It started at night. After football practice Carl had an episode in the shower. For our children this is a place where trauma occurred, so fear is heightened there. Both Carl and Mary refuse to shower with the door shut. Carl takes the therapy dog into the bathroom with him to sit on the rug and guard the door. Usually it works for him.
Last night it didn’t. Luke was in our bathroom and I was upstairs when Carl began shouting and banging on the walls. I froze. The pounding of the walls grew more insistent and my heart skipped a beat. I struggled to take a breathe and my knees went week. For whatever reason I was frightened. Carl hasn’t been truly violent in months. He wasn’t mad. Mary isn’t here. It’s unlikely that I have anything to be afraid of but my body panicked anyway.
Then Carl’s shouting turned into bellowing and screaming as he began punching the shower stall and the surrounding drywall. I should have gone to him but I didn’t. Instead I locked my bedroom door and tried to slow my breathing. Carl’s outburst lasted for what seemed like an eternity but was really only about ten minutes. Eventually Luke was able to go and talk to him.
Anxiety is a difficult thing to explain. I’m not talking about fear over getting something wrong on a test or speaking in front of a crowd. Those things may cause anxiety in some but are mostly uncomfortable to others. I’m talking about a true and measurable physical reaction where the body responds as if mortal danger is near.
For people with PTSD, anxiety disorders or developmental trauma it’s quite different. When Carl is afraid his body flips into fight or flight mode. What he experiences is similar to what one might experience after a bad car accident. It’s sheer terror and panic. These are physical characteristics that can be seen.
For humans, a resting heart rate of about 60-80 is normal. When I measured Carl’s heart rate it was 144 after he had already calmed down! Mine was 103 and I felt like I couldn’t catch my breathe. I can only imagine what he felt. His breathing was shallow and his pupil’s were dilated. Carl’s hands were shaking.
He didn’t know why fear overtook him. He was just triggered. He’s been argumentative lately and controlling. These are actually signs of stress. It’s Carl’s way of dealing with uncertainty and fear. He didn’t logically decide to stand naked in his bathroom and have a tantrum. It just happened.
I didn’t mean to hide away and ignore him. It just happened. Somehow we will have to find a way to work around these symptoms. Until then, I hope others can understand what this kind of anxiety looks like. It isn’t pretty. It isn’t productive. It just is.
**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.