down and I’m not being triggered into fight, flight, (or freeze) responses as much anymore, the heightened sense of smell is there. I’m accepting that it is just part of what makes me, me.

I took a walk with a girlfriend the other day. She has elevated stress symptoms due to a lot of traumatic things happening to her in recent years. She was told by her doctor that she has ‘anxiety’. After we took off from the parking lot, the first thing I did was insist that we slow down and go for a stroll instead of a power walk. She responded almost immediately to the slower pace as I saw her facial features relax into a beautiful smile. And I asked her what she smelled; because I smelled such a strong scent from the pine trees that surely must be up ahead around the corner we were about to make on the park’s path.

She replied, “Ooh, ooh, I smell chickens, like the fall air is lifting up the scent of chicken feathers into my nose… but there’s something else too, mixed in…”

I prodded, “Do you smell the pine trees?”

“Yes, that’s what it was, I knew there was something else!!”

We rounded the corner and saw several free-range chickens coming out of the shade of three pine trees.

Yup. She’s had her share of fight, flight, and freeze responses. Unfortunately, her nose may be elevating her stress levels even more, for the time being.

But I assured her, that if she starts listening to her self and uses scents to calm and heal as well: then her nose is going to help get her out of it, too.