*On account of the fact that the contents of this article are issues that the author is personally affected by, this article may not be up to her usual standard.
Re-traumatisation sucks – there are no two ways around it. Things could be fine and going so well for you, then BAM: one tiny trigger sets off an entire depressive episode. Within seconds, you turn from go-getter to bed-sitter. Only moments ago you were thriving, smiling, optimistic; now, all your thoughts are muddled, you can’t seem to force your limbs to move to perform even the most basic elements of self-care (e.g. eating and showering, etc), and you’re suddenly filled with rage.
Much of this rage is oftentimes directed towards yourself: you begin to question your judgement of your very own feelings:
“But the trauma I experienced was so long ago – I should be over it by now. Why am I still being affected by this? I feel so selfish for inadvertently bringing down my friends and loved ones, just because I can’t get a grip on what’s going on inside of me right now.”
Yet, trauma works the way it does because it changes your very brain chemistry. For women with histories of abuse and PTSD, the hippocampus, medial prefrontal cortex and amygdala get especially impacted.
The hippocampus – responsible for learning and memory – downsizes significantly. It becomes a lot more prone to overstress, leading to memory loss and loss of spatial intelligence, which also then lead to panic attacks and feelings of being muddled. The medial prefrontal cortex – responsible for retrieval of long-term memory – gets similarly impacted: it becomes difficult to remember the specific moment that’s triggered your PTSD attack. From this, it can be might difficult to explain to anyone around you what’s happening inside of you, and you may invalidate your own present feelings without any “evidence” to back up why you’re currently feeling the way you are.
The important thing to remember here is that you don’t have to explain to anyone – not even yourself – where your feelings are coming from in order for your feelings to be valid: it is valid enough that they are simply there.
Finally, the altered state of the amygdala means that your “fight or flight” response gets impacted: you’re far more likely to get stuck in your “fight”, “flight”, “freeze” or “fawn” mode. If this happens, just remember that it is okay. Your body has put you in this position to try and protect you from the memories of your past experiences. Your body is smart: trust it, and let it take you where it decided you need to be right now to cope for the time being. This state you’re in currently is fleeting: you will only stay here in so long as you need protecting, and then you will be okay once more.
It’s also important to remember that your brain won’t necessarily need these modes to cope with past trauma forever. The hippocampus, for example, is notoriously elastic, and can absolutely be trained back to a state of “normalcy”, most commonly through talk therapy and Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. Both of these techniques can be used to rewire your brain once more to a “healthy” state.
To any fellow PTSD/C-PTSD sufferers, your brain is behaving the way it currently is because somebody did something unbearably horrible to you, and this is simply your body’s way of protecting you. It’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to direct that anger towards yourself, when you and your body are only doing the best you can with the circumstances that you’ve been subjected to. Take each day as it comes following re-traumatisation, and don’t be afraid to be open about what’s going on with you, and to ask for help from your loved and trusted ones.
To everyone, what’s happening right now with regards to the explosion on social media and at the vigils following the kidnapping and murder of Sarah Everard is deadly serious. If you are able to use your voice right now and continue to stay silent on this matter, shame on you. Male violence against women is something that almost every single woman (97% of women according to the recent study commissioned by the UN) goes through in her lifetime. It affects your mothers, your sisters, your friends. But it shouldn’t have to be pointed out to you that it’s these people who get affected for you to care.
Everyone knows a woman who’s been assaulted, but nobody seems to know the men who assault and rape. At a figure as staggeringly high as 97%, it’s not just a handful of men who’re doing this. It’s the men in your family, in your friend group and in your workplace. It’s the men who don’t even realise they committed rape because “she didn’t say no”, or “because I was so drunk”, or because “she’s my girlfriend and she always wants it normally”. Consent is not a remotely blurry concept: unless it’s an enthusiastic yes from your partner, it is always a no.
Check in with all the women in your life at this time, because many will be experiencing similar levels of re-traumatisation. But, perhaps more importantly, check in with yourself and ask yourself: can I honestly look inwardly and say with a clear conscience that I call out harassment when I see it? That I hold my friends, family and workmates accountable when I see them moving like predators? That, if I’m really honest with myself, that I’ve never been in a situation with a woman wherein I’ve done something to them that I’m not 100% certain that they really wanted?
Unless you’re asking these questions: Do. Better. And, until you do, do every woman a favour and leave them the fuck alone.