This post is extremely long. That’s because it is more like a research paper or a sociology essay than a blog post. Ugh. But I chose to not condense it because it is one of my most important articles to date. For me at least, IMHO (in my humble opinion).
I interrupt my regularly scheduled blog posts to bring you an epiphany. A major epiphany. The kind that is life-changing and leads to enormous growth - personally and spiritually. The kind I hope I can use to help others. That is my fervent hope and prayer.
You don’t grow up like I did without learning vigilance. Over time, to survive, you become hypervigilant. I will share a couple of examples...
By the time I was 4, I knew how to “assess” the household for danger – even in the middle of the night. For example, I had to determine whether or not it was safe to go down the hallway to the restroom. I would stay very still and listen. I didn’t lie there motionless out of fear, necessarily – it’s just that I had already learned movement impairs hearing. To assess danger, I needed to hear a pin drop. So, I would blink in the dark, and without so much as a twitch, listen intently. Muffled voices, someone pacing, muted crying or even the house being too quiet – were all signs that I needed to stay in my room. Vigilance.
One afternoon, age 5, I woke up jubilantly from a nap. And forgot to listen. I skipped down the hallway to the restroom, and when I came out; my stepfather was waiting for me. I’ll never know exactly what I did wrong, but it was something about making too much noise and running in the house. I was a skinny, writhe-y little something back then, and capable of quick getaways. I slid past him and ran down the hallway toward my bedroom. If I had turned left and gone through the master bedroom and out their back door to the patio, instead of trying to make it to my room, I would have escaped. Instead, at the last second he blocked my right turn and grabbed my hair. Which he then used to pull me to the living room for my punishment. Barbarism. Mother’s solution for that event? She put a full-length mirror up at the end of the hallway. Good one ma. The night it was installed she tucked me in and whispered, “Be sure to watch behind you from now on.” Hypervigilance.
In my book, Kaleidoscope 9, most of the stories are based on true events. Sleeping in the Alley and Condemned House come to mind. Yes, I slept in the alley, and yes, I hid behind panels in the walls of a house that was later condemned. My childhood was tumultuous and violent right up until I left 2 months before my 16th birthday. As you can imagine, one doesn’t survive an upbringing like that without fallout.
The world is finally catching up to that fact. Or at least I hope we are. Science is also catching up. The amazing article below depicts beautifully how a tumultuous childhood affects adulthood. The title doesn’t do it justice, in fact I wish they had chosen any of the other focal points discussed in the article other than poverty, but they didn’t ask me. Please ignore the title and read it anyway.
I absolutely love the synchronicity that this article came out the same week I had my epiphany: How Poverty Affects the Brain
For those of us who had such a childhood, we, my kith and kind, can’t just “let it go” and/or “move on” or “get over it.” I can’t tell you how many times I was told such things over the years, and not once was any of it ever helpful. Nor at the time was it possible. As it turns out however, it is possible to do just that. I’m living proof of it, but it doesn’t happen overnight and it isn’t magic that happens at the snap of one’s fingers. It’s a process, and that process is different for everyone over varying amounts of time.
Like the peeling of an onion, layer by layer, I worked hard for many years to process through, learn from and incorporate the dynamics of my childhood. With all that I have overcome in my life, I was very surprised to realize this week that a childhood remnant has been lurking in the shadows all this time. Blown. Away. Am I.
I share the actual epiphany below, but first here’s the story behind it...
MINUTE BY MINUTE
I spent the first decade of my adult life acting out to forget and run away from my childhood. Then I spent the next decade trying to control it and all the feelings welling up from it, as well as everything and everyone around me. Finally I got the help I needed in the form of professional help throughout the next decade and all of that led to a spiritual awakening (not religion) for which I am eternally grateFULL. Layer by layer I healed.
A therapist once told me that it’s like having major surgery on every layer of our being. The incision is made, the “infection” is removed, and then it’s replaced with something healthy. After that, self care is learned while the wound heals and the new is assimilated. Sometimes the wound remains a gaping hole for a prolonged period until the body accepts the replacement and self care becomes gentle enough to allow healing. Finally, the next layer is ready for surgery. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. That’s what it was like for me, and I suspect the same is true for most that have the courage to face the painful process.
I am whole today from all that hard work, self-acceptance, and love. I am at peace – brain injury and all. I no longer have the big gaping holes and wounds from my childhood that used to drive my behavior and wreck my life. Again, it wasn’t easy, but I’m proof it’s doable.
So NO ONE can be more surprised than I about this....
I need minute by minute reassurance
for my minute to minute fear of rejection
due to my hypervigilance
that is present every waking moment of every day
to guard against ANY perceived injustices.
I italicized the word need because of course that is not a truth. In fact, I’m quite certain that ALL my needs are met – even temporal feelings and needs. My faith is strong in that. ... Yet there it was ... My core makeup laid out in one long sentence.
I also italicized the word perceived because I had to add that in. It wasn’t there when I first formulated the statement. Until now my reality had always been to guard against “all” injustices. Period. I don’t think everything is an injustice, but once one is perceived, I have learned that I am unable to discern the real from fake.
That’s what this blog post is about.
Hypervigilance taught me well. I can walk into a restaurant and before being greeted by the hostess, I can tell you approximately how many patrons are within sight, which ones are rowdy, which ones are drinking, which ones are unhappy, stressed or carefree. I can usually also tell you the relationship dynamics at each table. And I rarely miss the mark.
I’ve only seen one other person do such a rundown and that was in a scene from the movie, Heat, with Ashley Judd who plays a detective. Samuel L. Jackson asks her character to describe the patrons in the restaurant without looking – after another cop is unable to do so. She does it with her back to the tables, without the perusal time her partner was given, and is spot on. That was in a movie, but I can do that.
For years I’ve told my stepsister, who grew up in a safe, loving home, that I’d give anything to be able to not “notice” things; to be able to be around people and be oblivious to detail. That would be such a huge gift. In that wish I was referencing the hypervigilance. Even then I wasn’t aware that it had become a giant fire breathing dragon ready to take on the slightest perceived injustice.
He is by my side 24/7, even during my sleep. I know this because I can wake in the middle of the night just to turn over. Immediately a perimeter scan of my surroundings is done, a gauge of any changes in outdoor temps is also done, and I’m aware if any nearby neighbors are still up or have changed status since I went to bed. All of that is done within the time it takes to turn over and go right back to sleep.
It was after a night of sleeplessness and wrestling with the realization of all of this, that the epiphany hit me. It felt like I had been hit upside the head with a 2x4. It took me several days to recover and land squarely on my feet again.
Having shared that, I want to emphatically state that I believe God and the Universe, each of us, ALL are love - pure and simple. I also wholeheartedly believe that growth can be gentle. I affirm that change, hand-in-hand as Spirit, can also be positive and quick, and celebrated with ease. This however was not. It was brutal and it was a consciousness that took 50+ years to attain. I felt nauseous from the impact.
I was sick to my stomach throughout that initial night because Spirit gave me the discernment to see exactly how my patterns have been repeating, and how I was in the throngs of repeating them again. I was ready to walk out on a perfectly good friendship when absolutely nothing was really wrong. That was the repeating pattern. I’ve accepted for quite awhile now that I am the common denominator in all my relationship angsts, and I’ve been asking Spirit, professionals and my tribe to help me figure it out. Finally, my part was made very clear to me.
After a long, sleepless night, I spoke to a friend early that morning – a friend who knows me well and that I could count on to speak honestly and boldly to me about my character defects – a friend that had experienced such behavior with me in the past. I explained that I was about to destroy yet another relationship. And why? What for? Glaringly the answer was “for no good reason – other than fear and hypervigilance.” I was filled with dread and remorse that I was about to do it again – to myself or anyone else.
Thank you my anonymous friend for being there for me, for being honest with me, and for helping me look my worst fears in the eye – only to see that they were me. Sincerely, thank you.
FEAR = False Events Appearing Real.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT
My entire life I have been running away when there is even just the slightest hint of danger – real or perceived. My feet almost have to be nailed to the ground to make me stay put. I take permanent flight over a temporary feeling from a perceived threat that may or may not even be real. I’ve done it with family members, friends, boyfriends, and even in business. What the heck? How did I not see this before? More importantly, how do I break the cycle?
My friend’s suggestion gave me hope: If I’m not in imminent danger, if I’m okay – food, shelter, support, and the basics are covered – WAIT 48 HOURS. That’s it. Simply wait 48 hours after my fire breathing dragon perceives an injustice, keep my mouth shut and see if the world doesn’t blow up or burn down. Just sit quietly and see if the threat is real. Be still.
Okay, I thought. I know how to do that.
What I didn’t know is how hard it would be or how often throughout each day my fire breathing dragon would rear its ugly head when there was absolutely no good reason for it. The reality is that the only threat is me.
Then the question became, “How many times, once the dragon is alerted, have I overreacted and made decisions based on a perceived threat instead of making a decision from a well thought out personal preference?”
The answer was astonishing. My whole life. Every single time.
Not most of the time. Not just since adulthood. My whole life. Every single time.
Fear of rejection is the number one threat that alerts the fire breathing dragon. Each of us may have a different definition of rejection, but for me it comes in many forms. Here are my key triggers I’ve identified so far. The fear strikes immediately, is autonomic and uncontrolled.
I feel rejected when someone:
- withholds affection
- uses a sharp tongue
- excludes me
- is silent or unresponsive
- leaves me
Here’s a shocker (she says facetiously)....
I am beginning to understand that the majority of the dissonance in my relationships has been due to my hypervigilance, FEAR and propensity to flight.
The article shared above does a good job of explaining how the mind can get stuck on evaluating everything as a Code Red Threat (my terminology and synopsis). Rejection should not be, and of course is not, a Code Red situation. I get that, and even though I’ve worked hard over the years to develop self love and spiritual centeredness, I’ve always known that fear of rejection loomed heavily over me. I’ve wondered since I’ve overcome so much already but couldn’t shake it, that perhaps it would always be with me and I just needed to learn to deal with it.
In the past, I’ve been told I take things too personally. I examined that, deeply. It didn’t fit. In my mind, I wasn’t taking things personally, I was being threatened. I’ve also been told on occasion that my fears seem like paranoia. So I researched paranoia. It didn’t fit either. I’ve also researched all kinds of personality disorders to see if any of them fit. Nope. But everything in the article does fit. The drama in my life and my relationship angsts that I have yet to get a handle on seem to boil down to my epiphany – hypervigilance and a fire breathing dragon.
That’s why the professionals missed it, and why I’m so grateful for light being shed on this phenomenon from a scientific and medical perspective. There is hope for those of us who have truly overcome the ramifications of abuse, but still have difficulty living a stable life. Trust me, I’ve tried everything else.
My mind and body, and even my heart, did not know until this week that the perceived injustices were not real.
It is important enough to repeat: Until this week, I did not know that the injustices I had perceived in past relationships were not real.
The realization has changed how I interact, think and feel in almost everything I do. Life without listening to the ferocious dragon is much simpler, more calm, and beautiful.
The pain, the confusion, the wild thoughts, and the turmoil are still going on inside me (for now), but at least none of it (I hope) is spilling out on to others around me.
I am grieving for the losses in my life. The realization that I cost a lot of wonderful people heartache is not an easy pill to swallow. What turmoil and drama!
Unfortunately, I cannot repair those bridges. Many I can no longer even contact. But I can do something about it moving forward. I can make sure that I allow at least 48 hours before turning the reigns over to my dragon.
Here’s the real kicker – So far, I have yet to go beyond a 4 hour wait without being shown unequivocally that my Code Red reaction was completely, and utterly unnecessary. More importantly, the perspective was outright WRONG – on all fronts! I thought I might experience that some of the time, but not ALL of the time!
What I also want my wonderful readers to understand is that currently this is happening at least a dozen times a day for me. A dozen times a day of pain – and joy. Pain because it is still internally tumultuous, but joy because it gives me the answers to so many unanswered questions in my life. Questions I’ve been asking counselors and God during prayer and meditation for years. I am grateful for the resolution.
TESTING THE HYPOTHESIS
The scientist and teacher in me needed to find a way to quantify what was happening, and track my progress. So I now have 2 tests I perform every time the dragon reacts. I allow the 48-hour wait period to see if it’s true, and I assign a number to the emotion from a 1-10 scale. Ten is the maximum, over the top, unable to calm my mind or control my emotions number. To date I’ve gone as high as 16.
The good news is that the escalation never lasts and I’m already seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. It is a fascinating experiment. Most numbers assigned begin to decline within a few hours. The egregious 16 lasted overnight, faded to a 10 by mid-morning and was gone completely by noon. The threat never existed.
Recovery is imminent. I’m positive of that. This is too elating, enlightening and encouraging for it not to be. I am training my mind to think differently, and my emotions to react differently. According to the article, I am also retraining my nervous system and physiological makeup, including the gray matter in my brain. For someone who is a traumatic brain injury thriver, that is exhilarating.
For anyone interested, Dr. Caroline Leaf has made a lot of progress in the field of rebuilding neural network connectivity. You can visit her website and buy her books (here).
It will be interesting to see how long it takes me to make decisions based on personal preference vs. fear. For now, and I suspect for several months, I will be in “test” mode so I don’t plan on making any decisions for the next six months. Period. I’ve been trying all my life to get this corrected. A few more months of laying low is nothing.
TBI HS SYMPTOMS
My symptoms ramp up with stress. According to the attached article and a multitude of other studies worldwide, that should be no surprise. I can’t help but wonder how much LESS stress I will encounter once the dragon sleeps and the drama decreases. I have wanted nothing but love and stability since I could walk. Love – check. It’s a spiritual thing. We are ONE and I no longer need anything external to know and be love. Stability however? It’s been elusive. Until now. I am so hopeful. Determined.
In the last two months I’ve had three injuries. I took a fall that resulted in a concussion. I also lost time while cooking (a type of seizure), and scalded my hand. I’m lucky. It looks like only one finger will permanently scar. And recently I had a heat stroke. Throughout all this, the only stress I was actually experiencing was internal because the dragon was on a rampage. There wasn’t anything else wrong in my life.
Rebuilding neural networks and leaving the Code Red zone is going to be life changing on many levels. I can hardly wait to see how it plays out with my TBI.
The Rest of the Story
It is very odd to me that I have incurred a traumatic brain injury as an adult because the truth is; I probably suffered brain injury from several incidents that occurred while I was growing up. I’ve had more than one neurologist tell me that, but there’s no way to confirm it. Here’s what I think is great about both aspects though.
We are learning from solid research that gray matter can be rebuilt. It doesn’t matter whether the networks atrophied from an endangered childhood as depicted in the attached article, or whether it’s the result of direct brain damage. The result is the same. That’s great. I celebrate that. I still have hopes of regaining what I’ve lost in abilities one day.
And I want to take it a step further.
It’s not enough that we rebuild the brain for functionality and IQ. The entire system – the mind, autonomic and emotional – has to understand what has happened. Those of us in the trenches have to be made aware that our perceptions are altered. And I’d be willing to bet that it is true across the board. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, your race, your age of atrophy, or age of epiphany/understanding – case in point – or what caused the decline. All of it has to be relearned and rebuilt.
I’ve been through the Byron Katie training, “Is It True?” I’ve also learned to check in with others to see if we’re on the same page. What I’m talking about is at a much deeper level. And it is that level that has to be addressed for those of us that are skewed. Everything else enhances the quality of our lives and gives us necessary skills, but it doesn’t get rid of the dragon.
Lastly, as a former teacher in a low socioeconomic school, I can’t help but wonder how many of my students could have benefited from this knowledge. Perhaps they weren’t suffering from disruptive behavioral disorders such as ADD/ADHD, OCD or the like. Maybe they were (are) stuck in Code Red and have a fire breathing dragon that’s by their side all the time.
You take something away from a 3 or 4 year old in a Code Red state of mind, what happens? You frown at a 6 year old who’s being abused at home and I guarantee you they go Code Red, at least internally. Two students have a disagreement in the hallway and one or both of them operate from a Code Red status, well, watch out. I saw it daily.
What if we could teach NVC/MYL, meditation, yoga and other techniques to help keep the dragons at bay? What if it became common knowledge that we need to educate parents and children on this phenomenon? I don’t think we have to wait until socioeconomic changes trickle down and drug kids in the meantime with psych meds. Those things may be needed but this is also something that can help people now!
I realize that sounds simple. Trust me. I’m in the throngs of it – as an adult – and I know it is not. But I believe it is doable. It starts with articles like the one I have attached, and research by educators like Dr. Leaf, and internal peace work like that of NVC/MYL. It spreads with you and me, the medical community, the school systems, and the parents.
We don’t automatically have to label troubled kids or at risk youth or even adults for that matter.
Rethink. Retrain. Rebuild.
It’s a gauntlet I’ve picked up that I doubt I’ll ever put down. In fact, “My Fire Eating Dragon” sounds like a good book title to me. I’m on it.