Beyond Fight or Flight: When You’re Not the Textbook Version of PTSD

By Joyce Hayden

Photo: Pixabay
Photo: Pixabay

I heard the voices of the professor and the students all around me. I couldn’t make out specific dialogue, but I was definitely aware of the drone. I myself was on the ceiling, floating. My home away from home since I was a kid.

We’d been discussing the Fight or Flight Response in class. The professor explaining how in times of trauma, people do one of two things: they stand and fight or they run away.

I had flown out of my body because I recalled the many times when I was a teen or even a pre-teen, and men had used their calloused hands to explore my body. And my reaction was not to run. And I certainly didn’t fight, not with men I’d been taught to obey and respect: an uncle, a family doctor. All I had done was stand or lie there stiff as stone. Arms and legs rigid. Eyes wide open or wide shut. The furthest away I’d ever got from any of these incidents was up on the ceiling, where I could float, observe, pretend the terrified girl down there was someone else.

Sometimes from my high perch, I’d try to help her. I’d tell her to “Run.” “Get up.” “Kick.” “Scream.” But she would remain flat and paralyzed. I got so frustrated I resorted to calling her names. “What’s wrong with you, Stupid?” “Hey, Dummy, don’t just lie there.” Eventually I had to turn away until the hands were gone, until she and I became one again.

Sitting in Psych 101 class, I convinced myself there really was something wrong with me. I hadn’t reacted in either of the two ways that the textbook and professor said normal people do. One more reason to convince myself that I deserved it. That I’d asked for it, because I had no capacity to respond.

I never heard the term “freeze” in relation to the fight or flight response until very recently. I can’t recall where I even read it, but the concept shocked me. No longer do Fight and Flight stand on their own. Now the phrase is known as: Fight, Flight or Freeze.

The first two responses require the individual to have a certain presence of mind regarding their circumstances, coupled with an innate understanding of their own sense of self. They’ve been born with or have been taught through example by aware parents that they matter. That they’re inherently good. That they’re loved. That someone is looking out for them and that they have the power to take care of themselves. That they have the right to control what happens to them.

My Mom was a teacher. An award-winning kindergarten teacher, who I know instilled those values into her students. But I think she must have assumed that her own kids were born with it, because we never got those lessons. What we were taught was all handed down from a closed cardboard box of loss and grief in my parents’ bedroom closet. My closet held shiny sparkling dance costumes, a Thumbelina doll, Beatles records and a sturdy, wooden hockey stick. But my parents’ closet held all that remained of a dead nine year old boy. I drew my lessons from that box. That box that held a pair of green corduroy pants, sympathy cards, 3rd grade valentines and a burlap square with an image of a boy fishing by a river, sewn with blue, brown, yellow and green yarn. That box inspired a taboo of questions.

A silence grew around me. To my knowledge, I’m the only child born after Jerry’s death who buried herself in his absence, who was consumed in the loss, always trying to make sense of the blond boy’s portrait on the living room wall. We were never told directly to not ask about Jerry, but it was implied by my parents’ silence on the subject, and THAT, I believe, was the beginning of my becoming paralyzed. I had a five year old mind full of questions that couldn’t be asked or answered. I didn’t believe I had the right to ask. I believed that because I hadn’t met Jerry, I had no right to grieve him. But I’d grown and developed in my mother’s womb, fed for nine months with her fresh grief.

I did not know how to speak up for myself. I did not know how to take care of myself. I was never a fighter and normally I didn’t run away from situations. So when hands were laid on me by men of authority, I froze in place. Eyes closed, or not blinking. Paralyzed, my body stopped working; my brain shut down. Terror forced my spirit straight out the top of my head and onto the ceiling. Because I knew no better, I considered this consent. I was 5. I was 7. I was 10 and 12, and I hated myself because I told myself I must have liked it, asked for it. For years I wouldn’t talk about it. Decades. Because I thought my freeze response was a conviction of guilt.

Maybe that’s why it took so long for the Psychiatric community to recognize “Freeze” as a natural response some children have to trauma. I imagine that kids who freeze, are like me; they blame themselves. They don’t talk about the trauma, the abuse. Decades go by and no one knows. We know about PTSD from adults, from soldiers, as much as from survivors of rape and abuse. But how many grown men freeze? I’d expect that they are more likely to fight or run. I don’t know the numbers, but I do know that in my Psych 101 class in 1977 in Auburn, NY, my freeze response was another reason for me to stay silent. A reminder that something about me was wrong. Abnormal. So I’d best not let that secret out.

In Questa, NM earlier this year, in the days following the news of my mother’s death, I would find myself on the ceiling most mornings, while drinking coffee and writing Morning Pages. I was shocked. I was scared. I was on a self imposed writing retreat, revising my memoir, The Out of Body Girl. And the last thing I expected, nearly 40 years after that Psych class, was to be floating on the ceiling, watching my adult self down on the bed, out of body once again.

This time, however, I was only scared until I recognized my dissociative behavior for what it was: an automatic response to deep grief. A response to a desire to separate from emotion. This wasn’t the terror of childhood, the terror of thirty years ago. This was acknowledgment. This was strength. This was an empowered woman knowing she could re-enter her body and cry the grief, walk the grief, write the grief away. No more worry about abnormality. No more fear about paralysis. No more judgmentabout fight or flight. No more need to freeze.


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