"Birch Street, Higgins Drive, Cobalt Lane."
Jessica Jones, the Marvel Comics and Netflix Original antihero, is one of my favorite characters.
It’s not just that she’s a badass female appearing in a male-dominated world or that she’s nonchalant about her abilities. At times, she’s abrasive, she’s self-isolating, and she’s angry at the world. She is, in my humble opinion, one of the most honest cinematic depictions of a sexual abuse survivor attempting to cope with life after trauma. She is my PTSD superhero.
I’ve been pushing through the Marvel Cinematic Universe in chronological order for some time now, and it was right around the time when I was diagnosed PTSD that I happened to begin watching Season 1 of the Netflix Original Jessica Jones. I had encountered Jessica in reading comic books previously, but watching the show was my first in-depth look into her story.
“Birch Street, Higgins Drive, Cobalt Lane.”
When Jessica is triggered or finds herself having a panic attack she repeats those words. It’s something her therapist told her to try: name the street she grew up on, picture it in her mind, and do the same for surrounding streets. The first time the mantra appeared in the season, I didn’t quite comprehend its purpose. It was only until further unwrapping my rape and sexual abuse history that I understood.
From my experience, my PTSD makes me susceptible to overwhelming, devastating panic attacks at unpredictable times. The angle of an actor’s face in some movie whipped me into a flashback because it reminded me of how my rapist looked three years ago. I’ve broken down in tears on my way to class because I saw someone who looked like my sexual abuse perpetrator. I’ve broken down on a way to a football game because I actually saw my perpetrator.
When this happens, I cannot just “snap out of it.”
It would sometimes take me hours to pull out of this state. My heart pounds. Tears pour down my face. I can’t breathe. I dissociate—I am sucked into the past and I relive the trauma. Those kinds of moments are what this is for:
“Birch Street, Higgins Drive, Cobalt Lane.”
What Jessica learned from her therapist is a grounding technique. Essentially, these techniques help to ground you in the present. They remind you that you are not in any immediate danger like your flashback or anxiety is suggesting to you. They help to pull you out of the past trauma that you are reliving and bring you back to the here-and-now.
In Jessica’s example, remembering the street of her childhood home and the adjacent streets may help to provide some form of stability when she feels herself spiraling. Personally, I moved around too frequently as a child to use Jessica’s technique. Despite this, I still tried it anyway. When it didn’t seem to work, I was incredibly frustrated because I was desperate for anything that would help me pull out of reliving my trauma.
It took me a little bit to remember that everyone deals with mental illness differently, and it’s okay if one person’s solution doesn’t work for you. Through working with my psychiatrist and therapist, I have found a few techniques that do help me. I’d like to pass three of them on in case one of them may be right for you.
“Smooth, cold, slippery.”
Tactile grounding has become my first go-to technique, because it allows me to experience my present surroundings in a very tangible way. I touch the glass table in front of me and describe exactly how it feels. I feel the blanket on my couch. I run my fingers through my hair. I think of this as a way for your body to override your brain, forcing it to attend to things other than your flashback.
“The box on the piano, the ribbon on the present, the embroidery on my sweatshirt.”
Pick a color—in this example, I chose red. Name everything that you see around you of that color. This is another way to focus on your current environment in an acute way. It allows you to hone in on details and avoid getting overwhelmed by all of your surroundings at once.
“Fish move right, a seal swims left, lights shine down from above.”
Sometimes, I’ve found that while getting away from my trauma is important, I don’t particularly feel safe in my current environment. Thus, focusing in on it is not particularly productive. In these moments, I close my eyes and focus on a different scene entirely. I am by no means suggesting, “ Okay, picture a happy place, like a beach!” That is incredibly impersonal. Rather, It’s about thinking of one moment in your life where you felt at safe and at peace. For me, it’s a specific instance of solitude in an aquarium. I picture every detail as best as I can and even talk about it out loud if I need to.
Hopefully, some of these grounding techniques will be helpful to extricate yourself from a flashback or anxiety attack. If not, keep searching. You might be able to find one that works like Jessica Jones, or you might have to use different ones at different times like me. Even if the hunt for the best technique takes a while, just giving yourself the chance to try finding it will help contribute to your healing. And if Jessica Jones has taught me anything, it’s this: the heroic thing to do is try.