Holding My Breath


My training ground for dissociation was toddlerhood. The sensation to flee and freeze overtook me as a child. I have one brief memory of waking up in my grandmother’s arms, having no idea where I was or why I was on the floor, in her arms. They said I did it for attention. They said I was manipulative. They said I had no tolerance for not getting my way.

I say it was extreme. “It” being that I’d hold my breath until I passed out.

On the internet, there are many careful articles to read on what are known as “breath holding spells”. Many of them are careful in that they point to possible medical causes, nutritional deficiencies, and a sense of, “oh no, this is normal and it will resolve itself.” Many also say it is a response to a big feeling: pain, fear, surprise, frustration, anger. Still fewer mention that nebulous “trauma” as a trigger.

I have not researched breath holding spells, but knowing who I am as an adult and knowing what I know about trauma, I’m convinced my breath holding was due to what was happening in my environment; a response to trauma. A toddler, a sweet little baby, would not have such an extreme response were the environment safe. For this reason, I was like the canary in the coal mine. Only I internalized the fear and threat I felt and checked out. Animals do this. They play dead in the face of a threat, or they immobilize. It’s instinctual. Toddlers act completely  on impulse. They are all instinct and curiosity and insatiable learning about the world. To immobilize is instinctual and protective. There was enough danger in my environment that I held my breath to make myself go away at three years old.

Right there, I learned my world was not good. I held my breath so I could literally flee the situation internally, and immobilize myself. I made myself go away, far, far away.

Unraveling childhood trauma is like a mystery. You have to look for clues. This was one big clue that something was wrong, even though I was told I was the one who was wrong. The doctor told my mother to slap me before I passed out the next time I was holding my breath and that I would be cured. I suppose that was my first “pattern interrupt” but it was painful. And I certainly found  other ways to numb out. I became so well versed in numbing I couldn’t even name what I was feeling or have an appropriate response to an offense. I had an abortion-ironically, to save my marriage- and spent two years in a complete fog, two years of my children’s lives I do not remember, two years I will never get back.

Other clues include my mother saying my dad kicked her in the stomach when she was pregnant. That is a typical domestic abuser dick move…kick ’em when they’re down, or vulnerable in some way. I kept thinking, my whole body must have been flooded with stress hormones before I was even born. Other memories are completely lacking.

It made me think that so much of what I struggle with hearkens back to this fear that started in childhood. I wake up some mornings in dissociation. I literally cannot move my body out of bed. I keep hitting the snooze on my alarm. I know I have to get to work, I don’t necessarily feel depressed, just completely checked out. I have not reached the depth of awareness to know all of my deeper triggers. I’ve found that some of my triggers are so habitual, and that I don’t think proactively about managing down my triggers.

For example, I had court last week and had to see my ex. Of course I was dissociated on seeing him. Seeing him is traumatizing as is being in family court. Because I didn’t recognize the trigger, I mistook the dissociation for healing, thinking being numb meant my triggers were gone. But after that I had so many angry parts come up I couldn’t sleep, was extremely irritated,  and felt spacy and forgetful.

It is only today that I am finding the space to deal with these triggers. Seeing myself as a little girl in the picture has brought a flood of tears and grief so wide and deep I cannot even put a memory on it. I just see her face, how she learned food is love, how little I know of her except for her longing to be loved and know everything is ok.

Today, I will hold her and soothe her and let her know we are making it. Not perfectly, but we are making it ok. I will let her know how much I love and welcome her and completely accept her for who she is, hard as that might be as parts resist and want to criticize her.I will take care of her living space and show her how to care for and love her body too. There is so much she didn’t learn, couldn’t have learned. Now is the time.

Dear God, please give me more compassion for this child I am, I carry, I love.



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