Bells should go off in your head if you’re walking in the woods and a clown in a bunker’s offering free hugs.
Or when your guy grabs your shirt, slams you up against the wall, and says you don’t wanna make him angry.
And the whole theater’s screaming at that dumb young thing not to open up when the doorbell rings at midnight and nobody’s expected.
I’m not generally an alarmist although my husband David would disagree. I do worry about fire starting in a trash barrel where he’s dumped grass clippings. Or being afraid things are gonna blow up. Or when I feel eyes on me when I’m working late by the open window in my first floor office and I can’t help myself I just have to look.
One summer my panties started disappearing off the clothesline, hang-up calls began right after my soon-to-be-ex left the house, and the guy across the street would make a racket so I’d look up to see him standing naked in his doorway. When the phone rang at 2 one morning and the soon-to-be hustled me into the dark backyard I thought yeah, sure, I’m gonna get whacked — he had lots of, uh, connections; I didn’t for a second believe the police were evacuating the neighborhood. But they were. That spooky ass guy shot a neighbor who was coming home from shift work.
A bit after I rented out my condo, the woman whose doorway was a few feet away from mine was strangled at home then dumped in the woods. The daughter’s boyfriend went to prison for murder in a sordid story worthy of a bestseller.
Like people in an abusive marriage or those who return from war, I can talk about what’s happened to me as if it had happened to someone else. Traumatic stress is often numbing and, whether the stress is long- or short-term, the need for self-protection can make us look (and be) detached and dispassionate.
Danger exists in trusting others even as protection is so desperately needed. Laying down the guise, being vulnerable and exposed, is almost literally a deadly challenge that many won’t choose.
Traumatic stress is so often unexpected — who would set themselves up to be traumatized? — we cannot prepare or protect our psyches from it. A system-wide shock indicates that everything in our world — most especially those to whom we are vulnerable like spouses, parents, children, friends as well as surroundings that once felt safe — is now suspect. Add to that the invisibility of chronic, traumatic stress and the difficulty of recognizing or relating to it adds to misunderstanding and further isolation and loneliness.
Traumatic stress can be vigilance run amok.
The experiencing, fearing, seeing, remembering of violence and harm can derail our thoughts and emotions, often forever. Like someone who puts and keeps themselves in line for abuse, or those who think themselves immune to repeated horror, all of us need to realize that horror commands a price. Similarly, we need to know that sometimes, not always, we can predict nasty experiences and seek to avoid them. Problem is, the invisibility of stress disorders can mean that some people are less in control than it seems. The creed of healthcare workers, protectors of public safety, combatants, and others who serve reinforces our expectations — and their own — about invulnerability.
Sometimes, vigilance is underrated.
Putting ourselves in charge, like not hanging out with somebody who slams you against a wall, is a proactive step to avoiding traumatic stress in the first place. And when you can’t avoid getting bummed out, talking with a professional helper can expiate what may be stuck in your head. That’s necessary if you want to be able to live your life without looking over your shoulder for clowns.
Kathe Skinner is a Marriage & Family Therapist in private practice who specializes working with couples, especially those for whom invisible disability — like PTSD — is part of their relationship’s mix. She and her husband David hold Couples Communication Workshops that help inoculate couples from the stress that a poor relationship can bring. Register now for the lateswt workshop at www.BeingHeardNow.com
© 2015, Being Heard, LLC