Dread Attacks After Four Years

It’s been over four years since my husband died.  I just got in from a kayak paddle with a friend.  I live alone across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco in Sausalito on a houseboat. It’s late October and though the air has a tinge of fall, the sun is still very warm.

I’ve been struggling with some PTSD type of symptoms recently.  Not grief, though I still miss him.  Instead, this is about the trauma of caregiving.  Those years when you had so much to manage but so little control over what was going to happen, living with constant fear, the hospital visits, the EMT calls, the transformation of your relationship, the fights with the healthcare system, the slow deterioration of someone you love.

I don’t have flashbacks, like returning veterans talk about.  There are no images, no specific thoughts.  It’s completely in my body.  I wake up during the night and many mornings with pure dread coursing through my body.  I’m not dreading anything in particular, it’s a physical sensation.   Usually, after maybe 5 minutes, they dissipate.  Occasionally, they come in waves.

I was so strong for so long, I feel a subtle shame at feeling “weak” now.  But what does that mean?  It’s a voice that plays in my head – the old “you shouldn’t be feeling that now.”  Or “you should be over it by now.”  And yet, it is what it is.

I’ve started thinking that these dread attacks are my body working to get rid of the stress that was encased in the armor required to survive through the pandemic and my cross country move these last few years.   Maybe I’ve carried it with me because I wasn’t yet in a safe space to process, to let it run through and out of me?

At least that’s what I am wondering.  Kind of like shivering, or sweating, or even vomiting.  It’s my body’s mechanism to get rid of the accumulation of feelings leftover from caregiving.  There is a lot written today about how the body holds trauma, like The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, MD.

At first I was thinking I needed to “fix” these attacks.

Now I’m thinking maybe my body has found its own way with these dread attacks.

Other than that my life is pretty good.  Generally, I’m content.  I have friends, family nearby, work I enjoy.  I get plenty of exercise and have abundant opportunities to enjoy nature.  I do yoga, and meditate.   I am lonely  at times and at other times I enjoy living alone.  I have traveled by myself, most recently to Yosemite for a couple days.  I look forward to other travel, not alone.

I think I’m OK.  I don’t need to be “fixed.”

So for now, I’m just going to accept that this is a process I need to allow to run its course.  If it gets worse, or if it doesn’t go away, I’ll seek help.  Somehow that feels like the right combination – trust and track.