Josh and I headed to St. George last week for a wedding I shot down that way. Since we didn’t have the kids, we extended our trip so we could start out our year with a peaceful, relaxing week of pretty much doing nothing. We visited Zion National Park, Snow Canyon, ate some good food, spent time in the hot tub, watched a lot of movies, did some Yoga, and had great conversations in the car.
I also had a panic attack.
Panic attacks, while not as scary to me as they used to be, well, they suck. The first one I ever had was one of the scariest hours of my life. It happened a little over a year ago. That one hit hard and I’ll never forget the feeling of not knowing if I should drive myself to the hospital or drive myself home. I ultimately chose home, and my amazing friend and next door neighbor held me until the feeling came back into my body. While I’m not ready to talk about what initiated that one yet, it was definitely a day that took a lot of intentional therapy to heal from.
After that first one, panic attacks started occurring more frequently. I soon discovered a pattern though – they initially hit when I was being lied to by my ex. It was almost like my body’s way of warning me. Frustration, fear, panic were all common feelings and they were overwhelming. Now they hit when I perceive that I am “unwanted.” Occasionally they hit when I feel helpless.
My panic attacks all feel the same. It starts with a trigger. I find that word to mean something so much different to me than it used to. The word “trigger” to me used to just mean something that would make me sad, uncomfortable, or angry. That doesn’t even come close to what I feel when I am actually triggered now. When I get triggered, I feel like someone is taking a million tiny needles and poking my heart while it simultaneously collapses into my body into a never-ending free fall. I had a natural birth with my third baby. It was awful – I literally wanted to die (read about that here). But I’ve felt so many times through my divorce process that God allowed me to go through the physical pain of birth so I could have a way to describe the emotional pain I’ve been going through. My triggers – the emotional pain of them – it’s worse than giving birth to Holland. I’ve had times where I’ve literally screamed out loud for God to make it stop when it’s happening. But there’s nothing I can do but be with the anguish until it subsides.
The really crappy part about my triggers is that I’m usually triggered by the man I’m in a relationship with. I asked my therapist why that is, and he suggested that it’s because most of my emotional pain comes from my marriage to a man. So essentially, being in a relationship makes me vulnerable to these triggers. Josh has been amazing with understanding that even if something he does triggers me, it’s not his fault and it certainly doesn’t mean he did anything wrong. My triggers now are usually centered around feeling unwanted, or perceiving, even for a split second, that I am. Something as simple as him needing to hang up fast on the phone because he has a work call coming in could initiate a trigger for me. It may only last a second or two, but it’s still an awful feeling.
On some occasions, being triggered will lead me to a panic attack. I know that one is going to hit when I feel the emotional/physical pain in my chest, my fingers and lips start to go numb, and my breathing very quickly is more like hyperventilating. My first reaction when I feel these feelings is anger. I’m mad I still have to go through this. I’m angry at myself for not being able to “control” my body. I’m pissed that I have such a physical reminder of the emotional trauma I’ve been through. So I try and fight it. I try and stop the attack in it’s track. I’ve been able to prevent it from escalating once…. out of like 40 times. So I don’t have a great track record there. I’ve found it I just allow it to come – if I allow the emotions that were previously trapped in my body to release, it’s not as scary. It’s not as long. And it can be therapeutic. My initial symptoms get stronger as I allow the sensations to take over. My breaths are fast and deep. My body weakens everywhere. Cries try to escape. Sometimes they can, sometimes that can’t. Not at first anyway. I try and lay down. If I’m driving, I pull over. I try and let myself feel everything my body is trying to tell me until I can slow my breathing. Once I can calm down, I usually can process in my brain what happened to cause the panic. That helps me work through issues I usually don’t even know I had. Sometimes I can come to a resolution on my own, but most of the time it’s something I address in therapy. Honestly, panic attacks really do just give me an insight as to what trauma my body is saying I’m ready to address. So, yeah. Panic attacks suck. But they can also lead me to healing.
While we were in St. George, I had one. Josh and I were hanging out in our hotel room having a lazy movie day. He was showing me something on his phone when a facebook private message came through from a woman. He didn’t swipe it away or open it – he just continued with whatever it was we were looking at. Five minutes later I asked him who it was from. He kinda chuckled and said he was waiting for me to ask. He immediately opened the message and handed me his phone so I could read it first, but it was too late. First, because policing my partner’s phone is something I NEVER want to do. That’s way to slippery of a slope to even start to go down. But second, I was already triggered. I had that brief moment of feeling unwanted and the feeling swept over me. But this time was going to go further.
I started having a flashback to the day that really started my divorce process. I had completely forgotten about “how” it all started that day. But in that moment of being triggered, I remembered. I had his phone. A notification came up at the top of the screen (just like the facebook messenger notification) about a message from “Anne.” My ex grabbed his phone from me. I asked him to let me see the message. He said no. We went back and forth for about ten minutes until I told him that I was going to walk out of the room and go upstairs. If he allowed me to do so without reading the message, we would separate. And he let me go.
When the flashbacks start for me, they don’t stop. It’s as if it’s playing in a loop in my head over and over again. The familiar feelings of panic set in. I blamed Josh for triggering me (remember, when I’m thinking clearly I know it’s never someone else’s fault) so I got up and went into the bathroom. The panic hit. I turned on the shower and got in to try and hide the sounds of my deep, fast breathing and the accompanying sobs. I held onto the bar in the shower, doubled over as the water ran over me. I felt all of the EXACT feelings I felt that day from the flashback. The betrayal, the frustration, the anger. But I mostly felt the feeling of being UNWANTED, not good enough, and less than. It’s frustrating to do all this work in therapy and on my own to NOT feel those things, but then to have them come back in such a strong, invasive wave. The feelings don’t stop. They just pound me over and over again.
I finally calmed down enough to just sit on the floor of the shower. The door to the bathroom opened, and Josh knelt down on the floor next to the shower. He asked me if I was ok, and then got in with me. So there we sat on the floor of our hotel shower, water running over us, with him holding me as I cried. He held my head against his chest, the rhythm of his heartbeat grounding me. I did my trauma response exercise to help ground me too – “see three things, hear three things, feel three things.” I saw the glass of the shower, his hand on my arm, and the water drops as they hit us both. I heard his heart, the water hitting the ground, and his breathing. I felt the water drip down my body, his hand on my head, and his skin against my cheek. It brought me back to reality – away from the loop of anguish that still hadn’t stopped playing in my head. Josh didn’t say anything because he doesn’t have to. Him holding me helps me reiterate in my head that all the negative emotions I was feeling are not true. And not just because I have him, but because they wouldn’t be true anyway. I AM wanted. I AM good enough. I HAVE great worth.
One of the big reasons I wanted to write this post was to help people understand what it really means to be “triggered.” I would see posts on facebook or in forums that would say “trigger warning.” I never thought anything really deep of it. I would hear about war veterans being “triggered,” and I didn’t really know what that meant. I still don’t know what 99.99% of people are going through when they say they are “triggered.” But I do know that when I am, it’s no pleasant. It’s awful. I hate it. But I hope I never forget what I’ve learned from these experiences. We really, truly, have NO IDEA what other people are going through. So here’s my invitation to you – Let’s all just LOVE a little more. Do one thing today to show love to yourself or someone else. I’m grateful that these experiences in my life have taught me to have a softer heart towards others and more empathy, too. My road of healing is going to be a long one, but all the ways I’m learning and growing along the way makes it worth it to keep going.