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Why Childhood Trauma Makes Me Freeze in Arguments

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence or emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

I couldn’t believe it. She literally just accused me of faking my seizure disorder. Who did she think she was to say such a thing? And why would I do such a thing? Did she think I actually wanted to be unemployable, waiting and hoping for Social Security Disability to come through so that I could contribute in some way to my family’s financial situation?

There was so much I wanted to say. I wanted to tell her that this was the last thing I wanted. I wanted to let her know that I’ve literally cried myself to sleep some nights because I’ve felt so useless over the last several years. I wanted to make sure she understood that there was nothing fake about my seizures and that they were in large part ruining my life, despite my best efforts.

Instead, I said nothing. I looked at her, I mumbled something like, “You don’t understand,” and I walked away. I couldn’t find the words to defend myself. This wasn’t the first or the only time that something like this has happened. I regularly freeze up when I’m confronted in a strong way with any disagreement, but particularly if it is related to my self-worth.

I didn’t understand why for a long time because these events were an affront to everything that I hold to be true about myself. I have a good work ethic, I previously prided myself on being able to provide for my family, and I loved the type of work I was doing.

Then I started talking with a close friend of mine about her trauma. She recounted to me several times where people had violated her boundaries and she froze much like I did. In her situation, it was unfortunately received by the violators as consent, which only made the situation worse for her. While I didn’t have to deal with the consent issue, it shined a light on my situation.

Victims of trauma often learn a freeze response because we learn that we don’t have a voice. We are taught by the perpetrators of our trauma that our opinion doesn’t matter, so we shut down and take the abuse, whatever form it comes in.

For me, it was psychological and physical abuse from an alcoholic father. When he was drunk, there was no space for me to have my own opinion. I had to agree with him or face the consequences. And frankly, even if I did agree with him there was still a great chance that I was going to suffer his wrath.

I was programmed to hide from arguments because I learned as a child that disagreements lead to abuse. Fast-forward 30 years, and I’m still living out the same experience. So when a close family member accuses me of faking the seizures that have destroyed my life over the last five years, I don’t have any words to defend myself. I’m still working under the assumption that speaking up for myself will only get me hurt more.

Some part of me knows this isn’t true, but that doesn’t keep me from replaying that record in my mind and responding to it. It’s hard work to rewire my brain 30 years after the fact to have healthy responses, instead of being shut down by a harsh word.

This impacts me so much because I have to convince myself every time that abuse is not on the other end of a lively debate. Even if the topic is something that is purely opinion, like politics, I have to convince myself to engage because my brain is branded to expect abuse whenever there’s an argument.

Those closest to me see it coming a mile away and try to encourage me to stand up for myself. They tell me I’m in a safe space in my life now. They tell me that I have a voice and that my voice does matter today.

Some days, I am able to overcome this deeply ingrained fear, and I always count those days as victories because I am walking toward a healthier self-image. I am learning how to dismiss or move past the trauma that’s informed much of my life. Other days, I succumb to it despite my best efforts. On those days, I am learning to have grace with myself as I grow toward my best self.

Photo by LoboStudio Hamburg on Unsplash

Originally published: November 22, 2020
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