Published On: May 14, 2021Categories: Blog2518 words9.6 min read

CPTSD, PTSD, Dissociation and Fight-or-flight Response: How Childhood Trauma Shows Up in Marriage

May 14, 2021

I’ve been thinking about how May is both Trauma Awareness Month and Mental Health Awareness Month, and then I came across a story I’d written that took place almost exactly one year ago this week. It was during COVID lockdown — during shelter in place — when all of us were confined to our homes and dealing with added stress. When the world seemed to be simultaneously coming together and falling apart. When both my husband and I suffered from a fight-or-flight response. When I relapsed back into a dissociative state.

So much has changed since I wrote this story, and while parts of it are still difficult to recall, I know how important it is to acknowledge how far my husband and I have come. How we’ve learned to work through our triggers so that we are no longer fighting with each other when they occur, but helping each other regulate our nervous systems. Something I hope everyone who suffers from CPTSD or PTSD knows (or learns) how to do. For it is the only thing that gets us out of a dissociative state or a fight-or-flight response and helps us stay present in our bodies.

This story is a reminder of how scary childhood trauma can still be when unresolved in adulthood. And of how our unresolved trauma interferes with our mental health and with our relationships. A reminder to us all that our past — our pain — does not stay buried. It surfaces when we least expect it. It screams to be heard. And it only eases once we understand it. Once we acknowledge it. Accept it. And truly let it go.

If you and/or your partner suffer from unresolved childhood trauma, I wish you the tools to work through it, the love to stick with it and the joy of letting it go — so you can live fully in the present together.

This story contains trigger warnings for violence and for references to suicidal thoughts and trauma.

Things had started feeling dirty earlier that week. Like they were rotting. Decaying. Like they always do before I have an episode — it’s one of the signs my mental health is slipping. So I should have known something would happen. And I guess in some ways, I did.

My husband and I were the best we’d ever been. After our almost decade together trying to find healthy ways to deal with my triggers. To deal with his triggers. With our triggers. But when we were both working from home during lockdown, it was the test our marriage didn’t need. So we were doing our best to be aware of each other’s needs.

I need to take extra precautions, like having a schedule for which parts of the house each of us will be in throughout the day. I’m used to working from home alone, and my PTSD makes no room for others coming and going. Engaging my senses in ways that make it difficult for me to think. Leaving me on edge. Which opposes my husband’s needs. To move freely and to talk loudly. To eat and nap in the middle of the day. To not have to leave the room because I can no longer tolerate hearing him talk on the phone.

It’s been exhausting, but we try to help each other. To be loving. Providing support without parenting. Soothing each other’s pain. But we’re also both stubborn. And don’t like being told what to do. Our inner children resisting what’s best for us. Perpetuating a self-harm cycle. Rehashing old patterns. Patterns we both work hard to break. And this particular week, it was obvious neither of our nervous systems were regulated. The signs I’ve learned to read were everywhere.

On Tuesday, my energy was scattered, and I noticed my husband seemed fatigued. “Did you get a nap today, Baby?” I asked. “Why?” He replied. Skeptical about my asking. “Just wanted to make sure you’re getting enough rest,” I said. I wanted to say, “Because you know what happens when you don’t nap,” but I didn’t as I’ve been learning to let things go. To spare one or both of us from getting angry. From being triggered. From feeling unsafe in our own home.

I tried to be attuned to our individual needs over the next two days. Because we were also sliding into the danger zone of my PMS, when it shifts into premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), so we knew we had to be extra careful. Before I recalled what had happened to me — the trauma I’d suffered during my childhood — I would completely dissociate before my period. Disconnecting from my body. Feeling like my husband was my attacker. Going after him enraged. In what felt like a fight to save my life. But once the memories of my hidden trauma were uncovered, I could see things clearly. And I stopped going after my husband.

It had only been a year and a half since my trauma rose to the surface. The trauma that was blocked from my memory. That made me feel crazy for over 20 years. That affected my neurological development causing six neurological disorders. That sat in my body leading to chronic pain and a host of other complications. That made me fight an ongoing battle with suicide. The intergenerational trauma that has haunted my family for decades. Possibly centuries. Maybe even forever.

Since finding out, I’ve been learning how to live post-trauma. I was fortunate to have skilled healers to help me work through my pain. To show me how to find the light in the darkness. Because that’s what it takes to exorcise generations of trauma. To pull yourself up from an underworld. From an old world. From all the familiar patterns. From all the fear. And the techniques I learned saved me again during lockdown. When I was still purging 38 years of trauma from my system. When all my fears were surfacing again. When I was trying my best not to dissociate while feeling trapped. But two days later, when both my husband and I became triggered — thrown back into our fight-or-flight responses — I relapsed.

It was midafternoon on Thursday when we left to get my car from the repair shop. My husband was tired, as he always is around that time of day — his naptime-of-day. And my menstrual cycle was ending earlier than I thought. Making that day closer to my period than we knew. The period we mark on the calendar each month to trace. To track. To observe in its natural habitat. To beware. So that day, we didn’t know we were in the thick of my PMDD — which left us lost in the wild.

As soon as we took off in my husband’s low-riding car, it was clear it was going to be a bumpy ride. His car overstimulates me. It vibrates and it’s shaky. It’s like an old, scary rollercoaster I’m strapped into. It’s also messy. Dirty. Clouding my thinking. So I became quickly overwhelmed. Sending me into an altered state. I put my purse on my lap to try to weigh myself down. It was too cold to open the windows. That’s all I remember clearly. The rest is a bit of a blur.

I told my husband that my PMDD was coming. That I could feel it. That it was difficult being in his car. And this triggered something in him. Perhaps reminding him of all the times we’d fought in cars in the past. When I’d thrown things. Screamed. Punched the windows. Tried to get out. Or maybe his trigger had nothing to do with me. Maybe it was something from his past. Or maybe he was just tired.

His voice got louder, which means he’s pushing himself — objectively, I know this — but in my triggered state, it feels like yelling. Which triggers in me the feeling I’ve done something wrong. Something I felt often as a child. Something that’s left its mark — it is one of my most extreme sources of shame. I kept engaging him even though I knew to stop. He was past the point of hearing me anyway. But I stayed focused on him. On what he was doing. Putting myself in the victim’s seat. My old defenses up.

I got my phone out, thinking I could record him to show him later when he was calm how he was acting. But he saw my phone pointed at him, asked if I was recording, then grabbed it out of my hands and threw it into the backseat. Triggering me to the point where I was no longer in control. My body was. She was. The shell of myself who takes over when I’ve dissociated. The one whom my husband used to refer to as the third person in our marriage. The one we hadn’t seen in almost two years. She was now back. Making him now my attacker.

I punched him in the arm twice — fighting. Then, as I kept repeating, “This isn’t safe,” I got out of the car into the four-lane highway — fleeing. We had been stopped at a red light, but it turned green seconds before I got out. And even though we were in the far-right lane, there was a turn lane next to us. One I didn’t look at both ways before crossing. And a car missed hitting me by only a few seconds. I saw it as I was watching from above. Completely dissociated from my body.

Moments later, my husband pulled into the parking lot I was now sitting in. He yelled out the window to get into the car. By that time, I’d realized we were in the midst of lockdown, and I couldn’t get an Uber. I didn’t have my phone anyway. It was still in the backseat of his car. So I got into the back. And we drove the rest of the way to the repair shop in silence. Once alone in my car, I drove about a block or two until it all hit me. I pulled over and collapsed into my steering wheel. Sobbing.

As I started to come back from my dissociated state, I realized what I’d done. Something I hadn’t done since learning about my childhood trauma. I felt awful. And then I started to panic. Before we knew what had happened to me, about the trauma I’d suffered during childhood, my husband had contemplated divorcing me. Because of how often I’d dissociate and attack him during my PMDD. Something I wasn’t able to stop doing until I knew why I was doing it. We both were relieved it had been over. But now it had happened again. And I couldn’t help but think he’d want to divorce me, this time for good.

Still triggered and sobbing, I drove to the sensory trail by our house where I’d been meeting virtually with my therapist — luckily, I had an appointment. She said, “I don’t think he’ll divorce you,” to comfort me, but even hearing, “divorce,” made me want to smash my head into something. “That makes me want to hurt myself,” I howled. It was the most suicidal I’d felt since before I knew what had happened to me. She reminded me I had the tools to come back from the state I was in. She said she’d check back later. I headed for the creek. Nature always soothes my soul.

I awoke triggered and hungover around 7 a.m. on Friday. When I last saw the clock, it had been around 3 a.m. Right before I’d passed out in the chair. Instead of coming home from the trail and showering and packing an overnight bag as planned, I’d fallen back into old habits, drinking until I passed out. My husband was in bed when I got home the night before and had already left to meet virtually with his therapist. So I still hadn’t seen him since our fight.

Unsure of if I’d throw up or not, I didn’t want to attempt yoga. My morning spiritual routine broken the morning I needed it most. So I took a bath instead. To try to wash away the pain. In my muscles. In my heart. In my blood. But I kept getting distracted. I feared that my husband wanted a divorce. That all our dreams could be shattered. That it was all my fault. Shame had sunk in. As I lay low in the tub.

My body finally relaxed enough to fall back asleep, and I awoke again around noon. He’d be coming home soon, so I rushed to gather some of my things. Cursing myself for not doing it the night before. Not wanting to see him and risk having another fight. I wasn’t strong enough for that yet.

As I drove back to the sensory trail to meet virtually with my therapist again, I wondered where I could sleep that night. In case we had another fight. In case it didn’t feel safe. I planned to be gone the rest of the day regardless.

My therapist congratulated me for not picking another fight with my husband. Something I would’ve done in the past — using him to further punish myself. To seek relief from my shame. I was feeling better today, she could tell. Getting back to myself.

I walked down to the creek again, but there were too many people. I was starting to feel defeated and retreat back to my car, but then I spotted a deck extending into the woods. A place suitable for practicing yoga.

As I moved, focusing on my breath, letting go of my pain, I heard myself again. My Higher Self. The one who always knows what to do. The one I didn’t hear clearly for decades because of the trauma I’d suffered. The one I don’t hear at all when I dissociate. When I become her — the other woman in my marriage. But I was able to bring her back from a dissociated place — to save her — connecting back to myself once again. And I realized that even if my husband decided he couldn’t take it and divorce me, I would survive that too.

When I got home, he still didn’t want to see me. But instead of engaging him anyway as I normally would have, I felt strong enough in myself to give him his space. To let it be about what he needed. To not let my shame interfere. He eventually came around to speak to me. To hugging and kissing me. To be in love with me. And to realize that we are both just healing. That it’s not each other that’s the problem. It’s our trauma.

Photo by Megapixelstock from Pexels

 

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