The Threat of Peace
Hypervigilance: The state of being highly alert to potential danger or threat
I sat on the floor practicing my Forward Facing trauma techniques as I rubbed my hands across the thick bedroom carpet. Grounding myself in the present, I took a deep breath. My eyes rested on a favorite painting. I relaxed my body then closed my eyes. My churning anxiety grew louder. The old feeling of panic closed around my throat. “I am not in the past,” I said out loud. “I am here in my bedroom, and there is nothing threatening me in this moment.” The quiet whisper of peace entered my heart but instead of feeling better, the sensation only increased my anxiety. It’s a strange phenomenon. When we first begin to dismantle hypervigilance, our fears and anxiety often grow worse. Why would this be? The answer lies rooted in childhood experience.
My mother kept a hoard of items in a junk room upstairs. Her obsessive-compulsive behavior was the cause of many arguments between my parents. As children, it was an interesting place to play, and it was into this space one day, that my brother innocently wandered.
I heard his screams all the way down the hall. Hurrying out my room, I watched as terrified tears streamed down his red face. He was holding a broken lamp. “I broke it! I broke it! I broke it!” he wailed. My mother came running and I retreated to a hallway corner in fear.
“WHAT IN THE WORLD?” My mother screamed.
James held up the pieces of broken glass. Like a sacrificial lamb, shaking and sobbing, he began to shriek. “Beat me now, right now! I broke it, I broke it! PUNISH ME NOW!”
I could not remember a time when James had ever done anything wrong. He was introverted, quiet and kind. When my parents were raging, he knew how to disappear. He protected me as best he could, but even James did not have the power to save me from my parent’s abuse. Now, here he was holding a broken lamp. It was a capital offense and I was sure my mother was going to kill him. Then what would I do? He trembled before the executioner.
My mother took the lamp and threw the broken pieces into the trash. Without another word, she turned to go into the kitchen. James stood at the top of the stairs. He brushed his runny nose across his sleeve, hiccupped and gave me a long, sad gaze. I held my baby doll as tight as I could. If it had been me, I would have gotten a beating and another one when my father got home. Somehow, James had dodged the bullet.
This was part of the terror of my parents. You never knew what they were going to do. You might be punished for something you deserved and you might be punished for doing nothing. You might be screamed at for existing and then ignored when you did something bad. You had to guess and the guessing was the worst abuse of all. Hypervigilance is an understatement. I learned to constantly take the emotional temperature of the room. I watched for signs of any imminent danger, violence or outbursts. James and I often worked as a team, him running ahead to draw fire and me following behind, slinking from room to room. Sometimes he acted to warn me away. On those days, I tried to stay hidden in my room as much as possible.
Tackling hypervigilence is like asking the city of Leningrad under siege to the Nazi’s to open the gates and surrender. That’s what it feels like, anyway. Be patient with yourself. Go slowly. When your emotions rebel, honor them. They protected you then and are just trying to keep doing their job–as frustrating as that may be. Instead of tearing down the gates, I think I’ll politely give them a knock. I don’t want to scare that little girl I used to be. She’s been through enough.