It takes such a little thing to trigger a memory. Some are attached to music, others to actions, and more to words. This is all great and good when it is happy, peaceful, positive memories that show up unannounced… it’s not so great when those memories are closer to nightmarish events.
For example, when I started shaving my legs as a teenager, I had a tendency to cut myself regularly with the razor… until college when my boyfriend, TP, taught me how to shave without cutting myself. So… practically every time I shave my legs now, I remember TP… which is not a great thing because TP was the college boyfriend who abused me badly. I don’t enjoy thinking of TP. I can stop thinking of him. I can cut off the flow of memories and do not need to dwell in the land of horror, but first they rise. It’s been 24 years and I am still affected by TP’s abuse.
For years after my brother, Thorn, died I was unable to listen to country music without crying. Thorn was an “urban cowboy” and he loved his country music. Every song reminded me of him and the grief was too great to let it in. Now, I can listen to country music and when one of his favorite songs come on, I smile and welcome the memories. Sometimes it still brings tears because, let’s face it, I will always love and miss Thorn.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an amplified reaction to the memories of trauma. For a military veteran, this can be triggered by a gunshot or car backfiring and they are transported back to a time when their life was in danger (and other triggers unique to the individual and the trauma). For a survivor of domestic violence, the anxiety can be triggered by many different things – a physical movement like the lifting of a hand or the forming of a fist, a specific touch, a raised voice, specific words or even locations.
These things are real to the person experiencing them. The memories become as tangible as the day they first happened. It’s part of the instinctual fight, flight or freeze reaction every person has, but amplified. It’s not an irrational fear – it’s impossible for it to be irrational because it has happened already. It’s not an over-reaction because they know first-hand what the next step could be.
I have been accused multiple times of “over-reacting” to the domestic violence that ended my marriage…. firstly how do you over-react to being abused? and secondly when it has happened to you previously, when you have witnessed your closest members experience the worst possible outcome, it is no longer an over-reaction, but a very real, expected and understandable reaction to abuse. My sister, Lily, was killed the first time her husband hit her, after 18 years of verbal and emotional abuse. I know where abuse can lead. An abuser loves to accuse their victim of being “irrational”.
Perhaps the issue is that people do not react enough to domestic violence?
My history is a part of me, it is a part of who I am and what I have become. It influences how I react to situations and people around me. Everyone, everywhere is affected and changed by the experiences in their lives. Our memories guide our decisions and our reactions. For someone who has lived in danger, they will be more cautious. For someone who has lived in safety, they will be more adventurous. For someone who has been hated, they will find it difficult to trust others. For someone who has been loved, they will easily trust. For someone who has been rejected, they will seek intimacy in the wrong places. For someone who has been accepted, they will know their own value.