As I live life, I’m learning more about myself and other things, like mental illness.
I have PTSD and it’s really weird. Most of the time, I’m totally, completely normal and no one would know I’m a walking time bomb.
But then things change.
Rational Rachel is walking around doing her normal thing and then *BAM* there’s a trigger (usually completely unforeseen). Suddenly, Rational Rachel gets stuffed into a trash bag and thrown over the shoulder of Trauma Rachel. Trauma Rachel doesn’t think logically about her trigger. Her thoughts (regarding the trigger) come from the Limbic System, the part of her brain that works from instinct and has developed automatic survival responses that were learned during trauma. (This article describes it better than I can.) Once woken up, Trauma Rachel is always in fight/flight/freeze mode. And she cannot rationalize her way out of this.
Trauma Rachel does weird things that Rational Rachel would not do. Sometimes, she has mouth paralysis and is unable to speak. She has also run away from the trigger, and she has fought against the perceived threat (not physically, but with words). And while Trauma Rachel is making poor choices about how to get herself back to what she perceives as safety again, Rational Rachel is over here suffocating in the trash bag, using the last of her breath to scream, “You’re screwing this all up! Let me out! I can fix this!”
So, there are a couple things I’ve noticed about PTSD episodes that are totally weird.
First, Trauma Rachel can have long conversations with her husband and, when they’re done talking (or even as they’re talking), she forgets what they’re talking about. As in, she has amnesia about the details of the conversation. Her husband can remind her afterwards what they talked about, but sometimes even that doesn’t stick in Rational Rachel’s memory. (It’s like remembering the details of someone else’s dream.) Trauma Rachel has sent (not nice) emails to her husband and, later, Rational Rachel does not remember sending them, nor does she remember what they said. Also, Trauma Rachel says really ugly thingsto her husband that Rational Rachel would never say.
Second, Rational Rachel often tries to break through to get Trauma Rachel to chill, but it’s really hard. For starters, it’s like that scene from Three Amigos when Lucky Day is chained up in El Guapo’s jail. (If you haven’t seen it, watch it here.) He struggles against the chains and weights to reach the lever which will release him. But, in an instant, he loses his footing and his back slams against the wall, resetting all his progress back to zero.
That’s how it is for Rational Rachel when Trauma Rachel takes over (only not a comical). Rational Rachel is straining to reach the release lever and, if she can get to it, then all’s good and Trauma Rachel goes away. But Trauma Rachel is like those heavy weights, always trying to reverse Rational Rachel’s progress because Trauma Rachel only trusts in her own trauma responses. And beyond that, Trauma Rachel has really bad memory so when Rational Rachel pauses to catch her breath- or if she loses her footing- then all of Rational Rachel’s progress is suddenly reset to zero. She can’t remember what she’s figured out because Trauma Rachel has just reset her memory, so Rational Rachel has to start all over.
Another way to look at it is that it’s kind of like working out a really, really hard math problem in your head without pencil and paper. Trying to remember all the numbers and where they go without being able to record it is very challenging. My husband tells me to write it down as I go but it happens so quickly (this push and pull between the two Rachels) that I can’t get anything written before it switches. And, by the way, when I’m going through this process of figuring out the problem (rationalizing my way out of the trigger), then I look like a total crazy person, rocking, talking to myself, intense yet far off looks on my face… I prefer to go through this process on my own with no one else around me. It’s beautifully ugly.
But I have to say I had a breakthrough this week. But, before I go into details on that, let me say that I ran away from home for the first time ever… this week… like three days ago…
I was triggered Sunday night and Trauma Rachel got all worked up and couldn’t think straight about the trigger. She was beginning to flip out. But Rational Rachel could see that there was a godly response that Rachel should be having to the trigger, and she was very concerned that Trauma Rachel’s power was greater than God’s power inside Rachel’s body, and so Rational Rachel knew she had to break through to Trauma Rachel. So Rational Rachel convinced Trauma Rachel that there was a more godly response that should’ve happened and, though Trauma Rachel couldn’t see how this godly response worked into her trauma response pattern, she agreed to let Rational Rachel lead her towards finding a godly solution.
So, Rachel (with the full knowledge and blessing of her husband, and support of a few close friends) ran away. There was a completely crazy part of the story that I’ll leave out because it’ll detract, but I may write another post about it at a later time. The morning after running away, Rational Rachel and Trauma Rachel got together and reached out to God to help Rachel solve the problem. Per the norm, Trauma Rachel kept resetting Rational Rachel’s progress back to zero. Rational Rachel had to start over from the beginning many times but, with the help of God and a notebook and pen, Rational Rachel was able to uncover what the incorrect trauma response pattern had been and what the correct rational (and godly) response pattern should’ve been. What had been perceived as a threat had been brought into light and it was discovered that it was not actually a threat but that Rachel was in complete safety. Trauma Rachel felt relieved, as did Rational Rachel, and they shook hands and made up. Then, Rational Rachel got into the driver’s seat of her car and drove 4 hours home.
I’m not really sure why I’m sharing this with the world. It’s a really personal thing and it could bring a lot of judgment upon me by others. But I had a hunch that I’m not alone in this mental illness category and, even if you’re not a person who will ever experience mental illness, you’re sure to encounter people who do. Maybe this’ll help you understand them a little better. And maybe it’ll bring hope to someone else who also suffers from mental illness.
You’ll probably never see Trauma Rachel come out. Or you might. But just know that, at my core, I desire to love God and glorify Him, and I desire to be rational in my thinking. Now that Rational Rachel has a mark on the scoreboard, I feel more confident that the work she’s been doing in therapy, in Celebrate Recovery, and at home is going to show up more and she’ll be scoring more points over Trauma Rachel. But I know it’ll take time- maybe my whole life.
One more thing.
We all have trauma of some sort in our lives. Sometimes it’s a small thing like losing a favorite belonging. Sometimes it’s huge like sexual abuse. Whatever it is, acknowledge your feelings. Don’t stuff them down with numbing mechanisms like Netflix, alcohol, Candy Crush, movies, drugs, food, pornography, gambling, sports- or anything else that serves to numb the pain of the trauma. Although it’s uncomfortable for a while to expose the trauma pain, don’t revert to covering it up. Uncovering your trauma, acknowledging it, working through the pain with the help of God and other people, allowing the healing to come- these will all improve your life in inexplicable ways.
Don’t settle for a temporary fix when a permanent one is attainable.
It is attainable.
You can heal.
Healing will come if you seek it.