Hypervigilance. It’s a word she uses repeatedly, this woman you’re speaking with.
The conversation leads to this: questions that boil down to “what is the worst that can happen, what do you imagine if it all goes wrong, what are you so afraid of,” which of course mirrors the questions you pose to yourself when you dig for courage.
You dig for courage daily.
Any stranger could enter your home and read the writing on the walls. Literally.
Taped on one cabinet is the white page from mid-June that says “no more fear.”
Taped next to it is the white page from the summer before that reads: “just keep going.”
Taped on the cabinet next to the stainless fridge where you cannot tape without ruining the finish – and you choose to leave the surface unmarred – there are more directives, each condensed to its essence, each reminding you to face whatever the terror or obstacle may be though there are always terrors and there are always obstacles.
The terrors are founded on abandonment and lead you to homelessness. The obstacles are too numerous to list.
Naturally, instructions abound: hundreds of bound pages of pep talks in journals, of questions without definitive answers, of searching for reasons you can dissect and then address; you barricade the emotional doors and then brace yourself as you throw them open.
“It’s hypervigilance,” she says, and you think perhaps it’s so. But a word cannot change the fact that the cage is real.
You are a woman who has traveled the world alone, a woman who has raised children alone, a woman who has held responsible positions and made decisions with clarity, with confidence.
You are a woman who does not like to think of herself as controlled by anyone or anything, though we are all controlled by forces we cannot master, both known and unknown.
In the mornings, you glance at the messages taped to your cabinets for guidance. You tell yourself to move beyond the fear, the obstacles, the inertia. So you push yourself. You push hard.
And now you linger on the word.
Definitions of Hypervigilance
Merriam-Webster offers this on hypervigilance:
… the condition of maintaining an abnormal awareness of environmental stimuli; a person suffering from PTSD may have… hypervigilance, heightened startle responses and flashbacks…
You find another source for the same term:
Hypervigilance is one of the hyperarousal symptoms of PTSD and refers to the experience of being constantly tense and “on guard.” … At extreme levels, hypervigilance may appear similar to paranoia.
You find other definitions and all refer to four letters arranged in the same sequence: PTSD, and a variety of offshoots that suggest a stirring of the emotional pot that you don’t care to explore at present. The sun is shining. There are sparrows on the hedges outside the window. They are chirping and pecking at bright berries in the crisp autumn air.
Still, one note catches your eye. It deals with numbing, with “experiencing difficulties having positive feelings such as happiness or love.”
You may not fully trust positive emotions, but surely you experience them – happiness, love, contentment – though you do not expect them to last.
There’s a flash of dream that rears its head in which you stand in your mother’s living room and you note every detail: your father’s golf trophies displayed on the radiator behind the broad RCA console television, the yellow painted chair with the brown seat cover, the bronze statue of a duck that sits among stacks of art books on a table next to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the tall candle holder over the mantel and the stain where your godfather blew out its flame and your mother reacted, with anger and exasperation.
But now you realize she is dead and you try to view this as a house, and no more.
These images are followed by others, more brief and piercing and all too familiar. You are alone and dropping over the edge of the world. There is no one and nothing to catch you as you plummet. You are standing in silence. You are homeless.
This the answer to what you fear, to the worst that can happen. You carry that knowledge in your daytime hours; it is no wonder that it arises in dream.
As you wake, you are clear on this: You have no rights here, no ability to return, no way to refill what has emptied. As you wake, the voice insists: “Just keep going.” The only alternative is inertia, which is unacceptable. As you wake, you know the cage is real.
Hypervigilance and Complex PTSD
The definition of hypervigilance leads to another intriguing description of something called “complex PTSD” described as:
… following exposure to chronic, long-lasting traumatic events that generally involve some form of physical or emotional captivity, such as childhood sexual and/or physical abuse, domestic violence, or being in a prisoner-of-war camp. In these types of events, a victim is under the control of another person and does not have the ability to easily escape…
The symptoms are many and various, including a feeling that the “perpetrator” has complete control. You allow that knowledge to settle for a few minutes and you recognize its validity, though the feelings have faded. Another sentence catches your attention:
These symptoms include problems with relationships, such as isolating oneself or being distrusting of others.
“You give him too much power,” she says, and all you feel is the fatigue of keeping your guard up month after month, year after year, and knowing that each time you let it down, it is a mistake.
Hypervigilance and Stress
You can never fully explain the way stress suddenly inhabits your body, the way you tense at a word or a recollection, the mere mention of a possibility and your heart is pounding, your insistence on keeping legal papers, emails, documents sent through the post as proofs that you didn’t imagine the moments when the enemy showed his hand. You never wished to find yourself an adversary of any sort and you hope never to touch those documents again, even as you picture the prescriptions for a good, productive day boldly instructing you from the cabinets in the kitchen.
You marvel at the man folding his laundry in front of you, the man who finds you courageous, the man who busies himself at midday on a quiet weekend as he leaves you to your thoughts, the man who alternates Brazilian rhythms with Flamenco and a little Stan Getz as a load of towels tumbles for another twenty minutes, and he stacks his polo shirts in one pile and the sheets in another.
He nods and listens when you express your fears, when you replay the dreams transformed into nightmare, when you share more than you have ever before, though the extent of the terror you keep to yourself lest he, too, decide you are chasing shadows, lest he, too, disappear and leave you ungrounded, lest he, too, become the adversary or simply rescind his place as a steady presence, as homelessness stretches just beyond the edge.
For now, you are calm, the fist in your stomach relaxes, the only vigilance at play is his, and it is tender.
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