My brain freaks out when things are going well. When life is calm and peaceful and every day is routine and the normal I craved growing up.
When there’s no drama or chaos, my brain sees it as a vacuum. Like something is wrong. Why is no one screaming? How is everyone getting along? This whole not fighting thing is fucking weird. It’s time to change that.
I become paranoid and the paranoia leads to me trying to control everything which leads to overthinking and catastrophizing to the extreme. Silently accusing John of hiding stuff from me. Thinking maybe he’s cheating on me or wants to divorce me or thinks I’m gross now because I’ve gained weight and can only have sex with me if it is dark outside and he can’t see me.
My brain has to find something. And when it creates something in the wake of not discovering anything to latch onto, I become resentful, bitter, mean, critical, angry, and my anxiety skyrockets because I’m so ashamed of the shit my brain has pinging around throughout my body that I am withdrawn and can’t talk about it. It shuts me up until it shuts me down and I feel like I’m being suffocated by my own mind and body.
I told John two weeks ago that my anxiety attacks were creeping back into my life, and he said he had no idea I was even anxious because I wasn’t talking about it and hadn’t shown any signs of distress. I told him it is because I am tired of telling people about my anxiety and feel like people are tired of hearing about it. Same old, lifelong song and dance. Amy is worrying again, tell her to stop because, you know, that works.
I have PTSD. I grew up in a battlefield. It was predictable in that fighting would occur but unpredictable in exactly how or when. I had to tiptoe around every word that I spoke because when someone in my family – often my parents – was in the mood to hurt someone because they needed to offset their pain, I was an easy target. One false move, one unintended tone, and I was belittled, shamed, gaslighted, projected upon, and criticized.
And it wasn’t just me. The air was so taut with tension that fights grew like thunderheads and clapped so violently they shook my great grandparents’ house, which was probably the closest thing to my childhood home since my parents moved us around so often. There was always something to fight about. The police knew my great grandparents’ and the uncle who almost always started the fights by name, they were called so often by neighbors.
Peace was superficial and temporary. When my great-grandfather Brophy died in 2004, my uncle Charles gathered us all in the living room of Brophy’s house and gave this moving speech – moving but inauthentic or maybe just ineffective – about how we had to get along from then on, that it’s what Brophy would want; that it was time for us to love each other. By nightfall, he and his sister, my aunt Carol, were cursing each other out in the dining room of the house, just feet from where he made that speech.
Peace doesn’t feel trustworthy. It doesn’t feel genuine. It doesn’t feel dependable. It feels like a set-up. Like if I set down my armor for a few minutes to rest and revel in the quiet, my head will be knocked cleanly off my shoulders.
Like right now…for the first time in now four years, I have a job that I really like with people I really enjoy working with. It is nice to look forward to going to work. Sure, I might have to deal with rude customers from time to time, but I have a boss who is fun to work with and who has my back.
John and I are getting along pretty well, have been more intimate and open with each other, and coming off the pill, I’ve never been more attracted to him. (Not sure if it is just getting adjusted to my own natural hormones again – more testosterone with my PCOS – after eight years of being on the pill, being in my late 30s and all aboard the last call on the baby train before menopause or both or just becoming more comfortable and settled in our marriage, but damn he’s been looking extra good to me lately.)
Things are good. We moved back to Smyrna. I love our apartment, love where it is located, love that my job allows me to schedule my shifts around John’s so we’re often off on the same days (though that is changing a bit with John’s new schedule that changes weekly), etc.
So of course my brain is on the catastrophizing super speedway. All day long, it’s running through “what ifs” and scenarios where I could lose everything. I went through a two-week period in January, hot on the heels of finally deciding I don’t believe in Christianity anymore, where I was terrified I was going to die every single day. Not terrified of dying, though that was there too, but terrified it was actually going to happen then. Every ache in my body was a heart attack or cancer or kidney stone or something else waiting to kill me when it was really just being so tightly wound and clenched that my muscles ached. (I think a lot this started from some slightly abnormal bloodwork in December that I have to get retested for at the end of February that my doctor really isn’t concerned about, that is probably just something random.)
When my PTSD brain is tired of worrying about dying – or thinks mission accomplished – it moves on to worrying about my debt or weight or John leaving me. Anything it possibly can to stir up chaos around me since chaos was the “norm” for the first quarter or so of my life.
During this point, I am accused of being too negative, complaining too much, stuck in my head, overdramatic, and never satisfied. I feel myself grasping for something to control. I think about going on diets and trying to lose weight. I question John about what he’s doing on his phone or ask him about his finances and get mad when he won’t tell me anything. I ramble on about nothing. I forget what I’m talking about, what I’m doing, and find myself repeating myself or doing things like putting Missy’s medication in the fridge when it goes on top of the fridge.
Anxiety and PTSD leave me with a foggy head, upset stomach, and stiffness throughout my body. I am hypervigilant of my own body and everything around me, but then find myself with my car in two lanes on the way to work.
I am no longer at war or on the battlefield and haven’t been in over a decade now, but I still wear my armor and I still jump at anything that reminds me of war. Still have flashbacks. Take the way John responds to me at times as being exactly how my dad responded to me growing up even though they’re too very different people when it comes to their feelings and behaviors towards me. Feel self-conscious about my weight gain around my brothers and flinch at just the thought of them making fun of my size again (like my brother Adam addressing me as “fat” instead of my name for about a year there when we were in our late teens). Chastise myself for having a part-time job now when I “could” be making more money and being a better partner financially to John (even though what does that even mean and how am I better if I’m miserable?).
It sounds so melodramatic, but all I really knew was war growing up. The armor I developed to survive it has varying degrees of effectiveness from empathy, resiliency, and sense of humor to codependency, people-pleasing, and putting the need for approval and acceptance from others over my own self-validation. I told John tonight that my giving love language seems to be Acts of Service because I like doing things for him and giving things to him, which is good in its own right until it veers off into People-Pleasing territory where I’m suffocating him, he’s irritated and tells me to back off, and my feelings get hurt. I read recently that codependency’s roots lie in not feeling wanted so you decide to do all you can to feel needed. This is exactly how it started for me, especially with my mom.
Growing up, I was not taught to self-soothe. I was taught that if I cried, I’d be given something to cry about and that it wasn’t worth doing, didn’t accomplish anything, was childish and stupid. If I was afraid, I was taught to pray, read my Bible, or listen to church sermons on the radio, and that if I was afraid, it meant I didn’t trust God. If I was angry, that anger was shamed or matched and outdone. When John and I went through marriage counseling in 2017, our therapist told me I needed to learn how to self-soothe. I got some ideas on how to do it, but I think most of the time the only thing I have the energy to do when I’m upset is cry. At least I know now how healing and relieving it is to do that.
This week, while crying in the shower because I’ve been so overwhelmed with racing thoughts, paranoia, and panic, I thought, Amy, when are you going to take care of yourself? When will your approval of yourself matter most? When will you stop trying to be who you think everyone else wants to be and be yourself? When will you stop hiding your desires and needs because you don’t they deserve to be spoken or that they’ll be heard or acknowledged? When will you realize you have the same rights as everyone else around you to live your life in a way that makes you feel fulfilled and peaceful?
I can’t continue to respond to my anxiety the way my family did either: anger and criticism only serve to make it far worse and more shameful, which makes all of those fears that much stronger and more incapacitating. My mom still tells me to pray but 30+ years of it never really made it go away. I do miss talking outloud and the weight lifted off of me when I thought someone was listening to me even if the only person listening was actually me. Reading my Bible never helped and I haven’t owned one now for four years. Church helped some, but when you realize that it is religion and its associated legalism and shaming that has you feeling imprisoned and even more afraid to be yourself, that relief is temporary.
I know I need to go to therapy again, but I can’t afford it. I’ve looked on Open Path Collective for someone who specializes in trauma, but no one popped up. I still feel like this was some kind of filter error on my part because there has to be someone affordable in Atlanta, but I don’t know.
I think the silver lining is that I am self-aware. I understand what is happening. The lack of peace growing up makes it unfamiliar territory to a brain so used to chaos – whether from family or jobs or other relationships – and my brain, like most human brains, doesn’t like the unknown. Fears it. Our brains like predictable because predictable is safe. Or feels that way. The hell you know is better than the hell you don’t know, so the saying goes.
Writing it out always helps. Writing in my 20s is what helped me survive them, made me self-aware, and helped me break through the patterns I saw growing up. I guess it is a way of self-soothing because once I get everything in my brain out, my thoughts slow down to a somewhat manageable pace. I am keeping my blog as part of my Instagram of the same name but no longer broadcasting my posts so I can focus on more stream-of-consciousness writing and not curating my content for social media. I’m craving authenticity so much, and I feel unable to be wholly authentic when I know more people could be reading. It all goes back to the need for validation and approval mentioned above and not wanting to burden people with my pain or alarm them with my fears.
In the meantime, I am talking to myself more. Trying to find the right words and tone to help myself through all of the emotions and racing thoughts. I started snapping at myself to quit all of this “nonsense” earlier this week when I stopped myself and said, “I’m sorry. That was Daddy talking, not me. That was his voice. Those were his words. I’m not talking to you like he did because that was neither helpful nor loving.” Sometimes I feel crazy doing all of this, but I know how I talk to myself is going to be one of the best ways to work through the PTSD I have from all of the trauma I’ve incurred.
This is how I will learn to trust in the peace and calm and let go of the need for the familiar chaos.