“I don’t feel safe now, because I wasn’t safe back then…” A story of trauma, survival, and a path to healing.

Posted in CATEGORY by Karen Ortner

It started out pretty much like every Tuesday. Running around trying to get the kids dressed, fed and out the door on time. My husband Alex and his brother and sister were leaving for a Hay House author’s conference in New York City and from there Alex would be heading straight to North Carolina to lead a training event.

He usually only travels for a few days at a time, so this week-long trip would be a much longer solo-stint for me. Besides the inevitable ‘I miss Daddy’ chorus at bedtime, I keep things as routine as possible when he’s away.

I do my best for the kids, but honestly, I don’t like it when Alex travels. I definitely do enjoy the peaceful moments after the kids are sleeping, but overall, I feel a greatly heightened sense of vigilance and responsibility.

This time was no different. I could feel my anxiety was a little higher than usual that morning. I was a little more on edge; a little less patient. A little more apt to triple-check the times of each after-school activity before heading out the door.

My Alcoholic Father…

You see, as the daughter of an alcoholic, I grew up in a highly volatile and abusive home where chaos and uncertainty were my norm.

I became adept at planning and over-thinking; running through every detail and foreseeable outcome ahead of time. I was hyper-vigilant day and night.

I developed these strategies to keep myself safe. Rarely did it work. No matter how well I’d cleaned the kitchen, set the table or done the dishes, inevitably, when my father came home, he would still explode and my mother would still be beaten.

But, as children often do in these situations, I developed the ‘magical thinking’ that if I could just pre-empt whatever might set my dad off, then just maybe, I’d be able to somehow control my environment and avoid danger.

Something Wasn’t Right…

Flash forward to the chaos of life with three young kids of my own and I find myself frequently reverting to the same patterns of hyper-vigilance, especially in times of stress. The biggest challenges I could foresee this particular week were managing logistics of after-school activities and navigating solo bedtimes. How wrong I was!

Later in the day, I was packing snacks for school pick-up and the kit for my daughter’s horse riding lesson. She often rides outside, so I checked the weather. I saw rain and thunderstorms in the forecast. Nothing major. I texted the instructor as we’re pretty new to this horse thing. I wanted to make sure it’d be safe to ride in the thunder and lightening. She assured me that the horses would be fine. All good.

As I left the house though, an alert popped up on my phone. ’TORNADO WARNING’. Erm, what?? There must be a mistake. We don’t get tornadoes in Connecticut! I received the warning at 3.30pm. The warning time was for 4.15pm – 4.45pm.

I got to the kid’s school in time for pick-up at 3.37pm. Beautiful sunshine, clear blue skies with the tiniest breeze. The kids desperately wanted to play at the playground before horse-riding. I could in no way believe the warning, but something was nagging at me to get them home. I told my kids about the weather warning and quickly cancelled my daughter’s lesson.

On the ride home, just in case the warning was accurate, I explained again what tornados are. We decided that our safest place to go would be the basement back room. I made a quick action plan with them, giving them each a job to do. If the alarm did sound, my middle son was to help my daughter safely down the stairs. My 9 year old was to carry the dog crate down there for our new puppy. I would grab the puppy and flash light and follow them down.

Quick! Get in the Basement!

We arrived home. I looked out the kitchen windows. I grabbed the flash light, candles and a lighter out of the cupboard, just in case. This seemed ridiculous because the sky was still a brilliant and clear blue. The trees did seem oddly still.

Within less than a minute, the sky turned dark grey. It was so fast. The tornado warning siren went off on my phone. I yelled ‘ok kids, let’s go’. Ushering the kids ahead of me, I grabbed the puppy under one arm and the flashlight in the other.

We scrambled down to the back room. The guest room. No windows and the safest place we have. I couldn’t help but wonder if we were safe enough in here or if we should have a storm bunker like they do in Kansas.

What followed felt like the longest 15 minutes of my life. Within a couple of moments, the lights flickered on and off and on again and then we lost power for good. The wind was howling. The rain was horizontal and beating on the windows of the adjoining room. I peeked out into that room once. It looked completely grey-white outside.

I shut the door and rushed back to the kids. I found an old crib mattress that we were waiting to donate. I sat on the bed and held it up as a kind of shield for my kids. I’m not sure why I did that. Maybe from watching movies, maybe from hearing about people hiding in bath tubs under mattresses during hurricanes, or maybe from hearing stories of the London Blitz as a kid. I was frightened. My heart was thumping. I just wanted to keep them safe from any shattering glass or falling debris.

There we sat in the darkness. Puppy in her crate next to us. I sang. I sang silly songs and their favorite songs. Anything I could think of to block out the noise of the wind. My middle son was crying. ‘I’m never going to see eight’. I tried to keep the tone light.

After those 15 minutes, the wind stopped. We waited longer still. After a while of this stillness and silence, we dared to peek out. I was so nervous to go and check out the house and any damage. We tiptoed up the stairs. We were safe. It was over. But I didn’t feel safe, for me, it wasn’t the end, for me it was the beginning of the longest week of survival that I’ve experienced since I left my abusive childhood home behind.

The External Storm Was Over, but the Internal One Was Just Beginning…

I opened the door to the kitchen. I could see that there were leaves and branches strewn all over the place. The grill had been blown all the way across the deck, missing the window by only a couple of inches. We looked around out of all the windows.

We have two driveways. Both of them were completely impassable, blocked by fallen trees. Thank god, no big damage to the house. The closest tree had landed about two feet away.

The siding was spackled with blossom ripped from the cherry trees. Our shed was up-rooted, sitting jauntily at a 45 degree angle. A tree had fallen and its root-bowl had up-ended the shed. What a curious sight.

Across from the shed there were several more trees down. Peeking out from under the trees were my brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s two cars.

They had left them at our house when they car-pooled into the city. Now they were write-offs. Completely crushed by the trees. In total, we had more that twenty trees fall.

I learned later that we’d experienced a ‘microburst’, not a tornado, but it certainly looked and felt like a tornado had ripped across our property.

I took a deep breath. I settled the kids with flashlights and a board game at the kitchen table. Then I began the race to get the generator working before dark. Usually I’d stay with the kids while my husband went out to do the generator etc, but this time it was just me.

After several attempts, I managed to fill the generator with gas and get it going. I bruised my right arm badly when I smacked it against the railing as I pulled back on the start-cord, but I didn’t feel it at the time. It’s a small generator, but at least it runs the fridge and a few lights.

I set the kids up with a ‘sleep den’ made of sofa cushions and blankets in my room. I just wanted to keep them close. I got them in pjs and thankful for our gas stove, I heated some leftover pasta for dinner. I got them all to bed sometime just after dark.

The Numbness…

Sitting in the stillness and silence after they were safely asleep, I felt numb. Not scared, not relieved, just numb. That’s how I stayed for the entire following week. It was an altogether too familiar feeling for me. This numbness.

I’d spent a great majority of my childhood in this state. Often, following a violent outburst from my dad, I’d wake to wonder if I’d imagined it all. Broken china would be swept away, my mother’s bruises cleverly concealed. Dad would be sitting at the dining room table eating breakfast, pouring freshly brewed coffee from his oh-so-civilized french press craftier and asking me if I’d slept well.

I’d walk around in a daze trying to squelch the cold terror beating in my chest. I had failed to stop him, failed to protect my mother or myself and now I was left questioning my sanity. I ran around on auto-pilot, packing my lunch and getting myself to school. Going through the motions of ‘normal’ life. Inside I was planning my survival – I’d just have to be more vigilant, more prepared for the inevitable next time.

My body was stuck in the trauma of my childhood…

Back to my post-tornado world. Power was still out, schools were closed and in every moment, just like in my childhood, I tried to stay ahead of the game. Pre-empting the kid’s needs; feeding them, comforting them, playing with them, running the house as best I could. I had reverted to the survival energy patterns from my childhood.

I was running on fumes, devoid of any feeling about it all, not able to sleep well or rest, unable to stop moving or doing. Keeping going, keeping busy constantly. My nervous system was in a ceaseless state of sympathetic charge. I was utterly dis-regulated.

I could not register that the threat was over. This is how PTSD symptoms affect the body. I was responding to the tornado in just the same way as I had responded to the threat of my father when I was a child. My body could not tell the difference.

To my nervous system, both scenarios felt like life or death. My body was stuck in a loop of hyper-vigilance and preparedness. For me, as for so many people living with PTSD symptoms, there was no return to a more parasympathetic, relaxed state.

My PTSD had been triggered…

What I realized eventually, was that my response to the tornado and the ensuing chaos and clean-up had little to do with the present moment. Without an abusive background, I may have been able to take these events more in my stride. Yes, it would still have felt stressful, but it would perhaps not have felt quite so much like life or death.

Instead, I was caught in an emotional flashback. All of the old feelings of being trapped and powerless to change or escape my situation flooded my nervous system. The fear and terror and constant scanning for danger. This is what happens when someone with PTSD gets ‘triggered’. Emotions, sensations, smells, images from our childhood come rushing back. Sometimes this can happen by way of a visual flash-back.

However, what many people don’t know, is that you can have an emotional flash-back with no conscious memory or meaning attached. All I knew was that I felt a desperate urge to rush around and stay busy. I did not recognize until much later that an old pattern of behavior had been triggered in me. Under stress, I had reverted to the exact methods I had used to try (and fail) to keep myself safe as a child.

**Recognize that if you find yourself in a constant state of panic, dread or fear, it may not be about now. **
To heal this, the first step is recognizing that the panic, dread or fear being felt in the body has almost nothing to do what is happening in the present moment. It is not about today. It is about back then. Only with this recognition can a person begin to un-enmesh the past from the present.

I Desperately Needed To Be Believed… and Validated

When my husband finally returned home, I felt angry with him. Angry that he’d left. Angry that I’d had to keep it all together for the kids. Angry that he wasn’t there through it all. Angry that I’d had to make all those calls to insurance companies and tree companies. Angry that the day he returned home, I’d conveniently just had the destroyed cars towed. Angry that we had just gotten power back and it was a beautiful clear and sunny day. Angry that apart from the mangled trees, everything was all back to normal. Angry that he thought that I was fine. I wasn’t fine.

I of course, didn’t verbalize any of these angry feelings in the moment. At the time I didn’t consciously register or understand them. Everything was fine. Except that it wasn’t. I felt shut-down and numb.

I felt like I desperately needed my husband to acknowledge how horrible it had all been. I was longing for validation. It had really happened. We really had lost power. There really had been a tornado.

What my body was really looking for was validation that it had been real back then. Of course it was real now, there was very tangible, visible evidence that the tornado had happened, but my body and brain were trying to resolve residual challenges from my childhood within my current experience. I was stuck back in childhood survival energy patterns, longing to hear that I was not crazy. That the beatings I’d witnessed as a child really had happened.

I slipped into a dark, depressive place. I had an overwhelming sense of hopelessness, futility and inescapability. I had been involuntarily caught up in the path of a tornado, just like I had been with my father’s rage all those years before.

Processing the Trauma…

I sat quietly for a long time. I wrote in my journal. I tapped, a lot. What made the difference? How did I climb out of the dark place?

If my experience of the tornado, (of being triggered and stuck in panic, hopelessness, and fear today because of childhood trauma) in any way resembles your experience, you’re probably wondering how I got myself out of it all.

Here are some simple steps that you can take if you find you’re having similar struggles:

#1: As mentioned above, the biggest step towards healing your trauma is to recognize that if you’re constantly in a state of panic, dread or fear, it is most likely not be about today.

At first, this can be a very hard pattern to spot, let alone begin to question or change. The fear, panic and dread feel justified. Shouldn’t I feel fear when faced with a tornado? It all feels so real. The trick I have found that works for me is to notice the reactions of others around me.

If you recognize that you are in a more heightened emotional state than others around you, recognize that what you may be feeling is most likely not about today. It is most likely about back then. You may be feeling fear or panic today, because your nervous system has been triggered by something from your past. Only with this recognition can you truly begin to un-enmesh the past from the present.

#2: Acknowledge your experience and what you’re feeling.

I began by not denying any of my experience. I wrote it all down. And I talked about it all with my husband. I made space to digest all of my experience. I acknowledged how trapped and frightened I had felt. How alone and responsible I had felt for three little lives. Instead of continuing to run my lifelong busy patterns of distraction and protection, I stopped.

Initially, this stopping felt raw and unbearable. I felt as though I wanted to run away from myself, to climb out of my own skin.

But then, something interesting happened. The more I sat; the more I wrote and tapped. The more I felt; the more I began to feel myself beginning to defrost. The numbness began to recede.

This is a relatively new skill set for me. It is not something I knew how to do as a child. And, living in such a volatile and unpredictable environment, it would most likely not have been safe to discharge the threat response; the pent up survival energy. But today I am safe. Today I recognize, at least consciously, that the threat from back then is over.

If your current experience is different than it was back then, make sure to acknowledge this difference and recognize the safety you have now versus back then. Your body is unlikely to catch up in feeling safe right away, but the conscious awareness is a very important step.

#3: Use Tapping to work through the emotions and stuck energy you’re experiencing

I’m always grateful to have tapping to help me process flashbacks, emotions and experiences. While it can be tough to do the deep work alone (which is why I always recommend working with a professional when dealing with trauma), consistently using tapping to calm the nervous system is incredibly helpful.

The most challenging time to use tapping is when we’re highly triggered, say, in the middle of an emotional flashback. Regardless of whether it is a visual memory or a body memory that you’re processing, it can be very challenging to not be totally engulfed by the past. (The flood of pain-fighting chemicals as well as the fight/flight/freeze threat responses triggered by the nervous system all-but prevent rational brain function. This is what makes it so challenging to stop and tap in the moment.)

This is why it’s important to use tapping on a regular (if not daily) basis-when we’re not triggered at a level 10. Use it when the kids are frustrating you, or when you recognize negative thought patterns, or when you’re upset about what a coworker said. This allows you to create positive habits of tapping so that when you are triggered by your PTSD, you will be able to reach for tapping more easily as a tool to help you through the moment.

Keep Going!

I work day by day, to let my body and my nervous system catch up. It is not always easy, but each time I can pause and recognize my old survival patterns and hyper vigilance the easier it becomes. Each time I can validate my own experience, and each time I tap and process emotions and experiences, I feel one moment closer to me.

And really, that’s what recovery is all about. Not some vast, impressive instant wave of healing, but the small and incremental moments. Weathering each and every tornado no matter real or felt. Un-entangling the triggers of the past from the experiences of the present.

Yes, it is a constant work in progress, but with each day, I’m building resilience and rewiring my old unconscious survival patterns and that feels like huge progress to me.

If you’re also working your way through trauma, or just starting in your journey, know that there is hope. Life doesn’t have to feel like you’re living through a tornado that is constantly knocking you off your path. It can get better.

Sending you love and support… always!

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About Me

I'm Karen Ortner, an EFT Tapping expert, personal development coach, and childhood abuse survivor and I'm passionate about helping YOU in your healing journey!


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