Wellness Wednesday – Exposure Therapy

It’s morning, and my phone alarm goes off. For those of you with iPhones, you’ll probably be familiar with my particular alarm. It’s standard, called “Uplift,” and has been described to me as a “jaunty, happy” tune. The first time I heard that description, I was floored, because for me, it’s a sorrowful, mournful tune. In fact, the reason I chose that particular alarm four years ago was because I couldn’t hear it without crying. During that time of my life, we’d just moved across the country to an unfamiliar place, and my marriage was falling apart. My emotional state was one of constant panic and fear and misery. My boys all had new iPod Touches, and Laurence started using Uplift as an alarm, and somehow that particular tune got mixed up with intense pain and sadness. So I made it my alarm.

That probably sounds counterintuitive, but it was something I needed to do. I’ve now heard Uplift thousands of times. Every morning when I wake up. Every time I need to pull something from the oven, or have finished a half-hour walk, or need to remember to take some medicine. Each time the boys finish their time on the Wii, or I need a timer for meditation, or we have a timed break from housework on the weekend. Uplift is no longer tear-inducing. It will never be a happy tune, but it’s neutral now, stuffed with so many mundane moments that overcrowd any lingering painful sentiment. It’s just my alarm, no more, no less. And that’s what I needed it to be.

Everyone’s brains and mental health work in different ways. When I go through something traumatic, I have a couple steps I need to take in order to get past that trauma. I must understand the root of the trauma, and what effects (mental and physical) it has on me, especially those that initially seem unrelated. I must pick apart the trauma, setting each moment aside in microfragments, dissecting until the pieces are small enough to look at indifferently. Then I must take the things that have emotional weight and force them on myself over and over until they no longer have any power over me. Exposure therapy, like with the alarm. Strip a painful song or photo or memory of its negative influence until it becomes just a song or photo or memory.

This kind of work takes years, and the process is not fun. Example: When I go hunting through photos for fun former-Thanksgiving pictures to post on Facebook this month, I tend to skip the album of photos from our year in Boston. Those ones are not okay yet. If I look through them – even just a fragment of them – I will get very triggered and have a bad PTSD day. But I tend to force myself to go look through them in chunks from time to time. I want to get so far away from those photos that they no longer stab at me to see them. I would never delete them – I don’t erase memories, no matter how painful – and time won’t make the situation better (that’s now how complex-PTSD works). The only way to unravel the pain, for me, is to face those memories over and over, until they have no power over me. It’s the reason I look at my Facebook memories every day, even in times when my 2014-2015 posts were particularly painful and triggering. It’s why I still rewatch shows like Downton Abbey, which somehow got mixed up with triggering situations, so that now when I watch it now, I tend to get panic attacks. One day, I will neutralize all of these things, the way I’ve neutralized Uplift. The way I’ve neutralized other traumatic events in my life.

I have a long way to go. That particular year – and to some degree, some of the years since – was so intensely traumatic that I have a lot of triggering attachments. I can’t follow a certain breathing technique for meditation (four beats in, hold seven, exhale for eight) without a panic attack. I can’t get through the month of May without binging on mindless TV and drinking too much. I can’t even see certain book covers without an immediate jolt of anxiety. It’s ridiculous.

Exposure therapy isn’t one many doctors would recommend, I know. It’s akin to someone with claustrophobia being locked in a small space for half a day in order become accustomed to the situation and stop having a phobia. It doesn’t work for most people, and can be very dangerous to try. But it works for me, and I know how to take things slow, one at a time, while I’m picking them apart and giving myself enough distance to (eventually) not be affected at all.

About Amanda

Agender empty-nester filling my time with cats, books, fitness, and photography. She/they.
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