on expecting disaster

[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.

the girl by the pool

I’ve been thinking a lot about hypervigilance, and the part it plays in my life. And many if not most survivors’ lives, actually. Right now for me, it’s brought on by one of my children needing surgery.

Hypervigilance is one of a long list of PTSD symptoms, and one I cannot remember being without. I’ve had it all my life it seems — before my father’s abuse, for sure.

I can trace this particular ‘high alert’ habit/necessity right back to living with my mother, which I did (part time, as it turns out) until I was six years old. My mother was ‘unwell’ — a lot. When I was older she used to reminisce that when I was three years old I would bring her my teddy bear and some orange juice when she was incapacitated on the sofa. I didn’t realise how inverted those actions were until I told a therapist at some point. And she was like ‘so you were the parent?’. Um, yes.

My mother had mental health issues on and off for most of her life, and I believe I witnessed some bad times, particularly before I was six. I have no visual memory of these times, but I do have the sense of vigilance, of being aware, of needing to be so — otherwise I’d be in danger.

And of course this vigilance had no reason to fade when I went to my father’s house at age six. Here I had to be ‘good’, and eventually, I had to try to protect myself as much as possible by ‘reading the room’. The danger was real. What I didn’t know is that I couldn’t really protect myself. That’s the catch about hypervigilance: quite often, it doesn’t serve us. What’s going to happen, will happen — no matter how aware we are, and how hard we try to cut it off at the pass.

I posted on Twitter recently about the extreme ‘alertness’ I often feel in my life now. I have been haunted by ‘what if’ scenarios, and images of disaster and catastrophe, and the ‘cat on a hot tin roof’ feeling of I must be prepared my whole life. I now more or less recognise it, though this doesn’t mean I can prevent it. Most of the time I see it when I am in it. I never see it coming.

The physiological effects of hypervigilance are worth noting here: constant spikes of adrenalin, and rushes of cortisol to deal with stress. The long-term impacts of years of this are both known and unknown, depending on how individuals are put together. But it’s a fact that survivors have higher incidences of chronic conditions, autoimmune and inflammatory conditions, and some cancers (from The Body Keeps the Score). There is the health of complex organisms — us, all of us — at stake here. These distorted reactions to — life — of course also impact our families, especially our children. These are tough roads to walk. But with honesty and communication, we can walk them, and we can halt the cycles of dysfunction.

Vigilance is not always a bad thing of course. Being alert and aware and sensitive to each other are all good ways to live. We want this in our lives. And in fact, sometimes even hypervigilance — that weird constant state of high alert — can serve us. For instance, I have known within half a day in every instance when our children’s colds or sore throats became infections. Every time. I also knew that ‘something was wrong’ with our elder child when he started wetting the bed and was very thirsty. I googled. And insisted he go to the doctor. He did — and was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes — a life threatening condition — that day. Because of my (hyper) vigilance, he was never very ill at diagnosis, which is fairly unusual. We caught his diabetes very early.

Recently I told my therapist about an event in my childhood, as a way of talking about my mother’s neglect really. But my therapist ended up saying ‘well, here your hypervigilance paid off’. Yes. I’d never thought of that.

I’ve written about it in Learning to Survive. There are two passages below about the event. A few months before she died, I asked my mother if she had any regrets. She said she did — and the very first one she mentioned was that she wished she’d jumped into the pool.

*

Q is for Quick

I am playing outside with a friend, or an acquaintance, another little girl. I am not sure where we are – not at the apartments where I learned to swim though. It is a perfectly still day, the sky grey and flat. I know this because when I look down at the water, I can’t see my own reflection, I can only see down into the dark blue depths.

            I know we are not supposed to be down this end, somehow. The colour of the water frightens me, a deep blue-grey, verging on black. I know what it’s like to be in deep water, your chin barely out, and I don’t want to be there again. The edge is white, shaped and curved rough concrete, the kind that grazes your knee each time you get out.

            It is entirely silent. I do not even think we are speaking to each other, my friend and me, we are just walking. I don’t even know if we are really friends.

            The noise is barely noticeable. I turn just in time toward it, in time to see the top of her head going under, and something white – her hand, her face – near the surface.

            I do not want to leave her there, without anyone. But I turn and run toward the building, toward my mother and Bill who are all the way inside, up some stairs, sitting on the sofa. It seems to take so long, and it feels so heavy, like a storm approaching. I don’t know what I say, but the grown-ups come out in a great rush, Bill’s watch and shoes flying.

            I remember him diving in. Cleanly, clearly, with next to no sound, just the slip of someone going under. I remember my mother teetering on the edge, staring down. And I remember later, someone telling me I did the right thing.

            This girl must not die. I think I would know if she did. She must survive, dragged or lifted out, choking. After all, Bill is a doctor. Or perhaps she isn’t choking; perhaps she is silent, like all of that day seems to be. Perhaps she looks perfectly normal, as if none of it has happened, she is just holding her breath.

            You would think that I remember the moment of re-emergence, when everything is alright. You would think that her survival shapes the whole incident, is the one good thing. But it isn’t, that isn’t what I remember at all. What I remember is the feeling of helplessness staring down at her, my arms by my sides, and the feeling that I too might fall in. I remember the vision of the looming building, so far away, up the steps. That I cannot run fast enough, my own legs in water, that they are not going to understand me, sitting together on the sofa. That I am not going to be able to say, a girl is drowning and I know what she looks like.

And Questions

What my mother is thinking – much less Bill – allowing us out by an empty, unguarded pool, I am not able to fathom. I am also not able to say to her: and where were you? She will say she could hear or see us, she will say the distance between the pool and the apartment building wasn’t far. She will say that no one died. But I know differently and have always known differently: I ran up the stairs and turned left into the apartment, a long way away. I could have died that day, not to speak of the girl who almost did. Looking back, I don’t know why I too don’t fall in. On the edge of a pool, it is always on the verge of happening.

            I don’t know exactly how old I am when all of this happens, but I know I am younger than six. I am six and a half when I go to live with my father, and my memories have as their central axis pre-Virginia (with my mother) and Virginia (with my father).

            Why don’t I fall in? Why do I know what to do? As is the case for so many stories from my childhood, I am feted as sensible, knowing. But perhaps that’s not why, why I rarely if ever put a foot wrong. Perhaps instead I know, even then, that there might not be anyone around to save me.