Thursday, February 23, 2017

Traumatic memories are not only mental but are physical

Through therapy I am learning that a lot of what we are feeling is physical as well as mental. When I am anxious about something I will focus on how my body is reacting as much as what I'm thinking about and when I do this I can start to understand how to react to the physical reaction.

This is new to me, I've never focused on the physical reaction before and it has helped. I tend to hold my anxiety in my stomach and it will tense up and feel uncomfortable. I will also go into a 'freezing position' (think of a frightened bird frozen to escape being seen) when I get too anxious (others will fight, other will run... I freeze) and knowing this helps me recognize it and I push through by moving my body slowly but deliberately.

I'm also learning that childhood experiences are markers that teach us how to survive and we carry those as adults. I had two experiences, one I don't remember, and one I clearly remember, that have shaped the way I react to stress and anxiety.

The first one was when I was two years old. I don't remember this but I've been told the story many times. My brother, sister, and I were jumping up and down on a bed and I fell off and broke my leg. When I was taken to the hospital I had to stay over and back then (1968 or so) parents couldn't stay, so my parents had to leave. They said I screamed and yelled for them as they were walking down the hallway having to leave, and feeling really bad.

This was a marker moment in that my body had learned that I could be abandoned because a two year old doesn't understand parents have to do what they are told. The two year old just knew he was being left in this strange place with a leg that hurts and is in a cast. Though I don't remember the incident, my body does and it is why I am struggling with the feeling that when I get old I will be alone and lonely. It's why I'm struggling with impermanence and the aging of myself and my family because I do fear that I will be alone, not surrounded by love from the people I love. As much as I know this won't happen, somewhere deep inside me I still feel it is true and when I am old and feeble I will be by myself and alone. It scares me to my core.

The other marker in my life was when I was around 11 or 12. I remember a cousin telling my mother that she watched a movie in which a guy was imprisoned incorrectly (he was innocent) and was raped while in prison and contracted AIDS and eventually died. Comments about how gay people are dying were discussed and I felt a flush of fear because I realized at that moment that I was gay and it meant that I could die of AIDS (because in 1981-1982 they didn't know what caused it but knew it was inflicting mostly gay men - it was even called the gay cancer). Of course in the early 1980's you did not ever tell anyone you were gay so even though I was so frightened I was going to die because I was gay, I didn't say anything and I didn't tell anyone my fears. Again, I felt that knowing I was gay (that realization came to me during this experience) meant that I would not have the same relationship with my family and that I could be abandoned because of being gay and because I was going to contract AIDS.

Of course later in life I learned my family is very loving and they would never do this, but at age 11 and 12 you only know the world you live in and back then anytime someone talked about a person being gay it was whispered and it was never a happy conversation. It was always about them being gay because of their childhood or bad experience or being in the war. So I always believed being gay was a bad thing and now with AIDS it meant I would die.

Because of these two experiences I don't tell anyone when I'm anxious or stressed, especially in traumatic situations, like the illness and death of my Nana. Instead of facing it and being there for her, I buried my head in the sand because I thought I wouldn't survive her death. I was so frightened of what my life would be like without her that I did what I always did, suppressed my feelings and ignored what was going on, and said nothing to anyone about it.

I still do this today, though I'm learning.

I feel like it's not good to revisit these old experiences because it just brings up issues to those I grew up with who didn't know at the time how I was feeling. But my therapist said it's important to talk about it because once I talk with those who were present at the time, I might be able to look at the situation differently and rebuild that memory with different variables that don't make them so traumatic. This happened to me about a month ago when I found a journal I had written during my Nana's illness and death.

For years I had only remembered my Nana grasping my hand and me pulling away and leaving and my Nana died two days later (the day after her birthday, which was Valentines Day). In the journal I read that I looked her in the yes and told her that I loved her and that I then kissed her. This made that memory not a traumatic one because I now know I did say goodbye to her, I didn't just pull away and leave her.

I now need to revisit these two experiences and create a new memory that helps me know I will never be alone as I felt so deeply at these two times in my life.

The healing continues.

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