Friday, May 1, 2015

Forget Me Not: PTSD, Trigger Avoidance, and Reclaiming the Blues

Have you noticed that I seldom wear blue? Have you noticed that I never wear light blue? Probably not but it's true and my reasons are pretty dramatic. Light blue is one of my worst triggers, immediately reminding me some of the worst abuse I experienced as a child. I avoid it like the plague. I'm trying to change that.

I'm going to tell you the story, three stories really, or maybe four, of why light blue triggers me so very badly, why I avoid it, and how I'm trying to learn to see it as just another colour, like any other.

But, before I tell you these stories, I also need to inform you that, for legal reasons, I cannot tell you all that I want to tell you. The law is set up to protect abusers, not their innocent victims, desperate for their stories to be heard, so that such stories will never be repeated. I cannot give you names, or images of any of my abusers who are still alive. I cannot even tell you the specific relationship my abusers had to me. For instance, my primary abuser all my life was a very close, female relative. I cannot tell you what that relationship was or how close it was and, as a result, you cannot know the whole truth. 

I feel gagged, censored by a legal system which I believe does more to undermine justice than to support it, more to suppress the truth than to allow victims to speak it. This upsets me terribly because I know that my truth and reality is other people's truth too. It is the reality of trafficked children right now, right here. If even I can't speak for them, who can? How will it ever stop?

So. So I can tell you that my primary abuser was a very close female relative. I can tell you that I shall henceforth call her "Smother." I call her this because she often forced me to perform oral sex on her and the sickening, steaming, gagging, smothering sensation is one I can never forget.

These are stories I can never forget.

This is not my step-father, but he reminds me a lot of him.
When I was about three, my mother married an older, frightening, huge, and violent man. His violence was the stuff of legend. He had been once thrown his own son through a closed window as a punishment for not handing him the right tool. Another time, he knocked my brother to the floor for forgetting to close the bathroom door.

My step-father was poison to all those around him, human and animal alike. His former wife had had a nervous breakdown, and his eldest son was about to have a nervous breakdown too. His two youngest sons were dealing drugs in middle school. His only daughter got pregnant at fourteen. Her twin brother was in Alcoholics Anonymous at sixteen. Even the animals on our New England farm were afraid of him and grew to be erratic and dangerous. Our horse would roll over on her riders and repeatedly run away. Our cat ran away for good. Our rooster would violently attack people, beating them with his wings, once leaving me black and blue down one whole side of my body. Our dog bit my brother and had to be put down after he bit me so my entire arm was bandaged. Our rabbit ate her young.

In the midst of this hell (where sexual abuse of me, the youngest, and the only girl in the home, was already rampant), I had a young babysitter whom I adored. She lived across the road from us, and her family raised Alaskan puppies, so pretty with their white and black fur and blue blue eyes.

One day, one of her pups, who was about five months old and quite friendly, escaped from his pen and got into our chickens. Instead of calling him or scaring him away, as any sane person would, my step-father grabbed his shotgun, strode out amongst the chickens, and shot that little puppy dead.

As I peeped over the windowsill and watched in horror, he grabbed the puppy by its back legs and dragged its limp body behind him, its head pumping along in the dirt. Its crystal blue eyes were wide open, staring, both beautiful and terrifying.

After he had disposed of the body, no doubt unceremoniously, he came into the house with the shotgun in his hand, turned to me, smiled, and said, "You're next."

I was five.

I was so afraid, I hid behind the couch for the rest of the afternoon and developed a fever.

Needless to say, my babysitter never spoke to me again. I saw her once or twice and she averted her eyes, refusing to even look at me. I wanted to tell her that it had not been my fault, that I had not wanted to kill her puppy. I realize now that she already knew that. I was five. I didn't understand what that meant. I wasn't given the chance to know what normal childhood felt like. I never knew what it was like to not be held responsible for all the wrongs that surrounded me.

Ever since that moment, when my step-father said, "You're next," I have not been able to look into a husky's eyes without being filled with a fear, and also a strange guilt for not having somehow saved that puppy's life. 

That's the first story of how I came to be afraid of the colour blue. I don't like to think about that story. So I avoid blue.

But there's more.

Fast forward about five years. My step-father is no longer in the picture and I am living in an isolated town in the mountains of south western Canada.

Me, on the blue carpet upon which I was often raped and otherwise abused.
Smother has dreadful taste in interior décor, generally leaning toward that which is cheap, second hand, and functional. She got her hands on a hideous, blue wool carpet for our living room. It was the sort that had been popular several years earlier so now could be had for a steal. She was proud of that carpet. I was less fond of it.

About this time, she began to more formally pimp me out to men, usually professionals like herself, high up in the social hierarchy of our little town. Sometimes she would make me give them little shows on the ledge by the window. I was frequently raped in the living room, on that sky blue carpet. As anyone who has been raped can tell you, while being raped, one is prone to kind of zoning out, often by focussing on something exterior to the rape. In my case, it was that blue carpet, burning into my mind as the colour of pain, suffocation, and fear.

On one particularly bad day, Smother again pimped me out to three men at once. They gleefully and purposefully raped me in all kinds of ways on that blue blue carpet. I did not cry out or fight back. I knew my best defence against worse violence, and against the rape of my very soul, was to go far far away in my mind and try hard not to feel the weight and tearing and choking being inflicted upon me.

So: blue.

Blue. I looked at the carpet, my Self disappearing into its fibres, not letting my rapists see my fear and revulsion. In this way, I felt that they could rape my body but not my soul. Preservation of my soul was my number one goal.

(This was not, by the way, the gang rape that caused my disability. That one was more violent and went on for three days, on a cement floor. I guess that blue carpet was good for something: softening the blows.)

When it was all over and they had left, I literally crawled into the kitchen, where Smother was sitting at the table, smoking a cigarette. I crawled to her feet and looked up at her, silently pleading for comfort.

She looked at me with her pale blue eyes and said disdainfully, "You're filthy. Go take a bath."

So I did. Later, as I lay on my bed, I prayed to God for comfort, for companionship in hell. I felt adrift in the universe, floating out in the vast nothingness of space, and I knew quite clearly that even God couldn't help me now. That was, I think, the most alone I've ever felt in my life.

Yes, you heard me right, Smother's eyes were the exact colour blue that I so fear. In fact, her eyes are my third "tale" of why I hate light blue.

They were -- are I suppose, though I haven't had contact with her for about fifteen years -- piggy, bloodshot, deep-set little eyes, too close together, with thick, unplucked eyebrows growing low over them, almost to the lids themselves.

She looked for all the world like John Travolta in drag in the movie Hairspray! I kid you not. When those movie posters were all over town, I was constantly triggered by what, to everyone else, was the amusing image of Travolta as a woman.

Evil often does not believe itself evil. Smother had a kind of crazed belief in her goodness, superior morality, benevolence, and enlightenment. She told me not to tell anyone about what was happening because they "wouldn't understand." Our love, she declared, surpassed the petty societal taboos of the unenlightened. We knew, she said, that love between an enlightened adult and child could be expressed sexually, but "regular" people wouldn't understand so it was best I keep quiet about it.

I knew I didn't like what she did to me, but I did believe that she loved me. What did I know of love? Children bond with those they need to survive. All mammals do. If we don't bond with them, our very lives are endangered. We depend on them for our food and shelter. We are utterly helpless without them and we are utterly defenceless against their abuse.

So I did normal little girl things, like picking her little bouquets of Forget-Me-Nots. How ironic is that? Their name is so incredibly apt: I sure as hell will never forget her, no matter how much I wish I could. There is so much I can't forget.

I also had to do less normal, little girl things, like earn money for Smother's drug habit, and even shoot her up when she was in such bad withdrawal that she couldn't get out of bed. Smother had junkie veins. Did you know that they are blue too?

Smother delighted in the juxtaposition of her seemingly "straight" life as, first, a teacher and, later, a Christian leader, and her "hip" life as a drug user and ageing hippie. When I was a bit older, about thirteen, she would often put me in a "kiddie brothel" at night and shoot up with my pimp when she came to pick me up, laughing with delight as she said, "I wonder what the parishioners would say if they could see me now?"

One of the biggest coups of her double-life was when, as a Christian leader, she volunteered at a prostitutes' drop in centre. I hung out there sometimes, doing my homework, keeping up the façade of a girl who had no first hand experience of the "pro's" life. (How I managed this is another tale, one of the psychology of extreme disassociation, one I'm not yet ready to share with you.)

I remember the working girls (all of whom had been sexually abused as children) looking at her arms and saying, "Are you sure you're not a user? You have junkie veins."

Smother would laugh and say, "Did you hear that? I have junkie veins!" Even the pros didn't believe she really did. A Christian leader shooting up? It wasn't possible. So they figured she must have some obscure medical condition that left her veins swollen and blue. They'd laugh about how the preacher had junkie veins. I laughed too, in a dissociative denial that kept me alive.

Ha ha.

So those were my stories of why I hate light blue. Light blue is, for me, what those who know about PTSD call a trigger. The mere sight of it triggers memories and trauma for me, reminding me of hell. Did you ever notice that that colour is everywhere? Houses, puppies' eyes, people's eyes, clothing, signs... everywhere. Microsoft Windows has never been fun for me, with all that blue.

Television shows from the 70s can be a problem.

You just never know when you're going to bump up against that colour. Triggers are like that: everywhere. If you have PTSD, you know what I mean.

For years, it did not occur to me to expunge the colour from my life. If my landlord provided me with a blue kitchen table, who was I to exchange it for another? If I found free, blue pyjamas in the trash, free was free. After all, I left home at seventeen, with no money at all. I took what I could get and what I could find.

But I think there was more to it than that. I think it was a sort of self-punishment. Smother said I was filthy. I think I felt that I deserved the pain that blue brought to me.

When I became disabled, I lay flat on my back in my bedroom for the first year -- looking up at a pale blue, glass shade over the ceiling light. I hated it. I was in terrible physical pain, and there, above me, was a constant reminder of my emotional pain.

Finally, a few years later, I realized that I had the right to change that shade. I began to get rid of everything I owned that was a trigger: bits of jewelry that had belonged to Smother, anything that was the wrong shade of blue, family photos that I'd kept up out of some weird sense of self-loathing.

Shortly after that, I met Beau, with his beautiful, dark blue eyes. Nearly finished his PhD in Psychology, he managed to figure out on our first date that I have PTSD. On about our third date, he asked me if I had any triggers that he could avoid. Bless him. I said yes, light blue was a problem for me. He looked down at his shirt with its light blue stripes and apologized, though he'd had no way of knowing. I never saw that shirt again. Before he'd met me, he had painted his entire bedroom light blue, and gotten light blue bedding. Before I ever visited him at his home, he re-painted his room and bought new bedding.

Bless him.

So I'd finally realized that I have the right to avoid my triggers. I would avoid walking down streets that had light blue houses. Beau didn't wear light blue shirts. I had no light blue in my wardrobe.

But, as I say, the colour is everywhere. I see it many times a day, every day (excluding the sky, which I try not to let upset me). I began to feel guilty whenever I saw it, as if I was somehow to blame for my eyes happening upon it and, therefore, I was to blame for being triggered or, worse, somehow wanted to be triggered. I tried even harder never to see it.

But that's no way to live. People with PTSD can go too far, so afraid of a trigger's effect that they limit their lives in an effort to avoid it. I cannot turn on the television, or my computer, or leave my home without coming across my trigger colour. I had to tone down the avoidance just a little.

And that's where this outfit comes in.

My first inspiration for the outfit was a vague memory of Lauren Hutton wearing a similar one in the 1970s. I liked her casual chic here, and wanted to mimic it.

But, being me, I wanted a bit more jewelry. I added this crazy ring and great, 70s pendant, but it still needed more.

Enter this cuff. When I bought it, I thought the rhinestones were clear. It was only when I got it home that I realized they were light blue. My first response was guilt and shame: How could I have brought this colour into my life? Didn't I know better? But, as I listened to my thoughts, I heard how absurd they are. I had done nothing wrong. Besides, it is a pretty cool cuff.

I decided to keep it and see if it might help me remove a bit of the sting from the colour.

I mean, I'd bought it because it had made me think of Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman.

And who doesn't want to feel like Wonder Woman?

Then I got really daring: I added my grandmother's brooch as well. When I expunged the colour from my life, I just couldn't get rid of this brooch. I loved my grandmother. She was good to me when so few adults were. I kept it but didn't wear it often.

Combined with the white gold hoop earrings, the groovy sunglasses ...

... and the bomb purse (as my friend, Sal, likes to call them) ...

I think this outfit worked quite well.

And then a funny thing happened. Beau and I went to our local cafe, and a woman I know there came up and gave me this brooch. She knows I love brooches and had been carrying this around in her purse until she saw me next.

It really is a nice brooch. Even with my fear of the colour, I could see that it's a pretty brooch. I could see the beauty of the colour. It was at that point that I started to think about the topic of this post.

Lynda Carter
Light blue is an innocent colour. All colours are. Blue itself never did any harm. The people who abused me did, but blue didn't.

Has my avoidance of light blue been depriving me of beauty? I can't tell you how many times I've liked an article of clothing or some jewelry but decided against it because it had a bit of light blue in it. Avoiding the colour because it upset me had turned into denying myself because it was forbidden. That subtle shift needed to shift back into proportion.

It's fun to feel like Wonder Woman.

Pow! Shazam!

Watch out, bad guys!

It really is a nice cuff.

Shirt: Reitman's; Boots: Ecco; Right hand diamond ring: Birks; Earrings: Jessica; Skirt, jacket, necklace, sunglasses, cocktail ring, cuff, purse, and brooch: vintage 
Of course I have every right to avoid triggers. Beau and I have already decided that we are going to ask that nobody wear light blue to our wedding. But if I see something I like, and it's got a little a little light blue in it, and I want it, I have every right to that too. It is not forbidden. I am not bad if I own a little light blue. I'm free now, no longer a slave, and I have choice. And I just might choose to wear that cuff again.

(I'm sharing this with Patti's Visible Mondays on Not Dead Yet.)


  1. Dear Charlotte, like with many of your posts, it is hard to breathe while reading... I just need to breath out and then breathe in again... and then write the comment. Powerful piece of writing! I want to tell you that you are amazing. You are moving towards acceptance and light. Through all the horror. Beau's blue eyes, and of course he himself more than that, but it's just so symbolic, isn't it, that he has blue eyes - help you to ease your way into accepting and truly loving yourself. Color blue means true love now. It never did before. But it started changing...

    So many of us feel guilt and shame even if we did not have any of the terror that you survived. I believe you help so many people with your writing! Beautiful, pure child... I just want to hug you and keep you close for all the years that you felt so alone as a little girl. It's amazing how much love, strength and beauty is in you. I'm absolutely positive that you will heal your beautiful soul completely. This post is the proof.

    Your jewelry is gorgeous, and you ARE Wonder Woman, my dear! Many hugses (family word) and lots of love to you. xxxxx

    ps Happy that you are excited about the writing link-up! Thank you for it.

    1. You are always so sweet and kind, Natalia. Just to clarify: dark blue is not difficult for me, and Beau's eyes are dark blue. If they'd been light blue, that would have been tough. But, yes, blue is his colour, including light blue. We're going to have blueberry, to match his eyes, as one of the colours at our wedding.

  2. Yes! Works for the Hero linkup too!
    More power to you, my dear. It's wonderful reading you grow towards the light.

  3. Charlotte, have you read about Dana's project Wabisabi? She is looking for participants! Take a look -

    1. I have seen it. I just get confused about how to enter such things. I'll sit down and read it more carefully.

  4. Charlotte, You got the right cuff! You go girl!

    1. Thanks! I see you had trouble posting a comment. That's because I always check them first to make sure they're not spam. Then I approve the posting.

  5. This is Janice Feinstein from the chronicpain21dayproject. Sorry I went a little OCD there. After I thought about it, I figured you had to approve the comments first. I can be a little impatient, lol.

    1. No worries. Chronic pain can make us all a little cranky, I find. I know I get cranky. We use up all our patience on pain! I'm just glad you're reading my blog.

  6. Such a sad terrifying life you have had..Im so sorry for all your hurt.. when you say you cant name names it really is a shame you can not people who do this sort of things need to be identified.. I was wondering if you could use the hypothetical theory.. I have read some stories that put that in there, that way you are not actually accusing anyone.. just hypothetically... like smother...Im sorry I am writing as annomous .I don't know how to put my name here..i would if I knew how.. take care ..all the best to you on your wedding .

    1. I hadn't thought of using the "hypothetically" trick. I'll have to look up legal precedent on that. I too believe that these truths need to be told so I'm currently figuring how the law works and how I can go on telling the truth without putting myself in jeopardy. If I were to run afoul of the (unfair) law, I'd have to stop writing and wouldn't be able to tell any truth at all. So I'm working on finding balances. At some point, I'm hoping to gather people's stories together on my blog. If those people don't use their photos, they have more freedom to speak than I do, so that would be another way share truth, even it's not my specific story. I know there are many people with stories similar enough to mine that, in sharing their stories, I'd feel truth had been told.

    2. Sure hope you can figure something out.. I enjoy your blog.. I love clothes also.. My name is Lilly.

    3. Thanks for the encouragement, Lilly. It's important enough, that I'll figure something out, maybe not the ideal thing, but something that will still get the word out.

  7. Charlotte, Another amazing post. I love light blue and feature it often on my blog. It is heartbreaking to think that something as innocent as this could cause others pain. I'm glad to see you are moving forward and BTW you look amazing in your outfit :)

    1. It is sad that any innocent thing could be a trigger for someone who has experienced trauma. I still have trouble with the colour. I probably always will.

  8. Wow. I ended up here through your Murder She Wrote comment on Twitter. I interrupted that post to come here....

    This is very moving. Thank you so much. I'm finding it difficult to say more right now, more that conveys the avalanche of feelings I have about all that you write about here, and maybe, at heart, my inability to fathom any of it. But I wanted to say at least this much.

    1. Well thank you. I think sometimes silence is the most painful response I get from people because, often, they're busy erasing what I just said (or wrote) so they don't have to face it. Saying, "Wow. I don't know what to say," is better somehow.

  9. This was beautiful, moving and incredibly articulate. I look forward to reading more of the words you are so brave to share.

  10. This is really interesting, You are a very skilled blogger. I have joined your feed and look forward to seeking more of your magnificent post.PTSD

  11. I'm so sorry that you had to go through such awful times. It makes me gasp to think that an adult could do that, any adult to any child. You are amazing to have come to be who you are today and survive and to be able to talk about it so coherently. God bless you.xx

  12. Wow. He heart seemed to stop as I read this. Thank you for sharing this. I completely get this trigger thing and you really helped me to see things differently... Not sure how I can help myself get over my triggers. I just want to say to that little girl inside... I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry little girl that nobody noticed, nobody helped. I wanted to hug her and hold her as I read your post.