My Brain on Trauma

This is hard for me to write, hard for me to say, hard for me to admit.  I am a perpetual victim.  Of my own making.   I knew I didn’t handle stressful situations well, but I had no idea that I respond to situations like a victim.

Before I tell you what happened, I want to tell you that I have two different senses of self.  I have my competent self, which is small but growing, and I have my shame self, which is large but shrinking.  My shame self has governed my thinking and behavior my entire life, and right now it seems pretty pissed off that I’m trying to replace it.  After the events of last week though, I understand how crucial it is for me to get rid of that part of me.

Last week I was scheduled for a cat scan because I’ve had ongoing abdominal pain.  Abdominal pain for someone with a history of ovarian cancer is a bad thing.  I made my appointment and did all of the required pre-screening for the test.  Since I have asthma, I was reminded that I needed to bring my rescue inhaler for the test.  I find this annoying.  The severity of my asthma means that rescue inhalers giggle when I use them.  I can hear them saying “um, yeah, this ain’t gonna work”, so  I don’t generally pay attention to where my rescue inhaler is.  In addition, my asthma is currently controlled and, since my attacks build over days, I generally have time to address them with prednisone or my nebulizer.


On the day of the test I checked in (a 30 minute process), went to the radiology waiting room and waited for 10 minutes to get my delicious “contrast” drink, drank it up and then, an hour later, was taken back into the cat scan room.  I didn’t have to change because I’m a frequent scanner and know what to wear.  As I set my belongings down the nurse asked if I had brought my rescue inhaler.  I am going to be honest here – I was reminded to bring it, and  I completely forgot to.  So I lied, and said I had one in my car.  In my defense, there was the possibility that there would be one in my car, because my son leaves them all over the place, and I always have one in my yoga bag, which I was pretty sure wasn’t in my car, but maybe…..?  I lied.  As I was lying I could feel the shame building up in me.  I knew that I was pretty close to a breakdown, that my shame self was wringing her hands in glee, thinking “ha – gottcha. I’m a coming”.


I told the nurse that I’ve Never had a reaction, that my asthma is currently well controlled (true fact) and that it wasn’t an issue.  I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I would not have the scan without my rescue inhaler.  I was directed to go look in my car for my inhaler, which I did, even though I was pretty sure I didn’t have one.  After looking, I got into my car, turned it on and drove away.  My shame self, gleefully in full control,  called my sister, hysterically berating the medical system for being unreasonable and bemoaning my lot in life, which seems to be perpetually cursed.

There were numerous other options available to me.  I could have walked back into the radiology department and asked them to track down a rescue inhaler.  I could have dug in my heals and pointed out the fact that we were in a hospital, that there have probably been people who had reactions without a history of asthma and hence, no rescue inhaler, and that the hospital must have provisions for that.  I could have also calmly said “hey, I don’t have my inhaler, I guess I’ll have to re-schedule”.  (I also could have had my asthma Dr. call in an inhaler to a local pharmacy, go get it and go back for the scan, but I was in a time crunch).  Instead, I burst into tears, got into my car, got on a major highway sobbing on my cell phone with my sister.  Not a great move, eh?

I had my therapy a few days later and I talked about this.  Short and simple, I went into victim mode.  The intelligent, problem solving, self assured part of my brain shut down, and my shame victim took over.  Literally.  I went completely blank.  All I could think was “damn it, nothing ever goes right for me.  I’m out of here.  I hate my life”.  True fact; those are the words I thought.

I’m not a stupid girl.  I have a MA degree.  I’ve had career sucess, I can solve other’s problems, I can learn pretty much anything, especially now in the day of youtube.  I recently fixed my dishwasher.  I’ve made some really awesome yoga bags putting together various on-line tutorials to customize what I wanted.  I can learn computer programs fairly easily when I put my mind to it.  I am not a stupid girl.

When faced with a situation in which I have to stand up for myself though, I am a child.  The part of my brain that can problem solve, engage others, cajole and win empathy, turns off.  It is actually a fascinating process to observe, now that I am aware of it.  I am aware of the moment that my competent self shuts down.  I hear the shame laden victim taking over, mocking me, saying “see dummy; you lied; you get what you deserve; you can’t fix this; you will die of cancer because you can’t get this scan and you will leave your children alone; and you deserve it, because there is something inherently wrong with you; nah nah nah nah boo hoo”.

This part of me comes from trauma.  Trauma from my marriage, trauma from cancer, trauma from my childhood, sexual abuse, and scapegoating in my birth family.  All of these events have become the predominant factors in my brain.  They easily silence the growing, yet still small, part of me that is strong, capable and willing to take on the world.   I have about 2 years of good self esteem taking on 52 years of trauma.  It’s not really a fair fight.

I am starting EMDR treatment, a treatment said to be highly effective for trauma issues.   I have only had my first session, in which my therapist asked about my history.  During the recounting of my history she pointed out to me all of the examples of trauma, which I had innocently labeled “life”.  I am not really sure of what will happen next, but I’m told that EMDR treatment will “grow” the competent part of my brain while sending the shame laden part to the recesses of my memories.  I was told to view my brain as a filing cabinet.  Right now, the trauma responses are in the front of the drawer, so they are the first to be engaged.  With treatment, these responses will get filed way, way in the back, and I will no longer default to victim mode.  My brain will no longer shut down in stressful situations.  I will no longer hear the mocking nah nah nah nah boo hoo that dominates my life.

It seems a little too good to be true, doesn’t it?  At this point though, I have to try it.  I have to learn to silence the voice that mocks me.  The fog that takes over my brain has to go.  I need to find a way to tap into the intellectual, reasonable, educated part that understands how wrong it is to accept victim mode.   I need to get rid of the petulant child of shame that governs my thoughts.   I need to grow up!


If this works, I’ll let you know.  I so hope it does.




One thought on “My Brain on Trauma

  1. Thankyou for sharing this, as I am leaving a nasty year of waiting for my divorce to finalize (it did last month, yay) I find that I am reacting in ways that aren’t always the best. My coping skills have improved over the past year, and my counselor has done a wonderful job. But I’ve reached the realization that I am in for a helluva lot more work. I’m not sure what the two competing parts of my reactions are, but I know there is a lot of fear there. It sucks that you had to go through all those things, but I sure appreciate you sharing. I don’t feel quite so alone as I did a few minutes ago.


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