I’ve recently been thinking out loud about trauma and find myself using the term ‘trauma responses’. It’s a shorthand term I’ve developed over decades and so deserves defining for those not living in my head.
It turns out that childhood abuse and trauma does nasty shit to the growing brain. I’m writing to you from just such a brain. My mother was a monster. Shit gets weird in my brain.
Shit also gets real in my body.
Trauma responses are my body’s way of carrying our history: a physically illustrated almanac of pain and lack. My body remembers so much more pain than my brain. Trauma responses are the song of mourning that my flesh and bones sing.
Sorry, that got poetic. Obviously I’m avoiding the point. (I am a master avoider but also moderately good at recognising when avoidance is functioning as genuine self-protection. Describing ‘symptoms’ in detail is always traumatic. My poetics are to avoid said trauma.) Okay then, I’ll give you the short version.
But first, two things:
Firstly, I know a lot of us live with this shit. I’m not trying to speak for all of us. ‘Trauma responses’ is just my name for this. Other people in my mother-survivors’ club describe it as ‘the baggage’, ‘the gift that keeps giving’ and ‘the leftovers’.
Second, the impacts of my monster mother didn’t end when I escaped. Like many of us, I did an amazing job of filling the abuse-shaped vacuum with ‘careful’ selection of sexual partners and ‘recreational’ activities. Ha. So I include my body’s leftover damage from the incredibly therapeutic decade I spent trying to kill myself in this definition.
(My trackmark: the tiny soup bowl that feeds my sanity
There’s very few pictures from that time, these are the reminders I carry everywhere. I put these holes in my arm, not my mother (well, except one time – and that was a disaster). Owning that as self-harm was foundational in breaking her Stockholm hold on me.)
So now that I’ve avoided as much as I can, spontaneous outbreaks of combinations of the following are my ‘trauma responses’*:
- Flashbacks (visual and audible)
- Panic attacks (ranging from mild to critical)
- Multi-track thinking (often have several conversations going in my head)
- Memory problems (partitioning is essential in the traumatised brain and so files go missing (more so in moments of stress)
- Physical tics and wild gesturing (particularly helpful for maintaining personal space)
- Ditto excessive sweating (my theory is that my body got so used to panic in the first 16 years that it reacts to any stressor with a panic sweat – even when the situation is positive)
- Frequent insomnia bouts that go for days
- Stress headaches (usually from jaw clenching)
- Irrational attacks of rage (controlling that’s a learning curve)
- Entirely rational moments/days/weeks of melancholy and mourning
- Obsessive attention to detail crippled by a limited and unpredictable attention to detail
- Rampant paranoia and worst case scenario thinking (yesterday my wife feel asleep and by the time I got home I was planning for a funeral – I’m sorry, my love)
- Random and unfixable physical illnesses and symptoms that doctors can’t explain (including large numb patches of skin, frequent abdominal issues and rampant endometriosis)
Well, shit. I started writing this post four weeks ago. It’s taken that long to write a list of thirteen points. In that time I’ve been riding the roller-coaster – have had every single item on the list, many repeatedly.
This, however, is entirely self-inflicted. Damn my curious, curious brain!
I’m going to be thinking about this for a while and would love other survivors’ input and opinions. Talk to me here or @boxedangel on Twitter.
*Yes, that was a long sentence.
I highly recommend ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ by Bessel van der Kolk. He explains all the science behind what trauma does to your body and brain in a way that’s easy to understand. Though it is a challenging read, mostly cause I had to keep putting it down to go ‘fuck fuck fuck’ every time he explains a thing that I recognised in myself (i.e. all the symptoms I lumped under ‘depression and anxiety’ and ‘what the fuck is wrong with me?’).
Have only had the one massive fucked up childhood trauma, but still relate to many of the symptoms: insomnia (thought it was genetic, ha), panic attacks, general anxiety, anger/rage issues, and I get the sweats/shakes when public speaking or I get upset, and oh boy, those physical symptoms, abdominal issues and endo are the banes of my existence, also eczema, cause nothing says deal with your suppressed shit like itchy bubbles bursting out of your skin ;D
I will be looking this up as soon as I’m home.
And from what I see, you do a great job of dealing with your suppressed shit!
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I’ll be interested to see if it clarifies/confirms anything for you, I know my parents found it as fascinating and helpful as I did, and I’ve recommended it to other friends as well (what is it about surviving trauma that makes you find other survivors and get drawn together like magnets? or is that just me? :P)
And aww thanks 🙂 It’s an ongoing battle, as I’m sure you know, but I feel like I’m finally over the biggest hurdle at least. Also my eczema went away over the winter, for the first time since it started four years ago, so yay for small victories!
I’ve been talking about that survivor magnet thing a bit this week, how we are drawn to people with similar traumas. I suspect it’s an unconscious part of the healing process.