Echoes of Trauma: Thriving with PTSD
One aspect of post-traumatic stress disorder that I don’t often talk about is the echo. I think all humans experience this to some extent, but I’m thinking about my own experiences as a person with PTSD. There is a trigger, a stress or a pain, and the machinery of my mind whirs to life. Previously dim and quiet areas of my brain light up, flickering like harsh fluorescent tubes in a classroom, the ones that buzz in an unnerving way. Sometimes I can catch myself midway through the echoing process.
Wait, questions my inner voice, the strong one I wish showed up every time I need her. Is this reaction right-sized? Where is this feeling coming from? Aha! I’ve felt this way before, let me see…yeah, but again even further back…okay. Here. Then sometimes that is enough. Identifying the origins of my pain can sometimes give me instant perspective. I can switch off the buzzing lights and take some breaths. My senses dull down to a tolerable level. I can reassess.
Later, I may even be able to unpack and process the emotional upheaval of the echo, either in therapy, alone, or with a trusted confidant. At certain blessed times, I can go through the process of echoing so quickly that I haven’t even had a discernible reaction to whatever stimuli brought it on. Other times, the depth and breadth of my reaction threatens to knock me over.
Even with the source of the echo identified, the trauma is so close to the core of my being that I’m just rocked to my marrow. The echoing seems to span more space than the lifetime I’ve already lived. I fight off a deluge of self-pity. The other inner voice, the sick one, seems to roll her eyes and sigh heavily. You’re so broken. Why do you even try? As hard as I’ve fought to banish my inner-critic she is a stubborn tenant of my mind. She enjoys going through my mind flipping on random lights in rooms I wanted to leave dormant forever. She almost seems to flip me the bird, saying utilities come with the rent!
I try to focus on the coping skills I have learned. I am not broken. I attempt to practice affirmations. Can I reach out to a friend? Do I have a therapy appointment lined up soon? Am I hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (good ol’ HALT)? Gratitude shields go up, deflecting the pity-party in my head. I hand the alter ego in my mind a mental eviction notice. I ask myself if this is truly my pain, because like many people with PTSD I sometimes have an echo by proxy and react to someone else’s trauma. I may try some tapping to lower my anxiety. I sit with my pain.
I have learned to nurture versions of myself in the echo because like many people with PTSD, I have experienced trauma multiple times and at different stages of my life. I try not to sit for so long with my intense emotions that I lose all momentum. I remember the times in my life when I was paralyzed by triggers, unable to function or rest. I would get beside myself, which for me means dissociation or the feeling of not being able to inhabit my skin. Those were the years of my life when I turned to substances to numb myself.
In the echo, my mind tries to trick me into reaching for my old escapist methods. The addiction “lies to me in my own voice,” as I’ve heard many recovering addicts and alcoholics say in twelve step meetings. The lying beast tells me that it’s inevitable, that I am going to reach for that drink or that drug, and I might as well do it right now when I am in agony. I know I may never be free of the impulse to anesthetize my anxiety. I remember the days of waking up so violently ill from drinking and using that it took several hours and substances before I could stop vomiting and leave my house. I remember the days I took benzodiazepines, as prescribed, on such a rigid schedule that if I forgot a dose I’d be thrown into violent withdrawals. I remember the nights where I not so much slept as fell into a tranquilizer-induced coma. I remember the abuse and re-traumatization I suffered at the hands of an incompetent therapist.
In my present, although I’m coming from a different place on my journey toward recovery, I have finally accepted that the journey toward recovery from addiction and trauma is never ending. There is no destination where I have arrived at a mystical level of wellness and can finally live like a normie. When I keep reaching for my coping mechanisms, even when I have to re-remember what they are, and when I recognize the echo, I continue healing. I have breakthroughs. I remind myself that, like the peaks of joy I experience, the dips into despair are temporary emotions. In these moments of recognition, the echo is a gift reminding me where I have been and giving me a thread to follow back to recovery-oriented thinking.