[photo: Dan Meyers]
I now realise that a good portion of my psyche, my everyday psyche, is always ready for anything, waiting for the worst to happen. This hypervigilance is one of the key indicators of (C)PTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder), and it’s not at all unusual in survivors of Child Sexual Abuse or in fact of any shattering trauma.
Getting into therapy when I was 21 (which I wrote about here), speaking about my father’s abuse of me, released some of the intense pressure I hadn’t realised I was carrying inside me: like loosening a gasket or bleeding a radiator, some of the painful steam escaped over my three years with Diana, and subsequently with other life-affirming therapists. I suddenly found I had more energy for life, for learning, for loving and being. Holding back and down the facts and effects of the abuse — keeping those secrets — had ‘dumbed down’ my whole self. My energy for meeting the world, for being in the present, for enjoying anything, had up until that time been meted out, carefully titrated (as a method of self protection) so that I could survive, keep going. Good therapy released so much of that. I remember feeling uncontrollably overjoyed, bouncing, feeling so, so light with relief, with the sense that this, this happy person, was the Real Me.
With getting older and having more responsibilities however, the truth is: now this Real Me comes and goes, and I’m beginning to accept that she always will. I feel her more often now, and form my life around her as my proven reality — but the imposter who knows and says Bad Things Happen, who waits for the worst to happen, who insists on preparing for everything going wrong — that presence continues to occupy space in me. Indeed, I know that I am slipping into an actual unwell space when this sense of disaster takes over and descends full force. This doesn’t happen often anymore, but when it does I become paralysed, certain of catastrophe taking away all light in the world.
A clearcut example of this is something which has improved over the years: flying. I have written about my fear of flying elsewhere, and the roots of it, but one aspect of this was a kind of hypervigilance on steroids: I took every plane ride determinedly alert to something going wrong. I had a deep sense that if I was prepared for anything, if I held this preparedness in the forefront of my mind, then the plane and everyone on it would be fine. On long flights (UK to US and back again), this state of mind was completely exhausting; I couldn’t concentrate on anything, I felt sick with every bump, I could barely eat or drink, such was my focus on staying alert.
Thankfully, that feeling on plane rides for me is now very muted. I can read on them now, eat and drink, do puzzles. Only when turbulence strikes do I find the hypervigilance difficult to keep at bay.
There is a lot of ‘magical thinking’ tied up with extreme hypervigilance. For me, it’s always manifested in not only keeping myself safe, but keeping everyone I love safe too. This of course is directly related to my blog post the bargain, which looks at how I ‘sacrificed’ myself for my sister — or so I thought. In any case my concerns have always been generalised: it is up to me to keep things going okay. This pattern stems no doubt directly from not only keeping secrets around the abuse, but also the necessity I felt to be a ‘good girl’ through my mother’s significant neglect and psychological abuse of me.
It’s not a big leap I think to see how hypervigilance such as mine can be blown through the roof by the arrival of and care for children. And for certain dealing with hypervigilance has been one of the most significant challenges of parenthood for me. I know that my own anxieties have contributed to my children’s anxieties — and yet, my hypervigilance through the development of their own chronic conditions (Type 1 diabetes and Joint Hypermobility Syndrome [likely EDS]) has meant that I have been able to do a lot to keep them safe and locate the best care for them — identify too certain things before they became dangerous. But it’s difficult for me to draw ‘the line’. It’s hard for me to stop being vigilant. They are now in Boston and in Pittsburgh respectively, 1000’s of miles away and meeting their lives head on — yet often in the day, every day, I want to know that they are okay, sometimes hour by hour. They know this about me, and almost always respond with ‘I’m good!’ when I give in and send them a message at last, asking how they are. I have tried hard — and not succeeded — to control this vestige of my vigilance. It’s here to stay, I think.
My children understand all this because they know about my past, and because they both also have challenges of their own — because in both their cases, and despite all my vigilance and bargaining with the world, Bad Things Happened to them. In both their cases indeed, kinds of disaster struck, over which my hypervigilance had absolutely no sway whatsoever. More on this in another post, perhaps.
Over time, I’ve got a bit better and worked hard at believing ‘what will be will be’ and ‘we are where we are’, two phrases I railed against for years. In reality there’s a profound release in ‘taking my eyes off the road’, and if I allow myself to, I can almost always feel that surge of relief and happiness come back now: I survived, I love and am loved, and I’m truly happy. Everything really is okay.
I know now that I’m a hard-wired optimist, and I’m grateful that this love of life is able to fuel me most of the time. But I do continue to resent — at 58, so many years after my childhood, and with both parents dead — the old grey-faced imposter who rocks in the corner, always expecting disaster.
A poem from the chapbook-sized section of poetry toward the end of my prose memoir LEARNING TO SURVIVE, which was written over the few weeks when my father was unexpectedly ill, and then died. I wrote this right after his death, seeking solace in the silent crypt of Canterbury Cathedral.
in the cathedral
You are the smaller candle, placed right there. For once I’ve let you in, and you waver, your light pretty weak, your reach limited.
The rest of my life draws me nearer. The big glass candle, already lit, from which all else springs.