I’ve been debating whether or not I should mention this, but I’ve decided I probably should: I had a serious anxiety attack on Friday night at Trillium War. It was dark, very humid, and we were at a crowded party for a friend’s Vigil. That was nothing out of the ordinary for an SCA camping event, but people kept coming out of the darkness and grabbing me without warning… which triggered a panic-reaction.
I’d like to think that ordinarily that wouldn’t happen, that I’d be able to handle what was a pretty normal human interaction, but I’d been sleep-deprived and stressed out for a couple of days before that, trying to get our extended camping group organized, and suddenly I was in a dark, humid, crowded environment being jostled by people and somebody grabbed me from behind. That it was meant as a kindly, playful surprise mattered not at all to my subconscious.
One of the nastier things about PTSD is that it blindsides you out of nowhere, which is exactly what happened that night. I had to catch myself from collapsing in a limp heap (several years of nonviolent civil disobedience training has conditioned me into a default response of passive resistance rather than violently striking out, which is a definite plus) and I ended up feeling just awful: sweaty and panicky and nauseous. Everyone else was having fun, but every time I was touched that evening (and we’re a huggy bunch) I cringed and ground my teeth and sweated and came close to puking. I tried not to let on what was happening, but very quickly it got bad enough that I had to leave the party until the reaction passed.
Intellectually I understand why I reacted like that, and I can even trace the specific traumatic experience from my activist days that probably formed the foundation of Friday’s anxiety attack — a nasty handful of dark, humid nights of police harassment while being a street medic during an antipoverty occupation in Ottawa — but intellectual understanding doesn’t help much when your hindbrain is insisting on ramping up the adrenalin because of a decade-old trauma.
Fortunately, after I returned to our camp a friend recognized what was happening to me and sat with me until the worst had passed, then walked me back to the party so that I could meet a social obligation, and after that The Wife™ took me to bed and held me quietly until I fell into an exhausted sleep. But the experience left me feeling like a wrung-out dishrag the next day and irritable for much of the next couple of days… although that might have also been the heat. Certainly it impacted my enjoyment of the melee scenarios the next morning to the degree that I ended up leaving halfway through.
Once again, the intellectual understanding of what was going on didn’t help much. At least I was able to shake it off enough to thoroughly enjoy Sunday afternoon’s Passo Honroso, although I suspect that the Passo itself was sufficiently different from my old activist experiences that not only was it trigger-free for me, but also helped me achieve some needed emotional distance.
I also understand, intellectually, that my experience with PTSD is far more mild than for many in our social set – there are enough Afghanistan vets and abuse survivors in our Kingdom to make that point bleakly clear. I’m thankful, at least, that any of my manifestations of panic-reaction are likely to be the exact opposite of a veteran’s: I suspect that the military tries not to train their personnel into the default reaction of becoming a non-threatening (but very heavy) obstacle for law enforcement to drag away.
But potentially-violent responses aside, the emotional and physical reaction is still there and it’s not fun at all to have to experience: fear and confusion and nausea… combined with a helpless sort of frustration because you know there’s no immediate cause for it. I hate it. I hate having to cope with it during times that should be fun and a cause for celebration. I hate how thin and brittle it makes me feel when it passes.
And it’s no consolation at all to know that others have it worse. I only have to deal with it being that bad once, maybe twice in a given year. Sometimes less. I can’t imagine what it’s like to constantly have to deal with anxiety attacks on that level, as a couple of folks I know do.
But that’s what happened, so if I came across as grumpy, distant or short-tempered for the rest of the event, that’s probably one of the reasons.