Every human being, according to author Seth Godin and many social scientists, has a lizard brain. Located in and around the amygdala, this part of the brain evokes the fight, flee, freeze or fawn response when humans are faced with a tangible, life-threatening danger. In the right circumstance, this response can save a life.
Problem is, sometimes that part of the brain is activated even when we are not in danger, or when we only perceive ourselves to be under threat. The result is that our reactions are not in proportion to the difficulty we face. This is common with people who suffer from complex PTSD, for example, where a relatively minor incident on public transit might trigger flashbacks of a childhood warding off the unwanted attentions of a violent parent. The result can be debilitating and re-traumatize the individual.
As someone who lives with complex PTSD, I am getting better at noticing when my brain acts up in weird ways. I notice myself shutting down, or when I feel the panicky emotions as they bubble to the surface. In that moment all I want to do is hide. The trick, for me, is to realize that the lizard brain is taking over and focus on feeling the discomfort, examining it like a curious child, realizing that it is something that is not part of me. Sometimes visualization exercises can help: I can put the feeling on a mental conveyor belt and send it away from me, at least for now. At a later date, when I no longer react so strongly to it, I can take the time to really look at what it was that set me off. But knowing when that moment is, doesn’t come easy.
To be with discomfort and not try to change things immediately is a challenge. It’s what meditation is all about for me. It’s how I keep my sanity.
It’s hard to say when my PTSD first started. I think it happened when my family moved me from a relatively peaceful neighbourhood in Prince George, Canada to one of the most violent countries in the world: South Africa. While I was not personally assaulted, I was emotionally neglected as a child and lived in terror that I would be cast out of the family house to fend for myself. I believed I was evil and that I caused people only pain. This was what I was repeatedly told by a mother who had long since lost the ability to communicate love and affection. I learned to mistrust people, especially my family. As a result, I retreated emotionally into myself, sharing little with anyone and erasing myself as best I could. If nobody noticed me, I told myself, then they couldn’t hurt me. For years, that strategy worked pretty well. But I wasn’t able to live like that forever. I think we all need to feel a connection with another human being to survive. I tried to reach out to a sister, and to handful of friends, but my attempts were clumsy and only partially successful.
Slowly, I lost hope of ever experiencing happiness. I thought: if this is as good as it gets, then I’m better off dead. Living with major depression for more than 10 years will wear a person down. But even at my lowest points, something inside me wouldn’t die. I made a few half-hearted attempts at killing myself. Then, I stopped. I reached a precipice, only it was backwards: if I stayed, clinging to the side of the mountain I would most certainly die. But if I dared to jump into the unknown, I stood a chance of living.
The turning point came when a close friend, A— decided to end her life. Witnessing someone follow through on an action that I had contemplated more than once myself, watching the pain engulf her family and the friends she left behind, recognizing the ugliness that is suicide, I realized that I wasn’t ready. Maybe some day I would be but I wasn’t there yet. That’s when I made a choice to turn my life around.
It hasn’t been a straight road out of the darkness – I still have off days, occasionally – but every day is a new opportunity for me to face new challenges and seek out connection with the life energy all around me. I’m still learning.