Urban retreat and nervous system deregulation

Since my partner left on a business trip, I’ve been torn between doing a silent retreat back in my village, or just staying in the hellish city and trying to do the same – the upside here being that it saves me 2 days of travel and 2 additional days of anxiety/exhaustion around travel. 

My art equipment is here, I’ve got decent internet here. 

My garden isn’t here, the forest isn’t here, and my senses get assaulted both within the apartment (if it’s not construction noise then it’s the flight corridor to the airport, and if not that then it’s the hum of the automatic ventilation system that you can’t turn off – blessings of everything modern and automatic) and without (choose between car traffic in one direction and flight traffic in the other). 

Combined with modern fanciness and luxury that is mostly irrelevant to my needs. End up complaining about living in a fancy place that many people would envy because the fundamental physiological need of silence apparently overrides other things, especially when my nervous system is even more hyper-aroused than usual. 

My partner was tired from travel and work one of these days, the construction noise woke him up and he freaked out and stormed outside for a long walk without breakfast or anything. He needs a huge level of exhaustion to freak out like that; my nervous system responds like that almost every day; discomfort is normal, it’s only when my mental stability starts breaking down to the point where I can’t do or focus on anything and develop this diffuse bodily and unbearably sharp mental pain that I consider packing my bags.

This is a post mostly just for self-therapy.

Not sure there’s a point in having it public.

Yet, it might help to write.

Having ordered and devoured the first chapter of yet another book on trauma, Heller & LaPierre’s Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship – despite having wanted to stop reading that stuff, but hey, this one is really a stimulating read for someone with a neuroscience & buddhism background, heavy & dense enough – I now have new fancy words to describe what probably happens in these phases. 

In phases where the noise of a ventilator drives me up the wall, I can’t feel any emotions or human connection for days, and my muscles brace so much that I end up with headaches and nausea. The feeling of wanting to get out of my skin because it’s prickly, burning, everything itches, burns, glares, and it’s not clear whether that’s me or the external world. The external world certainly feels like a merciless, soulless, and threatening and diminishing assault – the noisy traffic or cold concrete don’t care about my edge of physiological collapse state. There aren’t enough living, breathing, life-cycling things close to me to feel the connection to the cycles of life, to be comforted by the soil breathing, rising and humbling itself like my own body and psyche. 

I can’t stand not living close to the earth; in a scarcity of human comfort and connection, I have learnt to build on it, to then move to the city and lose this cyclical and pulsing source of support. 

It is certainly easy to curse a lifestyle of noise, rush, pollution, plastic and concrete … when I do not see its rewards. And when I don’t have enough other factors to compensate. Initially I was trying to enjoy the social and cultural benefits of the city. But that was far too exhausting, rewarding, but I crashed just from public transport and overstimulation. After a couple of weeks or months, the proximity of my partner became pretty much the only compensation for not living closer to the earth (where I’d been lonely in human terms). 

Last time I didn’t want to stay here alone, left on the same day back to the village.

Now I was already exhausted from travel, and it’s less than a week. A couple of days. 6 days perhaps. Perhaps I can regain my equilibrium in solitude while staying here. Or perhaps it will get much worse, because I feel no ground here – no soil, no stone, no cats roaming, just concrete. No restorative silence. 

A mix of laziness and courage – laziness to pack my bags and spend half a day on trains and another day recovering from that; courage to say – this is not the first time I am in some kind of agonising psycho-physiological freeze state, definitely not the first time emotional pain until nausea without understanding why, not the first sensory overload loop ruining physiological balance and sending the rest of it to hell. Courage is perhaps to practice mindfulness (essentially, expand upon already considerable emotional and physical distress tolerance) and feel and face the various layers of the latest hellish state.

I think I know part of it.

Based on pure statistics, I pass out for days (beforehand and afterwards) whenever a close person leaves (for a weekend or for years – there is no sense of time in this). I also get huge anxiety spikes every time my living routine changes: whether that’s someone leaving, someone coming, or a change of location. 

My partner says, “But I’ll be back.” I say, “That’s irrelevant.”

It’s hard to explain, presumably the explanation is that my nervous system is still replaying the shock states I experienced when being left alone before I had any concept of time. 

Reading that developmental trauma book, I feel that over the years I have perhaps developed a vague grasp on noticing when a traumatic imprint is very old – very, very old, in fact perhaps going back to birth. I thought that it can be felt, I reconstructed it from my dreams at one point. I like reading it in a book. Part of it is objectively verifiable.

Still, years and years of affective deregulation, as they call it. Decades of completely overwhelming feelings that wreck physiological balance at seemingly random moments and can’t be verbalised and one is at a loss to explain what the heck is even happening; a bit over a decade of trying to relate to people, have friendship or intimacy, or relationships while every week or two a massive wave of this washes over one, and every hour or two, or every day, something in the mind clicks and makes me feel like I’m with a stranger, or with a threat, or just the capacity for emotion shutting down and everything and everyone looking unrecognisable. 

Someone flushing a bucket of paint, glaring red, black, deep blue, alternately, over my experience, every couple of hours. 

I still stuck it out, and some of my partners (particular thanks to N.), daily hell and drama during which, despite all, over the years I learnt that this is not the world turning upside down every strike of the clock, but that this is my “veteran syndrome” as N. first called it (having read a random flier about PTSD in the Israeli Army somewhere). 

I don’t have war PTSD, I have first-world PTSD. A pretty luxurious version that’s based only on a materially unstable early childhood and perhaps medical errors and perhaps someone having died; and presumably on being hypersensitive and on the autism spectrum, which makes it harder for a non-autistic parent to attune and recognise when things are far too much. 

At 34, I perhaps understand a good part of this storm: the basic two or three ingredients. 

It seems somehow futile to have spent the second half of my lifetime so far recovering from the first half. In any case, being far from having recovered: merely budding a fragile sense of self based on having, after years of searching in the dark, found out what to do, more or less, having found the courage to feel and instructions on how to do it. 

I still know there’s an abundance of minefields left, there’s still (and a lot more) distress held in the body that feels like it’s not survivable, that feeling it is basically life-threatening. It’s nice to read in a book that that’s precisely what it feels like, and that long-term, chronic deregulation ensues when this becomes trapped in your body in the first months of life. 

Pursuing DIY-therapy or healing without a stable setting, living random places, meeting strangers who are sometimes helpful, putting things together from books as for a variety of reasons it does not seem accessible to have someone help who knows what they’re doing. 

Wondering about the point of life, 

if so much time, so much energy goes just into restoring and righting what has been stunted at birth or not much later. 

The truth is, you can still develop other aspects of yourself, gain other strengths and depths, even while there are huge gashes that remain open and festering and take up the major share of your life’s canvas. It’s not the case that one can’t be alive, feel alive in some ways, develop in some ways. Still, it’s often upside down and in a sense you are walking around all day without the ability to ever tie your shoelaces, constantly struggling with that nonsense wondering why it’s so hard to focus, enjoy, relax, or just not be in permanent subjective crisis. 

Looking again at the whole-body freeze response, nausea, headache, emotional paralysis, physical apathy, lack of focus, feeling of being absent – that came out of nowhere, but incidentally, just like last time, it came a few days before my partner left for a week.

Last time I left to the village, and then restored myself and felt good. Now I haven’t left so far, and I’m still in hell. (Headache, depression, insomnia, grinding teeth so hard my jaw and whole back hurts, old eating disorders trying to creep back in but at least those I can keep out now.) 

Could a skilled person help me defuse this?

Would a supportive, empathic presence who can hold the space for this trip and not be scared be enough? (The way J. used to save me occasionally.)

Sometimes a person who’s been there is enough. 

I could also try to pull it off myself, enter the chaos via somatic mindfulness (aka feel what is going on in the body, no matter if it makes me want to throw up) and this has worked in the past, a number of times. Yet I’m often afraid, because the other bank of the river is not visible from here. 

There is a feeling of groundlessness, of a spaciousness in which there is no gravity, of utter disorientation and disorganisation – the mind grips no objects. I have learnt that a few times there was the other shore. The fear is that there won’t, that the deregulation will escalate into something that’s even worse and there’s no one around who will rein it in if I can’t. So far, tremors and spasms with tears and perhaps visions was the worst that happened, physical discharges of energy, again – nice to see it described in a book, at least I assume that’s what they mean by “discharging nervous system arousal” through the body – the rational evidence is that if it didn’t kill me and didn’t even send me off the psycho edge the last times, maybe it won’t this time. 

If you have a settled life, perhaps you can do that with a skilled therapist or healer. 

I haven’t found one that was useful and payable (that I’d trust not to make it worse) and compulsively shifting location every few weeks or months and being scared to spend money on anything cause I have no idea if/how I can earn it back doesn’t help. 

Trying to restore at least the breath

To contact the body even though most muscles are in painful spasms and the internal organs feel twisted and knotted up

What sometimes helps is to understand the word of the body

The gesture it’s articulating, probably an emotional gesture

Have the capacity to live viscerally whatever is being re-lived, whatever is getting played now off a tape that got stuck 30 years ago

Do I have the resources to feel that without further fragmentation, implosion, without creating more painful traces? Is it safe?

If it’s probably an infant’s emotional memory imprint, the bet would be that it probably is. 

What do you remember?

The groundlessness, expansive, empty, swirling space – as if a hand is reaching and finding nothing, not even where’s up and where down – this could be a memory of needing a body to be there; another body that would soothe and ground.

Is this repetitive feeling a memory of this?

Seeking, not finding, the physical safety of a physically present body? (At a stage when the books say an infant can’t feel its own being without outside help.)

(And how on earth did A. get through his early childhood without falling into such flashbacks constantly?)

Seeking ground,

seeking ground in another person that you can feel

(physically, through skin, through grasping, holding)

at an age when it was valid to seek ground in that way

at 34 still seeking ground in that way, falling into disorganisation when a body is not present?

(and how many times have lovers or friends told me that the relationship, that they don’t “disappear” just because they are absent for a period – but my response was still as though they’d disappear absolutely and for indefinite time, forever? and how can I feel in relationship if I can’t feel someone as physically present? how could these other people accomplish that?)

Self; a disorganisation of self when there is no body that holds.

Self that still isn’t sure it exists, after 34 years of this incarnation.

Failure to incarnate; that book even uses the phrasing I made up when I was 19. 

And had dreams that I suspected were about my birth. (Graphic, emotional dreams I remember vividly to his day.)

The diffuse sense of dread, in the books, and in me, whether awake or in dreams, waiting for the bomb to drop. I have never figured out what bomb, although my nightmares have run the gamut of every weapon of mass destruction I’ve been graced to see only on TV mashallah. 

Grasping into emptiness.

What’s there beyond grasping into the emptiness, 

in this primal body-inscribed memory?

Grasping into emptiness, probably for 34 years and a couple months. 

(Maybe that’s why my ex who would be in skin contact basically almost 24/7 night and day removed all my “symptoms” to the point where old friends claimed I’m suddenly a far better version of myself? Some improvement has remained; would months or years of that make this hell recede more permanently? Very simple recipe, no diplomas needed. Or just temporary?)

Grasping the emptiness,

and under that is sheer terror, a fear, a knowledge that there’s nothing left, there is no survival or existence if you don’t find that hand. 

Plausibly an infant’s terror, feeling like life-and-death terror, freezing up the entire body. Plausibly the primal fear of young mammals. Felt in its immediacy, viscerally, every time someone leaves. Decades. 

I’ve never known how to feel it (outside the freeze and dissociation). 

Needed to teach myself to read out body memories; needed to teach myself even to read basic emotions in the body. Communicate with the infant, the animal, to gradually find a narrow path back to the first ground that should have been walked on yet slipped away. 

Have to teach yourself all that intellectually, then realise some people just walk that ground without a thought, from the beginning. Their thoughts are free to go elsewhere.

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