Trigger warning: Sexual abuse, trauma, triggers
Decades later, this is what trauma can look like.
The other night there was a conversation happening and given that it’s getting close to Halloween the talk turned toward haunted houses. I’ve never been much for haunted houses, horror movies, or similar kinds of things, so I wasn’t very active in the discussion. As the conversation continued a memory suddenly came back to me. Someone said something that opened up a door in my mind and brought up an image of a haunted house in the basement. It wasn’t the kind of haunted house that we were talking about, with organized tours featuring ghosts and goblins. It was a private haunted house that I was told I had to try. I remembered that there was a leaf to a table propped up on something so that when I walked up it and got to the half-way point it suddenly dropped down and scared the heck out of me with a loud slapping sound and the loss of balance and control.
That’s all the detail I could remember, but as I was thinking about it my breaths started getting shorter and I started getting incredibly anxious. There was something deeper there, something scarier, but I didn’t know what. I started to feel like I couldn’t breathe at all and I had to step away because the anxiety started to consume me. I went upstairs and out the door into the rainy night and tried to slow down my breathing. I happened to glance at my Fitbit and saw that my resting heart rate, which is normally in the low sixties or even upper fifties, was up to 109. I focused on my breathing and tried to bring myself back down, and after a couple minutes the anxiety had started to dissipate and my heart rate was dropping again. The rain and the intentional breathing helped.
The thing is the entire house that I grew up in was a haunted house for years, especially that dark and cold basement, but also other rooms where I was repeatedly molested as a boy. I have been trying to process the other night, trying to remember something, anything, from that homemade haunted house. Had something happened there? After the plank dropped did I walk around the corner into something scarier? Was there another incident of abuse that I had forgotten and buried deep within me? Was the memory of that haunted house just stirring up other memories and bringing it all to the surface? Was my mind making a connection that I couldn’t see? There were too many questions and no answers. I didn’t know. I don’t know tonight. But something about it is apparently haunting me still.
This is the thing with triggers and trauma. You never know when some little unexpected thing might bring the trauma back to you. This one was a relatively minor event, but there have been times when something happens that is debilitating to me. I can go into a sort of emotional paralysis. Other times there might be flashbacks. And, of course, everyone’s triggers and traumatic memories are different. What might cause me to struggle to breathe might not affect another person at all, and something that might not affect me might send a friend of mine into a tailspin.
Still, I want to know. I want to face and to know all the details of what happened to me as a child, so that my adult self can take care of the little boy inside of me who was so traumatized so many years ago. As I was driving home the other night I started thinking about what had happened and I started to cry in the car. After a minute or so I let go of the wheel and put my arms around myself and told that little boy that everything was all right. Sometimes you have to let go of the wheel. Sometimes you have to face the ghosts of your past in order to move fearlessly into the future. Like a haunted house it can be scary, but you can come out on the other side.