Terror. Escape. Shut-down. Repeat.
I was abused, neglected, and traumatized when I was a kid. At-the-hands-of-a-sadist kind of thing. In the fallout I developed Complex PTSD, something that’s robbed me of most of my life.
When Sarah Fader asked me to write an essay for Stigma Fighters I knew what would happen. Because I’d been through it so many times.
I said, yes, I’ll write something.
And I got triggered and two big switches flipped.
The core feeling of my PTSD is terror. And my core reaction to the terror is to dissociate. Those are the two switches I’m talking about, the big switches that got flipped on – terror and dissociation.
So when I said yes, I’ll write for Stigma Fighters – the terror switch got flipped on first.
Not a case of bad nerves, okay? I’m talking all-out, balls to the wall terror. White-hot.
I’m-going-to-die NOW terror.
Terror lit me up.
Because when I finish my essay it will be put up on the worldwide web. That means sticky eyeballs will read my work. That means people will see me. And that means I will break the most basic rule of survival – don’t be seen.
To survive I have to be invisible. I have to disappear. There are death-dealers everywhere. Nowhere is safe.
The terror is a primal, reptilian feeling. Visceral, raw. A throbbing, unspoken premonition of death that screams – don’t move, don’t make noise.
Or I will get killed.
The terror sets off sheer panic. And internal sirens wail – I need to get out of here! I’m going to die!
Somebody have mercy! There is no way out. I’m trapped. Stuck. It’s hopeless. How am I going to save my life?
The most primitive dissociative move for me is this – I split off. As one part of me incinerates with terror and panic, another part of me splits off and takes a wild mental flight.
Like when I was a kid, when I was being savagely beaten – I’d split off, lift up and out of myself, and float above it all and look down from a safe place on top of the refrigerator.
But most times I couldn’t stand to watch. So I’d vanish into an imaginary room and hide behind an imaginary bed until the screaming stopped. And then – unknowingly – I buried the brutal scene under the darkest amnesiac blackness. Then timidly come out for dinner when the coast was clear.
When I was a kid I was trapped. All of my real defenses were cut off. There was no way to fight, no way to run and get away.
So I got out of hell by splitting off.
Dissociation was my involuntary escape hatch from the inescapable. It felt like oh-sweet-Jesus get away. But in the end, it was only another child survival strategy that turned against me and kept me stuck in the involuted cycle of abuse.
Round and round, over and over.
So that years later – over fifty years later now – I can still get triggered.
Something innocuous – like writing an essay for Stigma Fighters – can still set the whole nightmare into motion again.
And when I get triggered, it all happens in a flash.
When I know I’ll be SEEN, I feel terror. When I feel terror, I try to escape. Trigger, response. Conditioned reflex. And before I even know it I’m in the thick of it, reliving the abuse all over again.
For most of my life the trigger-terror-escape cycle happened under the radar of conscious thought. It was a wordless reality. Something I couldn’t name. There was no meaning-making going on. The horror happened unarticulated.
And terror and escape were an ongoing internal war. A battle that left me exhausted. Wiped out. Shut-down. Emotionally flat-lined and in a deep fog that dulled life senseless.
That was my land of the living dead. Where hyper intense no-feeling created a numbness that felt like a Novocain overdose. The no-feeling so dense it put me in a waking coma.
This pattern is the core experience of my Complex PTSD: I get triggered – I light up with terror – I dissociate and split off and escape – I collapse and shut down. Then, after a refreshing stay-cation in catatonia, I do it all over again.
Trigger, terror, escape, shut-down, and repeat.
After years of recovery work it is different now.
I used to be enslaved by the ongoing nightmare and didn’t even know it. I still get triggered all the time. And the pattern gets set into motion all the time. But it doesn’t hijack me and take me out. These days it’s more like a squall. I can see it coming and I know it will pass.
That’s what happened this time. I said yes, knowing full well that I’d be seen. And the hellacious pattern kicked in – the terror flared and the compulsion to split off racked me like an alky’s thirst.
But I stayed with it, moved through it.
These day I know the crippling effects of childhood abuse can be overcome.
So when I get asked to write an essay I can do it. I can get through the storm of
emotions and still say my piece. Trusting I’ll be okay, I push the send button.
And let myself be seen.
* * *
My full name is Adams David Monroe. Funny story there. My name was supposed to be David Adams Monroe. But my Dad didn’t want my initials to be D.A.M. Maybe he was worried my initials would create an unnatural compulsion to stop water. Or maybe he couldn’t spell and was afraid I’d be cursed.
Whatever the reason, Adams David Monroe it is. Says so on my birth certificate. And that’s why I useDave Monroe the pen name, A. D. Monroe. But you can call me Dave.
Dave can be found on his website and Twitter
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What an amazing essay! it takes a lot of courage to write about our fears and painful memories. I’m glad you did Dave. It encourages me to keep moving and work towards my own recovery. Wishing you peacefulness and happiness.
Wishing you peaceful and happiness, too. Lot of power to stories. Thankful Stigma Fighters is putting them out there.
Very powerful. I dissociate too, I escape into a fantasy world of my own creation in my head – since as early as I can remember. But when it continued into adulthood I realised it was not helpful, and now into my 40s I have been trying to pull the plug on it – it’s less than it was. My therapist helped me understand that it is how I survived the emotional & verbal abuse I went through in my childhood, and without it I might not have survived. But yes, once out in the world, it gets in the way, stops me connecting with others properly – cuz I don’t have to, I have a better life in my fantasy world! It’s hard to break this stuff – and it’s a daily battle. I wish you nothing but continued strength.
It is hard stuff. But little by little I’m finding reality is pretty magical, too.
Thank you so much for sharing your story. I never realized how PTSD affected me until I read your words. It helps to know I’m not alone.
Thanks! There’s a lot of power in stories. Glad mine’s helped you some.
It’s brutally hard. I engage in escapism, but I thankfully don’t dissociate. I respond to the “threats” with my instinct to fight. Working through the trauma is hard though, and the healing process has recently led me to a clinic on suicide watch. Now told I have depression, but that it’s a normal part of working through the trauma.
Thanks so much for your comments. Best of luck on your continued journey.