With Trauma, We Numb

What a strange Saturday it was. Some of you who follow me on social media may have seen a piece of what I was struggling with, but allow me to shine the light on what was happening behind the scenes. I was at the tail end of a vacation week, which I had entered fully anticipating that there could be some moments where I think about drinking. Given how infrequently I considered it these days, I thought the worst was over.

This wasn’t my first vacation, I spent a week traveling in Arizona back when I was barely one month sober, but this was the first one that involved a good deal of down time. A few quiet days in the mountains would start out the week, followed by time spent at home. The urge first struck me as we unpacked our car at the mountain house. While I lingered over our supplies on the kitchen counter, I told my husband that I wanted nothing more in that moment than to crack open a beer and sit on the porch. Inside my head I was having the thought that maybe I actually could do just that. I was on vacation. I was away from everyone else and it wouldn’t be a big deal, right? We talked a bit about how natural this would have been in the past. With so much free time staring me down, there would have been zero hesitation to fill all that space with alcohol in my former life. This time I had to hesitate, and I was able to quickly connect the dots about why I couldn’t have that beer and decidedly didn’t want to spend my vacation in a numb state. I settled for a fizzy water and a cigar on the porch instead. It turned out perfect. There were a handful of moments like this one during the week, even after returning home, but fortunately they were all brief. I was able to squelch the urges with other distractions or tools from my sobriety kit. In general, things went pretty well, until Saturday.

I woke up to a seemingly normal day, but within a couple of hours I was carrying a thick, heavy sense of dread and sadness inside my gut. I tried to figure out what it was and why I was feeling so down on myself. The predominant notion that kept popping into my head was how ugly I felt. Downright ugly and unattractive. It wasn’t a body thing, it was just an overall sense of ugliness. That is the only way I can describe it and even that doesn’t do it justice. I was at a complete loss as to where this awfulness was coming from. There was no trigger to pinpoint, this was an out of the blue, mucky mess of a feeling. With this came the severe urge to drink right behind it. I consciously knew the reason I wanted to drink was to chase away whatever this feeling was. While my awareness of the situation and behavior may have been spot on, my heart wasn’t fully on board, so the battle carried on. I immediately turned to my tools and went off to my woman-cave for some yoga. Yoga usually does the trick, but it didn’t cut it this time. I then gave a go at meditation, taking some time to breathe and sit with what was happening for a while. Unfortunately, the hefty feeling was relentless.

I played a delicate game all day of trying to understand what this feeling was and where it was coming from, but without giving it too much weight so that I didn’t feed into it. That was nearly an impossible task. I applied every tool that I’ve learned in therapy and kept coming up short. When I finally tried to open up and explain to my husband what was going on, I could barely form sentences. My mind was scrambled and my mouth was following suit. I had to walk away from him with tears forming in my eyes when I couldn’t clearly define what was happening. It was then that I recognized this muddled sensation as a sign of trauma. I had experienced it before when something triggered me or during difficult therapy work. The problem here was that there was no identifying where it came from. This was just the feeling suddenly upon me without any memory or incident to connect it to. It was stuck and I was frustrated.

As the hours went on, every time I would pass the cabinet where there is whiskey, I would pause and consider how a few drinks would take the edge off. If my husband was out of sight, I thought about how I had the chance to grab a quick swig from a bottle. There was this internal dialogue going on about how the alcohol would make it all better, followed immediately by all the reasons why that was the worst idea ever. The frustration wasn’t just about the awful feelings that were sitting in me, but the fact that I was four and a half months sober and this craving was so strong. The hold that alcohol had on me released its grip so much in recent months that it was scary to feel its powerful squeeze tightening around me again. It was maddening.

Late that afternoon, after trying everything else, I turned to social media. I put out a tweet to #recoveryposse and connected with some of the women on a private Facebook group I belong to. Just one simple statement about my struggle and messages came back my way to show support and let me know that this does still happen sometimes, even years into recovery. While I knew this logically when I sent that message, I’m not sure I fully knew it in my heart, and to have those reminders meant so much. Hearing a few words from others who have been there, sometimes even in just one sentence, made all the difference.

After finally experiencing some relief with the feelings and cravings moving on that evening, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what happened. I’ve also spent some time talking through it with my therapist. It’s entirely possible that my brain was trying to work something out. In addition to that day’s events, I had some terrible and vivid dreams that night about my ex-husband. It’s equally possible that I had experienced a trigger earlier that day that I may not have been aware of, but that my brain picked up on and sent me spinning. It could have been as simple as a phrase, sound or smell that started it all. There is this thing that happens with trauma and your brain that I find fascinating. It can separate the feeling from the incident or memory and your neural pathways hold onto that pattern. Part of the work (and it’s hard work) is to connect those paths together in order to move through the trauma and reach release. It’s more retraining of the brain as a part of the healing process. Until this particular day went down, where I was stuck with only the feeling without the memory to apply it to, I didn’t fully comprehend this idea that we’ve been talking about in therapy for so long. Suddenly it all made sense. It continues to amaze me how many breakthroughs come from difficult moments.

It’s no secret that trauma drives so many of us to numb. It took me some time to recognize that some of what I have been through in life was defined as trauma, as I typically equated this to soldiers in war or car accident victims. It took even more time for me to see that I was numbing it. I wanted to take those same, familiar steps on Saturday and I knew that alcohol would make me feel better in those moments of anguish. If you are reading this and ever find yourself in a similar situation, please let this be a reminder that numbing is only temporary. It does get better. I was miserable for most of that day, but by the evening things were drastically different and when I woke up on Sunday I was so grateful that I didn’t put the bottle to my lips. If I had, the vicious cycle would have started all over again and the feelings would only be worse.

It’s a process, sometimes a long and arduous one, but worth every difficult moment. From those difficulties we can grow, and we will thrive.



Panic on a Thursday

Several days ago I had a panic attack. I’ve only had a few of these over the past 5 years or so, and it’s been a long while since one has hit me. I haven’t had a single one since starting therapy a year ago, and then this one came out of nowhere – and it hit hard. I was working at home and had been dealing with a bit of stress over how things are going with a new cat we adopted a few weeks ago, but it wasn’t anything that seemed particularly overwhelming. Then, as I was going about my work day, I jumped on a quick and typical call with a colleague only to find myself barely able to speak part way through. I was desperately trying to get her to stop talking and let me go, but she thought I was just having a coughing spell at the tail end of having had a cold, and so she kept going. My heart rate was out of control, I felt like I was choking and it was nearly impossible to catch my breathe. I broke out in a sweat and as my heart performed somersaults in my chest, I thought I might pass out. I could hardly form any words when my colleague finally brought the call to an end. It was mortifying. I had been pacing around and moving from sitting to standing, then to sitting again all in an effort to find a way to make it stop. I made my way into another room and grabbed the blood pressure monitor that we keep on hand and within about a minute I discovered my diastolic was over 100 with a ‘resting’ heart rate of 157. The thought to call 911 ran through my head, but I wasn’t sure if that was the right thing to do. In the midst of wondering if this might be a heart attack, I started to recognize that this had to be a panic attack, instead. While I’d never had one quite so severe before, the symptoms were familiar. I next considered calling my therapist, but instead I sat myself down and started working through the diaphragmatic breathing that she had taught me. It took a few minutes, but eventually my heart rate dropped and things started to settle back down.

After a few minutes more, I broke out into tears. I mean, I sobbed hard. I couldn’t form any thought as to exactly why or what I was feeling, it just came. I let it come and tried to just stay open to the emotion pouring through me until it eventually just went quiet. I sat for a while, considering everything that had happened over the past half hour or so. It scared me. There were moments that it felt like I was going to pass out, moments there that it even felt like I might die. I was a little concerned something might happen again, and I was alone in the house, so I did something that made me feel more vulnerable than I have in a very long time. I reached out to my husband to tell him what happened and to ask him to check in on me if a couple of hours should pass without me making any contact. I hated telling him. It’s not that I don’t trust him and can’t confide in him, but it made me feel dramatic and weak and I considered that he might start to wish that he had a ‘normal’ wife. I didn’t want him to see me that way, it was almost shameful.

The reality is that my husband was nothing but supportive and he would never view me the way my brain told me he would. What I realized is that this is an old thought pattern, this is how my ex-husband would have treated me. He would never had understood and would likely have severely ridiculed me for being such an imposition to him. In fact, just two days prior to the panic attack, I dug into some pretty deep stuff in therapy about my relationship with my ex. She’s been giving me caution for a long time that as traumatic events start to come up, my body could react in a number of ways. As she reminds me, the body keeps the score. The trauma is still held inside and maybe this attack is how some of that was finally releasing. I know that release is the only way to fully heal, but I really hope it doesn’t happen in the form of such a vicious attack again.

The gratitude that I have for the awareness and the skills that I’ve gained over this past year is beyond anything I could express. My hope is that if I should ever find in the grips of another such situation, maybe remembering how I was able to pull myself out of it this time might help make it just a little less terrible.