Ok…so to recap, early hours of the morning of 31 December and the fishing trawler capsizes and sinks and leaves the three of us crew members floating. All of which I was pretty okay with (considering), that is until I realised where I was…namely in the neighbourhood of some really pointy-teeth fish! This is when panic really did set in as I felt my legs dangle helplessly beneath me.
Well, as luck would have it, when the trawler started to break up on the bottom of the ocean, the dinghy had floated up to the surface…sort of. The top of it was submerged about a foot below the water. We were all trying to hang onto the edge of it to keep us all together. As I became more panicked, I could feel my throat constrict and knew that I had to be IN the dingy…so to speak.
In essence, I was still floating, still swimming but I had a barrier below me and my defenceless legs. Now I’m just at risk of drowning or hypothermia, not a shark attack…..much better!
As we continued making pleasant conversation, three or four boats had come within shouting distance but it seemed they didn’t hear or see us. We were becoming more and more despondent every time we watched them keep their same course.
Little did we know, one of the boats had seen us but the skipper was alone and so couldn’t come to our rescue. He did however, call through to the Coast Guard who started to get ready to save us.
In the meantime, a yacht came past us and the skipper shouted (in a very posh yachtie voice), “I’m going to throw you a rope. If you can, see if you can climb aboard.”
Well, I don’t think the rope had even hit the water before I did my best JC impression and ran straight up it! When I stumbled into the cockpit of the yacht, the skipper was most concerned that I might bleed on his polished, white deck. Apparently I had suffered a bit of an injury to my forehead and had blood trickling down my face. Of course I couldn’t feel it, being in the water, and the other crew were clearly smart enough to keep it a bit of a secret from me. Thank goodness!
Anyway, the Coast Guard eventually came out and picked us up from the yacht and the rest, as they say, is history…or HERstory 😉
Now that I had an impressive shipwreck story to tell, I really didn’t think any more about it. I was young, we had all survived unscathed and I had a great story to tell. All’s well that ends well, right?
Imagine my surprise about three months later when I was back out on a different boat and experienced the after effects of that particular trauma. It seemed that every time the waves were hitting the stern quarter and causing that rolling, surfing motion, my knees would go to jelly and my hands would shake uncontrollably. At the time I thought it was hilarious and would point it out to everyone around me. In my mind, I knew I was safe but my body and my brain thought otherwise.
Yes, I use the terms brain and mind separately. You see, the brain is our survival organ. Its mission is simply to keep us alive and if it senses danger, it will do anything to alarm and alert us. The mind on the other hand is something we can exert some control over and is the seat of more logical, rational thinking. More on that to come.
All these years later, I have learned that this was a form of PTSD and I have learnt the mechanisms behind it. Warning: geek out coming!
In a nutshell, our bodies have proprioceptor cells. These clever little cells are found in clusters, particularly in the joints. Their job is to detect and monitor where each part of our body is in space at any given time. This is an incredibly important job when you consider the constant quest of keeping us balanced as well as preventing over-extension of limbs or muscles that could cause injury.
If they sense any danger, these proprioceptors communicate this to the brain, which will then send signals to other parts of the body to make adjustments accordingly. Simplified version but further reading below for those geekier geeks.
In my case, every time my proprioceptors recognized the same motion on the boat as I experienced on the doomed one, it would send the signals, “Danger! Danger! Abort! Abort!” and I would consequently be in fight or flight mode with shortness of breath, rapid heart rate and trembling.
Even further, the fact that my rational mind could not over ride this response suggests that I had ‘implicit memories’, where the activation was primarily in the primitive brain and so wouldn’t respond to ration or reason. ‘Explicit memories’ are those where the prefrontal cortex is involved and our body’s responses can be talked down by our conscious mind.
We can turn our implicit memories into explicit ones using some simple techniques. The exciting thing is that you don’t need to recall or understand the trauma in order to heal. It’s possible to remove the emotional charge from the trauma and hence avoid any future triggers.
It’s when we remove the emotional triggers that we lose the anxiety and the fear of being triggered again. It is only then that we can experience true freedom and live our very best lives.
If any of my story sounds familiar and you ever feel those waves of panic and anxiety, you don’t need to suffer. Get in touch and let’s see what we can do.