Who would you be, if fear never got in the way?
Change is hard to do. You have to be really willing to open yourself up and be super honest with yourself and with others. You have to do a lot of self-reflection and looking at yourself, instead of blaming others. Sometimes it takes asking someone else for help as you heal and grow. Most people won’t ever do this in their life – it’s easier to not be self-aware, to live unconsciously, and not look at your own dirty underwear, so to speak.
What I’ve learned from my self and from my clients – is that change happens when theirs enough pain to force you to look at yourself – because there’s no other way to make the pain stop. This is when a person is most willing in their life to become self-aware and go through the transformation process. I’ve been motivated for change off and on in my life. I think that “pain” motivator has been a lot more present in my life, than it is for the average person.
You see by the time I packed my three boxes of belongings into my little, grey, toyota tercel at the age of 18, I had enough pain to fill several Toyota Tercels and a uhaul trailer. Except you couldn’t see it. I knew how to hide it well. I was young, beautiful and adventurous. People liked me and I made friends easily. I seemed carefree and spirited back then. I was free, I had left my past behind and all the things that scared me. The one person that seemed to constantly hurt me in my life. It was all miles behind me once I jumped in my car and left the province. No one would have guessed that I was dealing with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
The thing about PTSD is that a person can live a relatively normal life….as long as they are in completely different environment that doesn’t trigger the past trauma. Depending on what the trauma was and the person’s success with avoiding those triggers, they can potentially live a fairly normal life.
So that’s what I was doing. Living a “normal life”, just like every other recent high school graduate. I moved to a mountain town and became a ski bum; I worked at a local business and spent my free time at the local ski hill.
My PTSD was the best kind. Mine was easily controlled. I knew what the trigger was and I had full power to control it. Not like War Veterans, who come home from the war and the memories creep up on them, or a sight or sound sets them off and sends them back to the Vietnam War. No. I was lucky. I could control my symptoms by simply keep everyone at arms length. Relationships were my trigger. Closeness and intimacy were my feared triggers. Someone very close to me had repeatedly broken down my trust. I suffered from fear of trusting myself and fear of trusting others. However, as long as I avoided deep or close relationships, I could feign normalcy.
Fear has been my best friend. I can’t even remember a time when Fear wasn’t by my side. Fear has been my guiding star for so much of my life.
Things started to change for me. One day, fear got a new idea. Up until this point, fear had thought it was a good idea for me to keep people at a distance and to protect my heart from letting anyone in. This day, however, fear got it in its head that I should start fearing “alone” more than “closeness”. Fear took me places after that, that I had never been before. I didn’t know how to let anyone in, especially not men. I didn’t know how to do it. This became very evident to me and everyone I involved in this new experiment with my life.
Sometimes I would slowly open my heart up, then BAM – I would slam the door in that person’s face, while I left running, never looking back. I didn’t look back, it felt safer if the door was closed all the way. Other times, I’d rush in heart wide open, risking it all and letting myself feel things so powerful, that the other person left running, and I’d take up chase. It felt like they had run away with my heart in tow. I just kept chasing, not realizing, that the whole time, my heart was mine to give or take, and it was ok to let them go. In those moments, I had determined that I’d just blindly try out this “trust” thing – ironically, most frequently, choosing to trust the most untrustworthy man I could find. The one that wasn’t kind and genuine.
I had 9 different relationship experiments, varying from super short to more longer lasting. Every one of them fraught with dysfunction and pain. As if that wasn’t enough; I also started to experience intense moments of disassociating. The hallmark symptom of PTSD. I didn’t know how to do relationships healthily. Relationships are a maze and I didn’t have any experience with a healthy, close relationship to help guide me. I was trying to learn on the fly. I didn’t choose healthy partners, so a lot went wrong. Once things became messy, Fear would consume me. Fear gave me lots of advice; fear tried to help me make things better. But fear always made things worse. Fear would often call on his friend, Control, to help us. Once Control showed up. Things really got messy.
What is it like to disassociate
Disassociating is like having someone else completely take over your mind. Your body has an intense, physiological reaction. Your brain signals that you’re in extreme danger; kind of like you are about to face a bear. The reality is, that while my brain and my body are convinced I am about to face off with a bear, the reality is that it’s just a squirrel. It feels like your out-of-control. Fear and Control are taking over and attempting to fix everything – except that they are making things worse and further entrenching me in unhealthy behaviours.
What did I learn from these relationships?
Furthermore, I learned that I was “unloveable”. The men I had chosen to try relationships out with, were also not healthy and certainly not self-aware. Often, they rejected my behaviours, and thus, me. They were also friends with Fear and they were scared that I wasn’t “normal”. Frequently, the men that felt most safe to me were the ones that were emotionally unavailable. They didn’t ask too much of me too soon. I didn’t have to get close.
The difference between us, was that I wanted to experience closeness eventually; and, they never wanted to experience any emotional depth. They wanted something “casual”, something “no pressure”, something “uncommitted”. They were listening to fear also. Fear had taught them that they could get affection and physically connection, without the emotional connection. That’s what they wanted from me. I thought that maybe I could get emotional connection from them, by trading for what they wanted: physical connection.
A painful Cycle
This became a painful cycle in my life. It motivated me to seek-out counselling and over the course of those 9 relationships, I saw several different counsellors. Eventually discovering that I had a fearful-avoidant attachment style and that I also suffered from PTSD and it was derailing my relationships. I began to fear and distrust myself. I felt like my behaviour was mostly healthy and predictable, until I got into relationships. In relationships, I feared the unpredictable reactions I would have. I couldn’t trust myself to choose emotionally safe men. If I can’t trust myself to know if they are safe and healthy, how could I trust them? I couldn’t take care of myself and I couldn’t trust them to take care of me either.
Despite each one of them always declaring, “I care about you”. The truth is looking back – no they didn’t. They felt obligated to say that, because they had carelessly gotten involved and they had made poor choices. It was easier for them to say “I care about you” then own their own issues and dysfunctional behaviours and admit they had been selfish with their actions.
I would remember – I would remember the agonizing pain and emotional distress that their unconscious actions had caused. They didn’t know better. They weren’t aware. However, I would remember. The PTSD would get worse before it got better.
I’d love to say that in the present I am 100% healed of any trauma from childhood and any PTSD symptoms. I’ve learned a lot of things. I’ve gained a sense of self and learned to love and value who I am. Nevertheless, I’m still working on trying to have healthy relationships and I still have moments of panic and disassociating – sometimes for no reason. I still see and talk to a counsellor on a regular basis, although I’m beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel.
I recently met someone. Normally meeting someone would be the invitation for fear to join my side. However, this time fear didn’t immediately arrive on the scene. I was able to open up, to be myself, to practice being authentic and open. I was able to share my history in an honest way – something I’d never done before. However, as the night progressed and I felt more and more vulnerable – I slowly felt fear join me at the table. It crept into the conversations. Fear told me that this relationship would never work. After all, we had different beliefs about God and he was American that lived too far away from me. It would never work out. He’s not right for me.
Fear told me to run away, to put up the normal walls. But the next day, as he kissed me the fear melted away and I let myself feel the connection. It was an unfamiliar feeling: to feel safe in another person’s arms. I decided to risk it all – this feeling was the best feeling in the world.
An Imaginary Adventure
I believed I had enough information to trust him, to believe he cared about me and was safe. He seemed so healthy. He was able to take my emotions in stride. He seemed wise and kind. My heart ran free, a false sense of safety enveloped me. It felt good, so I let go completely. My heart and my mind went on their own imaginary adventure.
The more I let go, the more I felt the things I felt for him, the more Fear tried to reestablish our co-dependent relationship. Fear brought Panic along with it. Panic and Fear began to destroy my emotions and break down my confidence. Fear pointed out Levi’s inconsistencies, his cold feet. Suddenly, I was in the danger zone. I was standing out in the open, holding my heart, vulnerable. Furthermore, I felt unguarded, unprotected, and afraid.
I tried to hold onto my beliefs that he was good, kind, healthy; and I tried to ignore Fears obnoxious clambering for attention. We kept in contact. Except, I lost my inspiration to be authentic and bold and open. I started to hide the fear. It was easy. He was 1930 kilometres away. He couldn’t see through the phone or the silence. He had no idea when his actions caused the familiar disassociating PTSD symptoms. I dealt with it alone. Sometimes it spilled over into messages, sometimes he pulled further away, but I tried to contain it. Sometimes I would open up and share briefly, only to shut down again and not completely share all of the truth about how I was feeling and what was happening.
Despite holding onto the belief that Levi was healthy, self-aware, and mature enough to work on his minor issues; all the signs seemed very familiar to me and I became increasingly more convinced that Levi was dangerous. He would hurt me, just like everyone else before him. I started to believe that he was unconscious, unaware of his own struggles, or just not willing to reflect on and change himself. I started to feel like he was unpredictable. At first I clung to my original hopeful beliefs, continuing to try, while working out the pain on the side with my counsellor. Then the pain and distress hit it’s all time high. I felt ghosted, stonewalled, forgotten. Levi was out of touch. I couldn’t reach him if I tried. I couldn’t control the situation and it felt so very unpredictable. Unpredictable is code for danger in my brain.
It became so unpredictable and scary that Fear decided that the best solution was to make it predictable. Control stepped in and took over the situation. I stepped out. I was done. My nervous system couldn’t handle anymore. I needed to stop it all. I ended things, even friendship. If he couldn’t be predictable, then he couldn’t be predictable and it was better for me to get as far away from that gun as I possibly could, since there was no safety switch on this gun.
For the first time, through the haze of disassociating and hurt and hiding it all from Levi, I began to see things more clearly. I had been able to process some pretty big traumas with my counsellor over this time and things slowly started to shift. I began to see his behaviours as separate from mine. Where before, it felt like I was unloveable and this is why he didn’t want me, I began to see that Levi, like me, had his own set of demons to fight. For the first time, I started to see this relationship as a blessing for both of us. He was stepping on all my “raw spots”, and I in turn was stepping on all of his. Every time he hurt me it brought to the surface the part of me that was still damaged and hurting and it afforded me the opportunity to live-process what was happening.
The PTSD reactions are becoming less and less. For the first time tonight, I could question what life would be like, if fear didn’t get in my way. I realized that maybe this relationship is a gift that’s meant to help us both let go of fear and hold each other through a process that’s scary for both of us. Maybe it’s an opportunity to work through and heal from all the past hurts. In this moment, when something new started to rise from within me, Fear said to me: “Don’t risk it, Hannah. What if he doesn’t want to grow and change? What if he wants to stay the way he is? What if he doesn’t want to go on the same journey of self-discovery? As long as Levi is unconscious and doesn’t care that he is, he will keep protecting himself by keeping the distance and walls up. Therefore, he will just keep on hurting you. What if you let him be your friend and you get closer and begin to let yourself feel something again? He will disappoint you. What if Levi is the kind of kind that just wants casual relationships and is happy to just keep jumping into bed with whoever he can without having to make a commitment? If this is who he is, you will get hurt. It’s safer for you to run away now. What if you be friends with him and what if you can’t control how you feel? You can’t trust yourself, you aren’t predictable. What if the PTSD comes back and makes a mess in your life. You aren’t worth it for anyone to put up with that. What if, what if, what if…
What if fear didn’t get a say? If fear didn’t get to be my best friend. If I could live without all this fear of getting hurt by you. Then I’d be able to care about you and not worry how you felt back. I’d be able to be your friend and I’d be able to slowly get to know you and make up my mind about the kind of person you are. If fear didn’t get a say, I’d live my life out in the open, and I’d tell you how bad it is sometimes. I wouldn’t care if you decide there’s something wrong with me. I wouldn’t care if you ran away. I could be my authentic self. I could take healthy risks. I could allow myself to go through this process, not rushing ahead into blind love, but growing and learning to love another human being, despite what I can get from them in the end.
If fear didn’t get a say, I could be me without fearing being my authentic self.