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What It’s Like Being Constantly Haunted by the Ghosts of My Trauma

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I am haunted by my complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). I have ghosts that come out of the deepest parts of me. These ghosts are not like thoughts, no not at all. These ghosts are bodily sensations that trick my mind into thinking something is wrong.

• What is PTSD?

We all have thoughts, things we spontaneously imagine — some good, some bad. We have thoughts about our likes or dislikes, our future and our past.

When we compose a thought, it is birthed in our mind. Our body then hears it and responds in kind. So, if we think, “the sound of my children laughing is a divine work of art,” we feel gratitude for its presence emanating from our heart. But if we think, “the sound of my children laughing is distracting me,” we feel our eyes narrow and our jaw clench as irritation arises in the body.

So, what we’ve learned so far is a good or bad thought leads our body to respond with positive or negative emotion. Side note: This is why meditation and presence are so important over time. It is through these disciplines we can practice having a healthy mind. And often, with a healthy mind comes a healthy body too, and that’s one secret to happiness: it’s found inside. It starts with you.

In addition to thoughts, we all have emotions that start in our body and are then matched with a similar thought in our mind. This usually happens if we’re terrified, enraged or experiencing grief. These are the moments when the world becomes too much, the moments when we don’t have time to stop and think.

Emotions like these come out of the present moment, as we experience things that make our hearts ache. These are the car crashes, the deaths of loved ones, the loss of jobs. These are the things we later, with our mind, must go back to resolve. These are not incredibly hard to figure out with the power of insight, as we can often see what went wrong in those moments that made us feel something other than alright. With this realization, our minds and bodies have passed the test, as we’ve made sense of the world and laid such moments to rest.

Most of us experience emotions this way, but for those of us with complex trauma, there is another level at play. For me, in addition to having thoughts that lead to feelings in my body, and feelings that later translate to thoughts in my mind, I also have ghosts, which haunt me, and have stayed with me throughout time. My ghosts are not thoughts, they cannot be found in my head.

My ghosts are like emotions because they start in my body instead. However, unlike those emotions I described above, my ghosts were birthed in the past and are not easily seen, accepted or resolved. Ghosts arise when my trauma is triggered by sight, touch, sound, smell or taste. All these ghosts cause adrenaline and cortisol to pump through my veins. Some ghosts cause an unmoving weight on my chest, in turn forcing me to gasp for breath… breath that is, at times, blocked by the knot in my throat, a knot that appears thanks to a different kind of ghost.

Some would call my ghosts emotional flashbacks, which is true. They are flashing me back to those days where I was unsafe, where the trauma was all I knew. The thing that’s tricky about emotional flashbacks is they do not announce their arrival to their host. The hidden nature of emotional flashbacks is why I have so aptly defined them as ghosts.

I can feel joyous, grateful or loving, but as soon as a ghost arrives, my body is engulfed with its presence, which feels like despair, rage or dread to be alive. My mind is then tasked with figuring out how I went from feeling good to bad, what happened, how did this come about?

Remember thoughts arise and tell our bodies what to do, and emotions arise and later our mind follows suit. But ghosts don’t offer such easy reprieve; ghosts require an archeological dig of the psyche. They also require the host to hang in there until the flashback is finished — all the while the ghosts are trying their best to suffocate you.

I used to be in a phase where I was unable to see my ghosts. I would go through my day as a typical person until panic arose. When panic consumed my body, I was left to identify the source of it in my mind. So, I would look around the world and determine what person, place or thing caused it to arrive.

The source of the panic was almost always a ghost, but I attributed it to other things because I had not yet developed my own guideposts. So, I blamed those people, places and events that surrounded me for the panic that welled up inside my body. And when that didn’t work, when the panic was still near, I turned the blame on me. This created feelings of resentment and worthlessness, causing me to question what was and wasn’t right. It led to me expelling such thoughts and feelings in negative ways, as I sabotaged my life.

To get to the phase where I could see my ghosts, I participated in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy and narrative therapy as a way to find my guideposts. I dove into my psyche, tracing the origins of my spirits’ births. I dove into my psyche enough times to learn. I learned how to label my emotional flashbacks without the aid of flashing sights or sounds. I learned to feel the presence of my ghosts and how to label the reasons they came out.

With this new power, came new eyes. For the first time ever, I could see when my ghosts arrived. So, instead of thinking about blaming others or myself, I could think about the haunting presence I felt. I could tell my mind, “this is a ghost that was born out of (insert example of a tragic time).” I wish it was easy and that the ghosts would disappear each time I noticed my desire to blame rather than react by hurting myself or the people I love; however, it doesn’t work like that.

When I blamed others or myself, I created an unhealthy outlet for the sorrow, fear and rage to leave my body. With such emotions expelled, my ghosts would disappear. Without an outlet for my sorrow, fear or rage, my mind formulates new thoughts such as, “If this had never happened to me, maybe I wouldn’t be this way.” Or, “I hope my anger and despair don’t push people away.” These thoughts loop back into my body, where my ghosts still reside, because it is not until I cope with the bodily sensations of past trauma at that moment in time, that my ghosts will leave me so I can be free and return to the clear-eyed woman I work so hard to be.

So, what does this mean for me these days? It means my new task is to learn how to expel the sorrow, fear and rage in healthy, more constructive ways. It means to expel my ghosts is to accept such negative emotions as they arise, with compassion for myself as they could pop up any day, any time.

It’s important to express how scary ghosts are. You have no control of when, where or how they consume the person you are. They come in and stay until your body’s panic alarm has shut off, and this doesn’t happen naturally, it rather requires work that exhausts — exhausts the body as you dance, shake, scream, run, stretch the haunted sprits out, exhausts the mind as you focus on not letting the ghosts take you down.

See, as you’re working the haunted feeling out of your muscles and tendons and bones, you also have to remind your mind life is worth living, even on days you’re surrounded by ghosts. Some days, the mind is strong and up for this fight, but other days the mind is tired with little energy to fight right. In those moments where my mind energy has run out, I’m left desperate for relief, and so I let dissociation take over me.

I release my body and my mind. I drift into the clouds and respond in my own way to fight or flight. I am no longer present when I am up in the clouds. I am free from my ghosts and have little access to my mind. However, this freedom is temporary, as the dissociation will eventually stop and I will return to the ground.

I stay up high for as long as I need. I stay up high so I can get a moment of reprieve. Once I have been away for long enough, once my mind and body refuel, I come back knowing the fight has not been won. Rather that battle was one I retreated from. So, I wake up myself the next morning or later in the day, back on the ground, ready to fight for my sanity, my freedom and my days.

Take a second and realize what this means. This means, most times, I have spirits surrounding me. Most days, I am fighting what, to others, is an invisible war. Most days, others cannot empathize with me because they see no battlefield, no swords. This makes me feel more alone than anything else, so I turn to literature and media hoping to find someone else who has talked or written about living life this way, but often I’m left with nothing but dismay.

Many people in the field of psychology lack a true understanding of complex trauma, and our society is no better, often offering little to no help. I dig for examples, experiences like mine. I dig forever for a piece of understanding that will help me continue to fight. More often than not, I am left with little evidence my haunting is real, so I write it all down, hoping the words on the paper will bring in the light — the words on the paper making my haunted house bright. Illuminating the home, the history and the slumbering ghosts below, with my pen on paper, I am one step closer to evicting them from my internal home.

So, what is an example of this in real life? Analogies are beautiful, but stories bring them to life. I come home from work one day and my partner has left dishes in the sink. Before I have a chance to form a thought, before I have the chance to think, my body responds by haunting me. A ghost comes up and out of my depths it sends me into panic before I step — step inside to what’s supposed to be my safe house. Step inside to what’s now haunted ground.

Before my current therapies, I would have know I felt terrified, but I would not have known it was because of a ghost and thus would have been left to think:

“My partner is so lazy for not picking up after himself.”

“Do I really want to live like this where I have to constantly ask my partner for help?”

“I’m so senseless, I should have known to clean up last night.” 

“Maybe if I was better at showing up for my partner, he would love me enough to do his share of the work.”

As a result of these thoughts, I’d argue with my loved one or with myself. The cycle repeating each day, until I got the right help.

After the right forms of therapy, the same things happen as described above. I walk into dirty dishes and my body still feels madness. The ghosts come out and the panic comes through, however it doesn’t grip my mind like it used to.

Instead, my mind sees the ghosts and welcomes them in. “Hello fear, my past, my oppressor, I want to morph you into a friend.” So, I notice the fear, I notice the ghost. I don’t let my mind blame him or me despite the haunted presence in my body. Instead, I try to breathe and flip through the Rolodex of traumatic moments in my mind, knowing there are thousands of reasons that birthed this ghost and reinforced it over time.

Sometimes, I can’t find the exact moment, or series of moments that brought the ghosts out. Even so, I can remain confident that such an atypical response is a ghost and not who I am. Sometimes, I can find the exact moment, more often series of moments, and a light bulb goes off.

“Remember all those times you were beaten or not fed when you failed to do your chores, right?”

“Remember those times you were lectured for three hours about dishes without dinner on a school night?”

That is what soiled plates and spoons can bring up in me. And with that realization, I can think, “He’s not bad,” “I’m not flawed” and most importantly, “these bodily sensations are just the past washing up.”

With this new knowledge comes power, but I feel no better. In my body resides the same amount of terror and rage, despair and distain. In fact, it often feels worse seeing my ghosts the first few times around. By seeing my ghosts, I am reexamining my painful past, turning even the best days into trauma recaps. This of course has the power to make me feel low, to make me lash out at my lack of mental health privilege, my life growing up in a sick home.

However, these days there is one plus. I am not taking those emotions out on the world or myself. I am experiencing them in my body, and taking responsibility for their transition from fight or flight to rest and digest. I am taking responsibility for the presence of my ghosts, which in turn allows me to stop hurting myself and the people I love the most.

Unsplash image by Pawel Szvmanski

Originally published: September 17, 2021
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