Over the last year I have suffered a few panic attacks. Some have been in supermarkets as I learned how to navigate one way systems, while social distancing, wearing a mask and trying not to offend others’ sensibilities. Some have been at the prospect of returning to ‘normal’ life after being a shut in for so long. However this past week saw my worst panic attack for a long time.
We are currently having some building work done on our property. It’s a loft extension so there is no rule breaking in terms of contact with people outside of our household and in fact we rarely interact with our builders by any means. Last Wednesday we managed to get on the wrong side of one of the builders after a few messages from us requesting more updates from them on the progress of the build. It was a tense day as we realised that we had inadvertently upset them and were now not sure how to proceed. Anyway, later that evening while Nick was on a call and I was trying to settle the kids before bedtime, I received a call from said builder. After a few moments it became clear that he was inebriated and quite upset. I guess I used my feminine wiles or just didn’t push back against what he was saying and soon his anger subsided to sadness. Then he really loosened up and began some ‘witty’ banter. One joke referenced me having a threesome with him.
Up until this point I have only met the guy three times, I don’t really know him and he certainly doesn’t know me. In the best case scenario where I am not a PTSD survivor, his behaviour is inappropriate but given my history this phone call was devastating. This was a man that I needed to keep on side, one that I needed to get to think I was nice and so I was trapped. I couldn’t hang up, I couldn’t push back. I had to sit there and listen to him drunkenly make sexually explicit remarks all the while trying not to let on to the kids that I was in distress. After the call ended I was in shock and when that happens I can’t cry, I can’t scream, I become numb – almost robotic. I carry out my daily tasks but inside? Inside my brain is slowly processing what I just experienced and it is screaming.
The next day the builder was back on site. Of course I didn’t see him as he was working in the loft but just knowing that someone who I no longer considered a safe person was in my safe space put me on edge. I was irritable, distracted and unable to do very much at all. That night I had a zoom call scheduled with some friends and even though I had been looking forward to it, I felt so distant and not myself that when the call ended I just sobbed. That was when things took a turn for the worse.
Nick was also having a tough time with everything that had gone on. He worried about how he might have contributed to upsetting the builder, he worried about me and he worried about the future of the building project given the situation we now found ourselves in. Nick needed to talk, more importantly, he needed me to listen. I couldn’t. I was feeling so much inside, so much that I hadn’t yet been able to fully express, that I couldn’t listen to him. It was like all the compassion and empathy that I normally have was gone, evaporated and all that was left was anger. Anger is the emotion we all feel when we’re actually experiencing a whole host of negative emotions. It’s like when you mix all the colours and get brown. Anger is brown.
This mismatch of needs caused a massive argument, one that caused me to want to leave the house (another sign of too many emotions). I felt that there just was not enough room in the house for everything I was feeling. I needed to get out. But as I put on my shoes and grabbed my coat something broke. The dam burst within me and everything came out. I stopped being able to breath, as though there was no space for my lungs to fill because all of the emotion was pushing and expanding to fill every last void inside me. I sobbed loudly, and the pain was almost unbearable. As I sank to the ground, crouched by the front door, Nick then realised that something was in fact really wrong. Gone went his anger, replaced by fear as he watched me try to shrink to nothing. He tried to reach for me and not only did my body retract but I felt my mind pulling away too. ‘Don’t touch me, don’t see me, don’t help me – I want to disappear’. All I wanted was for the pain to stop.
When you have experienced trauma followed by PTSD you can be triggered by even the smallest thing. When our builder made the comments that he made I was taken back to that bed where my ex hovered above me, the smell of alcohol on his breath and he forced himself on me. It took me back to that feeling of being frozen, of being trapped, of being completely vulnerable. That feeling is one that haunts me and one I fear won’t ever truly leave me.
We’re now over a week later and I’m still not ok. I’m coping, I get through the days, but I don’t sleep at night. I find myself shaking a lot and wringing my hands – a sign of stress that I do almost sub-consciously. I am having a slight reprieve in the form of one of our ceilings caving in and forcing us out of our home for a short time. At least I don’t have to feel vulnerable in my own space for a week.
The fact that I can still be so disturbed by events like this angers me and really makes me hate myself and my own mind. The only comfort I can take right now is that I am extremely lucky to have Nick, the kids, my family and my friends who have all been so supportive, understanding and loving. It makes it, if not easy, easier.