Lost in Triggerland

After a surprising call to the stage not too long ago, I’ve written a blog about performing in a music venue and how the parameters there typically trigger symptoms of (C-) PTSD. This is a bad and potentially unsurmountable roadblock to the idea of coming back to music more or less full time, something I had been pondering since the premature falling apart of my former career in the IT&C industry. As I’ve been nurturing thoughts of sitting in with local bands on open stage nights more often, the agonizing side effects of being in a crowd or simply within the confines of limited space have reemerged in a more or less pronounced way, such as e.g. anxiety manifesting itsself physically and in very distressing ways. And it typically becomes a challenge of an entirely different calibre to juggle the discomfort and the stress of needing to respond quickly in a musical setting while at the same time needing to be relaxed and open minded in order to enable a good music performance. It’s a little bit like trying to enjoy making love while being raped. In other words and in my experience, fear usually overrides any other, potentially positive feeling. (For the record: I’m aware that rape is still an entirely different beast in terms of individual personal suffering and a very severe crime at that. I just used the analogy here as an accentuation in my attempt of getting a point across, how fear and “lust” or joy mutually cancel each other out or rather: How fear seems to have the winning hand. In yet different words and from my experience: Where there is fear, there can’t be joy or lust or love, at least not by a common understanding the bulk of society have agreed on as being healthy. I have no intention of diminishing the severity of an actual rape by likening it to a situation, which lacks the full spectrum of crimes committed in the act and I am not saying that experiencing anxiety or a panic attack equals the actual traumatizing act. For all intended purposes, it’s nothing else but a dramatic figure of speech to drive the message home).

In recent years and since my becoming disabled in 2008, I’ve been doing a lot of personal research and experimenting along with several episodes of help from “the experts” in trying to build a life for myself that is better tailored to the special needs I can no longer be in denial over. [With the following paragraph I’ll create some context and hence will digress a bit from the main point this blog was about. You may safely skip this one if you’re not interested in the underlying aspects]. Until then and for the larger part of my adult life, I have been suppressing any latent or acute anxiety by more or less mimicking “normal” behaviour or rather: what I thought to be normal behaviour as I never got imbued with “normal” to begin with. It goes without saying that this requires a colossal cognitive effort and that spontaneity is out of the picture. Figure this: For any given day to day situation, I’d typically have to suppress my natural impulses – as they would have been out of bounds given the condition -, hold my breath and figure out, what a normal response to the given situation might look like, all of this in realtime, so that the person(s) involved won’t notice the cognitive effort behind it. I call it “walking the minefield with grace”… :-), because life often really feels like a minefield, a crazy dance around known triggers or at least not stepping on them too hard. But regardless of having flattered myself into thinking, I’d get by like this, ultimately I have to realize that I haven’t, as I’d find myself the target of bullying sooner or later with pretty much every job I ever held. What gets me and got me about this, though, is not so much the bullying itsself and the blatant unfairness associated with it, but rather that you never get a chance of actually finding out, what specific quality or behaviour the bullying might have targeted. In other words: Had I known the exact specific reason that makes me prone to bullying, I would have had a shot at working on myself and eliminate behaviours that attract the bullying. In retrospect, I now have some theories about some of those behaviours of mine that may have sparked reactance and hostility towards me. But of course – I will never know for sure, as the bullying parties naturally have no interest in admitting to their acts, let alone their motivations and as the situation is unhealthy and wrong to begin with. However, from my attempts of even getting along with bullies you get an idea of how far my denial along with lack of any self esteem actually went. That is clearly no way of living a life and it wasn’t a way of getting by neither. Needless to say, I’m approaching social interactions from a different angle now altogether. The latter breeds an entirely new set of challenges, though. [end of excursion]

In coming back to the main topic of this blog, what are the triggers? Well, confined space for one is such a trigger. Small music club venues often come without a stage per se or the stage as such extends into the seated area – as is the case with this particular venue. So, you’re not really on stage, but more or less shoulder to shoulder with patrons. From a healthy perspective, this is probably kind of nice, as it comes close to your typical campfire-bonding-sing-along situation. For someone like me, whose first experiences of human interaction and physical proximity translate into lethal danger and experiences of infinite pain along with being completely helpless – which I am just realizing is pretty much the definition of a torture situation -, “huddling up” is a situation of maximum discomfort as opposed to the comfort non-PTSD individuals attribute to it. Such discomfort typically manifests itsself physically through a fight-or-flight response with unpleasant visceral and other physical sensations that usually accompany fear, which often feels like fear of death. In even simpler words: The body’s response to physical proximity are of the same nature you might encounter in a full blown life-threatening situation. They may wear out a bit over time and there may be ways of dealing with them better in their aftermath, but they occur and in my case mostly via situations that stand for comfort and perfect safety for most other people. I think it’s safe to say that this is pretty brutal a way to live, isn’t it….?

What else for triggers in this setting? A lot of immediate attention unfortunately is another one. By mentioning immediate attention, I’m not so much referring to the attention on stage, as I have learnt from my early musician days to comfortably block out that attention via focussing on the fellow players on stage, the music tune and or my own performance, of course. In other words: There is enough potential for a feeling of “flow” – as defined in a psychologically relevant context – that creates some sort of “safe bubble” to operate from (it usually takes some warming up to get into that flow and hence inside said safety zone). The downside of this: Once you step down to take a break, e.g., and even more so, if the performance was a good, noteworthy one, you might have to deal with lots of attention or even hyperbole responses from enthusiastic music fans. This may sound ungrateful bordering on downright “assholean”. Again, I think it is becoming evident how the same experience that most people find worth aspiring has a totally different, possibly detrimental or even agonizing effect on a person lugging around a chronic condition of PTSD and C-PTSD (in my case, I am becoming more and more convinced that it’s both….). I mean seriously, I appreciate being recognized and in earlier days, I think, finding this form of attention and appreciation was a way of coping with extremely low self esteem. However, I think, I have managed to diminish or even overcome that low self esteem simply from having successfully dealt with situations in my professional life that often felt brutal given my “make”. Then again and on a side note: Maybe I have never really processed those negative experiences and have been in denial over them until today … Be that as it may: Appearing in a live setting to satisfy a hunger for attention is no longer a driving aspect for me. At this point and positively speaking you could say: Alright. All good then. Now I can focus on what music was really about and enjoy the positive aspects. I’d love to! On the bright side of this entire recent experience: Being reminded of the magic that happens between musicians and the exhiliration a good music performance creates in players and audience alike can hopefully amount to remembering what it was all about for me to begin with. Really – all the readily mentioned aspects that are typically associated with successful musicians are often condensed into the well-known phrase “sex, drugs and rock’n roll” – and I seriously couldn’t care less about that phenomenon! To me, that moment when musical communication happens on stage and between musicians, that’s the major aspect that got me excited about the whole damn thing in the first place. To me, it’s more of a spiritual experience and phenomenon than anyhing else. That spiritual moment is what it’s about for me. If not that, there’s nothing. Anything else but that magical moment has become irrelevant. But how can I get there any longer with such roadblocks built into me?

I could go on about further triggers. However, I feel the more I do, the more I feed an unhealthy pattern. Contrary to what some might think about me, I’ve always been big about solutions to problems and moving forward rather than dwelling on the latter. So what’s the solution here? I have no clue to be honest. I’m not even sure any longer that there can be a solution. Avoiding “triggerland” venues is not really an option, as a single musician in a band doesn’t get to pick the venue. That’s a decision made by others, a manger for example or the rest of the band at the very least. “Cognitive intervention” in terms of trying to manage the triggered reaction is of limited efficiency I have to find from decades of practicing. In this context and to those professionals who readily administer cognitive-behavioural therapy by claiming it to be very efficient, I’d have to say: Think again – and harder this time! Plus: I find it to be extremely exhausting as well as frustrating. I mean, you never seem to get too far beyond mere survival. For all the giant effort of overcoming deeply rooted fears, of managing very distressing physical responses and whatnot, can’t there be some kind of reward? Of course. In a healthy person that reward is life itsself in that one experiences themselves enjoying things. And of course there were situations or times, when I have enjoyed myself more than now or in the past 20 years. But if I had to give a ratio of positive feelings and times over negative or adverse ones… the interim result doesn’t look all that bright. Oh well, let’s not go there…

So what’s the solution? I seem to find that a night like the one being referenced here typically requires recovery in the form of a need to avoid triggers for a few days as much as possible. Depending on the given situation, e.g. follow up gigs, travel to different cities etc., this recovery might be impossible. The touring days in my early twens have been over for quite some time and my personal ressources aren’t the same as they were then. Hence it is difficult for me to assess for how long I could go without “trigger recovery” before a full blown relapse into more or less ongoing fight-or-flight mode would set in – a mode b.t.w., I’ve only managed by some sort of self-abusive behaviour or by isolating myself from society (which is where I’m currently at for most of the time). I guess, the easiest way of assessing my needs and how to level them with the challenges would be by just doing it and finding out. On the other hand, doing so would inevitably create a whole set of consequences with regard to my disability status and possible consequences of such a nature that might prove difficult if not impossible to reverse. In other words: Not an option for now, as I have been fighting for years to get my disability acknowledged by the responsible institutions in my country in order to prevent becoming homeless at some point from having become largely dysfunctional in a normal capacity. This status isn’t anything I can afford to gamble with, you see? In addition: I am really asking myself what the personal gain is in even aspiring to come back to this lifestyle? If I can’t even seem to enjoy myself doing it and if all the external parameters equal hell to me – why go there in the first place, right? I wouldn’t mind sacrificing and as a matter of fact, I’m doing pretty much nothing but that in my present situation of isolation, poverty and without direction. But if there’s nothing but sacrifice, it’s basically masochism or martyrdom. I’m neither a masochist and I sure as hell don’t run for martyrdom. However, going on like this is not an option either. I’m pretty sure, a lot of people would have given up in my situation and if they had to walk in my shoes. And I’m also fully aware that there are other people, who may face even greater adversity.

I used to be a pretty self-started individual, who’d set goals for themselves and did a quick and rough risk and assets assessment to see, whether I could get there. From a long series of experiences in my adult life, each of which ultimately turned out to be a failure where the worst of them is my failed marriage, I seem to have lost what self-confidence I had managed to build for myself – or which I’d simply muster and impose on myself in most situations. I’m no longer sure, where I can trust my own assessment or whether I have been delusional about myself in many basic areas of personality and life. I guess, it’s safe to say that I’m completely and utterly lost for now. And sure enough – uncertainty is another trigger…


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