It’s so difficult to explain to anyone what it’s like inside my head.
It’s difficult to live in here… articulating it is almost impossible. Especially because I just don’t remember, exactly, really, what it was like Before… back when I reacted normally to situations, when I had could do small talk. Before I became this irrational, broken person who pushes people away because she wants someone to love her so badly.
That’s part of the problem, you see. I walk around feeling normal, thinking I’m normal. Imagine someone flat-lining– that flat line is you, it’s us, it’s everyone… its the status quo. It’s the societal norm, acceptable reactions to common social situations.
And I’m the blip. I’m the massive spike that fills the screen with a mountain, a quick up, a quick down… but a peak in the middle that’s spiked and sharp and screams shrilly, drawing the attention of everyone in the room, scaring people and making them jump.
I don’t realize my reactions are irrational until they’ve passed. Sometimes I can see it, in the reflection of myself in the eyes of the people who love me. But when that happens, when I see my mother distressed by my tears that will not stop, or my best mate shaking his head in a hopeless, sad way when there’s nothing he can say to make it better; I don’t understand. I see their reactions, but they don’t compute. They just confuse me, poke me through my panicked fog– why are the looking at me like that? Can’t they see where I’m coming from?
And then, ten minutes later, once my heart rate has slowed and the shaking tears and heaving breaths have calmed and I’m exhausted, just wanting some strong arms to hold me while I curl up and cry… that’s when I get it. That’s when I look back at myself, at what I’ve just done– cried over someone being two hours late, lost my temper over someone who won’t answer their phone, yelled at someone who’s just trying to tell me the rational truth– and I’m slightly horrified. I’m bewildered and I kick myself and I curse my husband’s name and wonder when the fuck this will stop following me, when this will let me be, let me engage in some normal kind of relationships?
My current fascination with how biological factors effect our everyday lives is, I’m sure, partly an effort to understand myself, to put some kind off leash on my rampant swinging emotions. Post traumatic stress disorder is, in it’s essence, being continually stuck in a state of hyper–attention and hyper–awareness. It’s all your primal instincts not only continually switched on, but working overtime… your natural instinct to scope for danger. The fight or flight reflex. An unidentifiable but palpable sense of potential threat all around you, especially in places that are unfamiliar or overload the senses.
I know a handful of bloggers with PTSD, and a few of them attended DPCon’12. Every one of us cried at some point or another over the 48 hours we spent in Melbourne. Crowds are bad– so many people, so much noise, so many voices at so many different emotional pitches that your primal mind finds it difficult to assess possible threat. People invading your sacred personal space, both physically and with huge personalities that can’t take no as an answer. And the noise… I used to love being immersed in a crowd of people, sucking up their energies, tasting the flavors of their souls. Now, in the After… I’m like a newborn, a baby– too much noise and I become agitated for reasons I can’t quite identify and couldn’t articulate, because maybe there’s no words for it, in our language at least. It’s something sparked in that same base, cro-magnum brain stem functions that kept the human species alive every day thousands of years ago.
The reactions– the re-activeness– that PTSD causes people to express, amplified, would have been reasonable thousands of years when an everyday drama really was continually threatening– a panic reaction when being chased by a sabre–toothed tiger is both understandable and rational. Displaying the same reaction in today’s manicured society, conjuring up a panic attack over a bus running late or someone standing you up on a date or taking a wrong turn in your car- not quite so rational, nor as understandable.
But that’s what happens in severe cases of PTSD. The smoke alarm in your brain has been tripped once, extremely, and for a very real, very valid reason. And after that it can be damaged, as if there’s a circuit in there somewhere that is frayed and smells of burning copper, pulled taught against itself and shrieking “Danger! Danger!”, even when there is none.
Give me something, anything, that runs electrons through that smoke alarm section of my brain… and stand back and watch me burn. If I sense abandonment (everyone I love leaves me, everyone runs away eventually); if my mind thinks it see’s a threat to what little I have left; if I am running late or lost; if something I’m looking forward to falls through and I have to start the waiting again, days before the next event or experience I can look forward to to keep me afloat– anticipation being a process I take relish in if it’s veined with excitement, but it needs the conclusively at the end of it to be a full experience; I work on appreciating the anticipation of an event without having that enjoyment hinged on other peoples reliability- and I fall to pieces.
Any of those things, or others– raised voices; a rope; a humid, sticky afternoon; a half heard conversation between strangers involving ‘What a coward, it’s a dogs way out’– and I become someone I think I know… I become that five year old girl in my mind; in essence a child, ruled by base emotions and the most logical laws of cause, effect and consequence.
I panic. My heart thumps, my palms sweat. I pace aimlessly, planning to do something, anything, to keep myself busy, because in a few hours this will pass and I can sleep and tomorrow is a new day and I might not still feel like this, and find myself unable to concentrate, unable to do anything at all except search for some elusive quality that will make everything ‘better’.
I cry, sob with such veracity that my eyes are nothing but tears, the entire saline content of my body pours out through my optic nerves instead of tiny tear ducts. I phone people who I know will push me away so I can flagellate myself harder, hate myself more. Tunnel vision kicks in and my life is a tiny, lonely, suffocating space; I don’t think to call the people who will actually be able to hold me up because I can’t even see them through the fog, they don’t even occur to me…. and I can’t, not too much, not to people who I am not sure love me unconditionally. Because I’ve risked that before, I’ve taken people on their word and trusted them and shown them every broken,
bleeding piece of me… And for their own preservation, they must turn away.
And that’s just the emotional effects. I can separate them, somewhat– I experience them, but I know they’re not rational. Underneath all of that their is that primal, screaming inner reaction… a base function of the brain. That shouldering, sulfur smelling burnt out circuit that shoots panic hormones into my blood stream, raises my adrenaline to levels that most people will only experience a few times in their lifetime… I get them a few times a week. And I can count the physical effects of them– exhaustion, the dehydration, the feeling of being constantly tense and coiled and prepared to fight or fly or run. And it’s so difficult to talk myself through it- how do you talk your body out of a chemical reaction? Mind over matter, harnessing the power of the psyche to control that leftover neanderthal biological panic that is virtually impossible for people who haven’t experienced it to comprehend.
It makes it difficult for me to have close relationships with most people. It makes small talk a near impossibility. It causes me to be disconnected from my children. It burns out my friends and those closest to me. It’s not only exhausting for me, it’s exhausting for other as well… I am an emotional battery drainer, a succubi, a Rogue.
But at least I know that, and I’m working on it. The hyper–awareness that comes with PTSD can have its advantages… I know how I am. I can almost remember how i used to be, and I can see the difference stretched out between the two. It feels weak, like a cop out, but… I’m doing the best I can. This isn’t primary school, this is reality, and the rules are so different here. The best I can do really isn’t enough to tame me so I’m easy again, companionable, good company that will make you laugh and not get too serious. And that’s OK… it has to be. Because I’m trying. Every day, I’m aware of myself. Every day I work so hard to temper those irrational reactions, to speak sense to myself, to keep it flagged in my conscious day to day activity that I might be overreacting here, that this situation may not be the way my mind perceives it.
I’m exhausted. This is difficult work.
And that five year old repeats her request, politely, please– a gold star, and a smiley face stamp. And someone to hold her hand every now and then, to remind her that monsters are imaginary, and they exist only in our minds.