Crazy Lady in Aisle 9

For years I wondered, why are my emotions all over the board, from nonexistent to all-encompassing in an instant? For no reasons I could discern?

I am an information gatherer. The internet is full of garbage, but amid the flotsam are jewels of knowledge and information.

Many of the jewels anchor my new reality. Please, I plead to the vast masses of disembodied information, show me evidence that I am normal. Alone at my computer, I queried with questions I could never admit to family and friends.

Thankfully, the internet complied.

Emotional Numbing

I spent years of my life numb, going through the motions. Feeling outside myself. Watching the happy persona I wore find joy, laugh and amuse my family and friends, while I sat disconnected and floating in the background. I could talk matter-of-factly about my traumatic experiences without feeling the impact. Like it wasn’t really real. Ah, but perhaps I had just put it all behind me.

In confusing juxtaposition, feelings and urges that seemed not to be mine came from nowhere. Like I was a visitor in someone else’s existence, already in progress.

“In severe forms of dissociation, disconnection occurs in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, or perception. For example, someone may think about an event that was tremendously upsetting yet have no feelings about it. Clinically, this is termed emotional numbing, one of the hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder.” [1]

Being emotionally numb about a traumatic event that happened years ago is significantly different from losing the emotional impact of a normal event over the same time. I am sure I screamed and railed against my parents for real and imagined unfairnesses, yet those memories and their intense emotions have faded from view.

Emotional numbing seems to be the flip side of the extreme horror of flashbacks. Complete loss of feeling to compensate for the overwhelming body memories of trauma which never seem to fade.

“Made” Thoughts, Feelings and Actions

In some individuals, the dissociation and emotional numbing give rise to other feelings, but feelings not your own.

“Dissociation may affect a person subjectively in the form of “made” thoughts, feelings, and actions. These are thoughts or emotions seemingly coming out of nowhere, or finding oneself carrying out an action as if it were controlled by a force other than oneself.” [2]

While this horrified me when I first read it, I recognized it in myself. I’d felt like two people for years, but had never seen literature that described so clearly and non-judgmentally what I felt. I am much more at peace with it now.

Just last week <smile> I watched from behind as Emily pouted, stubborn, to create this blog. Now that I have been diagnosed with DID and have been trying to be aware of what happens within me, I am more understanding. But not necessarily, yet, less stressed about it.

“Typically, a person feels “taken over” by an emotion that does not seem to makes sense at the time. Feeling suddenly, unbearably sad, without an apparent reason, and then having the sadness leave in much the same manner as it came, is an example. Or someone may find himself or herself doing something that they would not normally do but unable to stop themselves, almost as if they are being compelled to do it. This is sometimes described as the experience of being a “passenger” in one’s body, rather than the driver.” [3]

The absence of feeling makes these “made” feelings much more obvious.

But the reason why they would come and go so suddenly still plagued me.

Triggers

My husband relayed to my therapist that I can go from zero to face-ripping rage in an instant.

It hurts to hear a loved-one say that, especially when you have no recollection of the several such events he offers.

When I first started therapy, I relayed various troubles in my life, seemingly disconnected. My therapist said that they are all related to my trauma.

Huh?

I only remembered parts of the trauma, and it happened so long ago. I had walled it all off. Didn’t want to deal with it any more. She looked knowingly at me when I told her I have trouble believing that me getting really upset at a coworker or at some jerk on the road is related to being attacked.

It took about 4 months to realize she was right.

Much of my therapy at this time is to understand what triggers these radical changes in my demeanor. What triggers me, what sets me off. Some triggers are obvious – I don’t watch slasher movies. And when the big knife that shows up on the bottom of the TV screen to advertise Top Chef comes on, I have to look away quickly and think of something else.

But many triggers are much more subtle, and perhaps why I never connected my trauma to my present day challenges. For example, a major trigger for me is being lied to. I don’t lie and when I detect it in others, internally I find that I have written them off. Lost respect for their basic character. Why? Right before one trauma, I was lied to. Completely mislead as to the perpetrator’s intent, and the consequences were horrendous.

Hey, I get Cause and Effect.

Lies now signal impending danger, that someone is going to take advantage of me. That I am worth so little that the lie would mean nothing. And as such, that life-long trigger was born.

Flashbacks

I mention flashbacks only because they fall into the same category of emotions that are not “normal.” And because triggers may cause flashbacks. I originally thought flashbacks were just a visual playback of some past event.

Turns out flashbacks can also include other and even all senses, presenting the trauma in it’s “original and unedited format” to borrow the film industry phrase. Feelings during flashback are not related to the immediate circumstances. They are intense – the feeling of panic, being trapped, powerless. They can be just snippets or single images.

The bottom line is that they have not been tempered with the passage of time – you get all the full glory of the original event, replayed for you in the comfort of your own home. In your own bed, your car, your workplace, your entire life’s environment. Without warning.

Moderating Arousal

So where does this put us? Emotions that run the gamut from catatonic numbing to irrational rage. Instantly, with little ability to moderate them. And none of it seems to make sense until you start investigating the triggers – their causes and your responses to them.

“Traumatized individuals are plagued by the return of dissociated, incomplete or ineffective sensorimotor reactions in such forms as intrusive images, sounds, smells, body sensations, physical pain, constriction, numbing and the inability to modulate arousal.” [4]

I finally finally finally understand that my emotional “state” can be completely explained by my past. Intellectually, that gives me comfort. Seeing that my own personal “insanity” can be teased apart and classified so clearly.

It also allows me to accept that my behavior is justified, even though it is not always acceptable.

Most importantly, it provides a solid and rational baseline on which to continue forward to unravel, understand, and hopefully defuse my triggers to achieve some sort of emotional stability.

References

[1] Maldonado, J. R., Butler, L. D., & Spiegel, D. (2002). Treatments for dissociative disorders. In A Guide To Treatments That Work, 2nd Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

[2] Dell, P. F. (2001). Why the diagnostic criteria for dissociative identity disorder should be changed. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, 2(1), 7-37.

[3] SIDRAN Institute. Frequently Asked Questions: Dissociation.

[4] Ogden P and Minton K. (2000). Sensorimotor Psychotherapy:One Method for Processing Traumatic Memory, Traumatology, Volume VI, Issue 3, Article 3 (October, 2000)

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