Above: me, demonstrating I am not a member of the selfie generation. The picture was taken at Willard Beach, in South Portland, Maine. I used to play there as a child. It was two blocks from the house where I lived in first and second grade. It is far more beautiful than the picture suggests.
Two days ago I returned to several major places where I grew up as a test of how well I was doing in my recovery from PTSD. As expected, I did hit triggers, but they were not where I expected them to be.
The first one was actually at Higgins Beach, in Cape Elizabeth on my way up to South Portland from Biddeford, where I had visited my high school teacher, Dr. Santa Lucia earlier that day. I briefly stopped at a house where some friends of mine lived. I rang the bell, but no one answered. After waiting a minute or so on the open deck, I turned back to face the sea, and I was hit by a strong feeling of sadness and helplessness.
What it was, I don’t know exactly. I suspect it was mostly missing people that I cared about, something I’ve done too much of in my life. It passed quickly, leaving me after maybe 15 seconds or so.
One of the things about flashbacks and triggers is that you don’t always know exactly what is going on or why. Another thing is that because of their intensity, they often feel much longer than they actually are. This was one of those triggers where it felt fleeting… it came and went quickly, leaving me with little in the way of answers.
On the flipside, I returned to a positive state of mind where I could enjoy the beauty of my surroundings. So much of Maine is stunningly beautiful and the sunny late fall day I had driven into from hours of drizzle on the road made it that much sweeter. Given how depressed I was when I lived in Maine, this was just one sign of the progress I have made in my recovery.
After taking in the scenery for a few minutes, I drove on to Elsmere Ave, where I lived in first and second grade. In the first pass, I did not recognize the house where I lived, although I did recognize my best friend’s house at the time because it had changed less. To orient myself, drove down the street and tried to find the beach by memory.
Even though I knew it was close, it still surprised me. A zig and a zag, and I was facing the ocean. The next surprise was that the parking lot for the beach where I learned to ride a bicycle was still there!
(Here is me, once again demonstrating that I am not a member of the selfie generation.) Learning to ride was tough, because my parents did not supply me with training wheels. Instead my father pushed my bike, ran, and yelled at me a lot. There was never any real praise for anything I did, and learning to ride a bike was no exception.
It’s funny how triggers can creep up on you. While I was there, I remembered some of how challenging it was to deal with my father emotionally as a child, but it remained dissociated until I wrote the paragraph above. I had to pause and bawl for a while writing this one, as some more of the emotional reality of my childhood hit me.
When you suffer from PTSD and depression, you come to take a certain amount of dissociation for granted. It becomes a baseline, and it is the new “normal”. The new “normal” is typically protective in nature, and disconnects you from the intensity of the pain that hovers under the surface, waiting to be purged.
From the parking lot, I pressed onto the beach. I was able to acknowledge the beauty of the scene, but I felt a bit of unease. I had no sense of what it was about yet.
So I walked down the beach and up a slate staircase on the side of the rocks at the far edge of the beach. I still hadn’t hit the trigger yet, so I walked down the path to the edge of the rocks, following a woman and her dog.
I looked off to the right, and I saw rocks that I had played on and walked over as a child. I remembered collecting “glass rocks” – beads of broken glass that had been tumbled smooth by the ocean. The trigger finally made itself known.
I warned the woman a few yards away. “Mam – I have PTSD. This is the place where I grew up, and I’m about to trigger hard. I’ll be fine, but I just need to do it.” She give me a slight smile, and said “thank you for telling me.”
I took a few steps over to the bench, sat down, covered my face with my hands, and cried and screamed into my hands, muffling the noise. This trigger went on for far longer than the first. Again, there was sadness, but also dismay. I had a sense of feeling like a child lost in a world of adults, where there were no good answers about anything. I had been trapped in a world of pain from which there had been no escape.
Once again, in writing this, I got to peel more of the onion. I’m sure that’s part of why I felt compelled to write about this. So many people shelve the reality of being a child as an adult. On the flipside, it’s something that I have always remembered.
As a child, you don’t know what you don’t know. Adult options and perspective are not available to you. Often, the steps that children take to attempt to control their environment are not effective at critical times. These kinds of experiences can teach children painful lessons about their lack of control, and the lessons can haunt them as adults.
People’s past lack of control can trap them in patterns of learned helplessness for the rest of their lives. I consider myself to be fortunate in some ways in that I have escaped most of it. That is even if it cost me a traditional middle class life in the process.
At least I have the tools to understand why I have the problems I do, and to improve my life when I recognize negative patterns now. Too many people do not have that luxury. I wish that more people understood these kind of things, which is why I’ve written three books about it that are sitting with my publisher.
From the beach, I returned to Elsmere Ave. I parked, and walked up and down part of the street, trying to figure out which house was mine. Suddenly, I got hit by a memory. The telephone pole!
There was a telephone pole that I had climbed outside my house as a kid. It had spikes coming off of it that were at about eight or nine feet off the ground. After the blizzard of ’77, the snowbanks had gotten built up to an insane degree. They got so high that I could just step up and climb the telephone pole without any help.
And there it was, the pole that I had climbed as a child. I didn’t go to the top, because I was both scared of heights and of being electrocuted. Which meant… that must be my house right there!
The paint job was very different than when I was a child. I braced myself emotionally, and then walked into the porch and rang the bell. I was greeted by a friendly woman, and I explained who I was and that I was doing PTSD recovery work. She was very friendly, and offered to show me around.
It was fascinating to see the house that I had grown up in as a child. Very little was the same, except for the layout. On the other hand, when I saw the kitchen, I was sure that it was the right house. I asked if there had been a woodstove in one corner, and the answer was yes. Spatially, it felt right to me, although I’m much taller now (obviously).
It was so much prettier than I remember it. It had beautiful wood floors, and cheerful paint… tasteful wood furniture… the list goes on. I wonder about the differences between my general memories of how it looked in the past, and how it looked while I was there.
I’m sure some of the emotional difference lies in the fact that anything different would feel nicer than the potential triggers for old painful differences. Another factor is probably that it was inhabited by a nice pleasant couple that was not my parents and had nothing to do with them. Finally, there’s the fact that I liked their taste, though it wasn’t my own.
Finally, I got to see the upstairs, and I found my room from the past. Wow. It seemed so much smaller than I had remembered it as a child. The difference in size makes such a huge change in perception. Experimentally, I squatted to shift my perspective… and it felt more like what I had remembered.
Once I had seen everything, I thanked the couple and left. I was amazed that I hadn’t been triggered by seeing the house. It was really surprising to me, because I expected at least one landmine, if not more. My experience was strong validation of the fact that screaming into a pillow for eight years has made a huge positive difference for me.
All in all, this part of my day was a fascinating microcosm of PTSD recovery work. It reinforced many of the lessons that I have learned over the years. You don’t know where the triggers are, or when they will hit you. Often, what you think is going to trigger you does not.
Approaching trauma from different directions helps process it. I got one level when I was physically present, and another when I wrote about my experience afterward today. If you want to be as clear as possible, putting in this kind of effort will make a positive difference.
I hope you enjoyed my little journey into my emotional past. If you choose to follow into your own, I wish you the best of luck with it. May all of you out there find the peace of mind and body that you deserve.