I have realized a few things about regulating myself the last few weeks.
One of them is that it matters how intense the stimulus is. I can mostly handle gum-chewing now. If someone is busily smacking their lips across the room, I can go on with my work more or less untroubled, but on the occasion when a colleague came up behind me, leaned over me and chewed gum directly into my ear I could not. I don’t think I could calm down the rest of the day.
It also matters how long the stimulus lasts. I can handle being cold for a few hours perhaps, but when I was cold on the bus leaving B-town in the early morning–on the way back to Y-town from the Capitol City—I could not. I finally just totally shut down. I mentally gritted my teeth and resolved to survive it, because my feet were painfully cold for four hours. Four hours I cannot handle.
They are building new buildings all over Y-town. This involves the incessant whine of circular saws. For me, that means the constant reminder of feeding the bodies of people I loved through a table saw. It is not just an annoyance.
There was a while, when the memories were less on the surface, when I could handle it as long as it was the saw a street over, but I could not handle it when it was the saw next door. These days, they are both going all day. I cannot handle it. I tried for a while. I tried to just soothe myself through it, but I cannot do it when the saw is so close or so loud and I cannot do it for 10 hours a day.
Dissociation dampens a stimulus. It makes it, in a way, seem further away, so that the danger it represents seems less immediate. It is moves the saw next door down the street. I get now why I do it. It does actually help.
The problem, of course, is that it distorts your perception of life completely through a trauma lens. We all attend to some details of life more than others—we deem these details important and these other details unimportant. But when your life is so impacted by the need to manage trauma, it means trauma controls that process of decision. You aren’t so much deciding what is important as what you can stand.
So there are times when you dampen a stimulus just because it is related to trauma. For example, your boss’s hostile attitude might be worth attending to, but you dissociate it so that you can talk to him without screaming or storming angrily out of the room. Then later you aren’t sure if he really was hostile or not. Dampening your sensations makes life confusing.
Hypervigilance does the opposite. After my colleague chewed gum in my ear, I couldn’t calm down again. I became attentive to every other possible indication of danger.
As a trauma survivor, I think that happens in life all the time. There is this unavoidable distortion of your perceptions based on how things relate to your trauma memories. Some things you attend to maybe less than you should. You are trying to shut them out a little so that you can cope, but they might actually be important in the present. Other things you are too attentive to. They aren’t important in the present, but they relate too strongly to the past to ignore. There is this under- and over-attentiveness that makes it hard to figure out what is really going on in the present or how to respond.
I don’t know what to say about that, but it sucks.
I suppose what it means for me now is that I need to, as an adult, consciously attend to how I respond to trauma-related stimuli. When I can control my environment, I need to, or I ended up with distorted perceptions of my present. I need to process the trauma, but I need to create an environment for myself—whenever I can—that is one I can regulate myself in. I need to consciously be aware of how intense a trigger is, how long it seems likely to last, and how many known triggers seem likely to occur in a row.
I am wearing headphones now. All day, next door, is too long. I cannot mentally keep a stiff upper lip in response to it: I can, but nothing happens while I am doing that. The trauma does not get processed. My personality does not assemble itself. I do not get any pleasure out of life. I just hold on. The days when I am keeping a stiff upper life and trying to regulate myself through situations beyond my ability to handle are lost days. I need to take those small steps to manage my environment so that I can manage myself when they are possible.
I think there was a point when I felt, if I had to do this, then all was lost. The trauma was controlling my life. I was never going to be “normal.” Or something.
Well, the trauma does control my life when I don’t try to manage my environment. It starts controlling my attention because I have lost control over it. It forces me to overattend to some things and underattend to others. I can keep control, sometimes, if I am able to be flexible and take steps to alter my environment. It can’t all be control over my internal, emotional response to that environment. There’s a kind of middle ground.