Emotional Avoidance, Analytical Thinking and Self Reflection After a Traumatic Experience.
How does it look like and how can it help you while being in a toxic relationship
- This article is a small sampling of several chapters of a book I am writing, “Extrasensory Perception: The physical existence of an unseen world”.
Although the following pages might create a feeling of ‘What the heck?!” with some people, the content is neither meant as an attack on anyone or any website nor is it as me complaining about peoples thoughts and/or views on how to write/speak about the nasty effects from PTSD and/or CPTSD. I am writing this to draw the attention on the slowly growing but still shallow knowledge regarding to how many are processing and reacting on traumatic events experienced while being in a toxic relationship.
Some time ago I submitted my articles “Suck it Up and Get Over it Princess!” and “PTSD: Your Condition is Not Your Conclusion” to an educational site on PTSD. The editor responded by email saying that my articles are being considered for publication but, with some small adjustments. I have been kindly asked to soften the tone in the art, “Suck it Up and Get Over it Princess!”, to leave out words like “psychopathic” and not to link violence to mental illness. Nor should articles published on this site discuss medication used to treat PTSD. On the latter, according to my best of knowledge, I have not done so. Frankly, I am of the opinion that many of the medications prescribed by therapists were not necessary in the first place. And, with some clients, even have created unnecessary chaos in their mind and/or life.
Nevertheless, I fully understand that particular language used in my articles e.g. describing the general mind-set and horrific behaviours of criminals and explaining some of my personal experiences from the field, can have an shocking effect with some. But, as soon as a 1st responder start speaking up his/her mind on what they have experienced or are experiencing, don’t silence them by saying that ‘incorrect language’ is used.
Since Nov. 2020 I started this new chapter in life. Or at least, I am trying to. I don’t know how to explain it to you, but I met people, I felt like…um, were a bit weird. They were saying stuff like, Maria, we believe in you. You will get there! I was like wait a second, you are all way too enthusiastic. Did you all get my transcripts? Do you have the right Maria? They were like, Yup we got the right Maria, and you are in a new season now so you don’t have to worry about the past.
Even though comments as such sound more than logic to many, with me it triggered the instant feeling of not being safe. What do they want from me? When is this all being flipped in bad criticism? When will I be pilloried? Why do I react that way you might think. I have asked this question myself many times. And, after going through, in 2021, a rough 5 month period of self-reflection in where I used critical and analytical thinking, I became to understand that this is the result of both unprocessed trauma’s and, the mental abuse executed by a narcissist for the past two-plus decades. And, when digging through my childhood with the knowledge gathered on the mental state and behaviours show by these individuals, I most likely have been living under this umbrella my entire life.
For those who haven’t sniffed this smelling cake yet, let me briefly run over what narcissism looks like behind closed doors. Because, even though many have read or heard about this disorder, often with, for their victims, devastating end results, experiencing this psychological war-far is quite different. In a nutshell, it is an unseen (by many) and sadistic behavior executed by someone who finds pleasure in charming you, isolating you what follows by confusing and hurting you on a psychological level. Simply because these are insecure individuals who live in a world full of illusions and fake emotions. And when they are caught telling these false narratives, they simply wear the victim badge, knowing only one word ‘YOU’. And their Gas-lighting? That is only meant for feeding this insecurity because it provides them with the feeling of controlling you. Unfortunately, by means of their psychological mind-games, or better said abuse, this is actually what happens with their victims…at one point in time they, their victims, are starting to doubt themselves and their sanity. I did. And not only my sanity was what I questioned also this feeling of blame I had appropriated myself, became very real.
Nowadays I realize that this where unrealistic thoughts and feelings. What in the bleep was I thinking?! I was blaming myself for someone’s genetic, or spawn from a taught false specialization, mental illness! Even though the realization of me blaming myself for ones mental state and doubting myself, thinking that I was the one who needed professional help, being absolutely ridiculous had reached my consciousness several months after one of my dogs passed away in the early hours of November 7th, 2020, it is still hard not to be drawn into this state of mind again. It is difficult to keep walking ‘aside’ the egg-shells instead of ‘on’ them. I other words, although I learned that I am not who the narcissist has trained me to be, it is and always will be a difficult moment to voice my boundaries to him (or anyone) because the reaction(s) that is following that powerful word ‘no’ is always the same and loaded with unrealistic criticism and painful comments.
As I mentioned in my articles, self-reflection is one of the hardest things to do due to the fact you have to be completely honest with yourself. Being your own critic is like being your own judge and that is not always an easy task. This becomes especially challenging if you are dealing with a narcissistic person on a daily basis. With this I mean, processing your thoughts, emotions and behaviours spawn from a traumatic event or events, without the support of your environment can make you feel lonely and isolated.
Expressing your thoughts and emotions to a narcissist is something you don’t want to do because, from experience, you know that your words are always twisted and used against you in a negative form. You know that they can be thrown back at you at any given time. Both publicly and behind closed doors. This, caused by the narcissists endless gas-lighting moments and smear campaigns, which is feeding your “fight, freeze or flight mode”, is resulting in many people suffering in silence and walking on eggshells what can be considered as ‘avoiding any situation that might trigger these individuals and thus the disastrous consequences’. Alas, this has become a huge influencer in your daily life which logically creates a feeling of shame and so you try to avoid these tricky situations by avoiding them. Personally, I am of the opinion that this form of emotional avoidance, while being in a toxic relationship, is not a disorder but a part of PTSD and CPTSD. It is a human reaction on stressors.
Before I unpack one of my experiences from the time I was working in law enforcement and how it came about for me to show a behaviour known as emotional avoidance caused by both this traumatic event and the mental abuse executed by a narcissist, let me quickly run through the difference between PTSD and the lesser known behaviours of CPTSD once more.
The difference between PTSD and CPTSD
Since CPTSD is a relatively newly discovered condition most people will likely be diagnosed with just PTSD. This because each person experiences and handles trauma in different ways what makes CPTSD a challenging one to recognize.
CPTSD (Complex Traumatic Stress Disorder) is closely related to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) whereby the symptoms often overlap — Flashbacks, nightmares, anxieties, alertness, light sensitive, startled by loud noises and avoidance are a few of them — it is a separate type of condition.
The main difference between PTSD and CPTSD is the duration of the traumatic event. PTSD is typically triggered by a specific or a series of events in a short period of time while CPTSD is caused by a series of traumatic events (psychological blows) which can take place over several months to several years. Like all forms of PTSD, CPTSD may lead to other issues including but not limited to (food, alcohol, drugs) addiction, depression and, changes in ones personality.
On the latter, for example, those who, like me, grew up in an abusive household may lack a feeling of safety. This constant fear for a physical, emotional and/or psychological harm in childhood can cause problems later in life. Living in a war-torn country is another example in where the basic feeling of safety is shattered. Feeling unsafe, especially for an extended period of time, can cause severe trust and/or relationship issues. And by means of having difficulties trusting people and/or a surrounding, many will experience this hyper arousal and avoid any situation that will remind them of the traumatic event(s).
How does avoidance look like
There are a couple types of avoidance. One type is avoiding thinking about the event or events that have occurred. They are the most stressful, the most difficult, the most dramatic events that have ever happened in a person’s life. So it makes perfect sense when you are saying, I don’t want to think about it. Let me just push it away. Let me move on. Let me just not think about it, hopefully it’ll go away. Unfortunately that doesn’t work really well on a long term. Even though you should process your emotions on your own pace, this way of avoiding a traumatic moment actually perpetuates or encourages, the feeling of ‘go on’ or ‘coping with it’ if you will.
The other type of avoidance is ‘behavioral avoidance’. Meaning, you will avoid ‘things’, ‘situations’ and even ‘people’. If you have been deployed and something has happened you will avoid things or situations in your natural environment you didn’t avoid previously because there is a trauma reminder that there is something that feels dangerous. (this includes particular behavior others might show)
An example might be, you are driving in a vehicle in Iraq or Afghanistan and you see a broken down vehicle or a pile of trash, on the side of the road. That might mean there is a bomb that is hiding there. Stepping back into your civilian life things might feel extremely different and sometimes immensely dangerous. Say, you walk into a grocery store. Nothing to be afraid of right? Well, by means of your experiences and absorbing the invisible but real threats while being deployed in the middle East, this grocery store is now a potential battle field. I mean, there are a lot of places where someone could be hiding for example. It feels like it is a really dangerous place.
Not wanting to be remembered of the events you start to avoid the grocery store and slowly avoid all places which create a similar feeling. And so, for many life becomes very small and this is largely because of avoidance. Clinically this is a symptom of the PTSD diagnosis but the way I describe it is that life just begins to shrink. There are certain things you won’t do anymore, certain places you won’t go anymore, certain conversations that you won’t have any more. Bright light and loud noises can startle you and, trusting situations and people is a very hard thing to do. Life just becomes quite small.
One thing that you might consider doing is, working to kind of gradually systematically getting back involved in the types of things that you did in the past that are not inherently dangerous. Step by step you will start to see that they just feel dangerous. Part of your healing process is, scary as it might sound at this moment, to do the things you don’t want to do. The more you do them, at your own pace, the easier they get. Then, over time, you can get back to do most of the things that you had done before you were deployed. Before you were exposed to a traumatic event.
Memories can’t hurt you…they say
Although it has been a little over 20 years since I was exposed to the indelible images of a traumatic event, I still avoid any butchery if possible because I have troubles with smelling fresh meat. I cannot eat meat what is containing bones and it becomes even worse when I see or smell boiled meat. My stomach cramps and I feel like throwing up. Besides avoiding a butchery, I also avoid eating in a restaurant as much as I can. This because a deep feeling of both repulsion and aggression is instantly rising with me when I see and hear people tearing the flesh from the bones and make those distasteful noises when eating meat.
How did this behavior of avoiding butcheries and restaurants and feeling a hyper arousal at the sight and smell of fresh and cooked meat, become a part of my life? Well, after uncountable hours of self reflection, using analytical thinking and reading a huge amount of articles on PTSD and CPTSD, I became to understand that the foundation for this behavior lies in my distance past.
It was early in the evening and half way my shift as the call came in. Two passenger cars had collided. Although one of the drivers was still trapped in his car, there were no life threatening injuries reported. Needless to say that an ambulance and a fire truck containing the necessary materials to cut the driver out of his car, were already driving in the direction of the accident.
Arriving at the scene, I saw the chaotic order of paramedics, firefighters and police officers walking around. The bright flickering lights coming from the emergency vehicles lit up the scene. The paramedics had, as a precaution, put a neck collar around the man’s neck, put on an IV and draped a cloth in front of the man for him not to get glass splinters in his face in the moment the firefighters started to cut open the car. One firefighter stood by holding a hydraulic shear to free the man from his distressed situation while other firefighters were checking the car and helping out the paramedics.
Up until this moment my colleague and I were convinced that it was a routine job and all we had to do was direct the traffic. No one expected that this situation would turn into one of the most horrific and disastrous moments we would ever had to witness.
On the adjacent highway, the sound of raging traffic could be heard. Behind me, the thunderous sound of the fire truck turning at full throttle to give the hydraulic shear the power it needed. Paramedics and firefighters were circling the car trying to free the driver who was obviously in pain. Stuffy moans was what he let out with every move he made while blood kept flowing from a deep head wound.
The blue-red lights coming from the police cars flashed in my eyes as I observed the paramedics and firefighters swarming around the car like a group of ants around a sugary lollipop. The hydraulic shear was put against the door of the car. A crackling, metallic sound could be heard and then everything went really fast! I smelled petrol fumes. A strange, loud bang and the car was ablaze. The fire inside the car spread rapidly.
After this most of my memory on this event becomes a bit foggy. Meaning, I still have troubles remembering the details. But, the next thing I remember was the smell of fried pork quickly followed by a sickening odor of a human being burned alive. Everything felt so surreal and seemed to go in slow motion. An odd calmness came over me.
Next to me, at the roadside, sat a firefighter holding his head in his hands. He didn’t move and only gazed at this horrific scene. In my mind I was screaming, “Stand the f*ck up! Do something! He is burning alive!” but I couldn’t make a single sound. I remember, so I think, me slowly turning my vision from the firefighter to the scene and saw the most horrifying scene I had ever seen in my life. A human being in a high state of panic, struggling to get out of the burning car. He burned alive!
Except for this, indelible from my mind, gurgling sound the man made in his last moments of being alive and how it all smelled, I cannot remember driving towards the scene and, I have only a scattered memory of what happened afterwards. I think I remember how the fire brigade got the fire under control and how the blackened body was lift out of the car, but I cannot say this with certainty.
Avoiding the stressors is reducing stress
So there I was, years later, tight-lipped and being under the impression I have always acted like a little kid, that I should be stronger, because the narcissist told me so for two-plus decades. But, after placing my own mind, emotions and behaviours underneath a magnifying glass with critical self reflection and serious analytical thinking, I today understand that this feeling of ‘aggression’ and ‘avoiding’ is a trauma not processed.
Although the demons from my past have not left my present life, they most likely never will entirely, avoiding these places which trigger my mind to go back to those moments I rather not like to enter, was one of the best things I could have done. I mean, after kicking out the idea many have of enrolling years of expensive counseling in order to heal, I simply granted myself with the time I needed. And you know what? Slowly, but not entirely, the stress around this memory drastically reduced. Going at my own pace is, without a doubt, creating a huge peace in my mind. Frankly, each time I now pass a butchery or eat in a restaurant, it feels like a personal victory.
If you are struggling with intrusive imagery or if you are struggling with really difficult experiences that are hard to forget, it is entirely normal that you will try to avoid thinking about them because they are traumatic (PTSD) related memories. Just thinking about them is basically a bit like being re-exposed to them. In fact, when Freud was trying to handle this it was noted that ‘forcing someone to talk about stuff over and over again and express how they felt about I’ was a bit like re-traumatizing people.
Needles to say that, even thought it makes perfect sense and it is a useful strategy on short terms, you are not interested in re-traumatizing yourself. Avoidance needs to be something that you ‘can’ overcome. You should never be forced to recall the memory you have from your past.
To summarize the territory traveled in this article…although it might take you some time, you will get there. You do not have force yourself into these nasty situations over and over again to overcome any anxiety. And if someone is telling you different, that you have to hurry up in order to reach that moment of ‘being free from your demons’, well, F them! Nobody, except for you, is entitled to tell you when you should recover from your trauma. You should go at your own pace but, with critical thinking, serious self reflection and analytical thinking.
Yes, this means that you will experience some rough moments for sure. But, these moments will only provide you with a deeper understanding of your behaviours, emotions and thoughts. Cliché perhaps but, going through these nasty moments with a clear mind (meaning without the drugs or alcohol) you will only get stronger and stronger. Until that bright, sunny day in where you can say, without your voice trembling, “I can accept my experience(s)”.