I was recently watching something online or maybe it was a show that had two men having a conversation, contemplating whether or not they were willing to go to therapy. 40-something year old men who were only now coming to discover that there might just be some benefits to talking to a therapist or psychologist, to unpack some of the ‘stuff’ that they had been carrying around for a lifetime. When the one guy started to admit that he might be more open to it than he originally thought, I watched him gear up and get excited as he was now in salesman-mode to convince the other that he just discovered something miraculous and life-changing.
I’m not mocking his realization, but I do find it amusing that he is only catching on to the benefits of therapy in 2021 in his mid-forties. What was he waiting for? He did mention that it was still “taboo” or “stigmatized” and that’s why he hadn’t really ever considered it before. If my damn memory was better, I could remember where I saw this exchange play out and tell you where he was from, where therapy is not encouraged. I suppose I’ve created my own bubble of a community where it’s the norm for this 40-something year old woman, because I have no shame in talking about my therapy with anyone who’s willing to listen.
Today I met (virtually) with my therapist. I don’t know where I would be without him, I really don’t.
Quite often, our sessions are really just an unpacking of the two weeks since we last spoke. The focus of my therapy (in my opinion) is stress and anxiety management. Because without it, I’m like a kettle whose lid will pop off from the build-up of steam (or stress, in my case) if I can’t work through all the ups and downs I’m dealing with in my challenges at home with the boys as a single mom. It’s fair to say that in the past year especially (ironically not because of COVID), my need for therapy went up significantly as a necessity to survive. My stress and anxiety levels were off the chart and had now spilled over into my physical health. It wasn’t something I could hide, cover up or ignore anymore because it affected every single aspect of my functioning. I still am not where I need to be, my memory and focus are NOT what they once were at all, my anxiety can be debilitating and I just can’t juggle the way I once could. Let’s not even talk about what is happening with fatigue, chronic pain and heart palpitations and blood pressure. I have seriously aged a couple of decades in the last two years.
I would say that I’m naturally introspective and self-analytical. I don’t live through a realization, feeling or an emotion where I don’t at some point trace it back to a memory or source in my mind so that I can explain how I came to it. I’m not saying that I’m doing a good job of self-analysis, but it’s a process I go through automatically, whether I’m always aware of it or not. This means that I’m often in my therapy session, walking him through my journal of events, then breaking down the ‘why’s’ I did what I did or thought what I thought, before he’s even had a chance to say anything. He often reinforces my conclusions and sometimes I wonder if there’s really any point to these sessions or if it would be cheaper to just have the same conversation with a girlfriend over a coffee. But then the real benefits of therapy creep up when I least expect it as they did today. I’ve learned over the years that a great therapist is a really attentive listener. That should be a no-brainer, but I have had a few who are shite, so I’ve learned to choose wisely since. But I’ve got a good one. He may sometimes seem distracted when I’m babbling on, but when it’s his turn to say something, he hits me with a beauty and I remember why he’s a pro.
Today I was unpacking a new discovery I had recently made about my reaction to certain things that happen in my household with my kids. Without getting into too much detail, I have realized that I have a very clear physical reaction to specific events, or sounds, or words that are said in my home. I experience a very real sensation that causes my mind to go into instantaneous fight or flight, panic-mode, that almost paralyzes my thinking. I hear a high pitch tone in my ears, I feel hot and cold at the same time like the flu and I almost see white light. This is happening while my body seems to react in auto-pilot, without conscious thought and I start to maniacally clean, almost to distract myself or escape what I’m feeling. I feel my voice get high pitched, I bark orders and repeat myself, while in my head, I’m screaming to get away. This all sounds so dramatic, but it’s all very real. I recently connected the reaction to one that I have experienced in many different times throughout my life. While respecting my family members, I think it is still fair to say that my sister and I grew up with an alcoholic step-father and for anyone who has experience with this, you know what behaviours that can come with.
For me, I have a very clear and defined “trigger” that I now realize likely comes from moments in my past. The sound of a car pulling into the driveway in the dark of night when I’m already half asleep, and hearing footsteps coming up the walk and trying to decipher if they sound sloppy and drunken or swift and sober. Hearing the door open and just holding my breath.
Because in that breath, you’re waiting to hear what’s going to happen next. Will the footsteps climb the stairs and retreat off to their room to sleep? Or will your bedroom door crash open, the lights get flicked on, so you can be screamed at and berated for not having lined your shoes up properly at the front door, or that your vacuuming was sub-par because you didn’t leave lines in the carpet the way he likes it. Or maybe.. he might walk into your room naked, not say a word, then proceed to stand in your closet to pee, thinking it’s the bathroom to piss in. You can imagine the fear of a teenage girl, not knowing how the scene is about to play out – then the relief of realizing he’s just a too-stupid-drunk that you hate, but he’s not as dangerous as your mind panicked about in that split second. But the worst of all, is when you hear those footsteps come in, then you hear a second set and maybe a third, and you don’t know what creepy losers he’s brought home and told they could crash at the house.
I don’t share these stories for sympathy. I’m a grown woman and I lived through it all and can even find the humour in it. Some. But what amazes me, is that I never realized that the response my body and mind gave to those moments of the door opening, have haunted me in so many ways into my adulthood.
Today, in therapy, I made quite a few more associations of responses I have to specific ‘triggers’ of my past, that repeat in my current situation, quite often through the experiences of parenting my boys. They all happen in moments where I feel helpless. Where I feel I have no control. Where I sense that danger is imminent and I can’t stop it. Because I’m not a psychologist, I won’t decisively label this. But I will give it a name that I’m making up for it myself and I’ll call it Continuous-Traumatic-Stress. Because unlike a soldier who is eventually removed from a war-zone to suffer from the triggers and associated responses they experience afterwards, my traumatic stress repeats over and over and over again throughout the lifespan of parenting children who often put our family in chaotic, scary and sometimes dangerous situations.
If it isn’t the chaos of living with someone who is on drugs – paranoid, erratic, impulsive and lacking any good judgement at all to know not to let the drug dealers regularly pull into your driveway and jeopardize your family’s safety, then it’s an almost grown autistic man, who has the mental capacity of a child, who is sick of hearing the word no and thinks he can run away to get to where where he wants to be. Stating these truths should not negate the other truths – that both boys are now, more often than not, in a MUCH better place. But the mind and body – MY mind and body – have not forgotten. Just as they have not forgotten the repeated episodes from my younger years and so many other scary moments in all the years after. So now, all it takes is a certain specific sound, that causes my body to react before my brain can even register what it is reacting to. It’s only after the moment has passed, that I can pick through it and start to see what tipped me over the edge.
I realize I’m going down a rabbit hole with this one, so I’m going to slow myself down and get to my point.
My therapist recognized patterns in my life. I’m a care-giver. I’m a people-pleaser. I work very hard to be perfect in those roles and to maintain that level of perfection, I need to feel in control. I work very hard to control my environment so that there are no surprises. The second I see a sign that I can lose that control, or the moment I am triggered by a sound or sense that mimics a traumatic moment from my history, I am right back in my most terrified state. Why this new understanding has changed me, is that when you know better, you do better. With the knowledge, is the awareness that not everything that I am feeling in current day stress, is necessarily as traumatic as my body and brain are tricking me into thinking. And knowing this has already empowered me for when it happens again and I have some tricks of my own to keep myself in a calmer state of reality. In that one therapy session, my new understanding has also shifted my priorities so I know that I am committed to not feel so compelled to put myself in positions of people-pleasing the way I have always done. It is so freeing.
If there is anything I wish for you, it’s for you to know that there is no shame in going to therapy. Life is messy and we don’t have time to worry about anything other than taking care of ourselves, those we love and our community. If you need an ear to bounce your thoughts off of, or you know that you have real hard stuff to work through, it’s worth the effort to find yourself a good therapist. Ask the people you trust if they can recommend someone. It didn’t take me long at all to find my guy and I’m never looking back.
I’m trying my best to pay it forward by dealing hope and sharing stories & tips on caregiving and how to survive hard things. I blog a lot about single parenting my adult twin sons who both have autism, and the challenges we face in surviving the everyday challenges and planning for a future full of unknowns.
There is no greater liberation than finding the root of your trigger, and taking back the control from it in the present moment. Living in the now and not letting the past own it, or control our perceptions of it physically or emotionally. Proud of you, I know how hard the work is to get to that place. And how incredible a good therapist can be in helping us get there, I agree 100%. Bravo!