Before you read on, please know that this post is both long and detail filled with graphic imagery and the likes there of. It is not intended to upset anyone nor is it for any purpose other than to explain reflexes, the dangers there of and how it is to unlearn them.
Its odd how one learns something so innately life changing, what brings it about so profound. All mammals including humans have both instinctual and learned reflexes that we use in every day to day life. These reflex’s protect us and sustain us, it is how we react to things and the people in our lives.
When Sidka, a nine month old Alaskan malamute, came to us he was a rescue case. His family were apparently moving and the new garden was not big enough for both he and his sister, we took him in. Right from the start he never pined for his old home nor his sister, he seemed someone subdued for a 9 month old pup and although interested in his new surroundings, he was on edge.
We carried on as normal but I soon realised that the little man had been abused. I noticed that when ever someone spoke loudly he would cower. If you used your hands animatedly in a conversation, like I do, he would cower and walk away. He would often hide under a table as well when ever he was uncertain of things, he would jump in fright at anything foreign. I know that all animals, including humans that aren’t animals, have an adaption period but this was on the side of extreme.
Due to the fact that he is with me every day while the others are at work I slowly worked on him. Bringing him out of his shell by showing him time and time again that I was not going to hurt him when I lifted my hands or when I spoke loudly. I taught him the different levels in my voice and what was good, what was not. Slowly he started to get used to it and slowly he stopped cowering.
Now he is back to pushing his boundaries, trying his luck and being a puppy as he should be. No more hiding under the table but deep down he still holds the fear of abandonment and rejection. Every time I went into a bathroom he would cry, when I left the house he cried. He had overcome one reflex but the deeper issues remained. The only way that he would overcome it was again proving him wrong. I leave the house often, walk to the shop or just to the neighbour and then return showering him with love. The next day again, at a different time, I leave and return, leave and return. Now he doesn’t cry eternally when we leave, very rarely does he howl. Sure he cries for the first few moments but those are becoming shorter each time it happens.
Yesterday for the first time I left the house for half an hour, I returned and there he lay chilling in the sun. Not a care in the world. He had broken those old reflexes, he now knew that I would return no matter what. He is not fully there yet and it has been a few months already but I have patience and he is understanding. Each time I show him and prove him wrong he begins to loosen up and be himself.
Those of you who have been through abuse, have been abused at one time or another or even witnessed it know, you too learn reflexes and they affect every part of your life. It may not be immediately obvious but they are there whether we like it or not.
I have suffered from these reflexes my whole life. I have a whole closet full of them just waiting to come out and air themselves at any given time. I can not stand anything touching my neck, each time it feels as though his hands are there again choking the life out of me. It is really embarrassing when someone tries to touch my neck or put their arm around me to show their affection. My immediate response is to pull away or pull their arm away sharply, it doesn’t matter who they are. Clothing as well, I can’t stand any touching my neck, it makes me uncomfortable and on edge and for as long as it is there touching I can not relax.
When I realised what my aversion was and why I started testing myself, I started wearing high neck tops to challenge myself, to test my reflexes and responses. Some might say that is just pure madness and self appointed torture but deep down I needed to overcome it. I knew that I could not continue allowing it to rule my life. Now I can wear those tops, most days it is ok, some days I still can’t stand it or only after a while does it start to bother me.
I used to hate going to peoples houses for supper while they still cooked. Know that sounds strange but most people cook with wooden spoons. I don’t do wooden spoons. They would raise it and hold it in their hands as they talked to me and I would feel ice run through my veins, my eyes would fixate on it and if by chance they decided to be playful and tap me with it I would just panic. I would be like Sidka and cower, sometimes if they caught me at a really touch-and-go moment I would have a flashback attack. Embarrassing beyond words and at times unfathomable to the people I was with. Those who had experienced it with me before knew.
My aversion to wooden spoons is an incredibly strong one. The reason being is the fact that it was one of the tools used to beat me every day. He used to get pleasure out of testing a spoons strength over my legs and back, see how quickly he could get it to break as he hit me time and time again. Any excuse he would use, a friend playing at my house leaves a mess, food that he spilt, a book out of place or a red wine stain from the night before. Anything and it would be “Time to test the new spoon get into the bedroom or go to the corner and wait for it while I prepare.
Shoes, don’t toss them anywhere or hold one in your hand while talking to me, I just can’t take it. I can’t take it for the same reason as the wooden spoons. I used to sport the imprints of heels and the fancy designs, some days it would be Adidas, others it would be Froggy, another shoe make.
I can’t stand the sight of gas masks, I don’t even have a cowering reflex with them, I flat out start shaking the second I see one and the flashback begins quite quickly. I think I shan’t go into that story to much because perhaps I have not dealt with it as much as the others due to the fact that gas masks aren’t a “regular” occurrence. Perhaps it is just too graphic. I was six and I will never forget it no matter how hard I try.
Knives are another one, don’t ever raise a knife to me while talking, especially sharp ones. They put me into a flat out panic far faster than the spoons or the shoes. The flash backs also come faster, harder, stronger leaving me a quivering wreck. The details of this one are pretty self explanatory and one of my strongest memories as a 7 year old being threatened by knife. Having it touch your skin and seeing that look in the others eyes has a way of staying with you. I don’t do knives.
The only way to overcome each single learnt reflex is repetition and separation. Each time I go into a surrounding where there is a chance of any of the above being present I mentally prepare myself by telling myself the following:
I talk to myself and remind myself of what is in the past and what is the present.
I remind myself of who I am with and how much I love them, how much they love me or care for me.
I remind myself that not everyone is evil.
I remind myself over and over again that I am bigger now, I am an adult, that I know kung fu and can protect myself
I remind myself that I am stronger both mentally and physically and no one can hurt me unless I allow them to.
Repetition, both in and by my actions as well as the people in my life are the only ways that I could ever face these reflex demons and combat them once and for all. It has been many years and many people have tried but ultimately it is just that, repetition. There are no quick fixes when it comes to overcoming abuse and subsequent learned behaviour. The only remedy, the only way to truly heal is repetition.
I still have moments where the reflex overcomes me, I still jump and at other times I still step back, I even shake. At the end of the day I know and recognise it for what it is and face it head on. I know that it may be a life long battle and I am ok with that because I see my progress and feel it each time the demon stands before me. It is no longer the boss of me, I am the boss full stop.
I don’t for one moment regret anything nor do I beat myself up about experiencing these flashbacks or reflexes anymore. There were times when I would go into a deep depression for days after an “episode with the demon” but I have come to realise that it is in fact not my fault, it is not a defect that makes me subhuman. If anything it makes me more human.
Am I a product of my past? Am I the way I am because of it? Sure there are some things that I have learnt because of the things I have been through but not for one minute is it going to make me who I am, I am no product of my youth and I will never blame one single thing on it. I am in control of me not my abusers.
I am me
I am not a survivor
I am a fighter and a conqueror
Fight those reflexes, never let them own you.
Life is just too short to let your past dictate your future