This is my first post since the cross-country move. Before I moved, there was not a lot I could do to change my environment. And even the parts I could control (apartment, office cubicle, etc.) felt unchangeable because of my safety fears. I didn’t feel safe in either place to really decorate and make the spaces my own. Because of that, there were too many reminders (smell, sound, textures, and visuals) that triggered anxiety.
Outside of my safer spaces, the houses looked similar to ones I was raised around in the suburbs or like the ones in other city neighborhoods where I lived or worked in the past. The people who are raised in that state hardly ever leave; instead they move to different locales and neighborhoods. That makes leaving one’s past behind especially difficult.
What makes an environment feel unsafe?
When I changed my name, I wanted to leave the northeast too. But I needed my job and was invested in my mental health care. Leaving without a secure job and limited resources would have been too stressful and traumatic. My support network was still shaky too. Making and maintaining safe connections is not as easy as life coaches and self-help books advise. Also, with a large family like mine, it’s not easy to find a state in the US that isn’t populated with people who know or may have heard of me.
No, I’m not pretending. Both of my parents are 1 of 6 siblings. 5 of the 6 (including my mother) had lots of kids who also spread out, got married, made friends and connections all over. But my parents’ generation also has lots of cousins and relatives who live in many different states too. And then there is the community aspect. A whole city or group of cities in one state full of people who know of my past or took part in my past and have connections throughout the northeast and other states too through family, friends, work, networking, etc. took time out daily to make me feel unsafe and uncomfortable in public.
These people would talk about me, try to instigate trouble and set me up to be embarrassed or talked to by store managers. In restaurants and stores, they disappeared and refused to serve me outright. Or ignored me and acted rude and hostile the whole time they did serve me; with bad service and terrible food. They verbally abused me with insults and deliberately got in my way so I missed trains or crossways. Some used passing by as an excuse to try to physically push me around. Shouting and arguments on streets also ensued sometimes.
During really bad times, I’d switch and let my alters take over. Then come back to myself with cuts, bruises, sore muscles, and not knowing how I got them until the nightmares came. That was my life growing up, living with my family as an adult, and living on my own even after my name change. When family had keys to my apartment, I couldn’t risk having anything important because they would come in without telling me and take or destroy whatever they wanted. After I moved, I worried about break-ins or people finding me and getting in somehow.
A change of pace
The plane landed on Thursday morning Pacific time. Today is Sunday. For the first time in my life, I’ve slept for more than four hours at a time without nightmares. I still wake up, but that’s due to the new sounds and my own restlessness from jet lag. Every day, I’ve gone out and met people; been friendly and socialized; been made fun of and insulted without getting triggered into a panic attack.
I’ve been stared at; checked out; and sized up by people of all ages, colors, religions and living situations (there are a lot of homeless around). Each time it happened, I felt a little scared, some adrenaline, an increased hyper-vigilance, but not triggered into a panic attack or dissociation. My mind and body went into defensive mode: changed posture, took out phone, moved purse, looked around more often, and maintained as bland a facial expression as possible.
All of this is because I feel physically and emotionally safe. There is freedom in being able to express myself without fear of my past coming back to haunt me.
Environment has a large impact on emotions and the physical self. Sometimes, the biggest triggers come from unconscious memories and sensory feelings that can’t be put into words or images. Sometimes, a small change works miracles. Other times, a moderate change acts as a better tool. And for some people, drastic change is needed.
Most often, many people forget that an environment can be changed. Not just an apartment or a house or the inside of a car, but also other physical surroundings by taking a walk or living in a small town instead of a city.
Like all other changes, making this kind of change is difficult. But it’s worth thinking about if you, like me, are in a place where everything else in recovery seems to be going well, but something hard to pin down keeps derailing progress.
Thanks for reading