There is a darkness inside me.
It has been there since I can remember. What you’re reading is the journey I have been on so far. The journey I am still on. I say “still” because I don’t believe that it ever really ends. This is an everlasting search for answers.
In my experience, every time I realize or find the answer to a specific question related to my own life, or my own being, it always opens up just enough space, allowing for another even more ground-breaking and life-altering question to be born.
I have always been two people. The person I needed you to see. The person that fits in with your needs and your wants. The person that adapts to your behavior and thoughts. The person that makes you feel safe and comfortable. The person I have learned I have to be if I want to be safe around you. This is your person.
Then there is the other person. The real me. The person trapped inside this body. The one that is lost in darkness and drowning in terror. The person afraid of expressing their own wants, needs, and opinions in case it might somehow lead to conflict. This person exists in a near constant state of fear. A fear that this conflict might somehow drag me back into this darkness that I am so familiar with. This is the real me. This is my person.
This dichotomy in my being has always been there. It’s so deeply seated in me that I started to believe it’s just how I am. I started to believe that this is how life actually is. Not only for me, but also for everyone else around me.
Throughout my life, sentences like “why can’t you just be normal” have been branded deep into my being. It made me feel like there is something wrong with me. What I realized during this journey, however, is that there’s nothing wrong with me. My life has been filled with trauma. Trauma that conditioned my brain and my body to function in a specific way—a way that is not normal.
It wasn’t until I started to really look at my own life in its entirety that I realized that this darkness I have living inside me is not in everyone. There’s a specific set of conditions necessary during the pivotal developmental stages of a human being’s life for this darkness to be awakened from its slumber.
For me, this trauma foundation was created early in my life. My childhood was filled with violence, rage, fear, and terror. It caused the perfect environment needed for this darkness to wake up inside me. You will notice that I say “… for this darkness to wake up inside of me.” I use these words because as I have come to understand that we are all born with both darkness and light inside our being. It’s like the old Cherokee story about the two wolves inside each person—the good one and the angry one. Both wolves are already inside us when we are born, but only the one we feed the most will continue to grow. This darkness inside me is the same. My life has been its feeding ground. Sometimes it was my family that fed it, sometimes it was my partner, sometimes it was my friends, and sometimes it was me. One constant remained—for most of my life, either the environment, circumstance, or people has been feeding this darkness inside me. And it has been growing all this time.
It has created the person I am today. It molded me into a self-focused person. A person hard and in control on the outside, but fearful, insecure, and vulnerable on the inside. Sometimes an unemotional person. Sometimes a person blind to empathy, unable to truly understand the needs of those close to me—especially the needs of those people I care for.
It’s not easy to write this. I feel incredibly vulnerable and unsafe in doing so. I am, however, joined by two timeless companions who have always understood me. One is music and the other one, quotes. As I’m typing right now, I’m listening to Johnny Cash’s version of Will Oldham’s “I see a darkness.” Somehow the pain in Mr Cash’s voice brings a quiet and gentle relief. The reminder that there are others also who have visited this dark place. It makes me feel a little bit less alone.
There is one specific quote that always keeps me company during these times of naked, introspective reflection. It’s a quote by Leland Val van de Walle:
“The degree to which a person can grow is directly proportional to the amount of truth he can accept about himself without running away.”
Every time I think of these words I get both angry and calm at the same time. Angry, because this is my first self-protection reaction toward nearly anything that makes me feel that “I have to.” Calm, because I am familiar with this reaction. I know it intimately. I know it will pass.
The sentence “Marcel, you have to…,” specifically when coming from a person I care for, immediately triggers me. Its origins is tainted with powerful and painful memories—memories you will have unfiltered access to during the next chapters.
There’s a door that keeps this darkness inside me at bay. Once this door is opened, however, the darkness sucks me in and traps me.
The door that leads to the darkness inside me is the fear I have of emotionally charged conflict.
As soon as there’s the possibility of conflict with someone I share an emotional connection with and I emphasize that it’s mostly the people that I am closest to and care for, my brain initiates a well-practiced set of instructions that nearly always ends up completely trapping me inside my body. This process pattern developed as a result of the trauma my nervous system was exposed to during most of my life.
For as long as I can remember, my mind has been in a constant state of hypervigilance. It scans my environment diligently, looking for possible “danger zones.” It creates countless hypothetical step-by-step constructs in which these danger zones either might or might not cause my nervous system to get triggered. It’s a self-protection mechanism. My mind thinks that it’s protecting me; it doesn’t know any better. It just repeats what it has been repeating the most. The problem with this is that it already has, and still continues to, cause an enormous amount of damage for me and for those close to me.
Every time my mind recognizes any emotionally charged information that it translates as “this is going to lead to conflict,” an old and automatic operating procedure is initiated by my brain and my nervous system.
First, I get completely overwhelmed. I go blank and can’t think straight. Next it immediately triggers my nervous system. I go into either a state of “now I fight,” aka sympathetic mobilization, or into the direct opposite—a complete shutdown, aka parasympathetic immobilization.
I completely lose control of all my executive thinking functions. I become trapped in my body. The totality of my existence becomes one of two options—either a “blind anger and rage-fueled fight mode,” or a “I can’t feel anything, I’m numb, I can’t move and can’t speak” mode. Either way, in both of these states there is no access to any thinking capability. It’s taken me a long time to learn to guide my nervous system back to a place of calm regulation when I get triggered like this. And even at that, I am still struggling sometimes to regulate my own nervous system once it has been triggered. Like I said at the beginning, “a journey I am still on.”
What’s happening in my brain?
What actually happens inside my body and my brain when I get triggered like this? To answer this I need to talk about brain area functionality—specifically the limbic system, the cortex, and the sympathetic nervous system.
All sensory information that we perceive, with the exception of smell, gets processed in the Thalamus first. We call it the “relay station” because it literally relays where the information that is being perceived has to be sent. When it comes to trauma, the Thalamus asks a specific question, “Is this information safe, or will it cause harm?” If the perceived information is determined to be “safe,” the electrical signals are routed to the cortex where our higher executive functions are based—the part of our brain where we can “think” freely. If, however, the information is determined to be “not safe,” the electrical signals are routed to the Amygdala.
The Amygdala is basically our speed decision maker when it comes to keeping our body safe from harm. It doesn’t process information in as much detail as the cortex, but it’s designed to recognize any physical threat, or what might represent the possibility of a threat, incredibly fast. Once a possible threat has been identified, the electrical signal is routed to inform the nervous system of what action to take so that our body can move away from the possible harm.
The simpler way of describing this is that all environmental stimuli is filtered before it’s processed and directed to the corresponding brain regions. If the initial filter determines that the stimuli is dangerous for our bodies, steps are taken informing the nervous system to react. If the filter determines that the stimuli is not dangerous for our bodies, the information goes into further cognitive processing.
Remember that time you were nearly in that accident, or the time you saw a shadow that you thought was something ominous and you got an instant fright? This instant reaction was made possible because your Amygdala told your sympathetic nervous system to go into mobilization mode, triggering what we know as fight-or-flight mode.
This mode increases heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing in order to get the maximum amount of oxygen to your major muscle groups as fast as possible. It’s a beautifully designed evolutionary mechanism, designed to keep our physical bodies safe and protected. But what if, like in my case, the Amygdala thinks that my body is in danger every time it gets sent information about a highly charged emotional perception and it continues to signal my nervous system to initiate fight-or-flight to “protect” me? That is how most of my life has been up until around six years ago.
At one stage it became so torturous that I started drinking in an attempt to get away from this overwhelming state. Instead of getting away from it, I became a fully functioning alcoholic for 10 years of my life. (A story for another time—one which will be told in the chapters to come.)
I was in a constant triggered state for most of my life. When I get triggered like this, I become completely trapped inside my own body. The only physical feelings that I’m conscious of is intense fear, bordering on terror. My heart rate increases so intensely that I can feel the pounding in my chest. My breathing becomes more rapid, followed by the dry lips, the sweaty palms, and the tingles in my arms and legs. It feels like I have been injected with electricity and that my skin has become a Faraday cage. Only rather than protect me from this energy, the cage is keeping me trapped inside my body. Inside all this energy. This causes an enormous amount of fear.
As I got older, I continued to educate myself in the different trauma treatment modalities and all associated areas surrounding it. As time went by, I eventually learned how to regulate my nervous system back into a state of calmness.
I really have to emphasize that the intensity as well as the prolonged nervous system state experience depends exclusively on the trigger. If I can remove myself from the physical proximity of the trigger, I can come back to a state of regulation quite fast. Sometimes I can even go straight through the trigger while still having all my higher cognitive functions available. If I’m not able to remove myself from the physical trigger proximity for an extended period of time, things can get difficult for me and for those around me.
If I can’t regulate the fight-or-flight nervous system reaction inside my body as a result of continuous exposure to the trigger, I sometimes redirect the intense nervous system mobilization reaction inwards. Without the option to get rid of all this excess energy—caused by a lethal combination of adrenaline, cortisol, and hyper oxygenated blood sprinting through my veins—what happens instead is that all these reactions get redirected inwards. In polyvagal theory we call it a dorsal vagal branch activation. When this happens it feels like there was a short circuit in my brain. None of the information that I perceive goes any further than my Thalamus. All my muscles become flaccid and weak. My whole physical body goes into a state of numbness and I feel completely detached from it. My mind doesn’t work at all. It doesn’t matter how hard I try to think—just to think of anything—it just doesn’t happen. It’s like the “me” in my body has left. I’m not there anymore. My heart rate, breathing, and body temperature all start decreasing at the same time. I can’t speak.
Again, a prisoner in my body. But this time instead of being trapped in fear and terror, I’m trapped inside a cage of nothing, without any ability to will my body to do something else.
This is the darkness that is inside me.
The patterns inside my brain telling my nervous system to either fight or to shut down. The darkness inside me is the place that once I enter it; I cannot escape it with my mind. My thoughts have no power in this place. This is what it feels like when trauma gets triggered. It renders us helpless. It traps us in our own bodies.
This is my story. This is my life. This is my reality.
No one has every part of their life truly sorted out. It’s impossible. The best of us will openly admit with humility the parts that we are still working on. The parts that are still causing pain. The nature of our existence as human beings is that we’re governed by constant change. Even if and when we come to a place where we think everything is sorted out now, there will always be something else that we need to work on. This is the singular reason why unprocessed and unintegrated trauma will always have such a powerful effect on our lives—because trauma makes our minds want to stay the same while everything around us keeps changing. Trauma forces us to seek safety in our environment by controlling it while true safety can only be found within.
My whole journey has always been centered around answering one question: How do I learn to feel safe inside my own body even though it sometimes feels like the most unsafe place on earth?
It has taken me a lifetime to learn enough to even attempt an answer to this question. I’m still learning different ways as I go along. Every day brings a new challenge and a new learning opportunity. Every day also astutely reminds me of those yet untouched truths still inside me. The truths yet to be accepted without running away. That’s the hard part. But that is growth. Every seed needs to get through that layer of darkness first before it can reach for the sky.
If you or someone close to you are struggling with unprocessed trauma, please don’t wait until it becomes too much to carry. Don’t keep feeding your darkness. I welcome your contact. If my professional skill-set and experience isn’t conducive to your needs, I’m certain I can help find someone with the skills and experience to help you.