A Strange Rite of Passage

Photo by  Sydney Rae

Photo by Sydney Rae

A little after 3:00 a.m. on Friday, I woke up to the sound of my front door buzzer. A couple of seconds later, I heard my neighbors’ buzzer ring. “Drunk people,” I thought and rolled over.

Then I noticed a strange pattern of light flickering across my room. I sat up and watched as it flitted across my room, then out of it and back again. I lifted up the blinds and realized that someone was shining a flashlight back and forth from my bedroom and across the balcony over to my neighbors’. Oh, shit.

I felt my heartbeat pick up as I threw back the covers and jumped out of bed to turn on the bedroom light. I grabbed my phone to look up the non-emergency police number, and felt my heart sink as an automated voice answered. I pressed a button and then, to my relief, there was a kind and calming live voice on the other end of the line. As calmly as I could, I told the woman what was happening and that I had a young child in the house with me. In a soothing voice, she asked me a series of questions, including my address.

She paused for a moment as she looked up my location. “Your home alarm went off,” she told me.

“It did?” I asked. I hadn’t heard a thing—and my alarm blares.

“The living room doors were triggered,” she told me. “The flashlight you saw was a police officer checking things out.”

I paused for a moment and heard the wind rattling outside. I realized that it must have rattled the living room doors, making the alarm sensor activate.

“It was probably the wind,” the woman confirmed. “But let me have the officer who was on patrol give you a call for peace of mind.”

Two minutes later, the officer called and told me he had checked the entire perimeter of my house and seen nothing amiss. “I get a ton of calls on windy nights like this,” he told me. “It sets off alarms all over the place.”

I thanked the officer, hung up the phone, and crawled back into bed, where I must have quickly fallen back asleep. The next thing I knew, my room was filtered with early morning sunlight and a sweet voice was singsonging, “Mom-ME” from the next room.

+ + +

A few weeks ago, I finished up trauma therapy. Working through it took me a little less than a year and a half. On my final session my therapist told me, “I specialize in people who are traumatized. When you first came to me, you definitely fell into that category. You couldn’t see any way out of your current situation. Now look at all of these various new paths that have opened up to you that you’re starting to walk down. You are no longer traumatized.”

In that moment, I realized she was right. Of all the “graduations” I have been through in my life, this one was probably the most meaningful and the one I’m most proud of because, let me tell you, I worked for it in ways I’ve never worked for anything before.

When I first went to therapy, I may not have called myself traumatized but, looking back, I certainly was. My nerves were in a constant state of high alert from living in a volatile, unpredictable situation. I never knew when the next bout of chaos was going to erupt, so I began to live in a constant state of paralyzing fear—even when things seemed peaceful on the surface.

What I’ve also learned is that trauma repeats itself. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I think I entered into that relationship already traumatized after years of living under the looming shadow of my brother’s addiction. Nick was a kind soul with a heart of gold, but the alcohol and drugs made life scary and unpredictable. The most mundane night could quickly spiral into a near-catastrophic event and, plenty of times, I found myself stuck in the thick of it. I used to go into what I now recognize as “freeze mode” all of the time—that was my innate response to fight or flight. I so clearly remember one night in particular when Nick overdosed in front of me and I literally could not corral my fingers into correctly dialing 911. It took me several mis-dials until my friend finally had to take the phone from me to enter the three numbers.

One of the magical things motherhood did for me is to somehow flip the switch in me from “freeze” to “fight or flight.” For the purposes of survival, this is definitely the better option. However, I then found myself stuck in a constant state of fighting or flighting as the world around me seemed to go crazy. I have spent many nights with all of the lights on, laying rigidly awake, with my body ready to spring into defensive, protective action. This is not a way to live. It’s not how I want to live. It’s certainly not how I want Izzy to witness or to so much as sense me living.

So, this Friday was a watershed moment for me. I was able to react in a moderated, reasonable way. My brain continued to fire logically as I moved through the situation, and my body reacted how I told it to. When I proudly shared this story with my therapist, she also pointed out the fact that I had “helpers” along the way in the form of the dispatcher and police officer. She’s right that this, too, was important, because for so long I felt alone, like I was standing guard, trying to battle off the dangers of the world all by myself. I felt small and defenseless.

Progress comes in strange forms. This time it arrived for me as a mis-fired house alarm. I am grateful to the wind for allowing me to see how far I’ve come.