Last week I attended the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF) conference in San Francisco. I took two courses; 36 hours of training about how to assist individuals and groups in crises. We learned debriefing and crisis communication techniques and were reminded of common psychological reactions to trauma; including important differences between things like distress versus dysfunction.
On the last day we were formed into groups of eight for the purpose of completing a role play exercise (one of my least favorite things). My group scenario was about a janitor who came to work wielding a knife. Our task was to decide how to role play it. We agreed on a script: we were at a meeting for supervisors when the irate janitor came at us with a knife. One group member offered ideas to aid the script. He looked at me and said,” and you were really affected by this because it happened to you before at a former work place and it was really bad.”
My heart raced. A memory intruded. I’m at my old job, Advance America, and there is a gun against my head. Something is changing. The air is different. How many times have I been triggered? 100? 500? It’s irrelevant, I decided after realizing there are more to come. There will always be more. In the interim I am hurting and I’m wearing this pain completely; like an invisible blanket no one can see. PTSD is like an insurgent. It compels my senses to go rogue against my body; like a traitor. I retreat into darkness. I’ve been betrayed. I cannot fight against the way the memories seduce me. I’m triggered. I tried not to let it divide me. I don’t like the way it conquers me. I hate it. I gather strength and will the images to shut down. . .one by one. The robbery happened more than a decade ago, yet, I still feel poisoned by it. I’m triggered. It always knows where to find me. It arrives bestowing unwanted memories so that I can’t even remember NOW. I’m relying on someone to remember the way I am invaded from time to time so that they may bring me back safely, but alas, no one notices. They are blind to the way I lose time, and lose sleep, and when I sleep, I wake up heavier, burdened, and haunted for in my dreams I was being hunted. No one notices the patterns of my aches or the way the pain thumps inside my head after I’ve been frightened. No one sees this unseen part; like the times I snap out of it and it takes me a minute to realize where I am and who they are. No one notices the way I synthesize details of my surroundings so that I may recall the present. I remember: tomorrow is Monday and then I attempt to get up to exit the conference room except I can’t move my legs. Someone is speaking to me and I nod my head, but I don’t know what they’re saying. I want to speak and I can’t because the words were displaced before they reached my lips and no one knows I’m triggered. I feel myself tumbling forward and breaking free. There is a roar of laughter and I’m jerked back into the present, but the fear lingers and I feel weakened. Meanwhile, I wonder about the man who put his gun to my head. What is he doing in the present? I’m back in the present and no one even noticed I was gone.
My group members suggestion triggered me. I wanted to leave the conference room, but before the role play began, the instructor told us he didn’t want anyone running out of the room in an effort to appear distraught as part of the role play. I wanted to leave, but I did not want to draw attention to myself, nor did I want to explain myself. I sat there in my group with seven other individuals and thought ‘wow this still fucks with me.’ I thought I was over being triggered about the robbery because I am finally able to speak aloud about the incident without feeling as if I am choking, panicking and on the verge of tears.
Since the robbery, I have become acquainted with PTSD and have learned how to soothe myself using self-talk. I tell myself I am okay and remind myself that I’m not crazy because a motherfucker chose to put a gun to my head and I believed he was going to rape and murder me.
The business I worked for more than a decade ago was robbed. I was robbed. I was alone when it happened. So much time has passed and sometimes my responds as if it just happened. Some of you may be able to banish awful things from your memory. Certain things are too horrible to recall. One thought is, people don’t want to talk about terrible things. Another piece is, terrible things are difficult to listen to. Many times people with PTSD are re-victimized and re-traumatized when they attempt to speak their truth. Due to this phenomena we may hesitate to open up because we might become triggered in the process of telling our story and to make matters worse, while triggered, sometimes what we say becomes detached from what we mean to say. This amounts to being misunderstood; especially to the untrained listener.
I can hear myself when I’m triggered. I’m embarrassed at how dramatic and bizarre I must sound. I understand how difficult this may be for the person on the receiving end. I often play the role of listener for patients, friends, strangers, and family. When I am speaking with a human who is upset, in crisis or traumatized; my duty is to remain clearheaded so that I can piece together fragments of their story. I must be multilingual in a sense; in order to understand the fractured language the traumatized person uses to illustrate how they became riven.
I tell you about me so that you can see what we have in common. We are connected by atrocity. We are survivors of combat, prison, abuse, assault, disasters, accidents… We survived wars, predators and husbands. We survived one trauma, many overwhelming events, and/or prolonged psychological abuse. Because of our commonalities I want you to know I understand what many don’t: the impact of traumatic experiences and the strength and resilience required to adapt and recover from those unspeakable things.