Tinnitus, triggers and drowning

There’s a phrase that’s popular in personal development circles. It says you can’t control what people say, only your reaction. It’s a true a statement as they come, but I’ve never felt like it tells the whole truth. 

Today I reacted to something that someone said in a way I’m not proud of. But to tell you the story, I need to take you back and then back again. Are you up for it? 

When I was 16, I briefly dated someone who suffered from tinnitus. I remember reading about it and hearing firsthand how it affected his life. It sounded dreadful, but I knew it could never happen to me. Ahh, the confidence of youth. 

I’ve been sick with the flu this week, and the congestion has given me tinnitus in one ear. At first, I paid little attention, but it didn’t go away. Then I tried to ignore it entirely, but it didn’t go away. I attempted a different tactic; I focused ALL my attention on it and asked, ‘What are you trying to do for me, ringing in my ear’. (A trick from an old coach). The reply? ‘Stop you’. I respected the answer. I cancelled my appointments for the day and propped up in bed. Still, it didn’t go away.

Sick days; medicine, supplements and all the tissues.

Today I finally summoned the courage to tell my husband my fear, “I’m scared it won’t go away”, I whispered as we were on our way to our son’s six-month doctor checkup. 

I always believed that voicing our fears aloud gives them more power, allowing them to manifest and become real. But I’ve come to think the opposite since I started working on my mindset and practising vulnerability. Fear hates an audience. When I voice my fears out loud, I feel a massive weight off my shoulders.

That said, it still sometimes takes me a few days to summon up the courage to be vulnerable in this way, and today was no exception. I’d been thinking that way for four days already, alone and scared in my mind. 

Dreamboat (hubby) is currently in the throes of powerful personal development and still believes everything can be solved with the right mindset and maybe a touch of breathwork. (He’s not wrong, but it’s not always that easy, right?) He said to my fearful whispers, “Maybe you should focus on not having tinnitus rather than having it”.

Dreamboat, “Nothing a bit of breathwork can’t cure”.

Before he could go on, I snapped. Obviously, I had considered that already and here I was, voicing my greatest fear only to be told to think positively. It made me irate. I felt a burning rage and wanted to tell him to GO AND FUCK HIMSELF, followed by a few days of the silent treatment, a punishment I witnessed others dishing out over the years. (Old patterns die hard). 

I was triggered. It’s such a popular word now; not everyone understands or uses it correctly. I first heard the term triggered at a Kerwin Rae event in 2018 when he spoke of being trigger-less. I didn’t know the name back then, but I knew the feeling all too well as I often felt it in business, sometimes losing days of my life being upset over a single email. I wanted to be trigger-less too. To know myself and to master my reactions. 

An internet definition describes being triggered as “having a strong, uncomfortable emotional reaction to a stimulus that wouldn’t ordinarily cause that response.” In this case, my husband offering some well-meaning advice about handling my mindset around being sick. But today wasn’t my first rodeo. I may not be trigger-less, but I could quickly figure out what was happening and bring myself down.

When Emmanuel offered his advice, the first thing I noticed in myself was that I instantly went into a story. My inner voice got loud, very loud. It went out on a tangent. ‘Being vulnerable sucks, and as soon as you let someone in, they hurt you, and Emmanuel thinks you’re stupid and you are stupid. Why don’t you just get a better mindset? All the personal work you’ve done, and you’re still an idiot. Why do you even bother? People want to hurt you. You can’t rely on anyone. You’re stupid.’ 

That last one:

You’re stupid.

It’s an old wound. It was formed when I was four years old (I’ll get to that) and was reiterated throughout my life because of a part of the brain called the reticular activating system (RAS). Amongst other functions, the RAS’s job is to collect evidence to support your beliefs, in this case – ‘I’m stupid’. 

As I said, though, today was not my first rodeo. I recognised the thoughts within 60 seconds of them coming on. My practice when my mind is whirring like that is to stay vocal. I told Emmanuel how his advice made me feel. I said I was triggered. I reminded him that I/ we know this trigger. I explained that his advice sounded patronising and asked if he thought I was too stupid to look at my own mindset. (He obviously doesn’t think I’m stupid at all, but luckily he’s done this with me countless times, and he allowed me to slowly work it out in my head before I later apologised). 

Having that response, and an altercation with my husband, today sucked. I don’t like feeling that way, and I could tell that my reaction upset him too. Of course, he only wants to help, he’s my husband, and we’re a team. The whole thing stole half an hour of our day.

Teamwork makes the dream work. Most of the time, anyway.

Five years ago, if the same thing happened, it could have been much worse, and in fact, I fought with him over stupid things all the time back then, occasionally dishing out the silent treatment (as mentioned) or even threatening a split (more so in the early days). To go from that to a half-hour blip on the radar took a lot of work, but it’s work that is the very definition of why mindset and personal development are so powerful. Let me talk you through my process.

Seven years into our relationship, we were still virtual strangers in 2016.

When I was first exposed to the concept of being trigger-less, I knew it was a superpower I wanted. I began a practice of journaling every single time something triggered me. I would fill my journal with pages and pages of thoughts and trace the feeling throughout my life. For example, I would remember all the times I felt stupid as far back as I had memories. 

I’ve done this with many different triggers (or stories or beliefs, whatever you want to call them). But the ‘stupid’ one kept popping up. I finally got to the root of it, and it began with something that happened to me when I was four years old.

At age four, I fell into our backyard pool and drowned. I was wearing a turquoise T-shirt and wasn’t spotted several times when my parents tried to check on me. This event caused a ripple of consequences throughout our family that still impacts us today. It indirectly led to the separation of my parents. It led to unhealthy family dynamics that saw me become the favoured child at my brother’s expense. His life hasn’t been easy as a result. It was traumatic, no matter how you look at it, and memories and stories about it remain foggy and unclear. (Both parents profess to be the ones to dive in and fish me out, for example).

Troubled teenage years for my brother and me.

I was resuscitated and taken to hospital by ambulance, but the damage was done. I suffered brain damage and had to relearn many things – including how to talk and how to use my body. One of my first childhood memories is of sitting in the car outside our house and trying to tell my parents that I don’t like the smell of petrol. They couldn’t understand me. 

After the drowning, I became incredibly shy and hid in the cupboard at my kindy to avoid being teased. I needed special tools to help me hold a pencil or pen in class as my grip strength was so weak. I participated in many types of speech and occupational therapy, some at home and notably ‘riding for the disabled’ here on the Gold Coast. I was held back from starting school.

Kindy years.

But bit by bit, I worked at it and soon caught up with my peers, even becoming quite ‘book smart’ by the time I graduated school and went to university. I’d even go as far as to say I am intelligent. I am creative and entrepreneurial whilst also being logical and a good learner. It’s these traits that have allowed me my career success to date. 

But writing that here and knowing it consciously doesn’t mean I truly believe it. There’s a part of my subconscious that still thinks I am stupid, and every time I feel like someone is treating me that way, I am instantly triggered. It’s my big, hot, red button. In fact, it’s probably the main reason it’s taken me this long to start blogging. One grammar correction wielded by a troll would have had too much power over me before I got to where I am today. E.g. ‘I used an apostrophe wrong – I’m stupid and shouldn’t even try.’ 

The truth is, being stupid, unlovable, insignificant, or whatever the wound is, and I have plenty, is a story. It’s all a story. When you figure out the worst things you believe about yourself and trace them back to their source, it’s clear how untrue they are. Am I stupid because I drowned through no fault of my own? Am I stupid because I underwent therapy and had to relearn how to human? No. The only stupid thing is that there are still tendrils of this story lodged in my subconscious, and they can reappear at any time, like today.

Unique, yes. Stupid, not even close.

I am not trigger-less. Perhaps I never will be. But what I am is aware and self-compassionate. 95% of the time, I can work through a trigger, even a new or deep one, within a matter of minutes and be out on the other side, having taken some of the power out of the story each time it shows up. 

So when you hear the phrase “you can’t control what people say, only your reaction”, realise that most people don’t choose to react badly. I didn’t choose to snap at my husband and accuse him of patronising me. I’m simply re-enacting old patterns and beliefs that were formed in my early years of life. Until I started working on myself, I was utterly unconscious of them.

They say our formative years are from ages 0-8. This is when many of our beliefs are formed and solidified.

The more I work on myself and uncover negative beliefs, the better equipped I am to choose differently. I am conscious of my stories. I have tools to put them back in their box. 

Some of my stories, like being stupid, were formed from an objectively traumatic event like drowning. But it’s important to understand that trauma can occur in small children from the most insignificant circumstances. The Holistic Psychologist, Nicole LaPera, defines trauma as anytime a child doesn’t feel seen, heard or able to be authentically expressed as they are. Anyone with parents who couldn’t meet their emotional needs consistently will have childhood trauma. In our unhealthy and under-supported society, that means most of us. As much as my drowning contributed to my harmful stories, my mum saying no to a sleepover and ignoring my subsequent tantrum resulted in just as much damage and another ‘story’, ‘I need to look after myself in this world’.

Learning to swim after my close call.

If you still react in ways you don’t understand or like. If you’re stuck thinking a certain way or living a life that doesn’t fulfil your potential, know it’s not your fault—subconscious programming results in living a kind of half-life, an unconscious one. But once you realise that and begin the work to unprogram yourself, you’re on the path to personal responsibility and living a conscious life you choose. 

I don’t enjoy reliving those times in my life when I was young, naive, ashamed, fearful, defenceless and wholly reliant on my parents to feel safe and loved. I don’t enjoy that I’m still not where I want to be. But I have so much compassion for myself and the process. I learn more, and I do better. On repeat. 

I did manage to see the doctor myself today. I have a nasty ear infection, and I’m on antibiotics. If my son weren’t booked in, I likely wouldn’t have gone at all; another way I fail to prioritise myself. As it was, I was there, I was seen to, and I’m on the mend. The tinnitus should rectify itself. If nothing else, it gave me an excuse to practice my skills and write this post. If you’re on my journey, I see and love you. It’s not an easy path.

Posted to Personal on 1st June 2023