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How My Childhood Trauma Affects Seemingly 'Simple' Choices


It’s a constant battle in restaurants and cafes.

My friends and family are perplexed and sometimes annoyed by the musical chairs generated by my need to feel safe.

I also know I can’t really explain my complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) to every waitress or diner at the “Greasy Spoon” around the corner from my house.

For me, a patron or worker passing close to my back is triggering, causing my body to go into fight or flight mode and making it impossible to relax or enjoy my meal. Even the idea of someone walking behind me is unsettling, making me constantly and unpleasantly aware of the movements of patrons and staff.

For years, I didn’t understand my need to sit in a booth or corner bench. I felt I needed to make excuses.

Now I understand it as just one of the many symptoms of growing up with trauma.

My fear-based brain is still trying to keep me safe even when there is no imminent danger.

When we grow up stressed, our bodies adapt to a constant state of fear. As infants we can’t tell the difference between being left to wallow in our own distress and imminent physical danger. For babies, there just isn’t any difference.

Survivors of chronic trauma have been left with a hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis that is permanently skewed by toxic stress.

As someone who grew up rejected and shamed, I also spend a lot of time scanning the social environment for potential rejection. Even mild criticism can be devastating.

Of course everyone hates being rejected. But for me, it can be soul destroying, dumping me right back into my traumatic memories.

The disorganised and intensely distressing experiences of my abusive infancy and childhood are still stuck in my brain, where they never got the chance to be processed. Sometimes I dissociate, moving from present day reality into an altered state as a way of coping. I unconsciously developed this coping strategy in childhood to help me survive, but now it stops me from being able to understand and process my experiences.

I have had therapy to try to unravel the complexity of reactions and assumptions that I developed in response to complex trauma. I know what they are and what they feel like.

But that hasn’t stopped them from being there.

And I still want that corner table.

Image Credits: Amanda Robins

Unsplash image by Ariel Lustre