PTSD is a funny thing. “Funny” being the word to use if you either have dark humour or can’t think of a more suitable word. At the moment I’m in both categories. I’m coming to realise that the safer I become, the lower my heart rate therefore is, the calmer I am, the less tired I am, etc etc. This means that I feel triggers much more physically than I used to – when I was in danger, my adrenalin was already on a constant high, I was already on edge…any triggers sent me into flashback or emotional land but rarely did anything further to my physiological state. This is no longer the case. If I’m triggered now, I feel my heart rate shoot up, I feel the clamminess on my skin, the thump in my head, the instant dry mouth and my body almost acts without me thinking anything. Sometimes it runs, sometimes it poises into defence mode. Mostly it freezes, heart racing, whilst I figure out what it is that triggered me into thinking I’m in danger. Afterwards, I mostly am a little stunned at how it feels like to be in danger – stunned because not so long ago, that was just a permanent state, but so normal that I didn’t even realise how exhausting and ill it made me feel.
So as vile as PTSD is, it’s also an endless reminder that I am not in active danger 24/7. Which is nice. And still all shiny and new.
But the triggers just keep taking me by surprise, particularly the ones that I don’t expect to be triggers. There are some really obvious triggers (I won’t list them for fear of triggering someone else reading this!) but there are some really not obvious triggers. Like at all, like I can be triggered continuously over a period of days – and feel I’m being triggered, but have absolutely no idea what is causing it.
That has been the case this last couple of weeks. The problem? People coughing, it turns out.
Everyone has a cough at the moment – I had a vile one a few weeks ago, and since then I have been in a position of being able to name at least 2 or 3 people close to me with coughs, whilst sitting in lectures surrounded by many others who have a cough. It’s February. Of course everyone has a cough. It’s normal, and last year didn’t bother me, so why now? Well last year I wasn’t safe, maybe coughs did bother me and I just didn’t feel it because I was so hyper on edge anyway. Dunno.
I’ve only been able to realise it’s coughs because fortunately my housemate has had a pretty bad one. I say fortunately because for me, the way to heal and process triggers isn’t to run away from them, it’s to acknowledge they are there but fundamentally they cannot hurt me, and normalise something that was wrongly traumatic in the past. A corkscrew in itself is not dangerous, but because of how it was used to hurt me, seeing a corkscrew used to trigger me badly, for example. Now I can hold one without flinching, though the distant memories will always be there, and I don’t think they’ll ever fade.
I’ve noticed this week I was suddenly much more hyper vigilant, my heart rate higher, and in general far jumpier to slight sounds than I have been for a while. And then my housemate started coughing less. And I felt my body start to relax. And then I realised, and when I realised, the power of the trigger was reduced even more.
But why coughs? At face value they are so simple, and clearly not something which can hurt me. My friends or housemate or whoever could stand and cough in my face all day, but it won’t actually hurt me. It would be fairly unpleasant, a little gross, and I may well catch whatever cold virus they have…but that’s the height of it. Why on earth would my PTSD be so heavily affected by coughs?
Firstly…the sound. When I cough, it’s less triggery. I can feel I’m about to cough; the sound isn’t unpredictable. With other people, it’s incredibly unpredictable, and sometimes very loud. Out of nowhere there’s a sudden loud sound. Which may continue for a while (coughing fit) or stop. Either way, the suddenness of the sound is met by a sharp adrenaline rush, I get that sickly feeling across my chest, and a thumping heart rate. Sometimes I feel panicky and breathless, other times just suddenly extremely on edge and wide awake. (Followed immediately by feeling very very tired). I have a similar problem with sneezing, except sneezing is marginally more predictable – most people pull strange faces and inhale just before sneezing, by which point I’m prepared. Coughing can just come out of nowhere.
Secondly…memories of coughing. In the ring, it was dangerous to become ill. We did, all of us, but it was still dangerous. The worst was infection. Sometimes they’d bring in a doctor (I have no idea who this person was, except he was actually a doctor and clearly knew this stuff was going on). He’d appear occasionally and for all that he never rose the alarm, I am still grateful for him. He would get us medical supplies when it was urgent – infected wound, for example. Antibiotics don’t come from boots. He always looked gentle too, and sympathetic. Sometimes he would tell them, “this girl needs to be in hospital.” At the time, I was confused. Wasn’t this hospital? We had been told that this place was a special hospital and would make us ‘better’ – that we were being treated. In hindsight I realise this was just a ploy to make us scared to death of any form of hospital so we were less likely to seek help. It worked. The first time I went to a hospital here I had to bring a whole group of friends with me in order to just cope. Even now, being in hospital frightens me. But I can get through it.
Anyway, he’d say that, of course knowing that we wouldn’t be taken. How could they take us, with our injuries? But he’d say it anyway. I wonder if it just made him feel better, that he’d said it out loud. Sometimes a different doctor would come but it was he who I recognised the most, despite only seeing him a few times.
But mostly, if we were ill, we had to get on with it. But you need energy to survive beatings. You need energy to think straight when you’re in pain. You need a working respiratory system to keep breathing in the right way, in the right pattern, to stay conscious through the pain. A blocked nose, a sore throat, a chest infection, a cough….any of these could actually prove incredibly dangerous. It also made us visibly weaker. And then we were really done for.
I was one of the ‘lucky’ ones. Lucky as in there were a few of us not born into the ring – we existed in the ‘real’ world too. I attended school. It meant I couldn’t live there 24/7 for my entire life, as some of the others did. So, where most children would raid the cupboards for chocolate or whatever else it is that children do, I would raid the medicine cabinet at home. We had a large cabinet outside the bathroom upstairs, which was very creaky (terrifyingly so, as I did not want to be caught raiding it). In there were more tablets and medicines and bandages than a family of 5 could ever possibly need. I would take one sheet of tablets, or one extra bandage, or a little bit of calpol. Even tiny, I knew calpol was a child’s answer to everything, followed by the small pink tablets that tasted sweet and made hurty a bit better (ibuprofen). Bandages…well it took me a while to get the point of them. I thought they were big plasters and thus used them only to cover wounds. It was when I saw someone at school with a sprained arm and their arm in a sling that I came to realise the true purpose. I asked to see their cut, and they looked at me like I’d grown two heads.
Then, if I had enough notice that I was going there (like after school, or weekends) I would put tablets in my socks. They always searched my pockets (god only knows what for, it wasn’t as if I was likely to be carrying something worthwhile on me), but never thought to search my socks. In the children’s room, I would hide them under our special floorboard. My friend, a little boy a bit older than me, had pulled it up and we had all sorts under there. Like children, we found it all quite exciting, as well as terrifying. It was a game, but a serious one. Hide the stuff from the adults…or on your head be it. Sometimes I’d sneak in sweets too. Show the children who lived there the wonder of haribos. Yum. I can remember how excited we all would be. I remember being in one of the other rooms and being hurt, and could hear someone else being hurt next door, but for all that the man did to me…I had the upperhand. I had a gummy bear waiting for me and he didn’t know. Afterwards, me and the girl next door held hands and limped our ways back, and giggled excitedly as we shared out the haribos. It was our own way of taking back power. I actually find haribos very sickly now, but will often catch myself buying them, particularly if I’m feeling small or powerless, or sad. In a strange way, it’s become a comfort to me. I taste the haribo and smile at the memory of us just being children in a place of such horror.
But anyway, coughs. I’m in such a waffling mood today, sorry.
Hearing a child cough in there was frightening. Hearing a child coughing and wheezing, and coughing up phlegm, was really frightening. Calpol can only go so far, and we quickly learned that the pink tables (ibru) don’t touch chest infections. One girl had a terrible chest infection but recovered from it, however she always had a cough after that. And was weaker.
Sometimes the little ones would cough up blood, then I or one of the others would hold them and stroke their damp hair off their sticky fevery forehead, and just sing to them until they fell quiet. Then someone would hold me whilst I cried, or I’d hold them as they cried.
Sometimes when we were being hurt, the force would be so great that we’d cough. And cough. And start choking because we’re on our backs and coughing on saliva and being winded and maybe a little bit of blood. And still the thumps would rain down on us. I was always scared of that. I felt so powerless. Choking was my worst fear. I remember having my head pushed under water, or being put in a box full of water, and how I’d choke and splutter when they pulled me out at the last second.
So when I hear people coughing, my fear is re-activated. My terror that something awful will happen to them if they don’t get better, my fear that I can’t help.
And then there was the time my grandmother had the chest infection of hell. If she had a coughing fit, she generally seemed to stop breathing. She just coughed uncontrollably, tears streaming down her face, doubled over, gasping. I was terrified. This woman frightened me but seeing her so powerless and so fragile scared me – she was still my grandmother. I’d run and find a glass of water and beg her to drink some. For that entire week I was on eggshells, scared that if I left her alone she would just stop breathing entirely. As soon as she was strong enough again, the punishments came back of course, but I didn’t care. My grandma was okay. I figured maybe she blamed me for being so ill…
My brother once had a terrible cough too, so bad he’d throw up from coughing so violently. Once he stood in the conservatory literally coughing his guts up and my grandparents were furious. To a terrifying level. I remember screaming at them to stop, as he fell to his knees underneath my grandfather’s arms, still coughing. He was white. Trying to hold his arms out, but also trying to help himself with the cough. I snapped. I sidetackled my grandfather and told my brother to go. I don’t remember much past that. I do remember wondering how the neighbours hadn’t heard the echoed screams in the conservatory. In reality, they must have done. They chose not to listen.
A few days later I was moved by my brother’s bravery. He was maybe 15 I think? or 14. Something around there. My grandma had been winding him up, then commented that she did it to watch me, to watch me try and intervene. Twisted. I left the room so her game could stop. A bit later, she started on our youngest sister. My brother lost it. He stood up and he just yelled at them. He yelled at my grandparents and called them every possible thing he could call them, and even when they threatened him he said he didn’t care. They told us we would have to go and eat our dinner in the garden out of a bucket or trough like the pigs that we were. This greatly affected me, I felt sick with myself. My sister, too, flinched. My brother? He raised his eyebrows, picked up his plate, and said “fine.” And stormed out the house. They wouldn’t let me go check on him.
In reality, my brother had ran for it. He’d grabbed his bike and was a good 20 minute cycle away by the time we realised. My sister looked at me in stunned amazement. My grandparents, too drunk to drive anywhere – which my brother will have well known – rang our father. Told him to find him. I listened in sadness but with no degree of surprise when my father agreed. I later heard he’d tried pulling up alongside my brother and shouting at him to get into the car. My brother had tried refusing, and then a car started pulling up behind them. Panicked, my dad threatened him with something (I still don’t know what), and my brother jumped in. I wonder now what would have happened if the driver behind had called the authorities and reported what clearly looked like a man forcing a young boy into a car, with his bike. There were so many chances…
A few days later, my brother’s cough was back, and I listened to it at night-time in fear. I couldn’t sleep.
I once had a terrible cough. Or something. We were on ‘holiday’ and my vague memories are being in the tent, feeling iller than I have ever felt, and passing in and out of sleep. I woke once to find my brother and sister crying next to me, asking me to wake up. I tried. But then fell asleep. I just felt so ill. So so ill. Years later my sister said my cough had frightened her, because I just sounded so weak – “you couldn’t even cough properly…”
So in all of that, I can understand why coughs are triggering me. Between the unexpected sound, and the terror associated with coughs previously, it’s little wonder. It’s just not something I would have thought of, and I’m surrounded by it at the moment. Who knows…maybe by being surrounded, my head will realise coughs are no longer frightening, that I’m in a place where people can access help and won’t be hurt for being ill. Maybe the trigger will lose its power if I keep being around it. We’ll see…