The idea of territory can be a big issue for some people who’ve come through trauma, particularly the ‘interpersonal’ kind – that is caused by other people rather than natural disasters or accidents. It can be a little difficult to describe the kind of chronic anxiety that people can struggle with. Certain kinds of environments can become really stressful such as crowded events, places that are similar to the place where something bad once happened to you, or new places. I’ve had big troubles in this area myself, which is pretty common for someone with PTSD. In my case, I’ve found trying to take on environments like a university campus really challenging and stressful. I’ve found that thinking of this stress in terms of territory has been helpful for me.
On bad days, I don’t feel safe anywhere. It’s hard to even remember what it was like to feel safe. On slightly better days, there’s pockets of the world where I feel like I’m allowed to exist. These spaces feel like my territory. I know them well, I’m comfortable in them, I know where to retreat if I need to, where the exits are, the quiet spots. I feel much more comfortable in these spaces. Home, all being well, is a place like this. I feel much more relaxed because the space is mine, I’m very familiar with it, and I feel like I have the right to enforce my own wishes and preferences. These two aspects are key to my concept of territory; being very familiar with a place, and feeling like I have the right to be there as I am.
When I’ve been really struggling, my territory has shrunk down to nothing and nowhere has felt like my space. Over time, I’ve gained ground, partly by removing myself from some bad environments. I’ve worked on making some spaces feel like my own, such as my own home. The key then has been to try and expand my territory so that there are other environments I feel comfortable in, otherwise my world gets very small. One of the places I was first able to do this was public libraries. Libraries have traditionally been my haven, they are fairly quiet, not usually frequented by bullies, and full of books and information – and internet access, which was pretty important before I had my own computer and connection! One of my local libraries had an indoor garden which I immediately fell in love with. Another had comfy chairs and one of those vending machines with $1.80 nestle hot chocolates. I quickly felt at home. These places became pockets of new territory, like a chain of islands I visited. My goal was greater freedom so I kept adding new places over time, the local supermarket once I’d become really familiar with it, the walking track at the nearby park, a community center.
I’ve moved house a lot over the past 5 years, and I find this very disruptive. The dissociation means it takes a while for information like that to be processed. In a new house I’ll wake in the dark and not know where I am, get disoriented and lost easily when trying to navigate, drive back to my old place when I’m tired. One of the things I do is thoroughly explore a new area. I walk to the nearest parks, find fast food places for emergency meals, the chemist, go read all the community notice boards, collect the information at the local library, read the council pamphlets about community events. Knowing an area well helps me feel more comfortable in it and reduces that sense of permanent disorientation.
In tackling a new environment I take a similar approach. Let’s imagine a new community center. I’d go there sometime there weren’t many people, and investigate. Where are the toilets? The kitchen? The exits? Is there any quiet nook I could retreat to if I needed? Any garden or outside area to escape to? Is the physical environment welcoming or really challenging? Welcoming environments for me have open spaces, comfy seats, and lots of natural light. I’m less comfortable in squeaky clean corporate environments, and poor lighting, cramped space, closed doors and barred windows set my teeth on edge. Then there’s the issue of my place in this environment. How will it function? Are there areas I can’t go? Is it pretty relaxed? Would I get in trouble for ducking to the kitchen for a drink or sitting with my feet on the couch? The more rules and restrictions an environment places on me, the less it feels like my territory, and the more I’m a guest – in some spaces a barely tolerated guest. Where these rules are things I’d never do anyway – please don’t break the windows, it causes me less stress. Where they impinge on my ability to relax and function independently – I have to ask permission to go to the toilet, a staff member will bring me a glass of water if I ask for one, the less comfortable I am in that environment.
If I feel pretty comfortable to be myself, that taking the initiative or operating independently wont get me into trouble, then another thing I do to help myself cope with a new place is turn up early. If there’s an event on at 2pm I want to attend, but I’m feeling anxious, I might turn up at 1.30pm. It may be enough to just sit in my car, or I might be allowed to go and wait in the space. Not walking into a room already full of people but being one of the first to arrive helps me to feel I have a right to be there and that the space is part of my territory. This isn’t a dominating thing, I very much want other people to feel at home there too!
Volunteering helps me a lot with this issue too. Being part of the behind the scenes where you may be there at funny hours or when the place is normally closed, you often have access to screened areas and will spend downtime having a giggle with other volunteers after projects have been completed really help me to feel at home in a difficult environment. When you know where the glasses are kept, that the study door has to be bumped with your hip because it sticks in the heat, and that the third armchair is in that spot to cover a stain on the carpet you feel a much stronger sense of belonging and territory.
It’s not just difficult rules and hierarchy that can derail my ability to feel at home somewhere, rudeness or bullying can also derail me quickly. At one place I was starting to feel more comfortable in, I had an incident one afternoon that was quite minor but affected me strongly. There was a free resource in a particular location that I wanted to access, and another person was in the space. When I asked if I could get past them they were hostile and claimed the space as theirs, with no intention to move any time soon. I wasn’t expecting this and was suddenly unsure if I would be supported by staff in my reasonable request or if the other person would be supported as having the right to occupy it. Because I was only new to this location and my anxiety was pretty high, I felt the impact of this minor conflict. I went from feeling somewhat safe and at home to feeling intensely nauseous and distressed. I suddenly wanted to escape the environment as quickly as possible, but I also knew that if I walked out it would be incredibly difficult for me to come back. In this situation I was able to find a caring staff member to sit with me in a quiet space and let me express my distress. They didn’t tell me I was over-reacting or should be more assertive, they just gave me a glass of water and some sympathy for how upsetting it can be when you encounter a conflict like that you weren’t expecting. This quickly calmed me down and left me in a place where I certainly felt uncomfortable with this other person, but not generalised outwards to the whole environment. I was able to go home and I was able to come back and keep working on making that place part of my safe territory.
Being listened to and respected even if you’re not making much sense or speaking their ‘language’ goes a long way to helping me feel safe in new environments and that my needs and wishes will count and if I stand up for them I’ll be supported. I like to know what the rules are, written and unwritten, feel I could anticipate the reaction of the people running the place to any situation, and have enough space to breathe as my own person within it. Any opportunity to occupy it on an even playing field, to become more familiar with it, or to build connections with caring people there all help me to expand my territory and be more involved in the world around me.