April 27, 2007

Survivors: Hypervigilance

Posted in recovery, therapy at 12:03 pm by nevavegan

Without further ado, this week’s writing assignment from the survivors’s forum.

Many people who have been abused or lived through an attack experience hypervigilance, a situation where we startle easily, we are always looking out for danger, and we find it hard to trust others. The forum asks us this week to consider ways in which hypervigilance might be a gift. Does it allow us to be more aware of the situations around us? Do we read other people’s intents and emotions? Does it help keep us out of future situations which might be dangerous.

This is a strange one for me to answer. I am hypervigilant in some situations and not so much in others. I got specific therapy for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which was extremely helpful in limiting the hypervigilance as well as other issues like intrusive memories/flashbacks. So I don’t at present consider hypervigilance to be a huge issue for me.

I wonder though, if I asked my husband if I was hypervigilant what his answer would be. Would he bring up how nervous I get when strangers try to talk to me in public, or my tendency to startle pretty badly? Maybe I’m not so well off as I thought, just significantly better. Though to be fair to me, why are people (actually only men) always trying to talk to me when I’m going to the grocery store, walking my dogs, trying to get from the parking lot into my building at work, etc. And what do they expect except that I’m going to freak out if they try to touch me. Seriously people, it’s not ok to touch me, not on my hand, not on my arm, definitely not on my face. Keep a decent distance will you? Otherwise I will consider you a threat and act accordingly. You’ve all been warned.

Um, what was that topic again? Hypervigilance. Yeah, maybe there are some issues here.
To the moderator’s question if the hypervigilance allows me to read people’s emotions better, the answer is somewhat. I think I’m pretty good at telling when someone is happy or sad or angry, at least in person, at least with some people. The downside is that I often read stong emotions, such as anger or competitiveness as a potential threat to me. Not always a good thing, but sometimes it is protective.

There was this incident, several years ago, not related or connected to anything else in my life. I had moved to Maryland, moved in with my husband, and I liked to walk from our apartment to the grocery store, because I liked walking and I liked getting the exercise. And this man pulled his car up to me and started off with some line about needing directions and opened up his car door and was asking me to get in and I was getting a bad feeling and started backing away. And then he growled (and growl is the only word I can use to describe this because it was very aggressive but not shouting, intended for nobody else to hear “Just get in the car!” And he lunged at me. I started dashing away, but I also shouted “Get away from me you psycho!” People were starting to notice and stare so he jumped in the car and sped away. But the thing that always gets me is there was this moment where I looked at his face and while I could be wrong I don’t think I am, I saw nothing human there. I really think that had things gone differently he would have killed me without remorse or hestitation. If I picked up any emotion off of him it was incredible malice and strange joy. He was excited and happy, and then incredibly frustrated.

You would think that after such an incident the chances of me ever getting into a car with a stranger would be zero. But then I found myself and my dogs stranded in our current neighborhood but about a 10 minute walk from our house, in a sudden thunderstorm. Lightening struck a tree close to us and I could smell the sulfur. My dogs were cowering and I was wondering if I’d be able to drag them all the way home. Then a man pulled up in front of his house in a pick-up truck. The only emotion I could read in him was some concern but a little humor at the sight of a soaking wet me with two skulking soaking wet dogs. So I asked if he could give us a ride home. I got into the bed of the truck with the dogs, so if anything had gone wrong I could have jumped out. But I just knew it would be fine. He rushed us home and let us off safely. Of course for about a month after that my husband asked me every day “Did you get into any trucks with stranger men today?”

My adopted dog is also a case study in hypervigilance. Actually I adopted two dogs, but it’s really just the first dog I’m talking about here. Kyra is a dog who was mistreated before we adopted her and as a result she has fear aggression. When I watch how Kyra reacts to the world and how she reads emotions, I’m reminded so much of my own issues. And it makes me realize I need to do better.

Kyra’s strategy is to size up everyone and everything around her and try to decide split second if there’s some kind of threat to her. If she feels there’s a threat, her first response is to try to run away. But should she feel she can’t run away, or doesn’t feel she has enough time, she immediately tries to put on a show of being the scariest doggie on the whole planet. Her goal is to try to intimidate said threat into backing off.

When I’m the one holding the leash this can be difficult to deal with. Kyra has gotten really good about looking to my husband for guidance when they’re out together. It’s like she turns and looks at him as if to ask “Is this a bad person? Do I need to go nuts?” I try to use the same reassuring techniques he does, and it works some of the time, but sometimes I’ve left trying to hold a maniac dog so she doesn’t leap on someone.

Kyra’s method of threat assessment is pretty interesting, at least to me (everyone else could be bored to tears). People wearing hats are automatically suspect—I can only assume that whoever abused Kyra wore a hat. Men are more suspect than women, but not all men. And women don’t get a free pass either. People who make sudden moves toward us are always considered dangerous. I live in a neighborhood where a fair percentage of the male population seems to choose to walk around with a “tough” stance and a snarl on their faces. I’m used to this at this point. Someone can be walking toward me with the meanest look and I know they’re just going to walk right past. Kyra doesn’t realize this. If a guy is walking toward us with an aggressive stance, she starts lunging and growling.

Generally if someone tries to talk to me beyond just a wave and hello, Kyra doesn’t like that. They need a good growling out to let them know that’s not ok. It took me a long time to realize that in many of these situations Kyra was picking up on my emotions. I would tense up. “Why is this guy talking to me… If I need to run what’s the best direction.” So Kyra saw that these situations made me uncomfortable and it fueled her own fears.

But there was one occasion where I realized just how much Kyra picks up on intent, and may even disregard the signals from me if she thinks she has a good grasp on the situation. One day I was walking my dogs down the street and this older man practically fell out his front door, still clutching his empty 40, and shouted “what pretty dogs! I love dogs!” and stumbled over to us to pet the dogs. This wasn’t really a stress-free encounter to me, I never know what an intoxicated person might do. But Kyra was wagging her tail and letting this man pet her. She only picked up happiness and affection from him and that’s what she was responding to.

And that’s how I know that reading emotions is not always the best way to feel safe. That angry person might not be angry at me, that happy person could change in an instance. This could be one of the worst lasting side effects of being hurt by people we know and care about—we come to believe that anyone is capable of anything, that a quiet moment can turn into a storm with very little warning. I realize as an adult that this is not true of everyone, but the underlying fear remains. I do look for that change brewing in people, but then again I don’t really see it all that often anymore because I try not to be around people who are like that.

Finally the survivors forum asked how we can turn this around into a positive. If we are better at reading emotions, can we use that to help others? I think I use it more in animal work actually. I find that I’m good at picking up on the fear or hurt in animals and finding ways to reassure them and put them at ease. I notice quickly when they respond to something, so I’m able to keep doing what is working.

With people it’s a lot harder. I used to somehow collect a whole bunch of friends with many problems. Actually they say this is pretty common for abuse survivors: we wind up with caseloads not friendships. It got to the point that I thought everyone in the whole world was depressed. Then I figured out that I pick up quickly on it when I meet sad people, and then I try to be nice to them or help them feel better. But it ended up that I had a lot of people in my life who were bottomless wells of negativity. They didn’t want to feel better, or if they did want to feel better they didn’t want to take the necessary steps to get there. So in that respect my empathy was working against me. I certainly don’t want to be unfair to people who are depressed or in trouble. But I also had to realize that if every time I saw someone I was left feeling drained, exhausted, and worried, and this pattern held over a long period of time then that friendship was unhealthy for me.

Actually I see empathy and caretaking in Kyra too, though since she’s a dog this is less harmful to her. That’s one reason why her fear aggression is lessened when she’s out with my husband. She senses a vulnerability in me and thinks it means she needs to step up and defend both of us. She’s wonderful with rescued kittens, very gentle and careful with them. One evening I was walking her after dark in a cold rain and she leaned over and picked something up off of the side of the street. She’d found an injured bird which she gently lifted in her mouth. We took the bird to a wildlife rehabber who said “Are you sure your dog had this bird? His beak is bent from flying into a car, but there isn’t a single tooth mark on him.” Kyra likes to take care of the smaller and the injuried, but she wants to bite drug dealers. It could be worse.

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