The Hypervigilante

If I were a super hero, I’d be “The Hypervigilante.” My power would be seeing every detail, pointing out potential issues, and making the world a ‘perfect’ place. A hallmark of PTSD is living your life on guard. Once upon a time in Gotham city, the Joker invaded your life and took away your sense of safety. Now, you spend every day in a high state of escalation.

Noticing everything has made me amazing at so many things. I’m great with data details, which helped me escalate in my profession. I specialize in possible sources of gluten contamination, which is why I don’t get glutened very often. “Did that bread touch my salad?! Take it away!”

Yet I am exhausted most of the time. It’s the little switch I struggle to turn off. I jokingly say, “I live life at a 10.” The sentence I don’t say after is, “Because I don’t know how to live life at a 5.”

In the age of a pandemic, my super power came in handy at first. I could see every threat better than most, and as a result I kept my family safe. However, as March stretched into April, and now July goes into August – life at a 10 is taking its toll.

What makes this stage of my life unique, is that I’m now no longer alone in my vigilance. As COVID has killed 150,000 in our country, many other Americans are also living life at a heightened state with me. We question our grocery store trips, getting our hair done, what to do for child care, and whether we should try to dine out for the first time in months.

Talking to my mother-in-law I said, “I’m use to living in this state, and I’m exhausted. So I can only imagine how exhausted everyone else is.” I’ve spent a lot of time explaining PTSD to people. After living through this pandemic together, I’ll never have to explain trauma to people again. We are living through this thing together.

Out of thin air we lost so much. Doctors and presidential candidates were taken. The memories we wanted to create were stolen. Grandparents have yet to meet their new grand child, graduates never got to celebrate their accomplishment, and weddings were moved to backyards instead of dining halls. It’s sad. It’s exhausting. And we’re all tired together. This way of living cannot subsist for much longer.

We were meant to be social creatures, embracing each other’s company. For some time we can embrace life at home. But slowly, the embrace is feeling like a choke hold.

“If only everyone would wear a mask!” I scream in my head.

“Stay six feet away from me and my children.” I whisper to myself when anyone comes near.

“If only the nation had better leaders who could wrangle us together!” I shout to my husband.

If only we could all be vigilant for a few weeks, instead of this dragging on for months.

If only … If only… If only…

Until then, my practical prayers have turned to asking for miracles, and my hypervigilance stays on track until exhaustion wins over. The hypervigilante stands on guard. Trying to keep my family safe.

On PTSD: An Update

I love that as a society, we’re more open and honest about sharing the mental illnesses that are impacting our lives. There’s a certain strangeness, though, that I also wonder about.

I love that as a society, we’re more open and honest about sharing the mental illnesses that are impacting our lives. There’s a certain strangeness, though, that I also wonder about. If part one is identifying, and part two is stating it out loud, what is part three? My hope is that it’s “Here’s what I’m doing to try to get better.”

I wish getting better at anything took little time at all. I wish I could dream of an improvement, and make it happen overnight. But that isn’t how behavior works; especially when many of our behaviors are complex. They’re rooted in DNA, patterns we learn from parents, school socialization, tv sitcoms, trauma, and an amalgam of various things.

My entire life I thought I was weird for my behaviors. I had labels of where my clothing went in my dresser. My class schedules were printed and color coded. I was rarely late, hyper organized, and terrified of failure. I hear it isn’t normal to like looking at spreadsheets?

At a counseling session I was talking about my daily routine. For fear of sounding overly type A, I won’t tell you how it goes. But very kindly, she said “In the counseling world, we can this ‘over-functioning'”. At work, my team jokes “Well, I’ll do task X, but probably not as well as Stephanie.” And Del says that sometimes I’m “Just a little extra.”

I like who I am. And my organization, flow charts, and amazing planning skills have gotten me far in life.

When you go through a lot of trauma, over an extended period of time, and experience trauma repeatedly – it changes you.

I could “Let go and let God.” But it’s unfair to say that when as a child I wondered “How did God let this happen?” It feels strange to put so much faith in something that also let that bad thing occur. You’re either omnipotent, or you aren’t – right? Yet, I know the evil that causes trauma is not of God, but of man.

Data is beautiful because it makes the world black and white and simple. And having no marriage or children is easier because it makes the world less complicated. The more things you add the harder everything gets.

There are not enough Bible passages, quips, one liners, or coffee dates to fix a world that feels constantly unsafe.

I once told Del I see all of the world, and I hate it. I can’t go into a room or on a street without scanning for every possibly of danger. I live my life at a 10, in constant fear of every threat. The car that might swerve, the woman who might launch at me. I have a very long list of things I control so I can feel safe.

I wasn’t on guard those few times, and danger struck. So if I am hypervigilant, maybe the world won’t hurt me again? If I’ve learned one thing from society, it’s that the victim gets blamed before the attacker. So I kiss Del and Carly every time they leave; certain one day they won’t come back. A deer will hit the car on a snowy day, and everything I love will be taken away.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t exhausted. Life always on edge, afraid of what’s around each corner, is exhausting. And it can sometimes be exhausting for Del, who runs to keep up.

I have, in spite of this overwhelmingly sad few paragraphs, gotten better. Two contradictory things have helped me: the safety of patterns, and a messy family.

Knowing I wake up and go to bed with same pattern, day in and day out, for years – allows me to feel like the world is safe. Yet too much control would drive anymore batty. Carly and Del, are my wonderful opposites. Del and I fight a lot over the fact that he sees the world as safe. And watching Carly, fearless of everything, helps me drop my guard. If they can see this world as safe, so can I.

I can go to bed a little later, eat dinner a little earlier, and have a little extra ice cream. If I work out 55 minutes instead of an hour, the world won’t stop spinning. Little by little I arc towards better. Little by little the world is somewhat safer. Trauma fades, and in it’s place stand a husband holding me tight and a baby grabbing ahold of everything she can.

On PTSD…

In kindergarten we had a special speaker come in to talk to us about good and bad touching. We were told to just say no, and that if an adult touched us in a bad spot to tell our parents or someone we trusted. At five I remember thinking, “But, they’re adults.” Although I could not vocalize it then, I remember knowing that older people have more power. What our kindergarten teacher did not know, was that I was already a victim of an adult’s power move.

Instead of leaving the talk feeling safe I remember feeling guilty. Perhaps if I had said no that would have worked? Perhaps if I had just told an adult sooner that would have done something. At five, I knew power, and guilt, and that sometimes evil people win – and there is nothing we can do about it.

I started seeing a counselor two months ago. Since having Carly I have been having panic attacks at work and at home. I will get an email, my heart will start racing, and a panic attack begins. I had one last week driving to work when I got stuck in traffic, and I had another two days ago when my husband tried to help me when I was cooking.

Post traumatic stress disorder.

My entire life I assumed I was a naturally anxious person, and felt bad about my reactions to every day scenarios. I thought I was weak for my little freak outs. I get up at 5am, never miss a day of working out, chart my day religiously, and organize my world to a meticulous degree.

Having a baby has a way of throwing off your game. I knew going into parenthood I would need to get better at adapting to the unexpected. My friends kindly joke that I’m going to have to learn to be better at letting go of my plans (they’re right).

But let’s be fair here.

Some people get the glorious luxury of traveling through most of their lives thinking the world is a safe place. Many people get to go to age thirty before they find out about things that go bump in the night.

I was five. What they stole from me was more than innocence. They stole, for the rest of my life, that feeling of safety that allows most people to float through the world with a deep sense of trust that everything will be ok.

For the last 20+ years I have not operated in the mind set of “everything will be ok.” I operate in the mindset of “Have a back-up plan for your back-up plan.” In my patterns and plans I have found safety. I use to feel like a terrible person for being so well planned. Friends are comfortable with adapting and going with the flow. When others change plans on me it sends my heart racing.

But how could my heart not race? There was a time when the world was safe, and that was unfairly stolen. Not knowing what else to do, my beautiful and adaptive mind created a universe where I could live safely. My spreadsheets kept me warm at night. My charts tucked me into bed. When I look back at what I created without knowing why, I stand in awe of myself.

But then – Carly happened.

I look at Carly and see the world as it should be. Her world is safe, everything is new, and no one wants to hurt her. Seeing lights turn on is a magical event that for which we should charge admission. I want to be better, so Carly can keep seeing the world in a safe way that I can hardly remember experiencing. My old patterns (sigh) – I’m working to let them go.

I am trying to plan less, and be more free. I am trying to adapt when all I want to do is hide in the closet, because no one can hurt me when the doors close. Life does not exist in the dark where no one can hurt us. Life exists where there is light. Slowly but surely, I’m flicking the switches to turn the light back on. And I have sweet little Carly for showing me that everything will be ok.

Give me grace to get there. Help me to trust that this world can be safe.