“Sometimes, my husband gets up to go to bed before me. He turns off the big lights, and then turns on a lamp for me. It should be literally no big deal, right? Just a nice thing for him to do on his way to bed, in all reality.
It has always annoyed me to my absolute core.
I mean, it makes me feel unreasonably snappy.
‘Why wouldn’t you just turn on the lamp first?’, I have thought to myself silently a thousand times over. Of course, I don’t complain, because the rational side of my brain knows it’s not okay to be outwardly ridiculous about it. As a matter of fact, reading this post will be the first he knows of this at all. (Sorry honey!).
Last night, I paused my little burst of quiet agitation and asked myself for the first time ever,
‘Wait… why are you like this?’
*cue a whopping 2 seconds of pondering in the dark and then him flipping the lamp on like clockwork.*
Lightbulb moment in more ways than one.
The sudden flip from light to dark STARTLES me.
That’s trauma for you.
It doesn’t have to be major.
It doesn’t have to be anything that wrecks the day.
It could something as tiny as a light switch.
‘Mom used to flip the lights off.’, I thought.
‘THAT’S my trigger?!’
‘…. Yup.’, I sigh internally, acknowledging little me, who has been absolutely begging adult me to pay attention for all of these years.
Mom used to flip the lights off unexpectedly while I was lying in bed, reading. I don’t remember her ever doing what a mom should at bedtime- and MAYBE there was a time that she did, but I can’t recall it, no matter how I try. It seems like there may be a faint memory of her acrylic red nails scratching my back, but I couldn’t have been more than 4 or 5 years old at the time- and I’m not entirely sure if I actually remember it, or if that’s wishful thinking. There is a very large part of me that hopes at least one of us has happy bedtime memories from my elementary years. That’s the cruel thing about trauma, it can steal ALL of the memories surrounding the threat, even the good ones.
My dad worked late a lot. I do remember the nights that he had bedtime duty. He’d draw pictures and write words on my back with his finger, and I’d try to guess what they were. I remember begging him for more stories about his childhood, and I still have my favorites that I’ve probably heard a hundred times. He was not a screamer, so my brain held onto those memories.
I just don’t remember ever doing that… with her.
What I do remember is all of the bad years. The light flipping was usually accompanied with a cruel, screeching jab about going to sleep NOW. She’d bust into my room, not even look at me, swat the light down, and slam the door on her way out. Then she’d stomp off down the hallway ranting about how I was going to make us late for school the next day, calling me a disrespectful brat, (or one of her other many equally lovely pet names).
Granted, she had probably sat on the couch in the living room absolutely screaming at me to go to bed for the last 30 minutes, or longer. Hours? I don’t know. I know ‘she tried’.
Does that make it right?
I honestly don’t think it does.
I was a kid, just doing what any kid would do with no enforcement of rules. All I know for sure, is that as a mother, I can’t blame my son if he doesn’t put himself to bed early, because he is a child. It’s my job to help him create that healthy habit and give him the boundary of a set bedtime… and most of all, to send him to sleep feeling loved. I can’t imagine screaming at him for not acting like a responsible adult…. because he simply isn’t one.
So anyway, when I was really little, in an effort to avoid confrontation, I started reading under my covers with a little book light. Usually, I would read until I couldn’t hold my eyes open anymore. I had my nose in a book in the car, on the bus, at home- and I even have a few teachers in school that could tell you I was the kid who got in trouble for… yep, you guessed it- reading during class. It was my escape from my life, and I dove into it every chance I got.
A few years later, around the time I started junior high, we got our first Dell Desktop. Remember those? They came with that pre-installed pinball game, and then AOL chat and MSN messenger became a thing. I used to lay in bed until I was absolutely certain everyone was asleep, and then sneak to the computer for all hours of the night. Why? I don’t know… probably because I could get away with being out of my room without being screamed at, as long as I didn’t get caught.
I’m 28 and still awful about staying awake until I physically can’t anymore. Late at night when the house is silent has always been when I felt most safe, even now that I have my own home. It’s the only time of day anxiety doesn’t tap dance across my head and chest. All of my life I called myself a night owl, but I now know that the trauma has caused major, chronic problems with my circadian rhythm, resulting in a lifetime of insomnia. I’m a true-blue insomniac, by definition.
So when that light switch flips off and things go from light to abruptly dark with no forewarning, my 8, 9, 10, 11-year-old inner child JUMPS to the surface again. By now, I’m thinking that the light switch dose of adrenaline and fight or flight I get every night around 11PM does not help my inability to wind down, in the least.
It feels like a random mini panic attack, heart racing, palms sweating, and sometimes it’s an isolated feeling of anger, numbness, despair, or fog. In all actuality, it’s a flashback. A flashback is a scary word I know, but it can be summed up as a re-experiencing. It’s just like when a normal person recalls a memory, except for we relive that moment whether that be visually, or emotionally.
Since I’ve never had visual flashbacks like you see in movies, I have a difficult time putting my finger on trauma sometimes, and instead, I will convince myself that I’m being overdramatic, sensitive, or irrational, which feeds those old childhood feelings of despair. It really is the cherry on top when extended family agrees that the abuser, ‘wasn’t that bad.’ This makes it beyond easy to blame myself right alongside everyone else. This is why crawling out of the pit can feel SO impossible for survivors. The cool thing is that I get to decode this trigger now, validate myself, and heal from it.
The type of flashback I have is called Emotional. My brain simply did not allow me to store certain memories, or it hid them from me long ago. So, when I have my flashbacks, I don’t completely connect with the past or recognize what I’m reacting to- my body just feels like it’s there in the moment again. Why would I register that a stupid inanimate light switch could ever cause this? It’s such a simple, ordinary part of the day. I’ve untangled all of my big triggers that shook me to my core, but what about the little ones that still pull at me every day? Apparently, they exist too.
It’s not logical you know, trauma never is until you get to the root and everything makes sense. This time, I caught that little flashback sucker before it hit, just because I stopped and paid attention.
So tonight, I will fully anticipate the lights to flip off, and I will no longer flip OUT internally, because I’ve officially broken this code.
I’m flat out grateful that my husband means no harm with switching the lights for me. He will kiss me goodnight, and then quietly saunter down the hallway, careful not to wake our sleeping boy. This is the peaceful, safe, consistent way we have lived for over 6 years, and yet I still discover these lightbulb moments.
Please, have the awareness to STOP when your emotions take control, and dissect your why.
You just can’t make this stuff up, it’s real.
Your body isn’t lying to you.
This is the unfiltered truth about the long-term effects of emotional and psychological abuse.
This is complex trauma.
How’s that for a lightbulb moment?”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Hayley Runnels of The Undone Mama. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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