Trigger alert for mature themes including child abuse, and trauma response.
I. So, there I am, sitting in my studio in a Zoom room with my therapist (bless her for offering virtual sessions), and I’m recounting the parts of my weekend that feel relevant. I move from one story to the next with a wave of my hands and an ‘anyway’ as usual, and then circle back to another part of my weekend, and she stops me, because when I was telling story A, I did something with my hands that I stopped doing when I was telling story B, but that I then repeated when I was telling story C.
She tells me what I was doing – a totally subconscious thing where I’m scratching the pads of the fingers on my left hand with my left thumbnail. She demonstrated the action for me, and then asked me to repeat the action, to slow it down, and to check in with myself about what comes up.
II. I’ve been doing the teeniest tiniest bit of Somatic Experiencing with her for a little while now, so I know some of the things I should be paying attention to. Any pain. Any buzzing in my forehead. Anything to do with my vision, my heart rate, or how embodied I do or do not feel, but this unconscious action – this tiny little clue to the fact that we were dealing with a trauma response in both story A and story C would have completely escaped my attention, because, listen – when we’re telling our stories, we are not conscious of the signals we’re sending, but someone trained in SE *is* conscious. They are paying very close attention to every damned thing, even in our silence. This is why I’m finding it so valuable, because I can headspace myself back to some semblance of centred if I *know* what’s up, but I am not always going to know what’s up. What’s up is often buried under layers of self-protection. Having someone help with the dig is *crucial* to trauma recovery. Sure, some self-help is possible, but a pro is *needful*. I know that better than anyone.
III. So, I slow things down, and I begrudgingly repeat the motion, scratching the pads of my fingers with my thumbnail, and as I’m doing that, I catch myself doing it with the right hand, too. Something is definitely in there, I think, as I sit in silence while she watches me like a hawk. Something is in there, goddamn it. Here we go. And up it comes. Up it comes. And I am thirteen, and I am lying on my side in the bedroom in my father’s house. I’m facing the wall, and he is very, very drunk. I am curled up into a ball, my eyes wide open but unseeing. I am terrified. I know what’s coming.
His check came in, so he’s drunk a case of Molson’s. He’s feeling talkative, so he’s pulled a chair into my room, and is sitting at my bedside, waxing poetic at me while I pretend to sleep. He starts sweet like he always does. How glad he is that I came to live with him. How it’s changed his life, given him purpose.
And then it shifts to how much he hates my mother and how awful she was to him.
And then it shifts to how sexy my legs are and how much he wishes I wasn’t his daughter.
And then I start to sob, and beg him to leave me alone, and that trips the wire in him, and he starts to beat me about the back of the head and shoulders.
I fight back, like I remember my mother doing. When he’s drunk, he’s weak and sloppy and a few well-aimed punches and kicks will send him whimpering and limping away in due time…
He never remembers in the morning. He wonders out loud why he is so sore. Assumes it’s some kind of flu coming on, which gives him the perfect excuse to lay in bed and drink all day…
This happened to me for about a year, like clock work, whenever the check came in or someone else brought beer.
IV. I have no idea why this piece was stored as it was in the pads of my fingers, and I may never know, but I know that hanging out in that action in silence unlocked it. I always had this piece *cognitively* – this is not a case of ‘lost memories’ or anything like that. What I didn’t have was the piece where when people are drinking around me, some part of me is thirteen and lying on my side in bed in my father’s apartment, waiting for the words and blows to come raining on down all over my little body, If people are drinking around me and there is even a hint of darkness in them, that part of me goes into a powerful and confounding trauma response.
This is not the fault of the people drinking around me, and of course, no one around me is raining blows down on me these days – they wouldn’t dare – but that doesn’t matter. There is no feeling safe *at all* in a trauma response, especially when one is completely unaware that one is *in* a trauma response.
V. I have been bewildered over this for years. I know that I am incredibly reactive around people who are drinking. There are certain smells, tones of voice, body postures that *terrify me* in these moments, but because I didn’t have *this part of the piece* I didn’t know why or what to do with it. I just fucking spin, and cycle through flight, fight, freezing, and fawning. I, myself, go to a very dark, hopeless place when I’m around people who are drinking. There is rage in there. There is disgust. There is, above all else, though, terror.
And now I know why, and now I know how to take care of myself.
VI. SE has been the single most useful and also hardest therapeutic process I’ve ever undertaken. It feels a little like magic, like something shamanic is going on – like my therapist and I go in through the body in search of splintered off parts of self that have been imprisoned for decades, and once we find them, we bring them back to the now, with the safety that exists in the now, and the compassion that exists in the now. Soul retrieval. The real deal.
VII. I hesitated to share this because it is such a vulnerable thing to reveal. I don’t want the people in my life who enjoy their drink feeling in any way responsible for me or my reactions to it. I, too, love to imbibe. I party like a Canadian, eh? And that’s not going to stop. But I want you to know how powerful this process is in case it’s something you need, and I also want to be fully, deeply, truly known, so voila.
Keeping quiet about stuff like this in the name of ‘propriety’ feels like self-abuse at this point. That old self that would just shut up and smile, that would clench her fists and her jaw, but dare not say what is actually happening within her in the moment? She’s dead to me. What is true for me is true for me. It is no one’s responsibility but mine to deal with it, to heal it, but I deserve to be heard, witnessed, and known and loved in all my parts. All of them. Including this part where things that are happening around me can make me feel so unsafe that I am transported back to my thirteen year old body and my father’s apartment and his boozy stench and his fists.
VIII. Like most women I know, I have a laundry list of violations that have happened when alcohol was part of the equation. Some of them happened when I was very, very young, and some of them happened when I was a fully grown person and in possession of a powerful no. They *all* came up yesterday after therapy. All of them, like a movie I couldn’t pause. I jotted them down as they came up so I could have some sense of control over the flood, so I was okay, and I didn’t spin out into the horrids like I have before. It was manageable. I acknowledged each memory, and when they stopped coming, I washed my face and got on with my day.
And now I know.
These traumas (and all violations are traumatic) have been stored up in my body. I can be sitting there *thinking* I’m having a good time, or thinking completely useless things like “Why are you not okay right now? What the fuck is wrong with you?” but if I check in with my body in moments that in *any way resemble* any of those past moments, it will tell me OH HEY YOU ARE NOT SAFE, and it will tell me that through my heart rate, my emotional state, the way I’m interpreting and filtering what’s actually happening.
IX. I have this piece now. It is a huge piece, and it’s going to change everything, because when you know the situations that cause a trauma response in you, you can go in with your eyes open and your awareness completely attuned to whatever your body is trying to tell you. You can remind yourself that this *now* and you *are safe*, and you can do whatever it takes to ensure that you remain safe, and that you are responding to the truth of the moment.
X. C-PTSD fucking sucks, but I am bigger than it, and the work continues apace.
This song today, because reasons.