I have Complex PTSD. I never talk about it, let alone in any detail. I mention some of my triggers in passing. I keep it generic. No one asks questions.
I get triggered often. Weekly, sometimes daily. A door slamming, the cold water running over the plate I am washing, a stranger running up the road behind me, the smell of tobacco… these sounds, smells, situations all have the ability to violently rip me from the present and hurl me backward into an emotional flashback. Into a living nightmare, where I only feel overwhelming sorrow, fear, and toxic shame. Where I wonder what would happen if I ran my car into the ditch, where I feel like the whole world would be better off without me. Where the exhaustion of existence is too much.
The flashbacks are all-consuming, and the only way to handle them is to dissociate. I retreat inside, I turn off, I numb myself to everyone and everything around me.
Dissociation is different for everyone. Some individuals lose complete track of time and do things they don’t remember doing. Some people just ‘turn off’ emotionally, stay in bed and watch TV all day. Some use grounding techniques to come back to the present moment. Some don’t do anything.
For me, it’s like… Dissociation is an ice house. Everyone else is outside, enjoying the sunny garden and playing kickball. The level of my dissociation is different, depending on the trigger.
The easy times are when I simply go inside the front door. I’m there in the doorway, and I feel my fingertips and toes start to burn as the cold sets in. Right there, just inside the door, I freeze slowly. I can turn around and still see everyone outside. I hear them, I yell to them, and I can easily leave the house before I am engulfed in the ice.
Then, there are times when the trigger is more and I go further into the house to get away from everyone. I go to the kitchen. It’s secluded, it’s quieter; faint voices and laughter can be heard through the walls. Here, my arms are the dead weight of ice, my legs feel like heavy tree trunks. I try to move my paralyzed limbs, but it’s exhausting. Every step is painful. I’d rather stay in the ice. The effort to get outside, to the garden, is immense. It takes hours or days. I can get back there, where I can thaw and move on, but it’s always a struggle.
But the attic… The frozen tundra of the attic, where the door closes behind and locks you in. Where you can’t feel any bit of yourself the second you step inside. Your eyes become brittle, your hair snaps off. The only sound you can hear is the thundering thump…thump…thump of your own heart. It’s deafening. You scream inside your own head, trying to drown it out. I get stuck in the attic a lot. Weeks, months, years… While I am a prisoner inside myself, I like being in the attic. I like the attic because I cannot feel anything when I am inside. I cannot feel anything, and that is always preferable to the toxic shame storm cloud waiting for me around every corner outside.
Most of the time, I don’t even have the strength to get to the garden from the attic. Instead, I retreat to the kitchen so I can thaw a bit. Then I slowly make my break for that warm, inviting garden. To the present.
I’m in the attic right now. I’ve done everything I can to escape. I want to escape this time, for myself and for my partner. For those around me who are getting the worst version of me. I want to get back to the moment, to the present. Yet, every grounding exercise, meditation, journaling.. nothing is opening the attic door. I can’t move. I can’t leave.
So, I will give it time. Time to let myself feel safe. I will repeat to myself, “You are safe, I will not let harm come to you.” I will repeat this until I feel it in my heart and can pick myself up off the floor and find that garden.
I know what is waiting for me in the garden. I will lay in a bed of clovers in the grass, as the sun warms my skin. The scent of honeysuckle will fill the air around me and bees will buzz lazily past me. I will lay there until I am me again until the present is the only thing I see.
This vision of living in the moment will give me the courage I need to find my way out of the attic.
It has been one week since I entered the attic, and I am happy to report I have escaped to the garden. Sometimes I don’t even know how I make it out of the attic. Grounding techniques don’t seem to ever work for me, at least not consistently. (You can read more about Grounding Techniques at this link:
Sometimes I just go to bed at night and wake up better. A long, hot shower; A walk outside by myself; A snuggle session with my dog; Meditation. I never know what will help, so I try it all until something works. The point is, something always works. Even if it takes me some time to figure it out, something always works.
The ice house is safe, but it keeps me from living my life to the fullest.
The ice house is safe, but it keeps me from my loved ones.
The ice house is safe, but it means I feel nothing… not even happiness or joy.
The ice house is safe, but it feels so much better to be in that warm, sunny garden.
So I will continue to find my way out of the ice house, and I hope you will too.