She stared intently. Laser-like focus. Large black pupils. Crouching, with her derriere gyrating back and forth.
I couldn’t see anything there. But she could.
My cat, Glory, had locked her eyes on a bug—full-on predatory mode as my cat became a stalking lion on the Serengeti, a lion in her own mind.
Nothing pulled her focus, not me petting her nor an offer for wet food or treats. She was adamant about catching her prey. She was on the hunt.
And regardless of whether she caught the bug or if it escaped from her claws and teeth, she remained focused on the same area for hours. She kept returning to the same exact spot. After hours and days later, she’d return. She’d wait. She was on high alert.
Her high alert reminded me of my mine.
My cat reminded me of my hypervigilance, a result of abuse. For many of us trauma and abuse survivors, we are constantly on the lookout, surveying environments for threats and signs of danger.
We continue to do it often when the abuse or the trauma has stopped. We have ended the relationship, relocated to another home, and have placed years or even decades between what happened and our current lives. Still, we find ourselves on high alert—even though, logically, we know we are safe.
So, why do we do that? Why are we primed in this manner?
Perhaps it’s because of one of these three things:
1. We sense something.
Hearing. Seeing. Sensing. Taking in some incoming feedback about our surroundings.
Like a cat and its perceived or actual prey, we can pick up on some “not right” or “off” bug. This goes beyond instinct or intuition. It is the sense that something toxic, violent, harmful, confusing, dangerous, or unhealthy is in our midst.
Often, because we have been trained since childhood to anticipate and navigate abuse, we believe that every situation, place, person, and exchange has the very real possibility to go sideways. We brace for impact because we’ve had to do that so many times in our lives.
How many emotional, verbal, physical, financial, and relational catastrophes have we had to weather? We know just how fast, how intensely, how badly, how destructively things can go wrong—because they have in the past.
Therefore, we judge all present and future experiences against that infamous and horrific past.
We can easily resemble Glory, who is primed, crouched, and waiting for the “bug” to appear—because it always has. That’s the protective mechanism we employ. It keeps us alive and safe—as much as we believe it can keep us alive and safe, anyway.
2. We believe it’s always there.
It’s our “normal.” This heightened sense of awareness and the perceived threat is normal—no matter what reassurances we are given that we are safe, healthy, okay, loved, or wanted.
There just always seems to be the danger lurking, lying in wait for us. We feel it’s biding time.
When my cat locked her eyes on that bug, from that point on, she perceived that the area would always contain that bug. Whenever she walked by the loveseat, she looked intently.
Bug watch—hypervigilant, because it’s always there, waiting for her. She was preoccupied with that reality, paying less attention to my offers to feed her, play with her, cuddle with her. Nope. She was not as interested in that as she was in watching for that bug.
Some of her interest has since subsided, but she still will glance at the spot every day. She is aware of how that area is significant to her. It’s worth her time and attention to not ignore it, be oblivious, nor unaffected concerning it.
It’s become a part of her world, and that can be the case with us too.
The trauma, abuse, PTSD, and the constant hypervigilance becomes a part of our world—because it happened and changed the landscape of our thoughts, perceptions, decisions, and focus.
3. We keep returning to the scene.
Therefore, it’s not much of a surprise that we return to the scene of the crime. If it’s a part of our memories, impacting the quality, to some degree, of our daily lives, why wouldn’t we keep coming back?
The fancy term for this behavior, it can be argued, is “rumination.”
We play the scene over, and over, and over again in our minds, dissecting and trying to come up with alternative things we could have said and done.
How could we have avoided it? How could we have escaped it? How could we have been anything other than the helpless victim, or the shamed person, who was told that we “deserved it?”
Again, rumination can be at work. Like that of my cat, obsessed with that bug, we can assume the role of predator. We can do this, either through harsh cruelty with ourselves or with the mentality of, “I’ll get you before you get me.”
Maybe, we reason that we have this punishment coming. Maybe, we reason that we need to kill or be killed, eat or be eaten—all in the name of survival.
Maybe, we take the other tactic. We are not predators: we are prey. We roll over, surrender, “play dead.” We do this because being a victim at someone else’s mercy is the life lesson we learned all too well.
Sometimes Glory, after a futile stint of staring at that spot, obsessing over her bug, goes belly up. It seems that she doesn’t see any other solution to her current predicament. Now she fawns for my attention. Now she wants belly rubs. It’s better than nothing.
Magical thinking can have us at such a place that we believe giving in to the path of least resistance will give us some measure of peace and rest. We are desperate for peace and rest.
Whatever the case may be, no matter how much time has passed, we may take on the identities of predator or prey. We can flip-flop between the two—trying to find what works the best for us.
Still, it doesn’t quite work, does it?
How are you “bugged?”
Have you been saying this to yourself at all in your life?
“If only” and “what if…”
These are the hallmark bugged statements we entertain on a regular basis. They center on fear and regret, and we live in at least one of those camps, at any given time. We’re afraid and we regret a significant number of experiences, based on the trauma and the abuse we’ve lived through.
We fear and regret our very beings. We fear and regret who we are.
What do we do?
It’s nothing original, answer-wise—therapy.
We need perspective and specialized help to heal. Therapy does that.
It is no quick fix. I have been in and out of therapy for 20 years—because stuff goes that deep.
Trauma masks trauma.
It’s not a simple explanation. It is muddy, filled with painful, conflicting, confusing, and enraging secrets and revelations.
And, that is by design. Survivors have often spent their lives being off-kilter.
Our issues, left unchallenged, can make us easier to control, more susceptible to ulterior motives and harmful agendas.
We then must assume the hypervigilance of our own healing. Instead of simply falling into our past unproductive patterns of beating ourselves up for things we could not control, nor change, we must stalk the realities of why we are triggered and how we can better manage those reasons through tools that promote more peace, stability, and a reframed sense of self.
Like Glory, the work involves crouching, waiting to pounce on better health. Indeed, better health is a bug we would benefit greatly from catching.