Navigating the Changing World, Trauma-Triggers + PTSD
A week ago today, I chose to evacuate from my home from the threat of wild fire. I didn’t need to wait to be told — I knew it was time to go. I recognized it in a way that is quite ineffable and only comes with lived experience from surviving natural disasters. That night, I felt the familiar decisiveness; A transient moment of knowing. Turning my gaze to Mama Shasta, with a cylindrical tube of smoke surging toward the heavens and filling the sky, I knew evacuation would be imminent.
Experience navigating this type of trauma, also informs one on the importance of staying calm (if at all possible). Being mindful of unnecessary energy expenditures is crucial. Allowing oneself to go into a full-blown panic eats up a lot of juice. As began to feel light-headed, I knew I had to ground fast. I I took deep breaths. I gathered information. After scouring Next-door (seemingly the only place to find it, as even the local Police Chief was issuing his press releases through that outlet). Within a few hours, I knew my hunch was right. Combining the constant drone of helicopters, the knowledge winds would be kicking up the following day, the fact that flames had begun peppering the hillside coming toward my home was all the validation I needed.
This is functional fight or flight, a mode I know well. Concentrating all incoming information into step-by-step focus: What needs to happen right now. And, for me, it culminated to evacuating early, on my terms. By the time I was securely in the Bay Area, and waking up to check the news the following morning the official order was given by officials. Though so much was unknown and worry over loosing my home was at the forefront, I had so much gratitude I had listened to my gut and left early. As I read my neighbors posts, new to this type of experience, in the throws of massive evacuation from what they began calling the Lava Fire in Siskiyou County, California, I knew my nervous system really couldn’t take that kind of stress.
Being that I live with PTSD — how and where I evacuated mattered. Though I had no idea this fire would result in the evacuation of 8,000 people from the Lake Shastina area of Northern Mount Shasta, I knew that being in a highway of evacuees would be triggering (which, when it did happen, was also in 100 degree weather). I knew I would need somewhere safe to come down once the fight or flight wore off, because what happens next is the processing of emotion. And for that, I would need a quiet space and the ability to rest in gentleness to digest the waves of saddness, grief, and anger that can come. That meant being far enough away from the helicopters (and looming smoke my experience also told me, was coming).
Those who have experienced evacuation understand the value of these things. It isn’t as if I would spontaneously combust if I didn’t have access to them, it is that the reality that being in fight or flight for longer periods of time, makes coming down harder. This is especially true for those of us who have had multiple experiences of this type of trauma. If at all possible, prioritizing procuring a safe place is crucial. At least, to my ability to living the way I want to live — which, is being able to be clear, compassionate and kind to myself and others.
A four and a half hour drive in the middle of the night wasn’t ideal, but in weighing my options it was the best one. My friend, who lives in Sebastopol offered me her place while she was gone for the week. The space was a gift. Dividing my time between resting, tending to and harvesting plants in Sonoma Country was what brought me back on line. Over the coming days, I would help out at the Sonoma County Herb Exchange, which I have been a member of for our a decade, and would spend time tending the garden I manage in Sonoma.
While harvesting the likes of Grindelia, Yarrow, Tulsi, and St. John’s Wort. I felt myself settling back into my body. Grindelia or gumweed a lung ally, fastened my fingers in resinous goop as I picked her, taking patience to clean after and reminded me to breathe. Achillea millefolium, in her virtue gave me permission to pull back and create the boundaries I needed to arrive. St. John’s Wort and California Poppy, nudged me to feel my pain. Tulsi…sweet holy basil, filled my sphere with the knowing that somehow whatever happened it would be okay. Arriving felt like I was falling from the sky through layers of clouds, landing back into myself. While evacuating days prior, I had felt numbness settling in as I struggled to decide “what else to take,” but instead found myself just staring at my belongings unable to move or discern what was important from what was not. Yet, it wasn’t until I felt myself viscerally returning, I had realized how far I had gone away.
While I wasn’t present in the flesh, I had gone through an array of experience in spirit that had helped clarify on a deep level aspects of my own human experience I had previously struggled to understand. Trauma can be like that— though deeply unsettling on one plane, completely clarifying on another. Spiritual awakening is initiatory for many survivors of trauma. Being able to connect those dots is what integrates the experience to one of manageability.
Once I felt capable, I felt inspired to share some of my experience. There’s something deeply rewarding about sharing wisdoms gleaned from a traumatic experience. It’s being able to help others share in the benefit without necessarily having to experience the pain. As I shared a decent amount of my experience on social media through my Instagram stories, I had a new realization however. The world has changed so much in the past few years since I last used social media as a connection point in this way (2014 Napa Earthquake and 2017 Napa Fire). Sharing about my experience may actually be triggering some people into their own trauma response. (this was just a subtle intuition — another gift trauma brings survivors extreme sensitivity to pick up on not only what is said, but often what is not).
We’ve now had too many traumatic incidences to even count. And, a big part of understanding trauma is acknowledging that not everyone will find the same things traumatic. It is so specific and dependent upon someone’s upbringing, collective life experience, I would even say DNA and bodily constitution…and of course, access to education and health-care. The understanding that sharing these experiences could actually create distance rather than connection was a powerful revelation. At first I felt waves of disappointment and upset, that certain people I would have expected to respond to my posts or direct text messages seemed incapable of showing up. It was like they were… I remembered the the word, “numb,” roll off my tongue with familiarity.
I felt I had felt numb only a couple of days ago. As a wellness professional, I feel inspired to share what my story for those who may benefit. Though, my commitment to my work keeps me curiosity about the times sharing isn’t a benefit. My own continued interest in understanding all aspects of trauma, leads me to draw this perception closer rather than push it away. Which means, I had to allow myself to feel that anger, grief and frustration about the seemingly growing numbness of my community. And, then allow it to transmute into compassion. With compassion, I also see now the sensitivity that will be required to share in our current-day-life with layered and diversified experiences of trauma, to allow such sharing to be unifying and not dividing.
A factor to consider, the word “trauma,” actually encompasses a full-spectrum of experiences ranging from to physical to the emotional and psychological. Culturally, we are more comfortable hearing about the wonder-woman-like ability to over-come physical trauma, than we are in hearing about the riggors of emotional pain. The vulnerability and presence necessary to overcome emotional and psychological traumas can be triggering in its own right. And, let’s face it most of the traumas that have been compounded in the more recent years are of the latter vein. As one of my spiritual teachers says, we live in a very emotionally repressed society. So, how do we move through intense emotional experiences when we have yet to create a culture that values emotions?
Some find it reassuring to know their practitioner has experience navigating such challenges. Others prefer to keep things “clean,” and don’t want to hear about such messy things — I have found this more in the baby boom generation where beliefs like “don’t air your dirty laundry,” are still surprisingly alive. Yet, in this world, those types of sentiments that were once valuable survival skills are now quickly becoming hampering ones. The world is forcing us to evolve, whether we like it or not. And, we will all need resources to navigate better.
Since I was diagnosed with PTSD long ago, before it was a way of life for so many, I have found some ways to be with the difficulty that can come up. Learning to identify healthy coping from unhealthy coping is relative (if you come from a long line of alcoholics, having a cocktail probably is a slippery slope during a crisis). I found making a list helpful. Years ago, when I struggled to heal from my own eating disorder, I made a list of five things that I could choose from whenever I felt a trigger come on. The list had things on it like, take a walk, take a bath, watch a light-hearted movie, call a friend, make a cup of herbal tea. (my favorite quickly became the bath and the herbal tea).
It doesn’t really matter what’s on your list, as everyone will have a different one. What matters is that you actually do them when it counts. In time, I realized I had to even make a list of what my trigger symptoms were too — shallow breathing (or no breathing even for periods of time), nausea, manic feelings of dissociation, like suddenly wanting to clean things with vigor or do something “productive,” when I really needed to curl up and cry. Sharing that, I can already feel the shame-hang-over looming. Yet, accepting that is my work too. Some will judge, some will attach, some will avoid. I’m becoming more and more at peace with other people’s reactions, because I know in my heart there’s no way I could have experienced the sheer load of trauma I have in this lifetime if I am not here to help others with it in some way shape or form. Essentially, what you think about it…or me, really isn’t any of my business.
And, it was my trauma that initiated me into this work in the first place. It’s the classic myth of the wounded healer. After all, most of us that do this kind of work do so because we’ve found ways to heal ourselves. Maybe in the beginning there was a moment of healing, but we learn over time, it is a constant as long as we are alive. Healing isn’t a box you check off your list, its a way of being, relating and living with ones own humanity — including the wounded aspects. I think of it more akin to what in spiritual circles is called practice. It’s knowing yourself well-enough to know “what perpetuates your wounding?” and, “what doesn’t?” Those can be vital knowings, as life is continually happening, sometimes faster than we can keep. Being able to touch into healing states when possible, long enough for our wounding to evolve to the next stage, is what helps us to evolve with the ever-changing world. It is through this process of learning to dance with our pain, we learn to show up from a place of more wholeness….For whatever is coming next. Being able to drop-in and find calm is what helped me ultimately prepare myself for the varied possibilities.
I find myself hopeful that in even a decade’s time, we now have so many accepted modalities for coping with trauma. As our world is now becoming a somewhat traumatic place to live, we actually need all of them. We will never be fully “healed.” As a wellness professional it’s about knowing yourself enough to know when you are on-line and off-line. When do you need to step back and only care for yourself? When do you have space to hold for others? And, in the moments of self care, what are your tools? What helps your nervous system regulate? Over the years, I’ve leaned into yoga, talk therapy, tapping, energy work, and of course…Being with the plants…the earth. It’s my favorite and most effective way to bring myself back online these days. I know this and prioritize making that happen. And, there’s the added magic of surrender. Somehow, when I turn to her, Mama Earth always puts exactly the plants I need to sink my hands into, on my path.