Repulsion and Trauma
Decompensation: Psychology, a loss of ability to keep up normal psychological defenses, sometimes resulting in depression, anxiety, or delusions. Dictionary.com
Miss Lonelyhearts is an advice columnist who slowly loses his mind from the suffering that he reads and responds to. This is toward the close of the story:
“After a long night and morning, towards noon, Miss Lonelyhearts welcomed the arrival of fever. It promised heat and mentally unmotivated violence. The promise was soon fulfilled; the rock became a furnace.
He fastened his eyes on the Christ that hung on the wall opposite his bed.
As he stared at it, it became a bright fly, spinning with quick grace on a background of blood velvet sprinkled with tiny nerve stars.
Everything else in the room was dead–chairs, table, pencils, clothes, books. He thought of this black world of things as a fish. And he was right, for it suddenly rose to the bright bait on the wall. It rose with a splash of music and he saw its shining silver belly.
Christ is life and light.
“Christ! Christ!” This shout echoed through the innermost cells of his body.
He moved his head to a cooler spot on the pillow and the vein in his forehead became less swollen. He felt clean and fresh. His heart was a rose and in his skull another rose bloomed.
The room was full of grace. A sweet, clean grace, not washed clean, but clean as the inner sides of the inner petals of a newly forced rosebud.
Delight was also in the room. It was like a gentle wind, and his nerves rippled under it like small blue flowers in a pasture.
He was conscious of two rhythms that were slowly becoming one. When they became one, his identification with God was complete. His heart was the one heart, the heart of God. And his brain was likewise God’s.
God said, “Will you accept it, now?
And he replied, “I accept, I accept.”
He immediately began to plan a new life and his future conduct as Miss Lonelyhearts.
He submitted drafts of his column to God and God approved them. God approved his every thought.”
My decompositions are less dramatic, but no less frightening.
It’s frightening to lose the ability to sleep and thus to concentrate.
It’s frightening to lose the ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy.
It’s frightening to wake-up tired and hopeless and thinking that it never gets better.
Decompensation is not necessarily a bad thing if it is part of the therapeutic process.
“…anxiety and panic symptoms are almost invariably “feeling flashbacks” triggered by a relatively benign event in the here-and-now, such as being alone in a room at twilight.” The Work of Stabilization In Trauma Treatment
The basic skills a trauma patient needs are these:
- grounding and centering techniques
- coping strategies for dealing with suicidal and self-abusive impulses
- contracting for safety with themselves and others
- anticipate stressful or triggering events
- learn how to calm the body and mind
- distinguish past from present reality and how to stay “in the present”
If the trauma symptoms include dissociative alters the alters must know about and communicate with each other.
This is not easy and my recent attempts to communicate broke through memory barriers and lead to this most recent period of decomposition and regression.
“Regression is an unconscious defensive process by which the patient reverts to a previous level of functioning, usually to a certain infantile or juvenile stage.”
One of the best examples of regressive decomposition is in the film Repulsion by Roman Polanski.
Catherine Deneuve portrays Carol, a sexually conflicted young Belgian woman.
Carol lives in London with her older sister. .
The film suggests that either Carol’s father or some other man sexually abused her as a child.
I first saw Repulsion when I was in my 20’s.
Watching it again this week during an episode of decompesation was a revelation.
Polanski portrays Carol’s anguish and her rapid decline with brilliant accuracy; when the Sister leaves for a week-long holiday we enter the dangerous territory of Carol’s mind.
“…the most common effect of sexual abuse is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Symptoms can extend far into adulthood and can include withdrawn behavior, reenactment of the traumatic event, avoidance of circumstances that remind one of the event, and physiological hyper-reactivity.” Psychology Today
We see these symptoms when Carol’s boyfriend tries to kiss her. She reacts with disgust, runs into her apartment in a panic and obsessively brushes her teeth.
According to American Nurse Today, “Those with a history of childhood sexual abuse have increased reports of fear, anxiety, insomnia, headaches, aggression, anger, hostility, poor self-esteem, and suicide attempts. Higher rates of depression are reported. Depression has also been shown to be associated with impaired immune functioning. Increased cytokines (inflammation) and cortisol (stress) have been identified as mechanisms by which immune system function is impaired and related to depression.”
My body is constantly pumping out stress hormones which lead me to suspect that the decompensation is as much physical as it is psychological.
I become so physically exhausted that I can’t function.
This is especially true when I’m alone.
I can organize around the needs of the people I love when they are present.
According to the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience in South London,
“The symptoms of psychosis and the symptoms of PTSD are alike. The vivid flashbacks of PTSD can be similar to, or the same as, hallucinations. The intense fear and ‘re-experiencing’ symptoms of PTSD can be akin to delusions that people who have psychosis experience.”
Both PTSD and psychosis can lead to disturbed sleep patterns, difficulty concentrating, personal neglect and withdrawal from other people. The paranoia (see Paranoia page) often associated with psychosis can mirror the hyper-vigilance that people with PTSD may experience.
If someone is hearing voices or other sounds, or seeing and smelling things that others cannot see or smell, they may be re-experiencing a trauma and not experiencing the symptoms of psychosis.
However, GPs and mental health professionals may attribute the voices and other symptoms to psychosis and not consider PTSD as a possible explanation.
Researchers think people may sometimes be misdiagnosed, particularly if GPs and mental health professionals don’t ask about past traumatic events.
Misdiagnosis can lead to mistreatment: people may be prescribed anti psychotic medication, which is not the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence-recommended treatment for PTSD.”
Among the trauma symptoms depicted in Repulsion are the loss of time
which begins almost as soon as Carol is alone.
We also see her increased sense of disconnection from the people around her.
Later, as her paranoia and hype-vigilance escalates Carol re-lives her assault.
By the end of the week Carol is lost to herself and the film closes with a snapshot of Carol as a child, gazing angrily at her Father.
Kim Morgan of the Huffington Post calls Repulsion one of the most frightening studies of madness ever filmed.
Decompensation is an expected feature of any chronic and severe mental illness.
There are ways you can cope.
A psychotherapist is crucial for gaining control over the most severe and debilitating symptoms of PTSD and CPTSD.
But there are other things that you can do to help yourself through an acute episode.
The first thing to remember is that you have an illness and are not in control of every last aspect of it.
The most lethal myth imposed on us by Behaviorism is that we are in complete control of everything we think.
The denial of unconscious memories and fears is completely at odds with the real world symptomatology of someone with a severe PTSD.
This does not mean that behavioral interventions don’t work to help reduce symptoms: they do, but recovery takes longer than 90 days and requires more than short-term, albeit inexpensive, behavioral interventions.
Remember that recovery happens in steps. It is normal to have setbacks.
If you have a counselor or psychotherapist let that person know what is happening.
Remind yourself that memories are just memories. It is more normal to remember a trauma than to forget it.
Remind yourself that panic attacks are not dangerous; if you find yourself in the middle of one stop and pace your breathing.
Find a quiet spot and meditate until the panic passes.
Therapy is sometimes painful, especially when it is working. You may notice more symptoms as you begin to have memories.
If you start to relive the past remind yourself of the present. The trauma happened in the past, and you are in the present.
When you can’t sleep don’t lie in bed thinking or worrying. Get up and enjoy something soothing or pleasant.
If you have difficulty concentrating give yourself time to focus on what you need to do. You may also have symptoms of depression. It is not uncommon for people with PTSD and CPTSD to have depressive episodes.
If the acuity lasts for more than a few days or if you have serious suicidal thoughts and impulses call your therapist or counselor.
If you feel as if you are an immediate danger to yourself or to someone else call 911 or go to an emergency room.
For reasons that I don’t completely understand my emotions were everywhere this past week.
My decompensation is not as dramatic as Carol’s; it certainly doesn’t have the narrative edge.
It involved lost time and laying in bed watching non-stop MST3K.
Thank God for that show and for the part of me that comes out to watch it.
The most difficult thing about surviving is surviving.
Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional. I write about my personal experience. What works for me may not work for you. If you think you are having a psychiatric episode please see a professional.