Exploring the Strange Mechanics of Trauma

Friends, it’s been a while. Last season was a long one, and I’m glad it’s over. My last two posts came from the depths of a serious depression. From November to March, I was in the thick of it, and I’m happy to say that with the help of an amazing therapist, the guidance of some beautiful people in recovery, the support of my amazing wife and family, and a low dose of antidepressants, I’m emerging. Life isn’t perfect, and some days are better than others, but I am undoubtedly on my way back to good health.

Since the last time I wrote, things have changed tremendously. In the depths of my depression, I had sunk into the feeling that change was impossible, that I was going to be unemployed, broke, depressed, and exhausted forever. It’s a ridiculous thought to have, especially in light of the various changes I’ve undergone in recovery, but depression has this impact on me. Like my addiction, depression impacts me on the level of perception, and when I’m in it, reality gets distorted. One of the most important things I’ve learned in recovery is that change is inevitable, nothing goes on forever, no matter how good or bad. Unfortunately, no matter how many times I reminded myself of this truth during those months in the dark, I couldn’t quite believe it. Thankfully, I was wrong.

I’m still technically unemployed, and still broke, but I’ve been given the opportunity to focus on my writing and recovery for the next year, no strings attached, and that time is worth more to me than almost anything else. In March, I was awarded a fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I’ve applied to this fellowship each year for the past four or five years, and to be completely honest, I’m still shocked that I got it. I’m clear about the fact that I busted my ass and persevered to get it, but the sweetness of receiving this opportunity in the heart of one of the darkest periods of my recovery has a lovely humor to it. To me it feels as if the universe was trying to show me just how wrong I can be about where my life is going, about what I think is true. I’m not sure I actually believe the universe conspires with us in this way, but I have chosen to insert this meaning because it makes me feel good, and after months of not feeling good, I’m going to go ahead and take that liberty.  

This opportunity, however, has come with its own set challenges, which is what I really want to write about. Right off the bat, I want to say that my goal is not to make a good thing into a challenge. I have a bad habit of pole vaulting mouse turds, and I definitely want to keep my head on straight about how lucky I am to have the opportunity to focus solely on my writing for a year. But I do need to be honest about what is coming up for me as I transition back to the East Coast and begin the deep work of writing and recovering.

I recently listened to a podcast recommended by a friend (shout out C.M.) by a duo called the Liturgists. The topic of the episode was Spiritual Trauma (Check it out here). I’m not familiar with any of their other work, but this particular episode covers a lot of fascinating ground that I think is especially important for people in recovery. You should give it a listen! To boil the episode down a bit, they speak to a variety of people—pastors, therapists, social workers, people of faith and people of no faith—about the experience of trauma in spiritual contexts. I personally identify with a lot of the issues they cover, especially the psychological trauma that comes from religious narratives that include an unforgiving and cruel omniscient overseer of the universe, the threat of eternal damnation, the dangers of demonic oppression and possession, the unhealthy repression of natural human instincts, and the ostracizing of people who don’t believe in similar ways. Likewise, I have experience physical violence in religious contexts under the guise of righteous discipline. I know this is not everyone’s experience in organized religions, and I also know that many have had it much worse than I have, but I can only speak for my own experience. A lot of ground covered in the episode really hit home for me.  

The portion of the episode I found particularly compelling, especially at this current part of my journey, begins at 32:50. At this point in the episode, the Liturgists speak with Hillary McBride, a registered clinical counsellor in Vancouver BC, and a PhD candidate in Counseling Psychology at the University of British Columbia. Through the lens of Stephen Porges Polyvagal Theory, McBride explains how experiences that leave us feeling confused, overwhelmed and powerless are programmed into the brain, and why the negative emotions and physical reactions are triggered later, leaving us with the feeling of being threatened, even when there is no real threat present. I’m not going to try to explain the entire theory—I’m not sure I could—just check it out. The reason I’m sharing it with you here is because I’ve found it immensely helpful in my transition back to the town where I grew up, Orange, Massachusetts, which is the site of all of my trauma.

Ten years have passed since I have spent any significant amount of time in my home town. After moving out of the halfway house where I got sober, I transitioned to Western Massachusetts, then further west, to Oregon. At most, I’ve spent three or four days here for a holiday before returning to wherever I’d come from. After finding out about the fellowship on Cape Cod, however, my wife and I had to figure out how to get through the summer before my funding starts in the fall. Her job, which was grant funded, ended in June, and I was still unemployed, so we decided to take our slim savings and move back east, where we would ultimately end up either way. My parents were gracious enough to offer us a room in their house for the summer, so we jumped on the opportunity. We packed up our belongings and our two cats and drove from the Willamette Valley of Oregon to the North Quabbin Region of Massachusetts.  

The place I returned to is much different than the one I left all of those years ago. The town is still depressed, and my family is still crazy, but we have come a long way in figuring out how to get along together. My father is sober, my siblings are getting along, everyone is making ends meet, and though we disagree about all things political, there is a great deal of love to go around. Returning has been another reminder that change is possible, and recovery is a family project.

Despite the relative stability I have returned to, I have struggled a great deal. There have been days where my anxiety is nauseating, where I just don’t feel safe. There have been nights where I’ve dreamt my teeth are falling out, or that strange dogs are in my house and my mother is missing, or that my father is possessed by the devil and trying to get us into the basement. At times, I’ve been afraid to go to Wal-Mart, to drive through Dunkin Donuts, to walk to the convenience store down the street for a snack. When we first arrived, I found myself becoming afraid of demons again. For fuck sake, I’m thirty years old, and don’t actually think demons exist. What is going on?

None of these things were a problem before we returned, so I was startled at first when I found myself irrationally afraid of things that are objectively safe. I began to fear that I was slipping back into depression, that I was developing an anxiety disorder, that I would need to leave. And then I listened to Hillary McBride talk about the way trauma works, and it made perfect sense why, in this place that is packed with so baggage much for me, I’d feel unsafe.

Again, you should listen to the podcast, but here is how I have made sense of my experience since coming home. Through the twenty years that I spent here, a large portion of which I was addicted to opiates and alcohol, my mind associated certain stimuli—sights, smells, sounds, sensations, tastes, etc.—with the real experience of being threatened, and packaged those stimuli in my brain circuitry alongside the negative emotions and physical responses that arose in that given situation. Maybe I had a gun pulled on me, I got beat up, a family member was acting violently, or I was a little kid and someone told me my family was falling apart because demons were in our house. In those moments, my mind took the sensory information present in the environment and stored it alongside the emotional and physical responses that arise during the danger.

Fast-forward ten, fifteen, twenty years. I’m back home, and those stimuli are everywhere. They present themselves again in a specific way, and all of the negative emotion and physical responses returns. Maybe I smell cat urine, hear a certain tone in my father’s voice, or see light reflect of the kitchen window at a certain angle, and suddenly I start to sweat and feel afraid. Even though there is no immediate threat, my body responds to the stimuli associated with the original instance of being unsafe. My brain short-circuits the higher processing, and the lower parts of my brain are activated. I feel like I need to fight, run, or freeze. This is what we mean when we talk about being triggered, and this particular environment is full of them for me.

Simply understanding this process in a new way has been helpful for me. The first few weeks I was here, I felt myself getting lost in fear and anxiety. I felt unsafe. The threat felt real and manifested in my body in real ways. It has improved over the past few weeks as I’ve actively worked on being mindful, taken time to check in with myself, and talked to people about how I’m feeling. I’ve found that when my lower brain is activated, when I’m feeling like fighting or running or freezing, pausing and reconnecting with my higher processing helps. I need to close my eyes and breathe. I need to get grounded in the moment. I need to feel my body in space.

Some of my triggers are obvious. There are certain places I don’t go, certain people I stay away from, certain things I don’t do. Other triggers are quieter, harder to pin down. Maybe it’s a scent on the breeze, a sound in the distance, the way the light plays over a surface of water. I realize I can’t live my life avoiding these things. I want to be in the world. I want to live. I’m realizing that the work for me at this point is in developing the ability to realize that I’ve been triggered when it happens. Once I realize I’m having a response, regardless of what caused it, I can bring myself back to the moment. I can look around me, rub my hands together, take a deep breath and understand that I’m safe, even if my body is telling me otherwise.