Almost a decade after the death of my father I am still living with the residual affects of his addiction. The human body is a remarkable thing and I have never been one to give mine enough credit. When we go through times of distress, our bodies inherently know how to protect us. Where the trouble arises is when these periods of distress last months or years and what started out as a means of protection turns into a habitual state of being. Today, I refer to this way of being as hypervigilance, the superpower I never asked for.
I was scared for 10 years straight. Some days I was in real danger, and some days I was simply tense with hypervigilance and anticipation of the next disaster. This meant that sometimes it was a low level anxiety running in the background of my life, and other times I was physically terrified, but it was always there. This fear was my body’s way of warning me that I was in danger and that I needed to fight, flight, or freeze. There were many times I wanted to run, and I did the first chance I got, but from the ages of 12 to 18 I just had to adapt.
Because I wasn’t really a fighter and I couldn’t flee, I sank into the background of my family, still and quiet, praying that if no one noticed me no one would hurt me. As the chaos swirled around me I remained frozen inside myself, and I became acutely aware of all those around me; I was alone, scared, and on high alert. Enter superpower.
I didn’t realize until much later in my life, but I had developed the power of hyper awareness. Like a small animal in the woods when a predator is near, I became keenly aware of every movement and every emotion of those around me. A single facial expression from my dad or the piercing energy of my mom would tell me all I needed to know about my safety for that day; my internal alarm bells were never wrong. This ability to closely monitor my surroundings and adjust my behaviour accordingly was an adaptation of my body designed to help me through a time of uncertainty and unpredictability. But, as the danger slowly faded in the wake of my father’s passing it became increasingly obvious that my body was still afraid.
I am terrified of being out of control. And today, this shows up in my life as self-reliance. Although this “superpower” makes for one tidy house, these behaviours are actually an expression of the deeply rooted fear inside of me. I crave certainty, familiarity, and order and will compulsively act in ways that negatively impacted my relationships in order to achieve the internal calm that accompanies this level of control.
I have developed an almost militant ability to keep order in my life. I find myself cleaning, rearranging, and organizing when I should be spending quality time, or robbing myself of an opportunity to be loved by my husband because letting him take care of me would mean braving uncertainty. I worry about the mess our unborn children will make because my body can’t tell the difference between the making memories kind of chaos and the nightmare chaos of my childhood. I long to let go but instead cling desperately to the safety of the routines that pacify my panic if only for a moment.
As I sit here now, I don’t wonder why I still find it difficult to trust others to keep me safe, but I do try to believe them when they tell me that I am. I feel an overwhelming sense of sadness and compassion for my scared little self who sometimes still chooses the safety of solitude over the uncertainty of connection. I remind her of her strength and thank her for protecting me for all those years. I tell her that she is loved and that it’s ok to rest now.
As a Registered Social Worker, Interventionist, and founder of True North Interventions, Sonja Maibach works with individuals and families suffering from addiction through one on one counselling, family care, and invitational intervention. When addiction is present in the family, loved ones find themselves feeling afraid, alone and unsure of their decisions. Sonja provides services designed to provide peace of mind by creating a partnership that allows you to feel confident in the decisions being made about the health and wellness of you and your family.