Noticing the garage door was open, the grill poised for action at the top of the driveway, I parked the car in front of the house, gathered my belongings and walked across the lawn toward my husband who was engaged in a phone call near the grill. We exchanged no words, but I got the picture. Here was an opportunity to engage in a nice little ritual we do: put the meat on the grill, then set up some chairs right there on the driveway and relax together, greeting the dog-walking neighbors as they stroll by.
I selected a chair from the garage, opened it, situated my pillows, grabbed a water, and plopped down expectantly.
Still messing with his phone, my husband did not fetch his own chair.
Instead a new neighbor bounded across the street, and those two engaged in animated conversation about socket wrenches — the apparent topic of the previous phone exchange. I sat while they disappeared into the basement, then re-emerged to search the garage tools drawer, concluding that it would be best to go together to ask another neighbor for the missing wrench.
The chicken sizzled. Ray checked it before abandoning the yard and grill announcing, “five more minutes.”
Seven minutes later, the chicken still sizzling, I noticed Ray chatting animatedly across the street; I wondered if I should step in on the grilling project.
He might have forgotten by now that he was grilling. But I sat, sipped water, rearranged my position. Then, to my delight and relief, he returned, checked the chicken, and lifted it onto a serving platter. Main course: ready.
I extracted myself from the low chair, folded it up and went into the kitchen to set the table on the deck and prepare a super simple salad–activities I had postponed in deference to the [expected; not realized] companionable sitting-together-by-the-grill ritual.
The food looked good: fresh and light for a summer evening.
Grace offered, we began our meal, chatting about our plans to head out of town the next afternoon.
That same day, there was to be a community picnic starting about 4:30pm. Normally, we’d go to the event, help out, play games, and be very present. But, as we were leaving town and trying to make 4-5 hours progress toward our other destination, I understood that this time, we would stop by briefly, say hello, then head to the roads.
Bring a dish to pass. Greet a few people. Then get back in the car. I figured thirty minutes, tops. We would plan to eat our supper on the road.
As we talked, Ray mentioned grilling at the picnic.
“You are grilling? Ray, I thought we were only stopping in for a little while.”
“Yes. I figure it will be an hour or so. Then, I should be done with the first round of grilling.
Now, dear Reader. You probably don’t perceive the BIG DEAL developing here. I will try to explain.
ASD-ness demands a plan: what, who, when, where, how, why (if possible). Clear parameters; don’t change the plan.
ASD + CPTSD-in-me sets the stage for a quick-fire “Uh-oh” response to change. An encounter with unmet expectations feels like somebody detonated a grenade of scary feelings inside me.
In this instance, I was sitting calmly enjoying a peaceful and delicious supper with Ray on our screened-in porch. Pleasant conversation. Then, the word “grill” set off the alarms inside. I know experientially what “grill” means for a community picnic. It’s a heroic, sweaty, time-consuming activity that my husband really enjoys.
CPTSD reacts from fear: “What?! You signed up to grill?! I thought we were “just stopping by.”
System-jolted emotions rise: betrayal, distrust, alarm, fear, abandonment, sadness. Reacting from the amygdala now, my “little kid” inside screams, “Oh my gosh! What does this MEAN for our trip!?”
(You ask yourself: “What does it mean?” )
Angry and scared, I ask impatiently, “How did you not tell me this?!” [Note: I very seldom speak like this. That’s some sort of line I am mimicking, perhaps out of a movie?]
Meanwhile, do you perceive the disproportionate over-reaction?
In trauma recovery terms, they say I was “triggered.”
After I had calmed down (which takes awhile), I recognized that the difference between his plan and mine would probably amount to about thirty minutes. Not such a big deal, right?
I’ve learned that emotional responses disproportionate to an otherwise harmless situation signals activated trauma.
What it felt like to me/the ways that Trauma interpreted the situation when Ray said he’d signed up for grilling:
- There you see: he cares more about the picnic than about me and the plans we made.
- Obviously, I can’t trust this man to consider me if there’s a need “out there” that he could meet.
- Oh my gosh! We will never make it to the first hotel in a timely fashion.
It felt as if he’d spilled a whole gallon of paint on a brand new carpet: irreversible damage!
Postlude: you are eager to know how this turned out, right?
Well, crediting years of excellent, wise counsel; studying trauma; practicing CBT; etc., I was able to (1) Notice that I was reacting; (2) ground myself in the now; (3) dialogue with my husband about my feelings and fears [God bless this man!]; (4) take a break; (5) come around to being able to “think through” what was going on; (6) exhale; (7) take a deep breath and go to the picnic, having realized that the difference between the two plans was not that big of a deal! Ta dah. But, the impact of the emotional over-reaction would take a day or two to resolve inside me. Just the way it is. Rather exhausting, actually. But, it can be done! Yay for recovery!