Nervous System: Before and After
The First in a Series
TW: trauma, childhood trauma. If this topic presents a challenge for you, perhaps this piece isn’t for you.
It was a blessing and curse when I learned that early trauma had completely dismantled my nervous system, leaving me less and less capacity to manage stress in a healthy way as I aged. For a couple of years, I’ve been working to heal by learning how regulate my it.
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I dabbled in the beginning, reading books and following social media accounts that discussed behavior I recognized as my own despite the shame I felt. I now understand the cause of said behavior is an overwhelmed nervous system born of trauma. And I learned change is possible through polyvagal theory and stimulating the Vagus nerve.
When we feel unsafe, whether it’s from something real or from memories being reactivated in our nervous systems (aka being triggered), our body kicks into fight, flight, or freeze. The powers that be have added “fawn” to that list, a type of people pleasing designed to keep us safe, but for now I’m going to focus on the original three.
Of the fight/flight/freeze responses, my default is freeze – numb out, dissociate, eat. But I am no stranger to the other two – quick to anger, anxious, avoidant. Learning how to bring my body back into parasympathetic mode (rest and digest) from sympathetic (fight or flight responses) has required energy and focus.
There is a delicate balance between calm and safety because a nervous system can become so used to being in hyper-taxed mode that activities like deep breathing or meditation actually increase feelings of not being safe. I have learned what works for me to return to calm when triggered.
Now I’ve leveled up and practice neuro drills and vagus stimulation exercises every day to expand my body’s available capacity for stress (to be clear, substances like food, alcohol and drugs don’t increase capacity, they momentarily dull the ability to feel what’s really happening).
Rather than waiting until my nervous system is overburdened to address it, I am enlarging what’s available to handle stress because when it’s maxed out, stress can make me feel very unsafe, which creates anger and overwhelm. Doing this work allows me to manage everyday irritants, and even larger events, in ways that don’t deplete me or cause harm to those around me.
To help me recognize and celebrate the progress, I thought it would be interesting to look at a situation from two perspectives: how I would have (and did) handle the experience before this work and how I manage it now. This is the first of the series.
I’m exhausted. Between life, work, my physical and mental healing journey and now my mom needing more support after discovering a hairline fracture in one of the ribs she broke three years ago, my cup overfloweth. I’ve gone to her condo building to do my laundry and a load for her. With me I’ve brought food I prepared plus prescriptions picked up on the way. While the laundry is being done, I get her mail from the mailroom and take some boxes to the recycling area.
I am in a lot of pain, some from fibromyalgia (I’m only calling it that as a point of understanding. It really means the medical community has no idea what is wrong or causing the pain) and some from arthritis, carrying extra weight and honestly, just getting older. There’s nothing that doesn’t hurt, and every fiber of my being feels like it’s on fire.
The building where my mom lives was built in 1928 and the trips up and down the generous halls, old-fashioned elevators and ramps have my knees screaming. But I’ve made a commitment. At least I have plans to go to the pool and sit in the hot tub when I’m done.
I feel angry and resentful. Where are my brothers? Why am I the only one – again? I have to power through, I tell myself. Maintain a positive attitude. I succeed. Barely. And only for a bit.
I knock on my mom’s door, which she has left cracked open. We exchange hellos and I get her laundry. The handle on the basket is broken. I feel annoyed as I try to carry it. She asks if I want to put it on her Rollator to make it easier. I’m not used to easy, so I insist on the struggle, carrying it despite the additional pain it brings.
Eventually, the stupid things that can happen when I do laundry there – the card not working in the machine, someone not removing lint from the filter, people I don’t like trying to converse with me – have me cursing both under my breath and out loud.
The washing machines are going, and I walk up to the lobby to get the mail. There are three packages, one of which is fairly heavy. I juggle everything and trek upstairs to my mother’s place. Nothing she says sits right. I slip into thoughts of “what about me?” and the free-floating anger pushes against the wall of the space where I try to contain it.
I hate feeling like this and have no idea of why it’s happening or how to stop it. It’s a freight train traveling a hundred miles an hour on a downhill slope. It doesn’t take long before I snap at something she says. Unwarranted, my anger hangs in the air – a dense cloud shrouding everyone beneath it in the weight of my emotion.
I say things I don’t mean. Or maybe I do, but they come out in a way that is not kind. My mom gets upset. She cries. I feel horrible. Once again, I have failed as a daughter. The self-sabotaging rhetoric of not being enough gathers in my mind like the ocean preparing a tsunami. Guilt appears to calm the anger but it’s an illusion. Under the surface, I am furious at myself for having no control.
We argue. I finish the laundry. I’ve apologized several times. Things are calmer on the surface, but my crimes echo in every move I make. She says it’s ok, but I know it’s not. I grab the boxes, making a show of the challenge to take them all. We say good-bye.
I barely make it to the car before I break down, berating myself for losing it – once again. Sobbing, I try to make sense of what has happened. Depleted and bewildered, I tell myself I’m too tired to go the gym. Instead, I stop at a fast-food place, get more than I need and go home where I eat all of it, then collapse to watch reruns of Law & Order or NCIS. Something familiar where I know how it ends.
I know I’m tired. On the way to my mom’s, I practice some of my neuro drills – breathing, singing, rolling my tongue around my teeth and gums. I yawn, a sign that they are working but I’m not where I want to be. The feelings of resentment linger below the surface, but they are not tigers roaring to escape their cage.
I get my laundry in the machine and head upstairs to get hers. The handle on her laundry basket is broken. I take a breath as I get it into the grocery cart I’ve brought with me so I don’t have to carry it. I start the laundry and head up to the mailroom where I find three packages I wasn’t expecting. The first crack shows itself.
My body hurts and I didn’t bring the grocery cart, so I arrange the mail and packages for the least discomfort and navigate the building back to her place. I make a show of my generosity for retrieving them, then sit and rub my knees. I take a few deep breaths to clear the anger that now bubbles beneath my desire to be open and kind.
“Mom,” I say determined to control my tone and refrain from displaying anger she has not caused. “I want to support you through this. But as much as I dislike it, I have to be honest about my own limitations. I can’t do the physical stuff anymore. I have some ideas, so when you’re ready maybe we could come up with a plan for what you’ll need until this rib heals.” My tone isn’t quite where I’d like it to be, but I have done the best I can.
I remove myself to allow her time to process, sitting in the car and numbing out a bit on my phone. After I fold her laundry, I shove mine in the bag having made the conscious decision to fold it at home to meet the limitations of the pool schedule. I take it upstairs using the grocery cart and then load the cart with a few empty boxes she’s asked me to put in the recycling. I squirm internally at the additional task not wanting to lose my temper.
I have overcommitted. Again. Taxed my body beyond what was good for it, and I feel angry. But not at her. I don’t want to take it out on anyone. But I know some of it has leaked out. In the car, I cry for a few minutes. The release feels good. Then I open the gate to the parking lot and head to the gym doing some neuro drills on the way.
In the pool I have a conversation with an older gentleman my mom and I have gotten to know over the last year. I joke that it was his fault we ended up at Big Jim’s last week because the restaurant had been part of our conversation on great places to eat. “I can’t find anyone to go with me,” he says.
“Your wife doesn’t like Big Jim’s?”
“Oh, she passed. Four maybe five months now.”
All this time and he’d never mentioned her death.
“I don’t talk about it,” he admits. “I miss her every day.” He tells me they met right out of college. Were married for sixty years. Had two sons and a daughter. How her cancer led them to Boston for treatment every month for over a year. He shares that she was a psychologist and that patients showed up for her funeral. “She was tough,” he says. “You couldn’t be a minute late. Or bring a coffee. But they loved her.”
I ask her name.
“Cheryl,” he says.
I witness his sadness and know the deeper connection I’m experiencing would never have happened without the work I’ve done to manage my nervous system better.
After a while, I head to the locker room for some hot tub time. Immersed in the steamy water and bubbles, I think about dinner and decide to finish my meatballs from Big Jim’s with a salad since I also have some of their delicious red wine vinaigrette. Showered and dressed, I get in the car and sing, loudly, to Dua Lipa on the drive home.
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