For most of my life I have had an irrational fear of smells, sounds, things and touch which my brain had stored away as “warning signs” that bad stuff was about to happen. EMDR unlocked pandora box after pandora box of stacked horrors neatly stored behind the walls that my brain and body had carefully crafted to keep me alive. This is what we refer to as Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
My earliest trauma that we could access was my mother using, the vehicle I was in, as a weapon.
For those of you who have been part of or witness to this appalling horror in Toronto where an unhinged human used his van as a weapon, I can only help by providing you with the tools, the experience and the ways to fight back that I have learnt.
ANGER & RAGE
If you are a cop, a firefighter or a paramedic who attended the scene, one of the overwhelming emotions you may be dealing with is a burning rage or anger. I have seen it in those in my own community of Combat Veterans watching this online, there is a need to pummel the perpetrator of this hideous act: exact a revenge. This is absolutely normal. It is what your brain should be telling you: fight, dammit fight. Acknowledge the rage. Accept it and talk about it with friends you can trust, or in a group like Life After PTSD where you can articulate in safety.
If you are a family member or friend of one of those killed or injured. The same applies to you.
If you are a member of the vast community of those horrified by this, the same applies to you.
Where does the rage and anger come from? A feeling of guilt at not being able to prevent it is a big part of it, but I shall deal with this later on. For now know that your brain is screaming FIGHT! but there is nobody to FIGHT. Speak about it. Emote (that means cry, yell, scream, punch a wall, whatever it is that won’t harm you or others … do it).
When we survive a significant trauma our brains take snapshots of our surroundings: the smells, the sounds, the light, the visuals (things around us at the time), people’s emotions, EVERYTHING associated with that trauma is hardwired into our brains to protect us from ever being vulnerable to an incident like this again in the future. This might have worked out just great when we all lived in caves and were eaten by hungry predators but when you live in downtown Toronto or work there, this is a seriously debilitating tactic if allowed to continue unhindered.
Brian here. Your brain is also wired to get you through it, as a means of survival. Most different parts of your body can independently try to survive until your brain shuts down completely.
We often find with extreme trauma cases, that the person drags a heightened sense of awareness and hyper vigilance with them for life. In sniper alley in sarajevo in 1994, thats called appropriate awareness and reasonable vigilance. In Toronto yesterday morning, those two sensations are out of place until something like this happens which can confirm to those over reacting sensations in your body that they are justified; maybe I do need to be this worried here? Maybe my brain is normal, and everyone else’s is just asleep.
So give your head a rest. If it’s bouncing all over the place, it’s probably going to do that for a bit. By now, most likely , you’ve done your fight or flight which for most of us was to check that our friends who work down there are fine. PHEW. OK, I can calm down. Then the rage hits, because you have no more immediate pressing need for your brain to stay highly functioning (everyone is now safe, killer is apprehended) so we have space for all the other stuff brains do. And now, it’s going to do them all at once in a wave thats hard to handle because it had to suppress them for a while. But that ends.
The ONLY way to deal with this is in small pieces. If you try to attack the trauma as one BIG event your brain will fritz and you will become incapable of cognitive processing. COGNITIVE PROCESSING: that means continuing to have access to your frontal lobes AND your amygdala to cognitively process your emotional, physical and rational responses. The first thing to do is focus on your body.
I know this is going to sound really strange but the first place to start to deal with these trauma associations and the snapshots regurgitating in your brain is your body. When one comes up and I know that it will grab you by the throat, punch you in the stomach, your hands will feel numb and the nausea will start to burble. Focus on the physical response. Repeat to yourself as you BREATHE “it’s over”. There’s no way to make this better. Forget that. All you can do is to tell your body and your lizard brain that you are safe and that this is over.
With practice you will feel it in your body before you hear it in your brain. Trust me on this. There is a book you should read if you can by Bessel van der Kolk THE BODY KEEPS SCORE.
Brian here: Avoid obsessive behaviour about the event. It has happened. It’s now unpreventable, and unstoppable because its occurred. Yes, lets learn. But avoid over watching this on the news time and time again. Theres people to do that. I do this and I have to coach myself out of it.
As you get better at this and learn how to breath through the snapshot flashing in your brain, look at it. Stare at it. I draw them in my own books of horrors that only I ever see now. Describe the details, and yes I know that even reading this is making you want to throw up your feet, I too feel like that writing this. It’s okay. Push through as far as you can each time. Every time you do, you will get a little further.
DO NOT TRY TO DO THIS WITH THE WHOLE TRAUMA! It is just too big. It will crush you. Start with the small stuff on the edges.
AVOID TRAUMA WHORES
There are people in your life that will flock to you like flies on a dunghill wanting to know the “details”. Politely or not, push them the hell away. They will not be the ones who pull you through this. The people who listen quietly, smile and find something in what you just said to turn your brain from crushing pain to survival by making you laugh, or feel comfortable… those are the ones you keep close now. You will have flashbacks of small things, small details of the incident will suddenly appear in your minds eye when that happens try not to disassociate (will explain that in a sec) and instead talk about it with a trusted friend or online support.
To be honest this is so HUGE that the only folk who can really relate to this are those who have seen combat and lost their people. They will understand this in a way few can in Canada, which is a good thing. It’s important to remember through out that this is not normal, this is so traumatic because it is so unthinkable. Combat Veterans have seen and done the unthinkable. Connect with me if you think this would help and with Brian’s assistance we can get you a battle buddy.
This is a biggie.
The folks that can relate to an incident like this with mass casualties and the violence of it all are Combat Veterans. They have lived through this, live with the survivors guilt and have found successful ways of coping with it. They also receive the training for it. There are cops, fire fighters, 9/11 survivors etc who have experienced mass casualties but the biggest sub-sector of Canadian society who will “get this” is the Combat Veteran community.
It will never go away. I’m sorry but that’s a fact. You can only find ways to negate the feeling of guilt: I do this by doing things for others every day, I do it not for them but for me and the ones who visit me from time to time. Turning this crushing feeling of “why me”, “if only I could have …”, “I should have …”, “If I’d been there in time …” …. into a positive and creating goodness, hope in the world is the only way you will beat this. Ask any combat vet who has lost his friends, his brothers and sisters and they will tell you they find redemption in helping others.
As a human who is alive because others sacrificed themselves I can tell you that this is both a huge burden to carry but also an enormous gift. I have dealt with the burden by using their stories to help others, to create pieces of art for others who can then move forward from their own darkness and pain. I also have a garden where they rest, a place for them to stay so that I don’t have them banging around in my head all the time (it gets noisy). An enormous gift because in the darkest of pain comes a deep understanding of humans, of all that is us and all that is around us. You will never be the same person you were before 1.30pm Toronto, yesterday. And that’s okay.
At the moment survivors guilt will be crushing you, for now name it. Own it. Accept it. Over the coming months is the time to deal with it.
Numb. Silent. Still.
If you find yourself losing time (I call it standing statues) or find yourself drifting off almost as if you are outside your own body, looking at it and hearing its voice as if it were not your own: this is a dissociative state. It isn’t anything to panic about, it is however something to keep note of, write down when it happens and for how long. Tell your doctor about it.
Your body may feel numb. Hands and feet may discolour as blood is drawn away from them into your core. This happens a lot to me and so long as I recognize that it is happening, take steps to get away from whatever it is that has triggered me or lie down in a place I find safe, all is good. If I ignore it then I’m in a world of trouble and will generally find myself hooked up to a machine in Emergency with a lot of fearful faces around me. Don’t do that.
THOUGHTS OF SUICIDE
Yup. This may well be one of the impacts on your life after yesterday. With a trauma injury comes thoughts of self-annihilation. I have a working theory on this.
I am not scared of suicide thoughts either in me or in others. I will ask straight out, “Do you have a plan?” and decide from there what this is. In my experience it is a brain coping mechanism. When the pain and the darkness become so overwhelming the brain seems to hit a “well, there’s always the giant red KILL button!” It’s a sobering thought and one that brings us back from the edge. It is to my mind closely associated with cutting which is also a way for the brain to release happy endorphins (pain releases them).
If you experience these thoughts don’t panic. You aren’t crazy. You aren’t losing it. Talk about them with a person you trust who won’t flip out. If the thoughts increase in severity and you find yourself making a plan, that is the time to walk into your doctor and tell him you think you are in trouble. For safety make sure you have given your fire arms to a friend for safe keeping, please.
REM sleep is your brain and body’s healing mechanism. If you aren’t getting solid chunks of REM sleep you won’t get through this, you will remain stuck.
No matter what it takes get your sleep sorted out.
Here are some tips:
- make sure you are sleeping in a space that you feel safe
- try to have somebody or a dog with you that knows you and can wake you from a nightmare, comfort and console you and get you back to sleep
- no tech in the room
- at least an hour of downtime before bed and don’t go to bed with full stomach
- develop a bed time routine which you follow religiously this will signal your brain and body that it’s bedtime
BE AWARE THAT YOU WILL WANT TO SELF-MEDICATE
This is a biggy.
There is a reason those of us with Complex PTSD are prone to addictions. These aren’t just drug or alcohol but can be sexual in nature too. Anything to numb the pain, shut the noises down, hide from the darkness….
All I can say on this is BE AWARE. If you think that this is what might be happening talk to your doctor and take steps to turn the unhealthy coping mechanism into a healthy one.
EXERCISE & THE OUTDOORS
Get outside. Into the hills, woods, walk by the water.
It is by far the best therapy to walk and talk in the open air. Left foot, right foot. Breathing feely.
Go to the gym if that’s your bag but be aware that the gym may no longer be your happy place as it has people in it. I’m afraid after yesterday “people” and what they mean to your brain/body has changed.
DON’T BE SCARED TO CRY, SCREAM, RAGE – THAT’S A GOOD THING
I don’t care if you’re the biggest baddest warrior in town, cry dammit.
IF YOU ARE A FIRST RESPONDER WHO DEALT WITH THIS OR IS DEALING WITH THIS
Trust your spouse and family to handle your pain. Do not shut them out. If it is too much for them, let them be the ones who choose to avoid it, not you.
Work together as a team because something like this can split relationships apart.
If you have questions or would like more information, or connect with a buddy who has been through this please let me know. Kate@KateGillieArt.com or message me through Instagram, Twitter or FB. If I haven’t replied to those then I haven’t seen it so send it again please, I will get back to you.