Last week I wrote about the traumatic response of fawn, as described by Pete Walker, author of Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. This week I’m tackling another of my strongest trauma responses, that of flight.
Flight, or fleeing, is a natural response to threat or danger. It’s an instinctive life-saving behavior. However, we’re not physiologically made to live in a constant state of flight. It exhausts our adrenal glands, our immune systems, and our psyches. I believe it’s at the root of much disease and chronic pain. Sadly, we reward people for operating out of this particular trauma response by calling them “productive,” by which we mean “making money” or “benefitting me in some way with their work.”
Flight, like fawning, encompasses several behaviors I’ve struggled with all my life and already written about in this blog.
Flight becomes a trauma response when we are unable to flee from chronic threat. If we cannot physically escape, we default to mental and emotional escape by dissociating or distracting ourselves with activity. We push ourselves without mercy into workaholism, extreme stimulation, and chronic anxiety. We micromanage everyone around us, trying to maintain some sense of safety and control. We cannot sit still or relax without feeling panicked. We produce, and produce, and produce. If we’re not producing we feel empty, worthless, and scared.
We lose our ability to be. All we know is how to do.
There’s nothing wrong with achievement, but we need more than that to be healthy and happy. Of course, capitalism depends on achievement, and as consumers we are romanced with uncountable ways to be more productive, better at multitasking, and faster workers, not so we have more time to relax, rest, and play, but so we have more time to produce, multitask, and work!
Hard workers and super achievers are rewarded in the workplace with paychecks, promotions, bonuses, good references, and recognition. We are not culturally rewarded for taking sabbaticals, sick days, disability leave, family leave, or vacation days.
Here are some of the ways flight behavior shows up in me:
Chronic physical tension and pain.
Working without pausing for rest or food.
Refusing to accept physical limitations of pain or illness, thereby ensuring more pain and illness.
Remember that trauma response behaviors are on a continuum. Every day I look at a graphic from Pete Walker’s website depicting the four trauma responses at their most polarized and destructive as well as healthier, less extreme options.
For example, fleeing in blind panic has become a deeply ingrained behavior pattern for me. I feel panicked, but there is no threat, not here, not now. I’m safe. I don’t need to run away from anything. Yet the smallest trigger produces a flood of adrenaline that demands I flee. If I don’t obey the compulsion, I have a panic attack, which is extremely mortifying when I’m in public.
I counteract this old trauma response by practicing disengagement and healthy retreat. Disengagement means, instead of running like a panicked rabbit, I excuse myself with dignity from situations in which I feel uncomfortable and walk (not run!) away. I don’t pick up poisoned bait. I don’t accept an invitation to have conflict. I create some distance between myself and the trigger. I lay down a boundary. I say no.
I’ve written about healthy retreat in my post on quitting. Sometimes a healthy retreat is the best choice we can make for ourselves, no matter how uncomfortable, frightening, or even devastating it can be. Unfortunately, we are often unsupported in this choice. When we understand we’re in the wrong job, the wrong relationship, or the wrong place, we have a right to choose a healthy retreat. We don’t need to drop an atomic bomb as we leave, but it’s okay to change our mind, make a mistake, outgrow a situation, or simply realize things aren’t working out for us where we are.
I’ve been challenging what I now identify as my flight response for some time. I developed a meditation practice. I developed an exercise practice and then began working with a personal trainer to ensure I wasn’t pushing myself too hard (I was). I get regular dental care and wear a mouth guard at night. I eat regularly, no matter how busy or stressed I feel. I’ve slowed down. I no longer strive for perfection. I make it a point to relax, laugh, play, and take breaks. I do creative work every day. Because I’ve learned to relax during the day, I sleep much better at night, and I’m careful about my sleep hygiene. I stopped making to-do lists and no longer engage in schedule shaming myself or anyone else. If I feel tired, ill, or just plain uninspired, I rest.
The funny thing is, I’m more productive now than I’ve ever been in my life before. I’m also far less exhausted, much healthier, and happier. These trauma responses have had enormous power over me, but recognizing them, naming them, and understanding where they come from have reduced them to habits I can break. And I’m breaking them.
I often imagine life as a river and myself in a boat of my own making, floating on it. I don’t picture a sailboat, having no experience of one, but a small boat that glides with the current and can be paddled. I don’t imagine a single river, but a vast network, far more than I could ever explore in this lifetime. Sometimes it’s a river of water, sometimes a river of stars. Sometimes it’s a river of green moss that carves a path through thick forest. Sometimes it’s an air-borne river of leaves and feathers and pieces of sky.
Sometimes it’s a river of stone.
The thing about rivers is they take me where they take me. I can paddle and steer, but whatever river I’m on at any given moment is a living thing in itself. I’m not its master and it doesn’t ask me where I want to go.
Of course, I don’t have to surrender to this kind of movement. I can refuse to make a boat in the first place, refuse to learn how, refuse to try. I can take a short cut and buy a premade boat or jump in someone else’s boat. If I do manage to create a boat, I can still make my way to the shore at any point and stop.
I can always throw myself out of the boat, too … but then I’ll never find out where the river is taking me.
I can also fight with the current.
I know a lot about this.
In the last few days, I’ve been floating on a river of stone.
Photo by Paul Van Cotthem on Unsplash
Stone is very, very, v…e…r…y slow. Oh, it moves, in the deep foundations of life. It shifts and compresses, slips, breaks down, heats and cools. It tells an old, old story, whole volumes of which are faded and weathered into illegibility, or hidden so well I know I’ll never read them. Now and then, though, a period of grace arrives in which I inadvertently enter a river of stone and have an opportunity, which I reject, avoid and try to escape, to hear whispers of stone stories.
During these times, others on the river are out of sight and out of hearing. My calls echo back to
Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash
me off stone canyons and cliffs. I reach out for another in my sleep and wake with bloody knuckles. On the river of stone others do not respond. They don’t follow through. They don’t keep their word. My password doesn’t work. I can’t log on. There is no clarification or confirmation. I’m alone, in my little boat, and I feel adrift and forgotten, unseen and unheard, left behind.
The river of stone tells me a story of foundations, of beginnings, of layers of time and events, of family and tribe. My agenda, my insistence on movement and progress, my puny frustration with things not done, make less impression than a fragile-winged dragonfly that flung itself into the stone’s embrace uncounted aeons ago and flies now forever in the river of stone.
The river of stone is inexorable. It forces me to slow down. It provides me with no distraction and no easy entertainment. Creativity falls into sleep from which I cannot wake it. Those tasks and activities I call “productive” cease. Frantically, I paddle my boat, one side, then the other, until my hands are bloody blistered and my shoulders are a block of pain. All the old demons in my head leap into life, jeering and heckling, joining hands in gleeful celebration, and they have their way with me because I’m trapped in a river of stone.
I accomplish nothing on a list. I write no pages. Plans fall through. I wait too long to walk, and then it rains. Dirty dishes sit on the counter. All I want to do is get lost in an old familiar book–if only I could stay awake long enough!
Then, gradually, frustration, panic and fear exhaust themselves and lie down to rest. I rediscover the beauty of emptiness. I begin to see veins and gems and stardust in the stone around me. I remember the difference between doing and being, and the delicate balance they must maintain. The stone speaks to me of strength, of endurance, of centering and grounding. I give myself to the pause in communication and creative work. I put down the paddle, the oar, stretch out in the boat and rest, dreaming of stone-lipped wells refilling with spring water, dreaming of a spray of words leaping off waves or trailing behind stars in a river ahead, dreaming of friends whose faces I haven’t yet seen and broken connection repaired.
I doze, rocked in a cradle of stone. I rest, floating on a river of rock. I sink into the slow, deep, stony heartbeat in the center of all things, imagine inhalations and exhalations, each lasting 100,000 years.
Photo by Brent Cox on Unsplash
I surrender to the river of stone, and in doing so I float out of it.
I went to a self-defense class last weekend, and it changed everything.
I’ve been thinking about self-defense a lot lately. In the past month or two I came across a book by Kelly McCann titled Combatives For Street Survival, illustrated throughout with photographs. That book opened up a whole new world to me. Not only is McCann direct and clear, he has a no-bullshit approach to the techniques and skills of self-defense. He knows what he’s talking about, as he’s an ex-Marine and has a wide variety of experience all over the world. He’s not interested in ideology. The only thing he’s interested in is what works to discourage or disable (note I did NOT say kill) an attacker, and he makes the point, over and over again, that if you’re forced into a fight in spite of good situational awareness and avoidance tactics (preferably running like a rabbit), you’re more likely to live if you learn a small set of flexible techniques and practice them.
What struck me most forcibly about McCann’s book was that it represents permission to defend oneself. No one ever gave me that before. On the contrary, it seems to me all I’ve ever learned is that self-defense is not allowed. Self-defense is disloyal, a betrayal, dramatic, hysterical, disobedient, shameful, disruptive and makes others uncomfortable. For God’s sake, don’t make a scene!
I think a lot about boundaries. Self-defense is maintenance of boundaries. So, according to what I’ve learned in the world, maintaining boundaries is inappropriate. In fact, self-defense is violence, an act of aggression.
This is complete nonsense. Self-defense is not offense. Self-defense doesn’t come first. Self-defense is a response to threat or violence. Self-defense is not entering a building with guns blazing. It’s not swaggering down the street picking fights. It’s not bullying, machismo, unprovoked hostility or aggression. Self-defense is not a power grab.
Self-defense is a willingness to protect a boundary. It’s the right to say yes or no. The point of it is not whether others respond or respect our boundaries (although that would be nice). The point is not whether others come to our assistance when we’re under attack. The point is we have a right to protect ourselves.
Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash
So, with all these thoughts jostling around in my head, I went to a free self-defense class at the local community center.
The class consisted of about fifteen women, age range high school to 50s. The instructor was a local martial arts teacher and he had female and male students with him to assist. It was a three-hour class.
Two things happened there that I’ll never forget.
The first was learning how to punch. This is not a thing I’ve ever wanted to learn. I don’t have much upper body strength, I know it’s easy to break your hand punching people or things, and I’ve no desire to punch anyone, ever. However, it was part of the class, so I learned. Then the instructor and male assistants filtered through the class, coming to each of us and asking us to punch them in the abdomen.
A large young man, over six feet tall, solid, strong, with hair dyed strawberry red, came and stood toe to toe with me, grinned, and said, “Hit me.”
I looked up into his face. “I don’t want to do this.” (Variations of this statement could be heard all over the room.)
“Go ahead. You won’t hurt me.”
This, I reflected, was probably true. Even if I’d known how to punch, I doubt I could have really hurt him. That wasn’t the thing holding me back.
I was being asked to deliberately, in cold blood, hit a nice young man who might have been my sons’ age or even younger, a stranger, in the stomach with my fist.
In that moment, I began to see the enormity of the disempowerment of women around self-defense and boundaries.
Photo by James Pond on Unsplash
I said to him, “I’ve been hit before, but I’ve never hit anyone else.”
His face darkened. “Then here’s your chance.”
“But it wasn’t you!” I said, on the edge of tears.
He stood there, waiting. I doubled up my fist and hit him.
“Again,” he said.
I did it again.
“Harder! Put your shoulder into it!”
I did it harder. Not as hard as I could, but harder.
“Good.” He stepped in front of the woman next to me.
This was happening all over the room. I saw women in tears. I saw women “hitting” with force that wouldn’t have knocked over a kitten and then apologizing abjectly. Eventually, with a lot of coaxing, most of us tried with at least moderate strength at least once. This single exercise took a large chunk of the total class time and was the hardest part of the whole class for me.
We knew, at the end of the class, there would be an opportunity to role play with one of the assistants or the instructor and demonstrate some of the techniques we’d learned. The instructor spent a lot of time talking to us about situational awareness, body language and the psychology of violent attack, and emphasized making noise in order to create an audience and discourage an attacker. He gave us language to use (WHAT DO YOU WANT?), and demonstrated. It was very clear, and the easiest part of the training—no new moves needed.
When it came time to role play, the instructor asked for volunteers. The nervousness in the room was palpable. Nobody wanted to do it, though there was an agreed upon safe word that would immediately end the role play and the situation was completely contained and controlled.
This is not the sort of thing that intimidates me, so I volunteered first and chose as my attacker the strawberry-haired gentlemen who so kindly encouraged me to hit him! Everyone laughed at this, because he was the biggest assailant I could have chosen. He was very pleased. He’d thought no one would pick him for this part of the class.
I strolled along in the middle of the classroom and he came up behind me and grabbed my shoulder. I turned around and asked him, loudly and aggressively, “WHAT DO YOU WANT?”
He grinned and transferred his grip to my upper arm.
I faced him, got my hands up and yelled into his face, “BACK OFF!”
It wasn’t him I was yelling at, though. It was a whole crowd of other faces, both male and female, people who have hurt me with fists and words, people who have shut me down, shut me up and taught me to be small and silent. I felt like a snarling wolf, a cornered tiger. With those two words, I reclaimed my willingness to self-protect and the power to do so.
I surprised him. He flinched back a little and his grip loosened. The instructor wanted the role play to continue until he felt that each woman had done something that gave her a chance to run. In less than a minute I was back against the wall with the rest of the audience.
One by one, with a lot of encouragement, every woman got up and tried the role play.
Not a single woman was able to use more than a moderately loud voice or any kind of an aggressive tone. They sounded terrified. They sounded weak. Their tone of voice was begging and pleading. The ones who did manage a puny blow or an evasive maneuver apologized to their pseudo attacker even as the attack continued. The instructor prompted, over and over again, “Louder! Shout out! Let us hear you!”
They couldn’t do it. Some even said, “I can’t!”
This assortment of ordinary women with a wide span of ages couldn’t be verbally aggressive with an attacker, even though they had full permission, were encouraged, supported, totally safe, and had my example paving the way.
Are you understanding this? These women couldn’t defend themselves, even verbally. All the guns and knives and skills in the world wouldn’t have helped them.
It boggled my mind.
Ever since that day I’ve been thinking about the power I felt when I yelled, “Back off!”
Ever since that day I’ve been thinking about a culture that silences, shames and disempowers women to the point that so many are unable to protect themselves.