Search (I)

Search is what I do. I spend the days thinking about them and wondering how the hell everything became so fucked up and why the hell am I still here. Life in its entirety feels different and I struggle to make meaning out of it. It’s hard these to find meaning and keep up the hope that I used to have. I used to think it would get easier at some point, that this vice-grip would let up and I’d be a little freer. I struggle to be free and so I’m starting to think it’s rusted out.

Laying in bed in my apartment. I feel both restless and tired. My dreams won’t let me sleep. I wake up early in the morning actually feeling physically ill now. I thought I’d have to run to the bathroom. I go to sleep freezing and wake up bathed in sweat. This keeps happening. I beg it to stop but it hasn’t. I don’t know how to stop it.

I question what love is. We keep fighting. I have to give you a choice. Stay and offer support and try to have some form of empathy for me, or leave. Just leave if you can’t help me. It’s me against you and yours. I’m a tiny island surrounded by you- an ocean. No matter how hard I try to stand my ground and keep existing as a whole, I’m going to get edged out and slowly wash away. I’m tiny against you.

I know what it feels like to scream underwater. I’ve dreamed of it. All of the air of my breath is what it takes to try to be heard until I get consumed by water and dark.

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Hard Things

Sitting down I’m bent over, one arm across my middle, other arm bent, with my phone in my hand up to my ear. I stare at my lap, half-listening, mumbling “yeah,” and “mmhmm”. She’s rambling, yet concise, filling me in on the details of her day, her week, and her month. She had called me during the weekend of the latest anniversary and left me a lengthy message telling me she’s thinking of me and that she loves me but that I need to take care of things- take care of the ashes. Except she framed it in her own way that she does, telling me that she’s been setting her intent to the universe that they would be brought home. My mouth tasted sour. I hadn’t called her back until today.

She asks me what’s new in my life- do I have any new friends, do I have any new special friends? I laugh a real laugh and tell her that I always have new friends, but no, no-one special (and that I’m okay with that). I don’t really know what else to say, so I talk about the trip that I have planned later this month, and that the weather is so nice here but so dry. There’s always new stuff around here, but nothing really changes, is what I’m trying to throw down, and I’m positive she gets it. I sit there, more hunched over now, anticipating that question again.

Having to do hard things is all part of this. I tell myself that in the same way you would tell a child it’s okay to be sad sometimes. When I think about doing those hard things I’ve had to do, and the hard things I have to do in the future, it feels like metal on metal. It sounds like I’ve bottomed-out in a shitty parking lot. It’s a pain that will never really go away, so I grin and bear it anyways and carry on. We shall overcome.

My brain’s adapted, I think, and changed, so now it seems I process things bit-by-bit. The process is sequential, and each small hard thing needs to be isolated and dealt with on its own, because the whole would be phenomenally overwhelming. Take things as they come not to get bogged down and heavy. Having to live this way is not by choice. It sucks. Life sucks. Everything and everyone sucks. But not all of the time-when you have to be in pain, suddenly good things become better, and you start seeing magic in the previously mundane. Maybe that’s a consequence of growing up though, being able to see through the rain. Grown-up or not (I think not), I have this feeling that my experience has amplified my gratitude. As some law of physics turned cliche goes, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. You experience intense pain and all the while long for the hurting to stop, and as terrible or horrific the experience is, a voice in the recesses of your mind tells you it’s momentary and this too shall pass. No matter how bad it gets, you must tell yourself to LISTEN because that small voice is right. Keep pushing; punch through walls. Come out on the other side and you’ll feel the light. Revel in it.

We talk more about nothing, and I feel uncomfortable. Why does this feel awkward. In the end, the question doesn’t come (at least not directly). We hang-up, and I feel like I’ve swallowed a large pill, the discomfort finding its way into my esophagus. I’ve successfully avoided this conversation for now, although I know it’s future appearance is inevitable. I think briefly about all of the things I’ll have to do to get it done. Phone calls. Flight-booking. Time off work. All of that practical stuff. Then, seeing people I haven’t seen in years, people who were like family growing up when we lived back there (home). Their presence will evoke a lot in me, I know. Then, seeing relatives and being uncomfortable. I’m worried the whole saga will be not an experience, but a RE-experience, one that I really don’t want. I’m getting ahead of myself, and decide to put it on the shelf for later (I do that often- it’s a roomy shelf).

I get ready to go for a run- a welcome medicine- to shake it off. The sun is bright and hot and I can feel myself start to sweat immediately. I feel happy out here, and I feel deep appreciation for where I live and the decision I had made three years ago to move here. I had thought naively that I was through the thick of it, and I resent having to deal with more. Part of me also feels intensely guilty for avoiding for so long, but I now know how to counter that with the rationale that few people have (or maybe no one has) been through what I have, and what would anyone else do in this position? I squint into the light and remind myself that this all can be broken down into smaller pieces that can (and will) be dealt with individually. The reality of this is the discomfort and the hurt, but that each small piece will be momentary. Just hard things, and that’s okay.

In it together

“It’s not like a normal sweat- it’s a stress-sweat. You know the one,” is what she says to me, her eyes not quite frantic, but close. This is the first time she’s told me in depth of her experience of her circumstances and her PTSD. I say that she’s right, there’s a different between exercise-sweat or sweat from heat, and “stress-sweat”. She laughs, saying the latter smells.

When we’re done talking in fragments about our respective experiences with trauma, we’re both sitting there, revved up, needing something to do. A change in our thoughts, our feelings, our energies. We both try to distract ourselves- she shows me something funny on Facebook, and I chuckle forcedly. I look back to the monitor of my own computer, concentrating hard on some frivolous news article. The tension is there, and I realize that that’s our shared experience. Her story is completely different than my own and her life is a universe unbeknownst to me, despite her willingness to share. Me, I don’t share much by no fault of my own, but at this moment maybe I don’t need to. The response is the same- the striking tendency to avoid by staying busy, persistent nightmares and sleep troubles, feeling revved up by red-alarm fear (and “stress-sweat”). Similarly, we emote an incomprehensible yearning over what could have been and a sadness, frustration, and anger that follows because we can’t go back in time and instead have no choice but to endure what’s been given. There’s the guilt (good God, the guilt) that eats at us, and warrants a strict voice of reason to stave it off. Her story is hers, mine is mine, and every day is an obstacle course of triggers that can make us re-live aspects of our respective traumas.

I always struggle between wanting desperately to have my story heard, and needing to withdraw and avoid from the painful emotions of loss that follow the memories of another life. I have this fantasy of telling people the whole thing, unabridged, and not numbing-out or feeling intense fear, and not feeling freaked out by the fear and sadness evoked in others from sharing the story of what I’ve endured. It remains a fantasy though, because my PTSD brain still hasn’t yet put it all together. The memories and emotions are scattered shards of sharp glass, too pain-invoking to be put together again. But this is where I’m at, and I can’t fight it (I’ve tried without success). Some length of time has passed, and I’ve learned that I must trust the process, and trust my brain and nervous system to do its thing. Sometimes it feels like I’m going backwards, but I know I’m further now than I’ve ever been, and am going to get further along still. Right now, I’m very clearly not ready to tell-all, although I’d like to.

The tangible experience- my memories, my life, as well as your own- are very different. The response is the same, and we can be united without having to reveal anything if we are not ready to. We each understand that our reactive experience is the same, and in that way we are united. We are in it together, and I find solace in that.

“PTSD”: A label I can cling to

When I learned I had PTSD, I felt something like relief for finally having a label for the symptoms I had been experiencing since it happened. As much as we- myself, anyone with a mental or physical illness, or really anyone else with a heartbeat- does not want to be stereotyped or stigmatized, having a label provides a title we can offer to anyone who asks why. One can say, when the opportunity arises, “I have PTSD”, without necessarily having to explain why. It saves us from having to talk about the events that still affect us so deeply, which we might not be able to talk about in a coherent or meaningful way, or which could cause us to dissociate or just simply be overwhelming in some circumstances when we open up about it.

I remember when I was talking to my counselor at the time about the experiences I had been having and he pulled out the DSM-IV off the shelf for me to look at. He opened the book to the section about PTSD, and I carefully read the symptoms. Before this, I had been fairly clueless about it, in the sense that it was something that other people could develop, but that I was somehow immune to. I think at this time it had only been a year and a half after it happened, and I was often under the impression that I would just “get over it” or magically overcome it in a span of two years. I would explain how I felt really foggy sometimes, almost like being underwater, or how I had problems concentrating because all I could do was think about what happened. Sometimes, especially in the first few months, I’d lay in bed at night, terrified out of my mind because I felt like I was there, and that I could die too, like they did. These experiences that I would have that I often talked about were things I thought only happened to me, and things I thought would pass quickly. I felt naive looking at the pages of the DSM, like I should’ve known that this was something I now had, that what had happened had impacted me so much. Above all though, I was relieved that all of the symptoms I had been experiencing, were not entirely uncommon reactions and not entirely abnormal reactions to be having. My poor kid-brain was just trying to make sense of something entirely and shockingly un-sensible.

In the following years, I had done a lot of re-experiencing of feelings and thoughts and memories. It had been confirmed more than once that the umbrella term for what I was going through was post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s been six years this May since it happened, and I have bad dreams, my memories are sometimes mixed up, and sometimes I feel afraid for no tangible reason. I can’t always explain to people what my circumstances are, or how it affects me, but I can tell people, if the situation calls for it, that I have PTSD.