For years, I’ve known that the chemicals in my head don’t always do what they should, that the synapses weren’t always clicking the way they ought. But I didn’t know why. Then I read about the amygdala, and its homeboys—the adrenal gland, hypothalamus, and pituitary. They control so much of us. They keep the plant running, day and night—heartbeat, bowel movements, breathing. And when something threatens us, they gather the troops.
The amygdala is responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and memory. It tells the rest of the glands what to do. When we become afraid or stressed, the steroid cortisol runs through us, and a lot of it. It’s the juice that says Shit’s about to go down, mate, and pumps you up. Then, after the danger passes, the cortisol lowers. And that’s good. You don’t want to get stuck in the exhausting fight-or-flight pattern.
Thing is, I get stuck in fight or flight. Something sets me off, frightens me. I deal with it. But the fear remains. It is a strange experience: I am in the room, alone, with a vacuous horror that’s as heavy as steel and electrified. It has no root. It exists on its own.
A person who has suffered PTSD—a raped child, a soldier in battle—has cortisol levels that are not only high, they stay high. There is never any rest. Your body is always, always, anticipating an attack from any corner in the room. It’s pure, unmitigated fear. And it’s biological.
Fear. I’ve always said that to live in fear is not living. It traps us, contains us. It muffles our voices, forces us into inaction. I believe this, and I try my best not to live like that. I usually do a good job of it. But when I get sick, the fear pours thick and cold through me, as though it means to take my place in existence.
When I think about the abuse from childhood, what I remember is obeying. I remember keeping still. I did what I was told. And now, as I write this, an image comes forth: there’s a tiny cage wrapped around my nude, child’s body, a cage that is the shape of the child, with hardly an inch between his skin and the bars.
I don’t like being caged. And I don’t like the fact that someone fucked with my amygdala. It’s been three weeks since the psychotic break. I’m really, really tired. And I’m angry, which I welcome. Anger means I’m lifting from the chaos, once again.
I can’t change the past. And I can’t buy a new amygdala. But I can start to dismantle the cage, one that he welded together with silence.
Here’s a decent article on how chronic stress does structural damage to the brain, at Psychology Today