Long-Lasting Effects of Trauma

This time of year has never been fun for yours truly. In October 2009, I lost my childhood home to a fire. In November 2015, I experienced my first- and hopefully last- psychiatric hospitalization after finding out my ex-girlfriend was cheating on me with my best friend. Traditionally, the holidays between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, or “trigger season” as I like to call it, serve as a harsh reminder of my family’s woes. To say the least, I struggle mentally and emotionally around this time of year. What happened to me about a week should not have been a surprise, right?

I transitioned into a new supervisory role at the end of October. I welcomed this change. It was a leadership role with my ideal population. However, it was not going to be an easy transition. I was still working with about ten clients from my previous job that were finishing out treatment, and it likely would have been detrimental to give them a new counselor so close to the end. Between my new full-time position and my former part-time job, I was clocking close to seventy hours a week and no days off.

I took it like a champ for the first two weeks. That third week got to me though. I did not feel like myself. I woke up dragging my heels each morning, dreading what life had in store. I sat at my desk looking down and a hand on my head, letting out long, heavy sighs. When in session with my clients, I found it difficult to emotionally engage. I felt distant and unable to empathize. I was merely an empty vessel, disassociated and depersonalized.

Luckily that week I also had a therapy appointment. I told her how I was feeling. I was stressed out. I expected that to happen. I normally did not disconnect like this though. My typical reaction to stress was high levels of anxiety and racing thoughts. That is how I was for the two to three weeks prior. I normally disassociated following a significant trauma.

I remember every detail vividly from that fire in October 2009. I pulled over across the street from my house. I could see the outline of the building standing against the nighttime. Fresh plumes of smoke drifting out of the living room windows. A light drizzle filled the air. A car pulled up behind me immediately as a man stepped out introducing himself as “Detective Devine.” I did not even have a chance to examine the damage before he made me follow him to the police barracks for interrogation. Two days after, my father was arrested on arson charges that he would be acquitted of three months later.

For an entire week after the fire, I showed no emotion. There were no panic attacks. There were no crying spells. I was frozen in disbelief. I was numb. I showed no emotion until a week later. I was in my dorm sitting at my desk. I sat there on my laptop, finally realizing everything that happened. I broke down. My head fell to the keyboard. Tears cascaded down my face. My roommate came over and put his hand on my shoulder.

I had an “Oh shit!” moment during therapy. The last time I worked this much without a day off was just before my psychiatric hospitalization. It served as a subconscious reminder of three years ago. Couple that with my stress levels and trigger season, I had the trifecta from traumatized hell.

Most people are familiar with the “fight or flight” response. When we encounter a triggering event that causes anxiety, humans normally will do one of two things- run away or prepare for battle. We oft forget about the third part of this biological response – “freeze.” This is where I am when it comes to extreme trauma like the house fire or hospitalization. This was the first time however that I caught the “freeze” response with no imminent trauma present. It made sense though through a concept called “generalization.” When we experience stimuli similar to the original trigger, it can elicit the same response. The triggers in this instance were my work hours, the related stress, event anniversaries, and even time of year.

I have long known the significant impact that trauma has on an individual’s well-being. It can distort their perceptions, cause emotional strife, and feed directly into mental illness along with a multitude of other issues. It was just odd to experience its long-term effects firsthand. Personally, this experience highlighted how my trauma will stick with me and how it shaped me into who I have become.

I did joke with my therapist, “This therapy thing works.”

-The Caring Counselor

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