Smiling on the Outside: On the Body, Mind, and PTSD

Awareness arrived, innocently enough, with an e-mail.

Six years ago, I received a questionnaire from a friend asking about such things as my favorite foods, colors and movies.  Once I filled out my answers, I had to send it back to my friend and any others I wanted to give a deeper glimpse into my life.  While a bit self-absorbed, it was also fun.  And I thought nothing when I answered the question, “Do you prefer hugs or kisses?” with this answer: “Nothing beats a first kiss.  I don’t like to be hugged.  Whenever a man hugs me, I feel panicky.”  I hit the Send button.

Then I realized what I had written.  Suddenly very nervous, I called my husband and told him what I did.

“You wrote that?  Oh honey, why would you write that?  Aren’t those meant to be for fun?”

“I don’t know,” I mumbled.  “Because…because it’s the truth.”

I felt bad immediately.  And to all of the males in my life I had sent the questionnaire to, I sent a follow-up e-mail about how I didn’t mean them.  That I was okay with hugging them.

I lied.

I hesitate to use the word hate but it is the closest thing that describes how I feel when I am hugged.  While there is a part of me that always craves to be held, for a very long time, I have hated to be hugged.  I can hug a child or a small woman but once I find myself hugged by a man, woman, or even a child who is bigger than I am in height or weight, it takes an incredible amount of focus to remain in place, to smile, and to say, Hello, Good-bye or I love you.  Because my body is reacting: my chest tenses, my lungs hurt, my breath is in danger, and my arms ache to push the other person away.  Even with my husband.  I trust him, but rather than submitting to him spooning me, I tuck in behind him and hold on for dear life.  That’s okay: I can connect with the man I love and feel safe at the same time.

And feeling safe is really what is at the heart of not wanting to be hugged.  Actually, it is at the heart of everything.  I’ve realized this lately: my need for safety commandeers my thoughts, my behavior and even my sleep.  Vigilant to an extreme, whether I’m driving or walking, I plan my route.  I keep a list with me not because I’m anal but because to not do so allows in distraction.  When I’m at the supermarket and discover something I normally buy has been moved, I am beyond annoyed: too much time wandering around looking has me feeling like a target.  Yet, I appear to be the friendliest person at the market: I walk with my head high, I make eye contact and I smile.  I say, Excuse me, sir, or Ma’am where can I find such-and-such? and behind the polite smile, is awareness.  I’m noticing how people are walking and carrying their bodies, how they’re talking to their children or spouse, who is an obstacle, who needs help, who needs to be left alone, what can be used as a weapon, and what aisle is overcrowded.  I’m noticing the women who are so distracted, they walk away from their carts, leaving their purses and children unattended; and I’m noticing who is looking at those abandoned purses and children.  I’m willing to stand in a long line if that means no one else will slide in behind me, boxing me in.  In the parking lot, I’m willing to park farther away from the store if it means my truck is not surrounded by others.  I never walk between cars, especially vans or trucks.  I load my groceries into the passenger seat because it means my back is turned for a few seconds less than if I had to arch over the backseat.  I visually inspect the space under my truck and how the tonneau cover lays on the bed: does it appear that someone is hiding?  I do not go shopping at night.  When I drive by myself, even if it’s for hundreds of miles, I will play one CD over and over again, meditating into its familiarity, or drive in silence because the varied music and commercials of radio stations can be too jarring.  At a restaurant, I never sit with my back facing the door; unless I’m with my husband, who is both military-trained and holds a black belt in karate.  At home, when I was a teenager and then a young adult living on my own, I slept with a chair propped under the door handle.  Now, it takes everything not to return to that behavior.  My house is surrounded by woods that at one time I would have felt very comfortable in, but I don’t venture very far into them alone.  At my worse moments, I scan the forest wondering if anyone is looking in.  And yet, I prefer to be in this rural area: at night, my eyes acclimate well to the darkness; in the city, streetlights cast shadows.  Danger can hide in shadows.  And overall, I don’t sleep well.  My mind searches for noises familiar and not: the water filter turning on, the truck without a muffler that leaves for work two hours before sunrise, the sound of the cat scratching his post.  I sleep on average four hours a night; until finally exhausted, I sleep for ten, waking up both refreshed and self-condemnatory that I spent a night sleeping rather than keeping watch.

Tedious, isn’t it?  I seem a bit crazy, don’t I?

But I’m not.

I’ve been working on an article about alternative therapies helping veterans overcome missing limbs and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  I interviewed an occupational therapist who works with patients who have suffered trauma from war, car accidents and sexual abuse.  According to her, PTSD is not truly a psychological disorder but a physical one.  The memory of the trauma suffered is the most powerful memory in the brain, and everything in both the brain and the body reacts according to that memory.  Already in a state of hyper-vigilance, the brain and body react to outside stimulus as if they were lost in the original trauma.  The body floods with adrenalin which triggers a release of glycogen.  The glycogen converts to glucose.  Glucose feeds the brain but in this case, glucose floods the brain causing the pancreas to overreact and dump insulin.  Blood sugar drops, the brain feels it is going to starve, and the result is an overwhelming sense of fear.  Hyper-vigilance exacerbated by fear caused by trauma and the chemical processes of the body.

As the occupational therapist explained this, asking every so often if she was making sense, I wanted to take myself out of the interview and cry.  Yes, she was making sense.  She was validating my growing awareness about how I’ve been navigating my life for the last 26 years…and how, despite healing emotionally from being raped when I was 15, from truly putting it behind me as if it were another woman’s life, my body remembers.  My body reacts.  Constantly.  Without getting into specifics, when it happened, I weighed not much more than 100 pounds…and I was held down.  Across my chest, into my sternum, I was held down.  I couldn’t breathe.  My mind floated elsewhere as my lungs compressed.  Being forced down, not being able to breathe was actually worse than anything else.  And it is this sensation that remains with me to this day.  My body remembers so strongly that without even being aware of it for decades, I have tailored my life so I never relive that sensation, so that I never find myself held down, searching for breath, searching for safety.  Ironically, what should feel the safest—being hugged by a loved one—doesn’t.  Hugs hold me down, they compress my lungs, they leave me searching for breath.

At least I know.  I’m not crazy.  I’m finally aware.  And because I’m aware, as uncomfortable as it is for me, I am the one who now initiates hugs.  I hug everybody.  I still hate it…but what I hate even more is that something that happened to me a lifetime ago tries to claim this life.  So, I hug.  I smile.  Whenever the panic threatens or the vigilance reveals itself to be extreme even to me, I remember that beyond any need to search for my breath, is that in fact, I have my breath.  I have my life.  And I need to be engaged in it: memories be damned and hugs included.

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One Response to Smiling on the Outside: On the Body, Mind, and PTSD

  1. As a disclaimer, I have not been diagnosed with PTSD nor am I diagnosing myself with it. But, it makes sense. It made sense six years ago when I had my epiphany about hugging. It made sense last year when I saw myself in the blog of a former Marine who suffers with PTSD. And it made sense when I interviewed the occupational therapist. If anything, my awareness about how my thoughts, feelings and body react in certain situations has only increased. And with that awareness comes change. That is the purpose of this article.

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