The Mystery of the Penguin Footprint cPTSD

by Melissa Smith - Sun, 09 Oct 2022

A painting created by penguin footprints triggered my cPTSD.

While this statement is factually true, it’s also an oversimplification and very linear explanation. Unpacking the details yields a story that is much more circuitous, which is entirely on brand for my experience with cPTSD.

So let’s start at the beginning. Ish.

Once upon a time, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). People experience PTSD when they undergo or witness a disturbing event that gets stuck. They have trouble processing and resolving the incident, like a case of mental indigestion where the traumatic incident doesn’t get digested and… well, mental acid reflux happens. It’s unpleasant.

I had a work experience that was traumatizing, and when I started having nightmares and relatively identifiable flashbacks, a stellar psychologist and friend nudged me towards a therapist who specialized in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy for PTSD. Flashbacks, for the uninitiated, are moments when the present situation triggers one’s brain to time travel back to a past event. One feels as though now is the past – we relive the event as if it were happening right now. You feel flashbacks in your mind, your body, and your senses. Your brain stores a lot of sensory information with memories, and it’s common for our brains to think they are experiencing those same sensations once again. I went to therapy for a couple of months, but when the nightmares abated (but some insomnia started) my attendance dwindled.

By and large the flashbacks, as I knew them, stopped after that first round of therapy.

Which again is… sort of factually true.

At the time, I mostly recognized flashbacks from the way we see them in the movies. A soldier or veteran hears a car backfire, and they are immediately transported back to the war zone mentally. They may even dive for cover in the present day physical world from the gunfire and explosions being replayed in their minds. But PTSD isn't just limited to veterans. Any traumatic situation can cause it: car accidents, pregnancy loss, violent crime, and much, much more. My flashbacks are less linear or immediately recognizable. And they are complicated by two factors.

First, I am autistic. And one of the aspects of autism I experience is interoception issues, which are difficulties sensing and/or understanding signals from the systems inside one’s body. This includes physical sensations, such as sensing hunger or pain, and emotional sensations, communicated by the central nervous system. My interoception issues vary indirectly with the amount of external sensory input. Sometimes I have trouble falling asleep because once the lights are out and the world is quiet, I can finally hear what my body has to say and wow, does it have some complaints.

Secondly, I actually have complex PTSD (cPTSD), a relatively newly recognized subset of PTSD. It’s not in the DSM yet, and it certainly doesn’t get media coverage the way PTSD does. It derives not from a single event but from an extended period, or in many cases, a lifetime of events. In other words, PTSD comes from TRAUMA. It is a psychological blunt force wound. cPTSD comes from trauma, trauma, trauma, trauma. It comes from getting stabbing by a fork again and again and again. Or getting a psychological paper cut every hour of every day for years and years.

Many of us with neurodivergent brains also have cPTSD. We experienced emotional dysregulation that the adults in our lives may not have known how to handle (or even tolerate). Our weirdness was often met with chronic bullying from our peers. As my therapist recently explained it to me, the experience of feeling overwhelmed and alone again and again leaves scars. If we grew up feeling perpetually unsafe and hurt, those scars can accumulate into cPTSD.

Because getting scars over and over hurts, our clever little brains figure out how to adapt so we can survive a new scar. They McGuyver a solution that sees us safely through the initial emergency when we’re kids, but using strategies that really aren’t durable for long term use. One of these strategies is dissociation. When you dissociate, you become numb, shutting down the emotional responses that make us all human. In the face of overwhelming feelings, as a kid, it might not have been safe to respond, especially at the level of intensity at which many neurodivergent kids experience them. Autistic and ADHD people often experience emotional dysregulation issues. Our amygdalas activate very, very quickly. Great for running from bears. Not great when the light bulbs are too loud and we can’t shut them off.

So we develop an auto-shutoff switch for responding to things that make us feel threatened, furious, or devastated. Sometimes that switch stays activated until we’ve gotten ourselves somewhere safe and then we melt down. Sometimes the switch stays on and the feelings fester until we have burnout, anxiety, and depression. And sometimes the valve that keeps the feelings locked away leaks, and we wander around not being able to concentrate or focus and blame ourselves for not being productive.

My point is that the emotional energy we stuff down when we dissociate doesn’t just vanish. We don’t digest the experience, burp out our feelings, and move along to the next buffet. Nope. That energy gets stockpiled so that every time we’re triggered we feel the cumulative effect of all the other times we dissociated and stuffed down the feelings.

For me, this dissociation has made navigating flashbacks extremely tricky. Something triggers an emotional flashback, but my brain shuts down the feeling. I’m not feeling. I’m walking around like an automaton, on autopilot, being a masked husk of my usual self.

But if I can’t feel the feelings, how do I figure out what’s happening? My feelings are locked up, but my thoughts are absolutely racing around, chasing one another across the dark corners of my memories. And observing my thoughts can finally, finally help me figure out what is going on and how to solve the mystery.

Do you remember those chase scenes in Scooby-Doo, where the villain chased them through the doors in the hallway? The scenes were surreal, with rooms seemingly endlessly connected to one another, the chase sometimes reversing in the middle, and a catchy '60s pop song playing through the montage.

That's what it is like for me, only every door reveals a different monster, a different memory. None of them on their own are insurmountable, but they glom together like an enormous self-criticism snowball monster. And I’m so busy running from the monsters to stop and figure out how to escape the endless loop and recycled scenery. I may not even realize I’m running because my prefrontal cortex is 100% inaccessible. I am living amygdala loca.

A cPTSD response feels like being frozen and stuck. I can’t tackle any tasks, no matter how much I might want to do them. I’m no longer in charge of my attention – if I so much as consider cracking open my laptop to, say, work on a blog post, then I’m immediately terrified of it. I see all the negative outcomes that might happen, none of the positives, and nothing can force me to begin even the easiest step.

As someone with ADHD, the cPTSD inability to focus can be hard to spot. After all, ADHD means that focus is often in short supply. For me, there are three ways to spot the differences in how the lack of focus works: 1) I have minimal control over the direction or speed at which my thoughts are moving, 2) most, if not all, of my thoughts are negative and pack a concussive punch, and 3) my train of thought keeps getting interrupted by memories.

If normal ADHD’s lack of focus is like a bumper car ride, then my cPTSD flashbacks are like being stuck in a bumper car that doesn’t work with an operator who isn’t stopping the ride and may be oblivious to the fact that my car is broken. I’m stuck, and I’ve got no choice but to wait it out while being knocked around by the other drivers, some of whom take aim at me, the sitting duck.

It’s easy enough for me to identify those differences in theory. But it is so hard to figure out what’s going on in the middle. It’s like solving a mystery while blindfolded and drunk.

Here’s how this weekend’s mystery worked out.

Saturday I impulsively bid on some items for an online charity auction at the shelter where I volunteer and where we got our beloved cat, Cora. Along with some other baskets of goodies, a canvas caught my eye with the bright blue footprints of Dwayne, the rockhopper penguin from the Cincinnati Zoo. Dwayne the penguin spoke to me, man, and so I bid.

A white canvas shows a pair of animal footprints in blue paint. These are the footprints of a rockhopper penguin. Each foot has three toes.

My partner and I usually run big purchases past one another, especially optional ones. I didn't talk to him before I submitted my bids, but I did come clean in the hour in between when I voted and the auction ended. But he was understanding about it. I don’t usually splurge, and all-in-all it was not really a big deal between the two of us.

Then he went to bed and the show began.

Clue #1: I experienced an outsized response compared to the present reality.

My husband and I had pretty immediately worked things out. In fact, there wasn't much to work out. He was kind and supportive throughout. The situation wasn't fantastic, but it certainly wasn't dire, and it was going to be easy enough to recover from the mistake. Plus, hey, it's a mistake that resulted in money for my favorite charity. That barely registers on the scale of mistakes I've ever made.

Penguin footprints. Really not a big deal, except in the sense that I’m pretty sure Dwayne is a Big Deal. But those are Dwayne’s issues, not mine.

So instead of being excited about Dwayne’s imminent footprints, there I was, thinking I was a horrible person. I initially wrote ‘feeling’ there, but that’s not quite right. My internal monologue was full of messages about how irresponsible, impulsive, and selfish I was. I couldn’t have named a single feeling I was experiencing. “I feel like a horrible person” isn’t a feeling.

Clue #2: My thoughts/feelings weren't budging. If anything they were infecting anything else I thought about.

I was stuck on the couch, rooted in place. I had a few things I wanted to accomplish the rest of my night, but for about two hours I could not nudge, push, or shove myself towards any of those tasks. Thinking about each of them kicked off what I can now see was more dread, shame, or guilt.

My present self was so confused and frustrated about why this event that was no big deal is preoccupying me. I really wanted to tackle my three tasks. Really! I was motivated and everything! So why was I sitting there playing video games?

(Ah, video games, the multi-tool of my life: I use them for fun, stimming, self-soothing, dissociating, and little rewards while I’m working on tough tasks.)

Clue #3: My body was paralyzed into inaction, even for enjoyable tasks.

Stuck. On the couch. Playing video games I wasn’t even enjoying. I wanted to do the tasks on my list, but I just couldn’t budge.

Once I realized I was functionally, if not literally, paralyzed, something finally clicked, and I realized I was not in charge.

Mystery solved: cPTSD response.

Once the light bulb went off, I started to steer myself out of it. Realizing that I’m experiencing a cPTSD flashback means I can switch channels for a moment. I washed some dishes (one of my three tasks) and sang along to my favorite playlist, and once my capable adult brain was back online, I talked myself through recovering and resetting from the experience. Altogether, round trip, the flashback experience and recovery was about four hours. And believe it or not, that’s a huge improvement over past trips.

So, my patient readers, now you understand the mystery of how something as innocuous as a set of penguin footprints can trigger cPTSD responses.

You might be exhausted just reading this. I know I was exhausted living through the penguin mystery, writing about it, and living through the flashbacks that showed up when I remembered the events about four years ago that made me initially realize I was dissociating.

My hope (and my condolences) is that if my description sounds nauseatingly familiar in ways you weren’t quite aware of yet, then this understanding gives you a springboard towards your own recovery. I hope my description helps you put the pieces together more quickly than I did. Healing all those scars and learning better tools for emotional regulation takes work. Damn hard work. But it is infinitely worth it, and beats the hell out of shaming yourself for reaching for yet another match 3 game that you feel embarrassed to be playing.

This is only my experience of flashbacks within my own neurodivergent experience of the world. As they say, your mileage may vary. Your neural experience might include some different special features than my own. But if any bits of it feel familiar, please, please take some steps onto the path of trauma healing. You may feel ready to engage with a trauma therapist immediately, or you may feel called to do some work and research on your own first. There’s no wrong answer or pathway. But start walking down that path. You deserve not to get stuck in the past. You deserve to heal. And you needn’t do it yourself. Ask for help.

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