Shrinking World Syndrome

There’s a phenomenon that I like to call “Shrinking World Syndrome (SWS)”, when a person’s perception of the world shrinks until they are no longer able to cope with daily life. SWS occurs after a person has experienced something dangerous and the trauma of it warps their instincts. The afflicted begin to make associations from the trauma into everyday life, with each association, another one presents itself; thus, their world gets smaller and smaller.

My personal experience with SWS looked like this: I had a trauma. At first, I was disassociated and didn’t process what had happened to me. Then I started having flashbacks and night terrors. I started to avoid things that triggered me. The more things I avoided, the more triggers I started to notice.

Here are some examples of what that looked like for me:

My attacker was afro-Cubano. After my trauma, I started to avoid, and fear black people. And Cubans. And anyone that spoke Spanish. After a few years, I was a budding racist and didn’t know it.

The night of my attack, I had made a pot roast. After my trauma, I started to avoid roasts. And steaks. Then all beef. Then I became a vegetarian. After a few years, I didn’t eat a variety of random foods because they reminded me of my trauma.

Much of my trauma was in a bedroom. With a bed. Beds became a problem when my night terrors would have me leaping and injuring myself. So, I started sleeping on the floor. After a few years, I was regularly sleeping in my car, in the Walmart parking lot under a big light with my seat belt on to keep me safe.

It is easy now to see how gravely affected I was by my trauma but at the time, I felt normal. I may have had fleeting thoughts from time to time about how great it would be to sleep in a bed, but for the most part I thought I was perfectly fine.

The smaller my world became, the more I normalized my behavior, and I became so good at justifying my lifestyle to myself and those around me that I truly thought I was in control of my life.

There were a few years that blur together but about a decade ago, things started to come together. After 18 months of treatment for PTSD and continued therapy, I was able to face my triggers. Within a few years, I not only faced my triggers but dominated them.

The most problematic trigger was my intense fear of criminals, which fueled a fair amount of anger and hate. The Minnesota prison system had a program to help inmates with PTSD. I was one of the first volunteers to sign up.

For several years I went into prisons, as a Volunteer Contractor, to meet weekly with inmates who were within a few months of release and then continued to meet with them in the community for a year after their release. I met murders, rapists, molesters, people of all types, who had committed all sorts of crimes. Yet, I never met one that even remotely reminded me of my attacker. I was able to smash dozens of prejudices, triggers, and judgements by having shared experiences with inmates, who in many ways were just like me. Only circumstance had put us on different sides of the prison bars.

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Being a volunteer in the prison was a very clear example of how I faced my triggers. Less obvious ones included learning Brazilian Jitsu so I could better understand how I was attacked and to learn how to defend myself. Practicing going out to eat and to movies with other people around. Learning how to manage my night terrors which eventually became a little more than a nuisance. And of course, showering daily and eating a balanced diet.

One of the things my experience has given me is a renewed perspective on life. Not only did I almost die during the attack, but I died a thousand deaths in the days that followed. Trauma stalked me and seeped, into every aspect of my existence without my knowledge or permission. To break-free of that cycle makes every day feel like a bonus.  

Honestly, I don’t feel like I have much advice about overcoming PTSD. I did many things the professionals told me to do for a long time and I’m not entirely sure what worked or why.

My hope is that those who read this who have PTSD can glean some hope and those who know someone with PTSD to have some compassion.

Today, I will remember that when life around me starts to feel like it’s shrinking that it is within my power to expand my perspective and my world.

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