I’m doing yardwork around my former spouse’s house; raking pine needles, cutting down dead branches of trees, using a commercial grade weed edger to “mow” the grass which is much too high for a lawn mower, and getting rid of the numerous overgrown weeds that threaten to overtake her home.
I’m on a mission.
I keep asking myself, “Why am I doing this? This isn’t my house. And, it’d be a much better use of my time if I just paid someone else to do this for me.”
I know the reason. I’m doing this because of my own fear.
After watching the news about Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, and more recently, the fires in Northern California, I want to do what I can to protect my family.
Media preys on our fears.
Last week, when I closed my eyes, I not only see fires raging on the hillside and imagine homeowners who only had enough time to flee with just the clothes on their back (for some reason, the fire scene from Bambi sticks in my mind), but I feel it in the cellular level of my body. My fight and flight response is triggered and my body wants to act. I imagine my own girls and former spouse running for safety and me powerless to protect them.
I tell myself, “Phoenix, you’re having a trauma trigger. Come on now. You just did tons of research on trauma. You’ve also done a lot of work on your own trauma. You know what you need to do to regulate your body. You should already have this!”
I start to berate myself and put myself down for not getting this perfect. Why is it so easy to fall back into old habits?
I hear Rafiki in my head, “It’s ok Phoenix. Remember, a trauma trigger upsets the nervous system. You can’t control a trauma response. You just need to be able to recognize it and cope with it.”
You can't control a trauma response. You just need to be able to recognize it and cope with it. Click To Tweet
Then I self-sooth and bring myself back to ground. I do some tapping and remind myself, “Phoenix, you’ve already scheduled an appointment with your EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapist and your primary therapist. Deep breaths. Relax. You’re doing what you need to do to take care of your triggers.”
I don’t want someone else clearing out my former spouse’s yard because I need to release my pent-up energy through physical labor. I want to feel my muscles strain. I want to visually see the work I’ve done. I want the peace of mind that I did what I needed to do to keep my family safe.
A little while later, I’m using a hedger to trim a bush that’s against the house. Back and forth. Up and down. I say to myself, “It’s just a haircut. A little off the top here. And a little off the side there.” I’m calm as I do what needs to be done to care for myself and for my family.
One vine wraps its way up towards the roof. I’m not thinking that this vine needs to attach to something to make its vertical assent. All I’m thinking is, “No, no, no Mr. Vine. You’re not allowed up there.”
A pass to the left and I come to an abrupt stop; the hedger jammed. As I try to dislodge it from the vine, I realize that the hedger is embedded in an electrical cord.
Trauma Trigger in Action
My body instantly starts to shake. I struggle to hold back a wave of panic that threatens to sweep me away. I call out to my former spouse, my voice barely a squeak.
The hedger is stuck and the only way to remove it from the wire is to rip it out. In my mind, I see sparks. I see the vine catching fire. I see the house engulfed in flames. I see my family running down the road as the fire chases them igniting trees just a few feet behind.
I try to take a deep breath, but I can’t seem to stop the dread that has me paralyzed staring at this wire. Instead of slowing my breathing, I start to hyperventilate. Here I am trying to protect my family and all I can think about is, once again, I caused destruction.
My former spouse comes outside and sees the look of fear on my face and in my body. She calmly assesses the situation, pulls me aside and says, “Take a deep breath. Look up at the power lines. Notice that the higher ones are the electrical lines. They attach to the house over there.” She points at the roof, opposite where I was working. “See those lines,” she points at the thick black cables that are attached flush to the house right next to the vine. “Those are the phone and cable lines. They aren’t electrical wires.”
We walk over to the electrical cord that was the culprit to my anxiety. She grabs the bottom of the wire that’s hanging out a vent against the side of the house. “This wire has been out in the elements for a long time. See the dirt jam packed all around it? You didn’t cut this. If you did, it’d be a clean, shiny, cut, not old and dirty. I have no idea what this is attached to, but it’s not a hot wire.”
It’s hard not to put myself down. I know I shouldn’t do that, but then, I can’t help it.
We walk into the house, my body a bundle of nerves. “Are you ok?” she asks me, concerned.
“No. Not really.”
“Do you need a hug?”
It’s amazing how many thoughts can come racing in my mind in half a second.
“No.” I lie. “Thank you though.”
I can’t allow her to take care of me. She had complained that she felt like a parent when we were married. This is my issue, not hers. I need fellowship, friends, and my therapist to turn to when my emotions are off, not my former spouse. A hug from her would be dangerous for me. It’s not right. We’re no longer married. I need to resist the urge to say yes.
Then I think about the Relational Triage blog I had just written. The fastest way to co-regulate your partner, or anyone for that matter, is a hug. This will help ground the nervous system of someone who’s in the middle of a trauma trigger. We can’t see it, but our partners can.
Really, what I need is to ground this trauma trigger. Caring for myself means that I have to ask for something I need. And asking what I need from her is extremely difficult.
Caring for yourself means you need to identify what you need and learn to ask others for help. Click To Tweet
I look down (I couldn’t even look her in the eyes) and say, “Yes, I need a hug.”
The minute her arms wrap around me I break down. I try to stay strong. I don’t want to seem weak around her. I was always weak. That’s why I turned to addiction. I need to be a strong man! As I feel my body start to settle down, I realize where my fear comes from.
Eleven years ago, when my mother passed away, I used to have panic attacks that something would happen to my wife or my girls. I was afraid that in an instant, at any moment, I would lose the three people that meant the most to me.
I feared them getting in a car accident. I feared them getting deathly ill. I feared random shootings. I feared fire. I feared their death.
For many months, my nervous system was constantly on edge as I irrationally believed, deep in my gut, that they would be taken away from me and I would be unable to stop it. My grandfather and my mother were already gone. The terror of losing my family would creep up and steal my breath away. Being away from home multiple days at a time due to my career, would only intensify my helplessness and fear.
That distress had needled its way back into my body. However, this time I had the tools to work through it.
God works in mysterious ways.
Things happen for a reason.
The universe brings us gifts.
The last few months I’ve been working on understanding trauma and PTSD. I started this journey when I realized that I needed to forgive my former spouse for her decision to divorce. If I could place myself in her shoes and try to understand the triggers, flashbacks, images, and emotional responses that my betrayal caused her, I could release my anger and pain that continued to poison our friendship.
I didn’t realize that when I finished my last piece, I would end up having to manage my own uncontrollable triggers, further opening my eyes to what she must have been going through for years.
Rafiki smiles, “This has been a tough week,” How can he smile when he knows I’m struggling?
“It’s weird, Rafiki,” I respond, now aware that his smile means I’m learning a valuable lesson. “I can come back to ground so much more quickly than I ever have. But, these triggers, the ones around the fire, come out of nowhere and I’m instantly off. I can sense I’m not thinking straight, my entire body feels distressed, and I can feel myself wanting to react. I’m disassociated and feel like I’ve lost all control.”
“Did you react?” Rafiki asks, raising an eyebrow.
“Did you react to those triggers?”
I think back. “No. Not really. I mean, I mentioned I was off and I’d work on breathing and changing the story in my mind to calm myself.”
“Did you lose control?”
“I don’t think so. I just couldn’t control the physical sensations or emotions that were going through my body.”
“See!” Rafiki claps his hands in delight. “You have learned.”
“What?” I’m shocked. Didn’t he hear what I just said? I said I had a trigger and my body was off! “I couldn’t control the trigger,” I complain.
Rafiki sighs, still grinning from ear to ear. “You can’t control a trigger. That’s not the point. We all get triggered. That’s what it means to be human. It’s what we do with the trigger that matters.”
Humanity means we will get triggered. We can't control triggers, it's what we do that matters. Click To Tweet
“Well, it felt like shit!”
“Triggers do that,” Rafiki nods in empathetic understanding. He looks at me. “How did you manage your trauma before?”
I look up, thinking. Then I stop. I really don’t want to remember how I handled my triggers.
“Go ahead,” Rafiki urges, knowing I’m hesitant to speak.
“Well, if it dealt with my mom, I’d just cry. Didn’t matter where I was, if I felt that emotion hit me I’d go with it. My belief was to allow the emotion to flow through me.” I pause in reflection. “Unfortunately, many times when I allowed myself to be swept away in my emotional pain, it was at an inappropriate time and I made others feel uncomfortable.”
“Hmmm,” Rafiki sits back.
I cautiously continue, “A trigger around not being perfect, feeling invisible, or unimportant would cause me to use anger, blame, passive aggressiveness, or any other tactic I could to deflect what was truly going on within me. If that didn’t work, I’d go into victim mode trying to get sympathy through pity. It was always someone else’s fault that I felt the way I did and I made sure to let them know.”
“Blame. Sounds like Adam and Eve when they ate the apple.” Rafiki leans forward, “Did you do any of that this time?”
I’m starting to see where he’s going. “No. But, I was trying to keep it all to myself.”
“Not really. My former spouse could see right through me.”
“Did you get angry with her, blame her, or use pity to get her attention?”
“No. I’ve tried very hard not to do what I used to do.”
“Did you express what was going on with you to her?”
“If she asked I did. In general terms. I didn’t volunteer the information.”
“Ok. That needs work.” Rafiki adds.
“Phoenix, first of all, you can’t control your triggers. You’re human. Triggers happen.” Rafiki starts to lecture. “Epictetus says, ‘It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.’ If you respond to your triggers with blame, anger, or pity, you’re bound to push people away. People don’t want to be attacked or forced to care for you.
“However, if you do what you’ve done and acknowledge your triggers, accept that you have them, and use the tools you have to manage them, you won’t drive others away.”
I interrupt, “If I didn’t try to control the trigger or use blame, anger, or pity to make someone else care for me, then what exactly needs work?” I’m confused.
“Ahhh,” Rafiki wags his finger. “You weren’t completely vulnerable by expressing what you were feeling and asking for help. You kept it to yourself until she asked you.”
We sit in silence for a minute.
Rafiki continues, “Your former spouse gave you space until you were so deep in a trauma reaction that you couldn’t think straight. Your brain was hijacked and she could sense that. But before that point, you kept what was going on to yourself. This doesn’t allow relationship to happen. However, stating that you’re off, why you think you’re off, and what it is you need, opens the door for someone else to connect with you.”
“When it comes to my former spouse and our past, I don’t feel like I have the right to ask her to help me when I’m off.”
“Asking is different than expectation. In the past, you expected her to take care of you. If she didn’t, you made it known how poorly of a job she was doing to meet your expectations. She could never do anything right. Yet asking her, gives her the option to comfort you if she so chooses.
“You two are in a different place in your friendship. Can’t you see? You don’t demand that she takes care of you and you’ve learned to care for yourself. It’s a huge shift from where the two of you used to be. What needs work is to be open about what you’re going through, what you’re doing about it, and to learn how to ask for what you need.”
“Yeah, that was one thing we had trouble in couple counseling,” I agree. “Not only learning to ask for needs and wants, but each of us actually being able to identify what we needed or wanted.”
“See!” Rafiki puffs his chest. “That’s what needs work.”
I look away.
“Whoa, there Phoenix.” Rafiki takes my chin, pulls it towards him, and looks in my eyes. “Don’t let a little work bring you down. Life is all about work. I want to remind you, that you’ve created a safe environment for your former spouse. You took care of yourself. She came to you because it was safe for her to do so. And she did that on her own free will. That’s the atmosphere you’ve built between the two of you. Just don’t forget that it’s also ok to ask for help once in a while.”
The Discussion Intensifies
Rafiki’s tone gets serious, “Phoenix, I have an analogy I want you to think about.” I take a deep breath. There’s always something else.
He continues, “Think about lying in your bed and an explosion suddenly wakes you from a deep sleep. You feel heat throughout your bedroom, the darkness inside illuminated by an amber glow coming through the windows. The smoke is thick and you cough reflexively, struggling to breathe. Without hesitating, you leap out of bed, wake your girls, grab your car keys and sprint out of your home. The three of you race to your car, fleeing for your life. As you speed away, you look in the review mirror and your home, your life, is nothing but a ball of flames.”
“Are you trying to re-traumatize me?” I ask.
Rafiki doesn’t answer, letting the image sink in. “The next day, all that’s left of your home is rubble. Everything’s burned to the ground. All your belongings, your pictures, your memories…destroyed. Just like the triggers you’ve recently experienced, the fear that a fire could happen again at any moment, continuously plagues you day and night.”
“Yep, you’re intentionally trying to get under my skin.”
Rafiki disregards the comment. “This is what your former spouse went through when she found out about your addiction. The marriage she felt safe in instantly exploded right before her very eyes. It went up in flames. She had no idea that this would ever happen. The memories, the pictures she sees from her past, are forever tainted; all she sees is ashes. What had once protected her and kept her safe, now is uncertain and unstable. What you did could happen again at any second, so she stays on guard, on edge, fearing that it will. How does she deal with the flashbacks, the trauma triggers? How does she deal with the anxiety, the fear? How does she deal with the broken trust?
“After a fire, such as the one that went through Coffey Park, you can rebuild your home. But when you move back in, will it ever really feel safe again? Instead, you could move into a different home in another neighborhood or even move to another state. But will you truly feel secure regardless of what home you decide to live in? There will always be triggers. And that trauma will be felt deep in the cellular level of your body. This is what a partner of a sex addict has to manage, whether she decides to rebuild her relationship with her partner or move onto a relationship with someone else.
“Phoenix, have empathy for your former spouse.” Rafiki’s voice softens. “You know trauma from a personal level, so you can relate to what she goes through. And just like you didn’t feel comfortable or appropriate to ask her for help when you were off, she may very much feel the same way when it comes to you. You must remember, your addiction was the firestorm that ripped right through your marriage.”
Addiction is the firestorm that rips right through marriages. Click To Tweet
The Gifts of Anxiety, Fear, and Panic
While cognitively trying to understand my recent trauma triggers, I read Karla McLaren’s website explaining in depth these different emotions. The following information is taken from her website.
- Procrastination Alert
Worry and anxiety arise to help you organize, plan for, and complete your tasks. Both are related to fear, but they arise to help you orient to possible upcoming change, novelty, or hazard. If you feel anxiety or worry, you’ll know there is nothing to fear in the present.
Fear arises to orient you to change, novelty, or possible hazards. Fear focuses on the present moment and your immediate surroundings. Fear is not cowardice; it is the protective mechanism inside you that knows you’re not adequately prepared for whatever is coming next. If you don’t welcome your fear because you are trying to be brave, fearless, polite, or whatever, you’ll impede your survival skills and throw yourself into disarray.
- Sudden energy
- Fixed attention
- Absolute stillness
- Healing from trauma
Panic and terror arise when your physical life is directly and immediately threatened. You have three choices: fight, flee, or freeze. The issue is not in the danger or in the panic and possible disassociation we experience in response to it, but in the fact that we don’t have the resilience to reintegrate ourselves or regain our equilibrium once that danger has passed. When panic attacks or flashbacks arise, your psyche is signaling very clearly that it’s time to replay the situation that separated you from the everyday world, to explore the stimuli that brought your terror forward, and to move through your traumatic memories in instinctive and empowering ways.
Rafiki Gives Me Homework
“It’s great to see how far you have come this past year,” Rafiki compliments. “Because of your understanding of your trauma, how emotions affect you both mentally and physically, and what you need to do to take care of yourself, you jumped in with both feet when triggered. In less than a week you identified, managed, and reduced your trauma. You knew what you needed and you took care of it.”
“I don’t see that differently from how I would normally take care of myself,” I argue.
“Phoenix, a year ago, you rarely took care of yourself. You sat in your pain trying to will it away. You’ve made a new norm. It’s hard for you to see the change. Even though you still struggle with triggers, they don’t consume you like before. They’re just triggers.”
I stare blankly.
“Here’s another way to look at it. A year ago, you let the past, your triggers, and your pain define you. Today, you didn’t do that. You recognized that there was a part of the past that you needed to work on and you pulled out your tools and managed it. Don’t minimize how far you’ve come. Meditation, tapping, physical work, reaching out to fellowship, prayer, church, research, podcasts on fear, journaling, EMDR, and seeing your therapist. You knew what needed to be done to work through your fear and you did it.” Rafiki beams with pride, “That’s recovery Phoenix.”
“Thank you, Rafiki.”
“Sobriety is learning to survive the storm. Recovery is learning to dance in the rain.” Rafiki kicks his heals performing a baboon jig.
Sobriety is learning to survive the storm. Recovery is learning to dance in the rain. Click To Tweet
“Ok, now I have homework for you.”
What? Homework? Rafiki has never given me homework. I’m starting to feel a different kind of fear take a hold over me.
“I want you to see how far you’ve come. Take a look at your Chronological List of Blog Entries and tell me what was the last blog you posted prior to summer.”
I bring up my website. “Well, other than a couple of random entries I posted in March and April, the last one would have been What to Do When I Struggle with Being Reactive on February 6th.”
“I know you’ve written much more. What’s the next one you wrote after that one?”
I long onto my computer and pull up my blog files for the month of February. “Looks like…February 10th. To Find Connection, I Must Remove the Poison – Part 1.” Realization strikes. “That’s when I started my EMDR work on my childhood trauma.”
Rafiki grins, “I’m amazed at how quickly you were able to work through your trauma triggers this past week. You’ve come a long way Phoenix. I think it’s time to revisit your biggest struggles at the beginning of the year. There’s still some residue debris you need to work on. But more importantly, I want you to see where you were and what it took to get to where you are today.”
I sigh. Just when I think I’m good, he always ends up challenging me some more.
Rafiki continues, “Those three weeks in February when you were working on your childhood trauma was when you experienced your big shift. This was when you finally broke through the trauma that was the root cause of your behaviors and when you released it from your body. I want you to look at this from a different perspective now. Take notes and journal about what you’ve learned along the way. As you become an observer in your own story, think about your former spouse and what she’s gone through because of your choices and your decisions.”
Rafiki’s voice becomes stern, “This is not to do her inventory and this is not to compare.” The inflection in his voice relaxes, “The reason for this assignment is to continue to have more empathy towards your former spouse, her decisions, and her personal journey of recovery. This will help you work on forgiveness.”
Healing from any kind of trauma takes time. It takes an immense amount of work. And it will be painful.
Sorry. That’s just the way it is.
There’s the famous quote from the movie G.I. Jane:
“Pain is your friend, your ally. It will tell you when you are seriously injured. It will keep you awake and angry, and remind you to finish the job and get the hell home. But you know the best thing about pain?”
“It lets you know you’re not dead yet!”
Take a leap of faith and step forward to overcome your past. Don’t let the past continue to define who you are today.
Remember, you can grow from your pain. Doing the hard work is courageous and takes you one step closer to nurturing and loving yourself.
Integrate your adult with your inner child. Learn to dance in the rain.
You, too, can be reborn from the ashes. Rise up and Together We Can Heal.
It’s Not Over Yet
– King & Country