Friday, December 5, 2014

Landmines (41)

Groggily, I descended the stairway. My two children happily greeted me. “Good morning, Daddy! I love you! What’s for breakfast? “ They said almost in unison.
“What’s first?” Was my sleepy reply.

“Coffee.” They said in unison as the whir of the grinder pulverized the coffee beans into a fine powder. I then boiled some water and poured it over the freshly ground beans. The remaining hot water was poured into two bowls over some cinnamon and apple instant oatmeal.

With the children fed, kisses given and lovingly sent off to school, I began to reflect and write on the day before. “Fucking Landmines,”  I muttered to myself.  Daily life seemed as if I were walking through an unmapped minefield--only the flashbacks and triggers of a once forgotten past were the hidden explosives. I never knew what thing I would do or not do that would cause a memory or emotion to explode inside me. I spent each consecutive day tiptoeing around the explosives that left me drained of any remaining resources by nightfall. If I wanted to stay out of the hospital I needed to find a way to recharge my energies throughout the day.

My first line of defence against the minefield in my head was to write in my journal. I unwrapped the brown leather thong and opened the book to the next blank page.

“I fucking hate Sundays,” I wrote. Sundays were especially hard for me, I’m not sure if I will ever recover from the anxiety and rage I feel from the actions of my former pastor.  


I had awoken full of anxiety and anger. I made my coffee and smeared cream cheese on my freshly toasted bagel, hoping that the routine would calm the turmoil within my soul.  I sat in my comfortable leather recliner and began to check the messages from the previous night. Emails, facebook, how many clicks did I get on Perpetually Healing? What countries did they come from? It made me feel good that people all over the world were reading my work. I tried to focus on the good that I was doing rather than the pain I was feeling that was causing me to find the normal noises around me especially irritating like steel wool mixed with caustic acid against my raw tired flesh.   The battle had already begun and its first volley was a sensitivity to noises.

The TV was blaring as Martin Short sang about the Cat-in-the-Hat flying in the Thingamajig. My children were playing loudly and running back and forth in the kitchen. BANG, BANG, CLOMP CLOMP, RATTLE, CRASH, “We can go, we can go!” exclaimed Martin Short. CLOMP, CLOMP, SCREAMING, “I know, I know!” BANG, BANG, “Daddy Look!”

Too much noise! My eardrums are going to explode!
I can't hear anymore! I need silence.

I tried to block out the noise by putting in my headphones and focusing on the music playing. Nicki Minaj was usually a good choice. I liked the way she used different accents and mid-beat inflections to make her sounds unique. With “Romans Revenge” blasting in my eardrums I put the laptop down and began to wash the dishes left in the sink from the night before. I knew from previous experience that if I could focus on one task and concentrate on one sound like the music in my earbuds, I could usually calm the feelings of anxiety and utter powerlessness. This day I was not successful.

I washed the dishes, wiped the counters clean and began to sweep the floors. I was desperately trying to focus on my breath, the feelings of the hot water on my hands as I washed a dirty plate, the smell of Odo-Ban on the countertops. It was if the air itself was ignited in heavy confining imprisoning fire. Somehow, in my mind, the dust and crumbs of various snacks littering the floor  was more than I could take. I began to yell and scream that no one in the house respected me enough to clean up after themselves.

My children were my first target of frustration. “Is it possible to put food into your mouth rather than let it fall onto the floor?” I then screamed “Children, PICK THIS UP!”  



I was triggered, but I was too overwhelmed to know it. I had lost control. Lost control of any capacity to understand what was happening. My breath shallow, heart pounding, eyes wide in terror filled fury. The entire house was vibrating as I barked orders and profanities in an attempt to soothe the pain I was feeling inside.

“Joel? What is happening?” My wife asked as she descended the stairway, her hair put up in a towel, bathrobe hastily wrapped around her still dripping wet body.  “Why are you screaming at the kids?”  

“Look at this house! I know I cleaned this place yesterday! Within a few hours, it has turned into a complete pigsty!” I screamed back. “And it’s only 9:30!” I added.

Thus began a one sided shouting match. Finally, she had enough.

“Joel, You are triggered as fuck. Go downstairs and don't come up until you are calm.”

“Then who is going to clean this mess?”

“Go downstairs and calm down. It will be here when you get back,” she calmly replied.

“And that’s the point! Look at that crumb over there! Who is going to pick it up?”

“Go the fuck downstairs and calm down.” She was beginning to get angry.  

Reluctantly, I had been married long enough to know when to stop arguing. I complied.  I descended the stairs to still the chaos in my soul.  I folded a sleeping bag in half, placed it on the floor and sat crosslegged on it. I opened the app on my phone that gave me a twenty minute timer with a pleasant sounding bell at the end. The meditation app was opened next. Flute music and a light orchestra in the background. My hand in my lap, I closed my eyes and began to push the busy thoughts away.

Inhale, Floor needs vacuumed.

Exhale, I can do that later. Time for me.

Inhale, How can a child that weighs so little cause such a big noise above my head?

Exhale, Turn up the volume, focus.

Inhale, What kind of mess are they making now?

Exhale, Whatever it is, you can fix it later.

Inhale, Feel your breath fill your lungs. Each breath is new. This is a new moment.

Exhale, I hate Martin Short. His voice is so annoying.

Inhale, You are doing good. Keep breathing, ten more minutes.

I kept breathing until the uncomfortable emotions began to ebb into silence. I continued to breathe until the only thing I was doing was listening to the harp music and feeling the air fill my lungs. Feeling the air leave my lungs. Feeling my body weight press against the cloth beneath me. The bell chimed. Opening my eyes, somehow the house didn't need to be cleaned quite so urgently.  

It was a beautiful day outside, blue skies and warm March temperatures begged us to be outdoors. The rest of the day was spent laughing and playing in the sun. Even though the landmines were still there and occasionally exploded before me, I was able to quickly recover before the emotions surrounding them threatened to hijack the remainder of day.

One of the things I learned in the hospital is that I needed to be a boy scout--always prepared.  My wife thinks of it as being an emotional “prepper.”  I know to carry a rock or a coin in my pocket when I need to be grounded.  My wife and I have a safe word when we are out so she knows when I need to take a break and I am not just bored.  I carry my journal with me in case a flood of thought overcomes me.  All of these things are great and helpful, and I am grateful for them.

I still ask myself why.  Why do I get triggered?  Why do the memories and emotions from the past stutter my reality as if it were happening right now?  Why does my body betray me and relive its trauma when I am feeling perfectly fine and happy?  Landmines.  Triggers.  Hijacks.

Like many of you, I seek control above all else.  I don’t have control over these. My wife has observed, much to my chagrin, that I retreat into negative emotions when I am feeling threatened with happiness.  It is uncomfortable so I cling to what is comfortable.  This is different.  This is an unconscious revolution of who I am now into a whirling dervish of fear and anxiety that reveals itself in the form of anger.  Everything is bigger, louder, more.  It’s like going from regular TV to HD.  I am so caught up in the moment because it is the only thing that exists.  Logic does not exist.  Fast, fast, fast.  Swirl, swirl, swirl.  Nothing to hold onto.  Not in my control.  I am not aware of this state of being.  It just is.

How do I combat this?  Be aware.  How can I be aware when this is my reality?  Find a focal point.  How can I focus when everything is spinning?  Find a catalyst and hope it is not too late.  Breathe.

Today, I was triggered.  I have been triggered for a couple of days.  How do I know?  My wife usually gets mad or frustrated because I am being a jerk and I realize I am not behaving as she expects.  Today was different.  I felt it.  I felt my heart beating fast.  I felt my mind begin to spin.  I felt my skin start to crawl as anxiety pierced my flesh.  I was aware.  Did it make it better?  Yes.  I recognized that I was about to explode.  I slowed down.  I breathed.  I took stock of my body and my surroundings.  I focused on an unrelated task.  I challenged myself with thought provoking movie.  I overcame.  It was good.