Identifying Complex Triggers in PTSD

Getting back to therapy last week has helped me to identify another PTSD trigger. (Yes I now admit I still have PTSD, ignore earlier claims of being better, I wanted bloggers to be proud of me, and I also wanted to be better, sigh.)

My son is a current trigger for me. I see it clearly now. And I have some safeguards in place now. But let me back up some here.

The first time I truly was diagnosed with PTSD, not just panic disorder, not just depression or anxiety, was when my daughter was 3. About 6 years ago. I had made it through several suicide attempts. I had made it through pregnancy, delivery, post-partum depression. And now I loved that little girl more than anything. And was generally better than ever, all of a sudden then when she was 3, something happened to me when I would watch her. I felt like I was dying. It was different from the other panic attacks. I felt like I was suffocating, like my world was ending, like I needed to hide, or vomit, or scream. I was being transported back to when I was 3, and my earliest memories of molestation. It was crippling, horrifying,  to relive those moments, and utterly devastating to attach those feelings to seeing my sweet little girl. I’d like to say identifying the source made the flashbacks stop, but it did not, and my relationship with my daughter suffered. I could no longer feel so close to her, or snuggle with her. I pushed her away. I had my 2nd baby already too, and found myself detaching from them, Hubby, and the world, to some numb ghostly existence. Somehow I existed, somehow I fed my kids, did some work, cleaned the house, but I was numb. It was hell. No way around it.

I’ve been having similar feelings of terror and wanting to hide lately, and have been very confused. The trigger this time seems to be my son. He’s been having these out of control moments, terrible emotional outbursts that at times make me wonder if he is on the spectrum for autism. I have discussed concerns with his pediatrician and teachers, and we all conclude each time he has some hyper-sensitivities. Like some days his shoes are too tight, even though they were fine an hour earlier. He struggles to get tasks done, getting lost in the feel of his zipper rather than just zipping it and moving on. He struggles to change activities, and abrupt disruptions will have him digging in his heels and refusing to move or act, and repeating phrases while he moans, not really cries, there are no tears, but he wails.

The other night, we left my daughter’s rehearsal and once my son got back in the van to his booster seat, he started up an episode. He would not buckle his seatbelt. We had no idea what the problem was, and all he said, no wailed, over and over, was “it is in the red thing” while refusing to buckled or let us buckle him. The other kids are all buckled and waiting. Everyone else has left the parking lot. I see the director headed to our van, so I drive away slowly to another parking lot, to avoid explaining to her why my child is screaming “it is in the red thing” over and over, and why we can’t leave yet. He has us hostage – again. He is irrational in these moments, and I quickly get that way too. I can’t stand it. The chaos, the screaming, the not understanding. So I start making threats, like no computer games if you don’t stop screaming and get buckled. The threats make no difference, he can’t hear them any more. He is lost in his irrational world in those moments. But I need to drive, to get home, to get everyone in bed. I feel trapped and out of control. And then I feel angry. And then I feel sad. And then I feel hopeless. And then I feel worthless. Like I am the worst mother ever. I should be able to handle this. I should be able to help him get through this without yelling, without punishing him. Better yet, I feel like I should be able to avoid these moments and feel like a failure when they happen.

So I finally figured out, I am being triggered. Seeing him so out of control, in distress, in some sort of inner conflict, transports me to feeling like that as a child. It triggers flashbacks of my painful childhood, feeling all alone and scared and confused; as well as current feelings of failure as a mom. My biggest fear is to have my own kids feel desperately alone and unloved like I did. Whenever I was “too emotional” or got hurt, or “caused a commotion” I was sent away with disgust, and never checked on. I remember crying alone under my bed for hours, sometimes falling asleep there because no one checked that I went to bed. No one ever read to me or tucked me in, or made me brush my teeth. Nothing. So I worry that when I freak out my kids will feel the same, unloved, and unable to express themselves. Woah. Dangerous grounds here, and I understand my desire to self-medicate a bit better. But I love myself and my family too much to continue on that way, but I am at a loss for how to feel better. How else to stop those terrible feelings that take over me. The feelings that take me to the darkness.

I can’t meditate this feeling away, I can’t sleep it away, the dreams are too troubled. I can’t get my body moving. I stare outside at the lovely gift of a day, sunny and 70, and I can’t get dressed and go out there. Blogging helps a bit. Talking to hubby helps some, but I feel like he doesn’t really understand and gets all “poor baby” on me. The hugs are nice, but don’t make this feeling go away. What does? How to get back to center when triggered without self-medicating or bingeing? Not sure yet. But at least I made progress in identifying the trigger. I have asked Hubby to be the strong one with my son. I told him that it isn’t fair, but that I need him to be the one in charge there, and keep us both from slipping too far. He says he’ll try.

I can’t remember the triggers fading or stopping with my daughter, but obviously they did, so maybe I just need to ride these out with my son, armed with the knowledge that I am safe and loved, and these will eventually fade out and stop too.

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8 thoughts on “Identifying Complex Triggers in PTSD

  1. I remember the shock on my second counselor’s face when I described being angry, stepping back, and figuring out why. “You self-analyze,” she said in surprise. “Doesn’t everyone?” “No, most people don’t.” “Really? How do they change if they don’t examine why they do what they do?” “They don’t change.”

    I’m also struggling with how to pull myself out of those dark places without binging.

    Children’s minds make such odd connections. Wish I could offer more than a prayer for you finding what you need, but I admit I’m pretty clueless on the child front.

  2. I have been where you are with my youngest son. He is hypersensitive and had the meltdowns you describe. My reaction to them were much like yours and I hated my reactions. His father is a sociopath so seeing the child become unreachable—so unlike my much older, first six, kids—scared me beyond words. I withdrew from him, too, as you mention. I am almost 9 years sober, and a PTSD thriver–most days. Like the person above, I now have the where with all, most of the time, to step back and figure out what his behavior is triggering that has nothing to do with him. As my ability to do that has improved, and as I have gotten better, he’s been doing his work, and we are no 99% meltdown-free. Now, at almost 8 years old, he knows that he needs time alone when he gets home from school, and he knows when he is tired and it is affecting his behavior. He is recovering, I believe, from his own PTSD from my marriage to his father. Mine goes way back, like yours. We are getting better, and growing much closer as a result. There is peace and happiness most of the time. The three years that preceded now—not so much peace. You are getting there. You are aware and you are doing all of the right things!

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  5. I know this post is two years old, but after searching the internet for anything to help me through this particularly trying moment, I found very little about this experience. When I found your post, I cried. I relate so much to what you wrote. I have struggled to heal from my abusive childhood and be the best mother to my three kids. My oldest is very sensitive like your son and my youngest is our adopted baby who has fits of anger. The baby’s cries sometimes invoke such horrible feelings inside of me that I doubt myself entirely. I feel eclipsed by sorrow, rage, helplessness, and fear. It has been this way for all three kids when they were babies, crying and screaming before they could be reasoned with. Now I am starting to realize why. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you were brave enough to write about your feelings because it made a huge difference to me. Huge.

  6. I am so touched that you found my words helpful. I’m still on this journey of self discovery and trying to heal and understand my reactions. And I am grateful to have found a way to share these feelings in this supportive blog community. I appreciate your taking time to comment and wish you luck on your own journey. 🙂 It’s not easy, but it is worth it.

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