Disclaimer: These thoughts are based on my own experience and education in psychology I have received. They do not reflect the experiences or feelings of all trauma survivors.
Control as a Trauma Response
Growing up in an abusive home with all varieties of substance use, I was never short of trauma in my life. Few understand exactly how this sort of upbringing can affect the behaviors and learned responses of an individual. The first thing to understand is that when a person is living in an abusive environment the constant goal, no matter what they are doing, is staying safe, uninjured, and alive. They are in a state of constant vigilance looking for any sign that their abuser is about to react negatively. With time all victims of this abuse will learn to identify certain triggers, and with that, work to find ways to mitigate these triggers. Sometimes these are things that are within the victim’s control and sometimes they are not.
For example, my abuser was my mother, who was an alcoholic and occasional cocaine user. My own efforts doing my chores, keeping decent grades, and being an overall pleasant kid could be used to avoid some triggering situations. Unfortunately, this could only help up to the point when her drinking and lack of emotional control would take over. There was no stopping these situations so instead, adaptation would take over. The new goal becomes finding the best way is to weather the storm and pray you to come out of it alive.
For a victim in an abusive environment, safety is found in control. They will start controlling personal actions and behaviors to not make waves, to avoid negative attention. They will even seek to control their environment to ensure safe escape routes and procedures are in place. Life becomes contingent on planning and preparing, noticing, and reacting before anything bad can happen. A quick response is essential, and the extra time needed to think and consider is not always a luxury.
I remember, in my home, I knew the exact window I needed to get to in order to make a quick escape. I learned the ques that told me it was time to hide or time to run. I knew where every item I may need was if I needed to leave and how to get it quickly. Looking back, I wonder how it is I made it through the eighteen years of this, to adulthood. The answer comes down to this: I was prepared. I had backup plans and I never let even the smallest details get through the cracks. With life being dictated by things I couldn’t control, I instead clung to the things I could.
This way of living eventually became more instinctual, spilling over into situations in which one may not necessarily be at risk. I learned to notice the vibe people give off to predict emotional states and behavior, while taking note of exits and potentially safe locations, and I became hyperaware of my surroundings, noticing the sounds that most would miss. People have labeled me over-organized or ridged in my planning. I always find this a bit humorous because in reality I hate having finite plans and prefer to be spontaneous. What most don’t understand is that prepared and spontaneous are not opposing ideas. Just like in childhood, the more I prepared the more I could adapt and go with whatever flow the situation required. As an adult, I do a similar thing. For instance, going on vacation I will plan and research for weeks or months until I’ve practically memorized the place I am going and what it has to offer. Because of this, I can adapt to any situation, whether or not a curveball is thrown. You could say this preparation gives me a sense of control in my life that leads to a feeling of safety, a survival instinct that will never go away.
As the coronavirus sweeps the world we are finding its impact in ways we never considered. Those who like me lived in abusive environments are now sheltering in place with their abuser, small businesses are struggling, people are losing their jobs and the world is attempting to adjust to a life at home. Everyone faces their challenge. For me, I find that in many ways I am luckier than most. My husband has been able to work from home, I’ve been able to continue my PsyD program online and I have many blessings that have made a home tethered life bearable. But even so, there is no escaping that which has been ingrained in me. A spike in anxiety and symptoms of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) including nightmares, flashbacks, and insomnia were the first clues that even if on the outside life looks good there are still mental health struggles that remain present. It built for a few weeks until a particularly difficult night pushed my feelings of frustration to the surface.
My control in this situation has been taken in both little and big ways. No longer can I, upon realizing that I need an ingredient for dinner, just head out to get it. No longer can I even be sure this ingredient would be there. No longer can I guarantee that this trip to the store is even safe for my health. No longer do I know that my family and friends will be safe. No longer do I know if I will be able to say goodbye if they go. There are always unknowns in life that jeopardize the safety of ourselves and those we love. There are always outlying factors that get in the way of a want or need and cause frustration. But never has basic control of one’s life been so eliminated. Just the simple act of going for a walk or seeing a friend are no longer options. What’s worse is that we are at the mercy of the compliance of others if we want to see this pandemic come to an end soon and with as little damage as possible.
My whole life I survived due to my ability to control the situation by planning for the worst. Without this, I feel vulnerable in a way I never have before, and my mental health has been jeopardized as a result. The impact of this pandemic is far bigger than economic distress and physical illness. It has the potential to shake people psychologically and emotionally in ways we are simply not prepared for. Those who suffer from things like depression, anxiety, trauma-related conditions, and other mental health disorders are especially vulnerable as fear, isolation, and stress increase and set off triggers. Now more than ever it is important to practice self-care and check in on those most at risk. Responsible socializing, and maintaining healthy habits are just a couple of ways to combat the effects of this shut-in and improve mental health. For those most affected, mental health resources are available online and over the phone. If you or a loved one is struggling with domestic violence or suicidal thoughts, we encourage you to speak up and seek help. The only way out of this is through it, but we don’t have to do that alone.