Things have been changing very fast ever since I found a Somatic Experiencing Therapist. When I began SE therapy on October 23 (2014), I was trying to unravel 22 triggers causing me to feel fear in relation to my boyfriend (sorry boyfriend). By doing SE therapy, I was able to reduce the 22 triggers by about 50%. There was about a week of relative calm Nov 7-14 (not very calm but calm by comparison to previous weeks).
Then around November 15, when my boyfriend and I were beginning to get intimate (I felt safe enough with him), something opened up this flashback of another traumatic sexual memory. It suddenly came up in its entirety as if I was reliving it. This memory was from a much earlier time and had been deeply buried. I had not thought of this in years. Due to the week of relative stability I guess my mind felt like it could afford to let it come out. Sigh.
This flashback turned my world upside down. It was horrible. I mean, some traumatic memories are not “a memory.” They are more like a nexus or group of memories that come with all these layers of meaning and can rip your heart out. There can be regret, heartbreak, unresolved grief, self-blame, and all kinds of things that need to be resolved. So now I have to deal both with this memory as well as the 50% charge left on the 22 triggers previously identified.
Two Medusa Memory Nexuses
Right now I feel like I have two medusas living inside me. The 22 triggers, which all relate to one year of sexual and relationship trauma, constitute a calm-ish medusa with 22 regular green snakes on its head. It sits there low down in my stomach just minding its own business. It has been 50% pacified and looks a bit more friendly than before, much more relaxed but still dangerous in its own way. The new one is snarling and writhing around in pain, in my heart, a head full of black shadowy snakes like some demon that was rudely awoken from its grave. This one is eating me up inside.
As a person recovering from PTSD, I have experienced a push-pull dynamic at times in my relationship due to triggers frequently opening up past trauma like it did with these “medusas.” This whole discussion of the medusas is just to show that triggers can cause all variety of internal responses from slight nervousness and unease to a full blown flashback of a huge memory nexus conglomerate.
If the trigger is something about your partner, you may indeed push them away just to get some relief from all this activation of the nervous system. When the triggers bring up really difficult memories, you may decide to take space from them and want to be alone for a period of time. If the triggers happen all the time, you may want them gone entirely and end up breaking up for no good reason.
On the other hand, when going through being triggered, it’s natural to seek comfort from the person you love. So the triggers can also cause you to pull your partner to you, for solace, comfort, stability and security. When in such a fragile state, you may totally ignore real problems in the relationship and stay even if there are actual reasons to part ways.
Before I go further into this push-pull dynamic I just want to say that – in a certain way, PTSD is a Myth. I know this sounds strange but bear with me. The experience of PTSD symptoms are 100% real and absolutely no joke. But all this horror, terror, emotional and mental chaos – technically, it’s all related to the past. Nothing is happening now to cause any of it. It is absolutely real to my entire physiology and yet, at the same time, it’s not real. I’m not sure why I feel compelled to make this point because knowing this changes nothing. I don’t mean to diminish the validity and reality of my symptoms or make myself feel bad for having them. I’m just saying this because – if these symptoms are related to things that are not real, maybe there is hope to one day return to normal. The medusas are 100% real to me, but they are not real to NOW. The Present. Perhaps the body can unlearn everything of the past and relearn everything of the present.
I guess lately I have been waking up to this task I must do, of separating the real from the unreal. What, within my relationship, is a real problem that needs solving? And what is the past intruding into the present? I want to find the answer! But this is detective work that cannot be done with the mind. It must be done inside the body, in the movements needing expression, creations that erupt, sobs and buried words, and all the myriad sensations traveling along the nerves from the muscles, glands and organs through the spine to the brain and back again. The Myth has an Ending, but it can only be found by sinking into the Story the Body Tells, and taking all the footsteps through the landscape until every story has been told, every unresourced part is resourced, and the landscape becomes whole again.
So I am left holding two unruly medusas that at times scream and cry like babies. I could walk away. Or I could stay with them and serve them tea. And ask them – Who are you? Where do you come from? What are you made of?
I created a graphic that shows what these medusas – these nexuses of memories of past traumas lodged in the body – are made out of and how they cause this push-pull relationship dynamic:
(click on the image to enlarge it and read the text in it, then click the BACK button to return to the article)
Seeking Space – Push Boyfriend Away Dynamic:
I don’t know why but unfortunately there are things about my boyfriend that just happen to remind me of 5 past traumatic experiences (experiences lasting in duration from an incident (an hour) to years of trauma). They are such little things, like being a guy, and snoring at night…just normal things really. Just seeing him – because he was around me after the accidents – can link back to them. At any trigger, my body automatically responds with alarm, alert and fear. So of course there will be times I will want relief and push him away. I will say I want space, take some time to myself or avoid intimacy for some days.
In the graphic above I compile all these triggers into something called the Trigger Monster.
Some examples of things about boyfriend that constitute the Trigger Monster:
- causes the person who has PTSD to get triggered constantly
- distorts their partner’s love – the person with PTSD can misinterpret affection as being dangerous
- magnifies their partner’s baggage such as childhood wounds, weaknesses, addictions
- magnifies normal relationship issues not related to PTSD (the current real issues that need solving) such as attachment styles, defense styles, issues that result from having different childhoods, life histories, personalities, communication styles, likes and dislikes.
- minimizes or takes attention away from real relationship problems which could lead to never solving them – problems such as abusive behavior, defensiveness, communication problems, dishonesty etc.
- causes the person with PTSD to only see their partner as “bad and scary” even though they are good. This is due to the brain still trying to survive the trauma by focusing on the threat, the “badness.”
Seeking Closeness – Pull Boyfriend To Me Dynamic:
And here is a list of 10 Reasons for Seeking Closeness:
- Healthy. When I seek closeness, a certain percent of the time this is a healthy, conscious and natural expression of human affection, connection, love and intimacy. I am not 100% PTSD, I am a person who part of the time exhibits symptoms of PTSD and part of the time is psychologically healthy.
- Triggered and Need To Heal. If I happen to be very triggered, experiencing terror or an emotional meltdown of some kind, then I may want closeness because I am trying to find a place of safety to heal.
- Shattered Seeking Wholeness. By “shattered” I mean feeling chaotic, fragile, not in touch with myself and lost. In the graphic, “Shattered One” says, “I need him! He seems intact and whole. I am chaos, I need to sense order somewhere.” This is actually something I noticed about myself a few years after the events. I was seeking a partner because they seemed “intact.” I realized that on some level, I was seeking wholeness and order, as my mind and system were in complete chaos. The trauma was almost like a lobotomy. My brain was not able to function normally. I think I felt a longing for something to lead me “home,” but really I need to come home within myself.
- Patching Up the Cracks with Love. What it feels like to me is that going through extreme trauma is like going through an earthquake, which results in having these harsh cracks throughout myself and those cracks extend into the relationship in particular ways. Sometimes I feel like I am falling apart, or my relationship is crumbling or the world is unstable. When I feel like this I may try to patch up all the cracks I sense in life, in me, in us – with love, care and affection – in a kind of desperate hope that it will work.
- Dependency. Seeking closeness can be an unhealthy, unconscious expression of dependency. However, I feel that dependency is OK and is an act of courage when in a place of recovery.
- Grieving One – Fear of Loss. “Grieving One” says, “I can’t deal with losing anything else!” When I get triggered and see boyfriend as a perpetrator (a reminder in him triggers a memory of a past abusive male partner) some part of me believes it can only survive if I “get away” from the threat. One problem though is that, if I did really get away entirely, part of me, that I am calling the Grieving One, believes it could not survive the grieving process. Trauma includes loss. There is a pile of unresolved grief related to unexamined losses. The Grieving One literally believes it would fall apart if another loss – of my boyfriend – were stacked up on that pile. So it clings to him.
- Sense of Being Impaired. Feeling mentally impaired, mentally disorganized, weak, injured, tired, different, misunderstood by the world can lead to wanting to lean on your partner for help in life with things you can’t do anymore on your own (both things you actually can’t do anymore due to injury and also those you just believe you can’t do anymore due to the shock and impact of the traumatic events).
- Age Regression of “Traumatized One.” Traumatized One says, “I feel little and fragile, I can’t afford to break the love bond; I need the support right now.” The “traumatized one” in this graphic is about age regression. So this one is represented by a baby. The needs of a baby are very basic but very important – they need an attachment bond or parental figure and a stable, consistent and supportive environment. My experience of trauma is that it seems to have thrown me back developmentally. For a while I felt like an infant who was seeking and needing a parent. The emotions that arose if I thought my partner wanted to leave seemed very similar to those of a baby. As I recover I seem to be returning to my biological age. (This pertains to adult attachment and how it relates to both childhood and adulthood trauma. I need to get actual research data about this at some point.)
- Pent Up Trauma Energy. “I need you to trigger me so I can figure out how to find resolution.” This has to do with how the mind and body contain unresolved trauma, and this held back trauma energy may on some level be seeking to be triggered so it can complete it’s expression and find a place of resolution. (I need to find more research on this as well.)
- Therapeutic Effects of Being Close to Another Human Body. Physically holding another person close, feeling their warmth, putting your ear on them and hearing their heart beating, feeling their tummy move up and down as they breathe IS somatic therapy. If you pay attention to your sensations as you do it, it constitutes an activity that is regulating for the nervous system just like all the other Somatic Therapy exercises. Touch is a natural part of being human from the first moment we are born. So one major reason for someone with PTSD to seek physical closeness is, if done consciously and in a space of emotional safety, it actually can heal some aspects of PTSD.
There are some dangers associated with this push-pull dynamic (there are probably more than the items listed here):
Dangers of Going Away from Partner due to Trauma Related Symptoms:
- Leave A Healthy Relationship. A person with PTSD may leave a healthy situation due to having too much activation/ fight-flight-freeze reactions that stem from past trauma and thinking they are responses to the present situation.
- Partner May Not Get Needs For Intimacy Met. The partner may be left alone too much of the time and seek to get their needs met outside of the relationship. They may engage addictive behaviors as a way to feel pleasure and comfort when their partner is not available.
Dangers of Seeking Closeness due to Trauma Related Symptoms:
- Indiscriminate Intimacy – May End up with Unhealthy Person for You. Someone with PTSD may become close to another person without any thinking involved. I have noticed that sometimes, when I seek closeness and love I do it without any discrimination. When I am triggered and feel terrified, like when I woke from an entire night of nightmares of facing death again, I want to feel my boyfriend’s warm body near mine and be able to feel the beating of another human heart. It’s not thought out at all. There are no criteria or standards apart from his having a physical body. This is where I can imagine someone with PTSD could get in trouble. Due to the fact that there is no thought involved they may pull someone to themselves who is not really the most healing, nurturing person. After all, the person just has to have a heartbeat.
Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer in Asheville, North Carolina currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.