Lock Box

I had a revelation in trauma therapy yesterday. I was thinking about my recent sincere desire to better understand and control my emotions. I’m trying to improve my mood stability and decrease the severity of my alexithymia and, in accordance, the extent to which it negatively affects my life. This has always been an issue, at least as far back as I can remember. That said, my mood instability seems to have become even more volatile in recent years and, along with that, I have felt even more out of touch with my emotions. I hadn’t consciously noted this regression, let alone identified a connection or cause until yesterday. It’s not always useful or important to establish the genesis of a given trend in your personal life, but this is a case where it will be potentially helpful since I’m trying to work through the attack and simultaneously trying to shore up my emotional control and awareness.

As I was sitting in therapy yesterday facing excruciating questions about the feelings experienced during and just after I was attacked, I had an epiphany. I’ve spent a lot of time suppressing memories of what specifically happened, a chronology of the actions inflicted on my body, but much less time specifically digesting how I felt emotionally. It’s so easy to intuitively know that I felt petrified, but there are many more layers of that emotional experience from just before it happened, through the violence, to the minutes and days afterwards. It’s actually more disturbing for me on a primal level to recall how I felt than what I explicitly endured, as astonishing as that is to me. Describing the “what happened” is still extremely upsetting because it can’t be recounted in a vacuum devoid of the physical and emotional feelings. The somatic and psychological pain were beyond levels I would have ever imagined I could endure.

However, although remembering, in detail, what I went through inevitably carries with it haunting memories of how I felt in my mind and body, the degree to which these feelings (especially the psychological ones) can be detached, cached as simply “pain”, and disowned is significant. In the majority of my flashbacks and nightmares of the attack, I re-feel a blunted version of the same physical pain from the injuries my body incurred that day. It’s like phantom pain but it feels very real. On the other hand, I’ve done a “remarkable” job, which is not necessarily a good thing, bottling up in a locked vault the emotional side of the entire experience. Like I said, save for classifying it as “terrifying,” “extremely upsetting,” and other such vague descriptors that I’ve assigned to it in a fairly detached sense, I haven’t really unlocked that vault and done any more than scratch the surface of what I imagine anyone would give as a rote response if they were to imagine such a trauma. I’ve been able to cloister the breadth and depth of the feelings into a repressed mental space that only allows the labels of the feelings, and only a mild re-experiencing of them to escape. Perhaps this has been a self-preservation, if not survival, mechanism. The magnitude and complexity of the emotions, particularly in the realms of fear, anger, and sadness, were, in many ways, likely more alarming and potentially damaging to my mind and body than the physical ramifications were to my body and mind. (I say “mind and body” and “body and mind,” respectively, because I think it’s inaccurate to assume that feelings only have a mental impact but no somatic manifestations, and physical injuries only have an impact on the physical body but not the psyche. The simple examples of stress and athletic injury demonstrate otherwise. Many people experience digestive distress and headaches when stressed. Likewise, athletes with a sidelining injury often feel depressed.) Because of this, I think my mind hermetically sealed the emotions so I wouldn’t have to relive or remember them in any practical way.

Although this had a protective purpose and may have been necessary for my desire to keep living and heal, it came at a price to my emotional regulation and command. In many ways, I think I’m especially overly emotional and blind to my emotions now (or have to make a huge effort to understand and level them) because the trauma was SO severe that diverting all my willpower into not thinking about it became my only way to survive. This is probably one reason that especially in the months following the attack, but still to this day, my mind and mental energy available to devote to emotional regulation and awareness is depleted. I’m always trying to exercise my mental willpower to keep the vault on those feelings forever locked away. It’s exhausting.

In therapy yesterday when my therapist probed me to put myself back in the psychological place when it all happened, I became aware of how resistant and guarded I was to do so. In fact, I got heated and defensive, stating I “already told (her), I was terrified!” I could almost picture a formation of guards aligning themselves in my brain around the locked box. Guns up, triggers cocked, they were ready to defend that box and prevent me from opening it as a devoted self-protection effort. The closer I got to the box, and when I tried to wiggle the key in to get a slightly more elaborative response, the more they mounted an aggressive dissuasive front, as manifested by my irritability, defensiveness, and agitation. It suddenly became apparent to me that I don’t think about those feelings and I pretend that I’ve digested them in my half-hearted reflex response that I felt “terrified.”

As I started jiggling the lock and peaking into that Pandora’s box, it became evident how much I’ve been hiding about the extent of the terror, anger, and “so sad I want to die” feelings surrounding the attack. I slammed the box shut as I started to sense the danger of its contents and started putting up walls in the session. Fortunately, my tears and trembling body clued my therapist in that I needed to stop there for the day, but the revelation about the link between the trauma, burying and denying the emotions, and my exacerbated emotional control and awareness in recent years crept into my mind later that afternoon. I think the emotional trauma was so severe and the need to “forget” it so dire, that I’ve put up a protective stone wall around my emotions to further guard the box inside, which makes it difficult to see in to understand them. Moreover, from my position outside the wall, the degree to which I can squish my arm through the gaps between stones to steer or control my emotions is highly compromised. I tend to be reactive and not proactive because I can’t get a panoramic view about what’s going on in there from my encumbered vantage point through cracks in the stones.

In recent months of dedicated emotional work, I’ve been dismantling the wall stone by stone, lowering its height. This is enabling me to see clearer and regulate with more efficacy. It’s going to be a slow process though because most of the stones have been mortared together and have to be pried with force and persistence to break that cement bond. I’m in this for the long haul though. The wall has undeniably served its purpose to further protect the lock box, but I’m ready to lower the walls so that I can grow and build outward.

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