The Nervous System: Before & After
TW: discussion of trauma impact. If this topic presents a challenge for you, perhaps this piece isn’t for you.
Welcome to the fourth in the series where I show exactly how having a regular nervous system regulation practice has affected my behavior. If you didn’t read the previous chapters, you can find it here on Substack, and I would encourage you to take a glance to get a thorough understanding of what I’m doing and why.
Learning about how the nervous system works has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it has led me to create a practice that enables me to still experience whatever is being reactivated in my body without the sometimes-toxic behavior that used to accompany it and without the shame that often accompanied it. On the other, it shows me constantly how much is left to do.
To help me recognize and celebrate the progress, I offer two perspectives: how I would have (and sometimes did) handle an experience before this work and how I manage it now.
On a cloudy Saturday, I take myself to Panera to work on an article. It’s a complex and intricate piece and I’ve decided the best way to organize the hundreds of pages of transcripts from the interviews I’ve conducted is with Post Its and colored markers. Being able to spread everything out on the table of a booth appeals to my neuro-divergent brain.
I work hard for several hours. Although there is a lot more to do, I’m tapped out. As I get in the car to drive home, I admit that I do not want to cook dinner for myself and remember a conversation on Next Door about a place not too far away that makes fabulous subs. Maybe I’ll give it a try. I call and order their famous Bomber sub.
After I Google the address, I become hesitant. I’ve never been to this area, and I feel the anxiety bloom in my throat. I push through without addressing how I feel, turning on the voice directions. I am taken over hill and dale into a neighborhood that in the dusk looks like it could be on an episode of Cops.
I drive down the narrow urban streets, cars parked on both sides leaving room for barely one car, much less oncoming traffic. Some of the houses are boarded up. I crank up the music and sing along to drown out the trepidation. After multiple turns, I’m at a another stop sign and the computerized female voice on my phone tells me I’ve arrived.
To my right, parked on the street, is an old pick-up truck with the hood open and two men digging around under it. A few teens hang out on the corner. There is a building opposite them that is light brick with coal black splatters from exhaust fumes. There are several frosted block glass windows and a few of the small squares are cracked or broken. A sign with the shop’s name flickers in red neon under the streetlight.
I can’t stay where I am, so I make a right onto an unfamiliar street and park. I have a lengthy conversation with myself, weighing the pros and cons of going in versus driving to Wendy’s and using the drive through so that I am in familiar territory and don’t have to deal with anyone in person except the cashier who will also hand me my food.
After battling the voices representing both points, I’m exhausted. Although I was tasting the sandwich, I can’t do it and pull away. I feel ashamed and am bombarded by the comments in my mind about how pathetic I am because I couldn’t even try something new. And that I’m sticking them with the sub I ordered.
I get home and eat my chili and French fries and then dig around for what else I can put in my mouth that will eventually produce enough chemicals in my brain to make me pass out and forget my cowardice.
All this zigging and zagging is a little trying. I’m in unfamiliar territory and the neighborhood reminds me of the one I lived in when I was in Jersey City - the one where my apartment was next to a junk yard with a literal junk yard dog. The fact that dusk is turning to night doesn’t help. The mind goblins prefer the dark.
I continue driving despite my trepidation. I run my tongue in a circular motion across my teeth until I yawn. This is one of my favorite and most effective neuro drills that somehow sends the message to my body that I’m safe. I pull up to a stop sign and with a giant yawn I listen as Fiona Smalls, my nickname for Fake Siri, tells me I’ve arrived.
The broken-down pick-up to my right gives me pause as I watch two men trying to figure out why it won’t start. The three teen boys hanging out on the corner don’t do anything to increase my confidence. I turn right onto a street I’ve never been on before and park. I consider whether I really want to go in.
I brush my tongue across my teeth a couple more times in each direction to calm the overwhelm I feel. The yawning makes me calmer and I decide to give it a go.
I open the door to find a large single room bright with fluorescent lighting. Along the left side is a bar. A few men sit on stools watching two televisions blare different NCAA basketball games. The pale-yellow linoleum is scuffed and the walls, in need of a fresh coat of paint, are littered with Steeler and Penguin posters, signs warning people about what will happen if they don’t pay their tab, and Pittsburgh effluvia. It’s what we call a real yinzer establishment.
At the far end are two stanchions with signs attached. One says ORDER, the other PICKUP. Against the back wall there are a few men working at stations making sandwiches. The line for ORDER is long and I’m grateful I called in earlier. I walk through the opening for the PICKUP line, which is empty, without noticing a woman sitting on a church bench to my right. A man from the back calls out, “Name?”
The woman I didn’t see jumps up and yells, “Jackson” at the same time I say, “staci.” She wears scrubs and looks tired.
I immediately apologize and tell her I didn’t know she was waiting. She takes it in stride, not acting either mad or friendly. I decide to add a small container of potato salad at the last minute and the man behind the Plexiglass announces my total is $11.25. It’s cash only and I have no coins. I hand the man my $20 bill. He doesn’t look happy.
The woman hands me a quarter. “Are you sure?” I ask. She nods. “It’s not your Aldi quarter, is it?”
She smiles at first and then erupts in a hearty laugh. “No, I’m good.”
We walk out together and wish each other a good night.
The sandwich is good, not great. The potato salad is not my jam. But I feel awesome about the experience. About putting a smile on a stranger’s face and having tried something new.