It was shortly after a visit to the Duluth Aquarium that we decided to stop and eat at a restaurant. Our two-and-a-half-year-old daughter was still awe struck by the baby alligators and huge sturgeons we had seen at the aquarium, both of which she was very fond of. And our five-year-old son was full of questions, real thought provokers like, If Bears laid eggs?
The meal was largely uneventful as hunger took the main stage. But once the food was gone and our bellies were happy, the kids became unhinged. Our son was sing/yelling made-up songs, and our daughter began to climb all over everything in shallow attempts to wave to a neighboring table. Then out of nowhere it happened; our daughter started screaming and crying hysterically.
Our daughter’s cries were real, but we could not discern the cause. As my husband tried to set her down, she started hitting him and screaming louder. She pointed in horror at the booth and was trying to say something between the screams. Then my husband put her on the other side of him and she stopped crying and started to look with curiosity at the other side of the booth. Then it started to come together; she was saying “alligator” as she pointed at a rip in the seat that looked (to her) like an alligator.
We listened to her intently as she told us in her own special way that there was an alligator in the booth. We fought laughter and kept our poker faces on as we listened carefully to why she did not want to sit by the alligator. The shock of finding an alligator in the booth proved to be too much and we had to leave the restaurant for her to calm down.
There were warning signs throughout the day that I chose to ignore. We were in a new town. I had deviated from my normal eating habits, I did not diligently wear my polarized sunglasses and hat, I was tired and perhaps most erroneous of all, I had been operating under the guise that all my regular precautions, were easily caste aside in the name of spontaneous family fun.
There were plenty of sparks of adrenaline that flared throughout the day. There were the six seconds that I lost our daughter when she entered the aquarium without me and wandered off. Then there was the strange homeless man we first saw at 9am who had reappeared multiple times throughout the day in different areas. And finally, there were three separate incidents where we came across intoxicated people who were missing required articles of clothing.
As evening approached, we decided to go to the local co-op and bring food back to the hotel room for dinner. During the drive, we passed rows of abandoned buildings and numerous homeless people. I recall feeling a bit guilty because that could have been my fate but because of my support network and family, I was spared. It was tough to see so many people desperate for chemicals to change their mental state, if even for a few seconds.
By the time we reached the co-op the kids were unraveling. Our son was in what we like to call “jump-mode” which consists of him jumping almost nonstop and our daughter was repeatedly asking for a “snack.”
As I walked towards the back of the store to pick up Soymilk and cereal, I could feel the static building inside my body. It had been building all day. But this was the first time I was aware of it.
My husband corralled the kids the best he could, as I quickly filled the small cart with goodies for the night. My son followed me down the aisle yelling and jumping. I caught him and gently placed my hands on his shoulders, commanding him to take a few deep breathes to relax his body. We both calmed down, but the static was still there, slowly building.
We were in the checkout line when I snapped. My son was twirling and jumping and almost ran into a lady in the checkout line next to us. I don’t remember grabbing him or pinning him up against the wall next to the cashier, with my forearm on his chest, but that is exactly what happened. I quickly released him and struggled to regain my composure. My husband was undeterred by the chaos and ushered our son to the car while I picked up our daughter and followed them out.
As I walked to the car, I felt the static leave my body. I knew then that I had been triggered and that special care was going to be required if I was going to avoid any more undesirable behavior. We loaded our bags of food into the car, and a police car pulled next to us. I felt a wave of adrenaline course through me, which triggered a massive headache. My body was in full fight of flight mode. Thankfully, the police were just passing through and went on their way.
On the drive back to the hotel, I tried many tools that I had come to rely on to manage myself when triggered. I tried imagining a purple cloud, but I couldn’t pull up any images in my mind. So, I focused on breathing, but I’d lose count after one. I tried idol conversation with my husband but was quickly interrupted by one or both the children. So, I looked out the window as we drove by dozens of boarded up windows and broken-down houses with people surrounding them full of despair. I tried to repeat the mantra “when in doubt, do nothing”, but found myself getting distracted after the word “when”.
It’s tough to explain to someone what it feels like to have chronic PTSD. I think it’s important to highlight the word “chronic” as most people have a good idea of what it is like to experience traumatic events and the pains of it sticking around longer than they would like.
However, once the trauma response becomes chronic, it becomes less about the trauma itself and more about simply functioning in the day-to-day activities of life. In many cases, trauma causes more trauma as people become numb to the mundane and crave the familiarness of chaos. Clear examples of this trauma response gone sideways are alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling, and violent acts – none of which are mutually exclusive.
By the time we returned to the hotel, I had convinced myself that I just needed to eat something and that would give me the clarity to meditate, or talk to my husband, or do something else to break the compounding impact of being triggered. The paper bowls for the cereal we surprisingly sturdy so I filled it up with wheat squares and added soymilk with confidence. I sat down in a comfortable chair and just as I was about to take my first bite, I dropped it. Soymilk and cereal went everywhere. It was tragic. I immediately stood up and walked out on the balcony of our hotel room and started to sob.
Right away, my tears stung my face. Something about the way my tears are when I’m triggered is different. I don’t have scientific background but it’s like they are quite literally tears of bitterness. The sting of my tears motivated me to stop crying and go back inside to talk to my husband who was cleaning up the mess that I had abandoned.
The rest of the evening was as good as it could be. We ate together outside on the balcony, as I anxiously paced and went back and forth – inside and out. The kids had a blast. My wherewithal was slowly returning, and I was able to apologize to my son for grabbing him in the store. I told my husband I had been triggered and was met with compassion. We watched “Funniest Home Videos” and humor washed away some of my mental angst.
The physical impacts of being triggered are devastating. My resting heartrate hovered around 120 bpm as I tried pressure points, breathing activities, and meditations. I was confident that I could break the cycle myself as I have successfully done so for the last seven plus years, but I did concede to myself that I would seek medical attention if couldn’t shake it off by morning.
That night was terrible. I developed a blinding tension headache and struggled to stay asleep for more than 45 minutes at a time. My heart rate was slowly going down but would spike as intrusive worries crept in my mind. I listened to my meditation app and fell asleep quickly. Only to wake up again as soon as it ended. Finally, I opted to lay quietly in bed, in the darkness, with my sleeping son beside me and ear plugs in, as my husband and daughter peacefully slept in a bed next to me.
Adrenaline spikes are weird. For me, it can feel like a cold egg is getting broken on my forehead followed by a vibration throughout my body that makes my skin hurt. Or it can feel like a burst of energy, sometimes productive energy. Other times, it doesn’t feel like anything, it is just an instinct to do something. This evening it was all of the above.
The sound of a pillow falling is not something most people would pick up on while wearing earplugs, but I did thanks to my hypervigilance due to my triggered state. I quickly jumped up and lounged towards the other bed at the exact moment our daughter fell out of bed. I was able to catch her mid-air and lift her back into bed without her waking up. For a moment, I felt like spiderman.
Then I laid back down and quickly fell asleep with my heart full of gratitude that my PTSD had served a higher purpose that night and slept undisturbed. In the morning, my tension headache was terrible. I took a hot shower and tried a technique I had only recently learned of, grabbing the muscles in the front of my neck that we impacted by my trauma. I pulled so hard I could hear the muscles pop and then I felt a release that flowed through my head, instantly relieving my headache. I was ecstatic to know that I now had one more tool in my mental health toolbox.
That morning was fantastic. I was able to talk again with my son and explain to him that he is not responsible for mommy’s feelings, and I was going to try harder to control my big feelings, so they don’t impact him. I apologized again for my behavior in the store, and we hugged. Then we were off for another action-packed day and finally we headed home. The kids slept the entire way home and so did I.
The trip sparked an urgency in me to share my journey of PTSD recovery with others. I have a life today that seemed impossible to even dream of a decade ago. I don’t have any magical advice other than if you are suffering from unresolved trauma or PTSD to get professional help and connect with others who understand. If something doesn’t work, try something else. Don’t give up, there is life out there waiting for you.
Today, I can see that there is little difference between my daughter’s run in with an alligator at the restaurant and my mind’s perceived threat of my son’s behavior in the checkout line at the co-op. Neither of these threats are real, but given the right context, they certainly feel that way. It is my responsibility to continue to build up my mental health toolbox in preparation for the next random alligator I might encounter in life.