Terror Evolves

Recently I experienced the old terror I’d felt in childhood when my frequently inebriated parents screamed in fury, sometimes hitting each other. As a kid, I hid behind the living room couch or under the covers of my bed, trembling.

A close relative, my beloved cousin Joe, has a partner, Brandon, who is prone to intense shrieking. I live in another city, but when I visit them, I witness Brandon’s volatile outbursts: they trigger my childhood fears. I still want to hide. However, I remember that, as an adult, I have other choices. 

When under stress, Joe’s partner, Brandon, displays autistic symptoms. I have enormous sympathy because I realize that life is too stressful for him at times, and he becomes overwhelmed. However, when he starts raging, my old triggers ignite; I quake with fear, panic and look for a place to hide. 

Typically, Brandon’s meltdowns go through several stages: isolation with stemming, sobbing, whining about how it’s someone else’s fault, and, finally, fury at the person he blames. For the first two stages, Brandon seems to be in a separate inner world. I feel sympathy. I’m not sure he’s even aware of me and I leave him alone, because that’s what he seems to need.

When his sobbing is about to end, he appeals to my sympathy to support him as he cries and explains why he’s a victim. At this point, even though I want to hide, I’ve learned to focus on my self-care so I don’t become involved in his approaching rage cycle. 

By separating myself from Brandon at this point, I calm my childhood panic that’s triggered by abnormal emotions. 

Several years ago, when conferring with Joe about other difficult personalities in our lives, I made a promise to myself and to Joe that, when I’m uncomfortable in a situation, I’ll withdraw and give myself a reprieve. Sometimes a short break, going to the restroom, is all I need. I do deep breathing to center myself, repeat a meaningful spiritual affirmation, and remind myself of the many things I’m grateful for. I focus on my inner-self to see if I have further needs at that moment. If not, I return to the group, knowing I’ll continue to take good care of myself. 

When Brandon has temper tantrums, which I consider extreme, I leave the vicinity for an hour or two. I take a walk or a drive. They live in a large home and they invite me visit them for a week or two at a time. Last year, I stayed in a nearby hotel. I’m open with them about my discomfort and the reasons for it, which include my childhood experiences and Brandon’s anger issues. 

I’m honest with Brandon about the boundaries I set with him. I won’t be present for his loud shouting or for his groundless and repeated criticisms of Joe. My cousin, through therapy, has learned how to set effective boundaries.

With these strategies, my old terror of adult fighting has lessened when I’m around Brandon; this is a big success. I do what I can to care for myself while I maintain as much compassion as I can for those near me. It’s a challenge, but I can handle it now without hiding behind the couch.

Cate Burns is the author of Libido Tsunami: Awash with the Droll in Life, in which she unearths the ludicrous in the emotional live traps surrounding us — in families, friends and disastrous romances. Get it on Amazon today.