Many abuse victims suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), me included. The other day while writing the post about my ex’s abusive anger, I had to take an hour break before I could finish writing. My body reacted the same way it did when my ex ran up on me, panicky, wobbly, … fearful. It helps to know “what is happening” at times like these. If I didn’t know that PTSD influenced me, I may think I was just plain stupid for “allowing” it to happen. As it is, I recognize the PTSD symptom and take necessary steps to soothe myself, bring myself back into the present.
Dealing with PTSD and Memories of Abuse
I reminded myself that I was okay. My husband does not live here, so he cannot terrorize me the way he once did. I filled a glass with cool water and held onto the sink to stabilize my body. Part of me wanted to jump in the car and drive far away because that was my safety net at the end of my marriage. I resisted the urge. I looked around my home and saw only my things. There is no trace of my ex here.
I grabbed a book, The Gift of Fear and flipped it open, reminding myself that my fear instinct, the one I ignored for the majority of my marriage, is not accustomed to me listening to it. I was married for almost 18 years; fearful for almost two decades. I ignored my fear responses because “He loves me. I love him. He won’t hurt me”. Basically, I told my body’s innate fear reactors to shut the hell up and stop bothering me.
So what do I really expect to happen now, only three years out of the marriage? I have been free from his daily abuses for only one-sixth of the time I was captive to them. It seems reasonable that my body continues to over-react after I ignored its warnings for so long. I accept my body’s over-reaction, even to fear imagined, as it did when I typed a memory into a blog post. I believe that in time, if I patiently soothe my body’s fear and let it know “I hear you, and this is what we’re going to do,…” that the over-reaction will disappear.
In another example of PTSD symptoms gone wild, I responded angrily to my boyfriend’s question, “Where’s my toothbrush?” I snarled back, “How should I know? It wasn’t my day to watch it!” Simultaneously, my body readied itself for fight/flight/freeze, and I felt stuck in fear. Fear over a simple question. Why?
The answer is simple: my ex rarely asked an innocent question. If something of his “went missing” from the house, it was my fault. And if I had nothing to do with losing the item, then it was my fault that I didn’t notice its loss and spend my day locating it so his life wouldn’t be disrupted. We argued over lost items a lot, and the arguments usually ended with me in tears, emotionally drained from his unwarranted attack.
But my ex is not here.
Max then asked, “What’s wrong?” and I responded angrily to that question, too! It took three angry responses before I realized what was going on. Almost immediately, I felt so embarrassed. I went to my room, alone, to pull myself out of the past, out of the fear that something bad was about to go down. I felt guilty and weak.
I apologized to Max. He was kind enough to allow me to explain what happened in my head; I felt a lot better, and we let it go. I sometimes wonder how long Max will be able to love me as the time-traveler I have become. It isn’t fair that Max has to deal with my past. It isn’t fair that I have stow-aways from a past relationship embedded in my head.
On the other hand, I must continue to pay attention to my fear no matter what the source. A while back I wrote about an incident between my son and me. My body reacted to his anger and intimidation with fear – just like in the old days. However, unlike the old days, I paid attention. Instead of standing toe-to-toe trying to make my case, I immediately went outside and sat on the porch. I knew my son wouldn’t act the same outside where people could see and hear him as he did inside the house where there were no witnesses. I think that my reaction is a good sign. It doesn’t matter if anyone else would have felt fear in that situation; the point is that I felt afraid so I did something to feel safer.
Likewise, the thing I must remember about the conversation gone bad with Max is that I figured out what was happening to me much sooner than I could have three years ago. My reactions to writing down my memories of abuse are getting further and further apart too. I think it is happening because of time, distance, and the fact that I am building a different store-house of memories. I have more memories of reacting appropriately to fear now than I did when I left my husband. If practice makes perfect, then my symptoms of PTSD will eventually disappear under the weight of healthier choices and actions.