As I am gaining a better understanding of Complex PTSD and how my body responds to stress overload, I am more aware of the things that trigger it. That means that I feel immediately affected by loud sounds, or intense people. If I am dealing with my child’s tantrum or if I am in a crowded room with too much sound bouncing off the walls, I feel like Superman walking into a cave full of kryptonite. It’s physically painful to me, and I need to go lie down or take a break in a calm, preferably dark space. The good news is that I am now able to recover faster. The bad news is that I have to admit to myself and to others that I have real limits when it comes to coping in certain environments.
For years, I’ve struggled with migraines. After the birth of my third child, I developed something called “abdominal migraines” where I went to the ER a few times for pain in my gut that was so sharp, it took my breath away. I once had a migraine for over six weeks. I tried fancy (read: expensive) meds, natural solutions, changes to diet and exercise. Nothing would touch it. A couple years ago, I started to become chronically ill. What started as what I thought was a cold, turned into bronchitis, then shingles, then just plain old debilitating fatigue, and did not go away for months. I tested for all sorts of things, but the doctors and specialists all shook their heads and lectured me on stress management. In retrospect, I knew my body was trying to tell me something, but I couldn’t quite place what, exactly. I knew there had to be a psychological explanation, but I didn’t quite understand why I couldn’t just “get over it” if it was some emotional thing making me physically ill. That’s when I started going to therapy.
I knew my childhood was dark and complicated, but I didn’t really use the word “abuse” in reference to my family. I knew there was a lot there, but I think I had become to used to minimizing it in order to cope with life, that I had not fully realized how bad it was. What I discovered was that I was living my entire adult life inside a pressure cooker, and boy, was I cooked.
When I fully recognized the long term effects of abuse in my life, I was astonished. No wonder I had migraines. No wonder my stomach was tied in knots. No wonder I was exhausted. I had been carrying so much, for so long, that wasn’t even mine. So now, I am slowly learning to unpack. Things still quickly stress me to a point of exhaustion, but overall, I am experiencing fewer headaches and less tension as I learn to not absorb what’s not mine.
I feel like I may have dodged a bullet by catching this now. I know many others like me who have developed autoimmune diseases that are directly linked to their past trauma. My mother had cancer when she was my age, and while cancer isn’t entirely caused by trauma, I do think in her case, her denial and tendency to hold things in had a lot to do with it.
It’s still hard for me to admit that I have limitations. The super-responsible part of me that is so used to handling, coping, and carrying on doesn’t really like to think that I can’t do something. I am familiar with the voice in my head that tells me that saying “I can’t” means I’m a weak, sissy quitter. But I’m learning to give the middle finger to that voice. This is not about being unmotivated or lazy. This is about healing my brain so I can reclaim my life. Admitting that “I can’t” requires a hell of a lot more mental fortitude than I ever had trying to convince myself that “I can.”
Decompression for me is about slowing down and allowing myself to feel whatever my body needs to feel. No more putting on a good face, no more powering through, no more sucking it up. Sometimes it’s about claiming quiet space. Sometimes it’s choosing to engage more directly. Whatever allows the vent to remain released.