Like most trauma survivors, I suffer from severe hypervigilance. Even when I am sleeping, the slightest noise will wake me up. Sometimes it’s just my dog having a dream. Sometimes it’s the smell of smoke (I sleep with my window open). My sense of smell is so over-developed that I can smell a forest fire 50 miles away.
It’s rare that I get a few days in a row when I don’t feel like I am in imminent danger. The one place where I feel safe enough to sleep through the night, focus on my writing and listen to music rather than monitoring the news on T.V., is my sister’s house. She has a beautiful home on a lake in Southern California. When my sister is home, I count on her to be my eyes, ears, nose…. When I am invited to stay at the house for a couple of days to watch her dogs, I have two, very large Rottweilers to watch over me.
Last week I got to spend a couple of days housesitting and taking care of my sister’s Rotti’s. Her oldest dog, a male, is three years old. I call him “my prince.” Several times in the past, when I have been housesitting, he has quietly crawled up into my bed. He never jumps up on the bed or tries to wake me. He just gently lays down next to me to let me know he is there. I know that several of those times when I rolled over and found him there I was having a particularly bad dream. Maybe he sensed my distress. I’m not sure.
The puppy, a 1-year-old female is…well, she has a lot of energy. It is not unusual for her to leap into my face if I am sitting on the sofa and talking on the phone. I have a feeling that she suffers from some kind of doggy anxiety disorder. She pants non-stop during the day and also displays symptoms of hypervigilance.
So, last week late in the morning, I let the dogs in to feed them. The puppy began running around the house, jumping on me and trying to find some article of clothing she could grab and run around the house with.
While I was running around the house chasing her, I noticed that the male dog was fixated on something on the lawn in the backyard. I hollered out the window, “get off the grass!” (My sister has a very small patch of real lawn in her backyard and the dogs have a huge dog run and the rest of the yard where they can relieve themselves). He didn’t move. I yelled at him again, then I caught a quick glimpse of something moving in the grass. I stepped outside to investigate and saw a huge snake. It was 1/2 the length of the lawn. I grabbed the male dog by the collar and just caught the puppy as she bounded toward the snake.
I hauled both dogs inside by their collars and collapsed on the sofa. The male dog was still hyper-focused on the snake. He ran back and forth between the sliding glass door and the window trying to get out of the house. The puppy was more upset by my anxiety. She kept jumping on me and licking my face.
I got up, went to the refrigerator, grabbed a drink (some kind of alcohol spiked sparkling water) and returned to the sofa. I noticed my cell phone was buzzing. I picked it up and there was a text from my sister.
“Hey, I noticed that the dogs were on the lawn. Could you either put them in the dog run or in the house?” She has Nest® camera that watches the backyard.
This is what I texted back to her, “Oh Shit, there is a giant snake in the yard and your dogs almost got it!”
To make a long story short, she was able to see the snake on the video cam. She concluded that it was probably not a rattlesnake. It was a Gopher Snake. It did not coil up in defense when the dogs expressed interest in trying to pounce on it. And she wanted to make sure that the dogs and I were okay (knowing what a trauma llama I am).
I texted her back that we were all okay but I was drinking.
I sat on that sofa for over an hour. It was a classic freeze response! I knew I was safe, but I could not move. I couldn’t even get up to get another drink. In my mind, I thought if I don’t move, the snake cannot see or hear me. By this time the snake was long gone.
After about an hour, I was able to get up, move about the house and feed the dogs. I was functioning. I turned on the T.V. to make sure there were no other imminent threats to my wellbeing, posted my experience on Facebook, read all the supportive responses and made dinner.
I decided to sleep upstairs just in case the snake found a hole in the screen and came through my window. Seriously… that’s how freaked out I was!
During the next couple of days, I had difficulty focusing. I kept the dogs close to me and “escorted” them between their dog run and the backyard.
I decided to gather all my courage and walk up to the community pool and hot tub before the sun set. My muscles were aching from trying to protect me from a threat that did not exist.
Normal people would relish this experience; the sun setting on a gorgeous Southern California evening, sitting in a hot tub, all by myself and enjoying the warm jets. Nope… not me. I was in the middle of the hot tub watching for snakes. Really! Really? Who does this? Me…trauma survivor, survived having my children taken away, and near-death emergencies from a surgery that was supposed to make me thinner.
It was just a snake. We don’t even know if it was a poisonous snake. But it was enough of a threat to derail the rest of the weekend and make me feel unsafe.
- When my sister texted me asking if I was okay, I should have said no. Even a quick phone conversation with her would have comforted me instead of faking that I was so brave.
- I posted my experience on Facebook to elicit sympathy rather than asking for help. Again, pretending to be brave.
- I forced myself to go to the hot tub for relief. I believe that when you feel frozen, baby steps are a great way to get past the feeling. However, challenging yourself to do something you are afraid of without the proper support is stupid.