By far the most pervasive and disruptive PTSD symptom, for me and those who have to deal with me, is my hypervigilance. It’s an aspect of a state called hyperarousal, which crops up in times of extreme stress, and doesn’t go away until the causes for it are dealt with. It’s exhausting, causing insomnia, loss of appetite and digestive function. It causes psychological freezing, reducing my brain to basic functions and preventing productivity. It also causes palpitations and an irregular heart beat, muscle spasm and cramps, and headache. Physically and emotionally, it sucks.
Hypervigilance, as stolen from Wikipedia, is “an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect threats.” What this means in layman’s terms is the classic Fight-or-Flight instinct: I notice everything, I feel everything, and I react to everything.
Hypervigilance is a rational reaction to a crisis situation and extremely helpful in many non-crisis situations, which is what makes it such a hard habit hard to kick. The problem with hypervigilance is that it’s essentially a superpower, and it is very rarely wrong about what’s happening. What it is often wrong about is the scale of what’s happening, and the reasons behind it.
Hypervigilance gives me an extremely highly trained sense of empathy. It’s the reason I can look at you and subconsciously know you’re sad and need a hug within a split second. It’s the reason many people have told me I always know the right thing to say. It is also, unfortunately, the reason I know when you’re mildly irritated, and the reason my brain decides that is now my problem that must be fixed lest your mild irritation turn into a situation where I die.
These situations are annoying for you, because you were probably just irritated that your poached eggs are a little underdone. You would have much preferred no one even know about it, but I sure do. I could tell before I even entered the house. There is a beacon of dissatisfaction beaming down the street.
So how do we handle it so that you are allowed to be annoyed about eggs without being treated like the subject of an experiment? I mean, I get it. Runny whites are the worst. Slimy and gross. Totally a legitimate reason to be annoyed. And you get to be as annoyed as you like, but if possible, I ask that you are conscious in how you choose to express it.
1. Clear, unambiguous communication.
This is the most important one, by a long shot. Hypervigilance relies on me automatically processing behavioural cues. Body language, tone of voice, facial expression. I know you’re annoyed, but unless I see the eggs, I don’t know why. What’s more, I often can’t tell the difference between this is irritating, look how runny these eggs are and watch the fuck out New York, a new Godzilla has come to play. If you literally say the words “Fuck, how crap are these eggs, man?” I can already relax one half of my brain. If you then are kind enough to say something like “It’s alright, they’re just a little runny,” I know the problem is under control and in perspective. Hypervigilance, poof! I can get on with my day.
Metaphor, laboured sighs, or vague mutterings will all do the opposite. If I actually have to interpret your words, they will not necessarily be interpreted the way you want them to be. I am good with words. My vocabulary is broad and my understanding of nuance strong. If I am left to interpret a metaphor, that’s what I’ll be relying on. If we’re discussing literature, this is an excellent thing. If we’re discussing eggs, it is not.
The number of times I have had conversations with people in which I explain the dictionary definition of a word and they are adamant that that isn’t what they meant will go down in history as the most irritating times of my life. From my perspective: if you don’t mean it, why say it to begin with? From theirs: expressing themselves this way has never been a problem before.
I handle this by asking for clarification when something is ambiguous. I ask if you’re feeling upset, and if there’s anything I can do. I ask which meaning we’re using today. I joke with people “Don’t say that, someone might believe you,” and can usually tell from their (jokingly hyperbolic, serious, wistful) response whether they meant it or not. And this is where you come in: If I’ve said someone might believe you, the ‘someone’ is me. If you keep reiterating you meant it, after the third or fourth time I’ll definitely think you’re telling the truth. If you later tell me it was all a joke, a game or some other nonsense, I will be confused and annoyed. In short, I am a clear and honest communicator, because it’s a strategy I’ve found works extremely well to prevent hypervigilance. It also seems to be nice for the people around me, most times.
It’s best for me if you play ball. If I ask if you’re upset, you don’t have to tell me whether you are or not. It’s your business, not mine. You certainly don’t have to tell me why. But if you tell me you’re fine and you’re clearly not – stomping around, muttering under your breath, or other behavioural signs? Yes, I will end up hypervigilant, sitting somewhere with my hackles raised, eyeing you suspiciously. Privacy is your right. Passive-aggression, however, will be counter-productive. Once again, communication wins the day. If you tell me you’re upset, but can’t talk about it right now, or don’t want to, you’ve released me from responsibility. I can then do my best to let it go and do something else with my time.
2. Accept that you are a threat.
One of the biggest signs for me that I am becoming trapped in long-term hypervigilance is when I start being habitually submissive towards a person. If I agree with them without question, or my disagreement is couched in soothing attempts to cajole them to my way of thinking, it is almost certain that my brain has decided they are a threat, and that there is a power imbalance with me on the weaker side.
It’s important to remember that most PTSD symptoms are in fact survival strategies which were extremely effective at the time of initial trauma. With an actual threatening person, submission and a soothing demeanour work, some of the time. It works with people who aren’t actual threats as well, though, which is why PTSD brains hold onto the strategy. We’re not actually irrational. We’re hyperadapted.
It can be extremely hard to face the concept that someone else has decided you are threatening and scary when you mean them no harm. I’ve read countless articles online where men lament the fact that women will cross the street so as not to walk in front of them at night. It’s confronting, the idea that there might just be something about how you talk or move or who you are that someone finds uncomfortable. In some cases those patterns of threat assessment play into existing biases.
For example, people whose PTSD occurred in conjunction with extreme racial divides? Well, their PTSD symptoms will almost definitely have a racial component. We see this in veterans and other war survivors, survivors of racialised gang conflicts, and rape survivors whose attacker was of a different race. By the same token, survivors of child abuse often have gendered biases based on which parent was the perpetrator, and some may end up with ingrained homophobia as well.
Intersectionality here is crucial. For white people struggling with racialised PTSD symptoms, the reality of having white privilege means their symptoms have a high chance of oppressing someone else who is marginalised. For those sufferers where the power balance goes the other way, though, it is a different kind of complex.
An Aboriginal person traumatised by a white person at an early age stands a good chance of revisiting that trauma in multiple ways over the course of their lifetime. There is an excellent chance that the initial oppression will be reinforced, time and time again by police, community workers, and people on the street, until the person is trained to expect it and the PTSD symptoms become intractable. Women who are rape survivors, too, will find themselves harassed by men on various levels for the rest of their lives.
There is no way to tell a rape survivor who has been catcalled three times today that she is empowered and in control, that the trauma is over and her hypervigilance unnecessary. It simply isn’t true. There is no way to tell a survivor of child abuse that not all men are like that when even good men, kind men, will consistently reinforce the gendered expectations she learned at an early age. She is being taught the opposite by you this very minute.
What this means is that if you’re dealing with someone’s hypervigilance, and you know that there’s a gendered or other intersectional component to it, it’s important to know your capacity to work with it. Are you woke enough to break through your own training in power structures? Can you actually provide support, or are you just reinforcing what this person has already learned?
If you can’t accept that you’re a legitimate threat, you aren’t ready. If you’re a man offended by the woman who crosses the street, or a white person who is annoyed by People of Colour who won’t look you in the eye, or a straight person who thinks they’re entitled to enter queer spaces, you aren’t ready.
If you want to help – and you do get to choose- you have to be willing to be a suspected perpetrator. There’s no need to feel guilt for this, or carry it as a burden. Consider yourself Schrodinger’s Perpetrator: for a person struggling with PTSD, you both are and are not a threat until you prove yourself. They desperately want you not to be. They want to trust and have faith, and there is an excellent chance they’re battling every instinct they have to keep you in their life. It is much, much harder to trust someone you are scared of than it is to be scary. Trust me, I have been on both sides of that equation. If you are willing to accept the reality that more often than not, people like you have been a problem for them, you can actually go a long way to proving that not all men/white people/straight people/whatever privileged group I missed (I promise you’ll survive this deep feeling of exclusion).
My PTSD, perhaps obviously, has a gendered component. It’s hard for me to maintain friendships with men who are not willing to do small things for me, like not make rape jokes. In fact, I refuse to maintain friendships with men who joke about rape, or hitting women. If you have ever made a joke about hitting me, I 100% definitely believed you would actually do it, and no matter how nice I am to you in public, you probably disgust me on a visceral level. There is simply a natural power imbalance that I am on the losing side of, and I always keep myself safe.
On the other hand, men who have gone out of their way to disrupt my expectations of gendered behaviour have been essential to my recovery. I could not have come this far without gentle men, kind men and men who enjoy feminine things. Men who respond to my hypervigilance by consciously empowering me are a godsend. Men who back me up when I’m being threatened reinforce my growing belief in my own tattered instincts. Men who communicate openly and honestly, using their words, and who adopt non-threatening body language, have literally changed my life. It is because of you that I have friendships and have held down functional relationships.
Nonetheless, I typed the above paragraph in part because I’m instinctively afraid of what men will think when I admit that I’m scared of a lot of them. Many people respond to being told they’re a threat with aggression – either insults or physical violence. This has always seemed like an ironic way to prove that you’re not a threat, but hey, what do I know? So I’m cautious, uncertain of how to present that information to the world. That in itself shows how far I have to go in recovery, so remember: Schrodinger’s Perpetrator. Not because you’re a bad person, but because I need you to be a good one.
3. This is not about you, and you do not have to stay.
Part of knowing your limits is knowing when to leave.
You bear no direct responsibility to heal someone else. You are always allowed to take a break, even a permanent one. In fact, it’s encouraged. If you don’t have the skills or the capacity to have a positive impact on recovery, having a neutral (absent) one is the best thing you can do.
You are, in fact, neither perpetrator nor rescuer. My recovery is not about you at all. You can help, but the power lies in my hands, and the work is mostly mine too. I will not collapse if you let go. You are never the thing keeping me going. If I survived before you, I will after you, so accepting that you’ve reached your limit should give you no guilt at all.
Over the years, I have had to tell several friends, recovering from several different things, that I did not have the capacity to be their main source of support, or any source of support. I know how hard it is to tell someone you care about that you can’t be there anymore. I also know that it was the best thing I could have done in all of those situations. Those friends who have had to retreat from my friendship to take care of themselves? They have always made the right decision too.
Your strained, uncomfortable attempts at support are almost always reinforcing my symptoms. Outbursts of anger and aggression, caused by totally normal frustration on your part? They can set my recovery back months. Think of it as not visiting your immuno-compromised friend when you have the sniffles. They’d love to play board games with you, but even more than that? They would like to not die.
If you do choose to stay, remember it is not about you. If I’m treating you like a threat, it isn’t because I hate you or because I think you’re a terrible person. It’s probably because you did something threatening. If you ask me what it was, we can probably fix the problem together. It won’t necessarily require you to eliminate that behaviour entirely. More likely, it’s going to require you to explain why you’re annoyed by those damn runny eggs.
If I tell you what you’ve done, try to remember that this is personal for me. I am not speaking about an aggregate statistical group of women struggling with these symptoms who you can manipulate as faceless numbers. I am speaking about my own lived experience, and I need you to work with me to make sure I feel safe. You can’t negotiate whether or not I feel threatened. You can only negotiate how we handle that.
Those are the three most important things, I think. Above all, be kind, be present, be aware of the impact of your actions on the people around you. If you’re doing that, you’re already the reason I work, dance, laugh and generally enjoy my life so much. You’re also probably unconsciously helping all the other people around you who aren’t willing to be open about their own struggles with mental health.
If that all seems like too much effort for you, that’s totally okay. It’s probably just the reason we’re not close.
As always, much love, and take care of yourselves.