I haven’t really written about PTSD too much. There’s been a few reasons. First off, my PTSD has been getting a lot better since it first bowled me over, seemingly out of the blue, almost two years ago. It’s also a hard topic to discuss because this is not the past. This is the now. What if I stigmatize myself? What if someone wants to hire me/work with me/be my friend and then thinks the better of it? What if I use my own words to prove that I am what every mistreated kid fears being – damaged goods?
Well, me being me, I figured to hell with it, I’d be real about what it’s like. So here goes.
I am having emotional flashbacks right now, today. I haven’t had a bad episode in a while but this one has been particularly crappy and the only way I can think of to make the best of it is by writing it all down.
I think it was triggered by having conversations a few days ago with a couple people who grew up like me. They were good conversations with awesome people and I talked about my experiences and heard about theirs. I would not take it back and nobody hurt me or anything. It just happens sometimes.
Us former homeschool kids like to joke about how we can often pick each other out of a crowd, or somehow accidentally find ourselves chatting and wonder how we subconsciously knew. I don’t know why that happens (if someone does, please tell me!) but I do know that there is something about just hearing the voice of another former fundamentalist homeschool kid that both puts me on edge and makes me feel oh-so-at-home at the same time. The use of a lot more big words, speaking softly, enunciating clearly, leaving out most slang, avoiding profanity or using it awkwardly, biblical and classic literature references peppering our thoughts and speech like second nature. Perhaps it is not unlike a meeting of two strangers from the same tiny war torn country, both expats, telling their stories of life there and how they got out. It is wonderful, almost a soulmate or best friend experience, so lovely to connect and be understood at a certain rare level, but for me it comes with a price. It triggers me.
I have decided I am ok with something triggering me if I am prepared that it may, so I just go with it, viewing it as all-in-all a good thing, part of connecting and understanding, desensitizing, overcoming. It also isn’t like I lose my composure and go into some Hollywood style “flashback” when it happens. If you were talking to me and something you said triggered me, you probably would not even know.
Also, this may seem weird, but I actually like my visual flashbacks. I sometimes get them while talking about or doing something that reminds me of the past. They are short and just vivid memories really, kind of like if you walk by a lady wearing your grandma’s favorite perfume and suddenly recall being in Grandma’s house. Even if a memory is harsh, it feels like being given a gift, some greater insight into how things were, if that makes any sense. The problem is the rest of it.
Part of my PTSD issue is that a lot of the time the visual flashbacks are not connected with their corresponding emotions. Instead there is just sort of a free feeling, like being outside with no clothes on and the wind has just blown lightly so you feel it on all of your exposed skin. Something is missing but you’re just paying attention to the sensation and not noticing yet. Apparently this is a type of dissociation.
The actual feelings, the flashback emotions, are delayed for me, sometimes hours, sometimes a few days, sometimes they don’t come at all. I didn’t understand this at first, when it first started happening, and as someone who generally has a pretty good idea of what I want and why I want it, this was the most baffling and scary thing. It made no sense.
An emotional flashback for me involves me just going into a place where I’m utterly disgusted with myself for no apparent reason or for a reason I intellectually know I am blowing up to be far beyond its real weight. I also often get a feeling like someone with bad intentions is about to come into the house or the room I’m in, kind of like I used to dread my Dad coming home from work. Sometimes I replace this “ghost” with thoughts of a person in a place of authority that I feel I am letting down. Like I had worries my former boss or a professor was going to come through my door and berate me, tear me down. Apparently this is a type of hypervigilance.
Intellectually I know it is all foolishness but emotionally it feels too real to ignore. Emotionally on some level I believe it. I look over my shoulder. I feel my pulse race. I can’t concentrate or sleep well at night. I wake up with a sore jaw from clenching my teeth or sometimes think there’s a mild earthquake happening, but it’s just my heartbeat. I will sometimes also get headaches, stomach aches, heartburn, achy joints, cramps, or mildly blurry vision along with it. The mind and body are connected even though they feel disconnected. Aside from the aches, my body often feels numb.
The feelings can be so strong that they are just pounding inside my head and body, disrupting my concentration on any outside issue or project. Now that I know what is happening, and that it isn’t just inexplicable weirdness, it really is just more yucky than scary.
I am still in counseling and working on trying to counter the negativity, using some of the good ideas here, but sometimes it just feels bigger than me. Here’s a little snapshot of what goes through my mind when I’m experiencing one of these emotional flashback sessions:
Ugh, people are still wondering where I am. I wish so bad that I’d didn’t feel bad about ignoring them… I am not answering my phone or email and I have turned off Facebook chat. My concentration is shot. My work is overdue. My bank account is pathetically low. I suck. My marriage is on the rocks. He should just leave me. I don’t know why he hasn’t already. I am not a good wife and I never even wanted to be. My thighs have cellulite, bad. I am ugly and pathetic. No one else would want me either. Ugh, I will never be able to wear shorts again. I even look fat in long sleeves and long skirts. Don’t look in the mirror. You’ll see someone awful, disgusting, and definitely not pretty. So does everyone else. A stranger would say “her eyes look beady and dead-looking, and she has jowls. She must be a crappy person with a crappy life.” My shower needs scrubbing, my sink is full of dishes, and I have snow shoveling to do. I know I’m not going to do any of it. I’m just going to stay right here. Nope, get up and at least get the snow before it becomes icy! That’s what I thought. Not.getting.up. I am as big of a bullshit artist in my work and studies as my Dad was as a preacher and everyone knows it. I need a haircut on my thin, greasy, disgusting hair, but it won’t make a difference, I’ll still be gross and awful and unworthy and everyone will know it and avoid me, or they would avoid me except I am avoiding them and I.can’t.bring.myself.to.get.out.of.this.bed.
These are not the things I think of or that I generally believe about myself during ordinary circumstances. Under ordinary circumstances I’d like to think that I’ve pretty well beaten back the negative self-talk and almost conquered the “bodysnarking” that is often such a troublesome part of being a woman. I also know I have a master’s degree, amazing friends all over the world now, and many excellent opportunities. If the 12 year old version of me could get a glimpse of the life I have before me today she’d cry tears of joy and awe and then do a goofy little happy dance.
Before I had the PTSD, which was delayed-onset by over a decade in my case, I figured I had come to terms. I knew my parents gave me those dirty looks and punishments because I did not measure up to what they thought a child should be in this unrealistic cultish mindset. I knew I was an ordinary girl though, not a substandard version. My Dad had projected his insecurities onto me. Just because he said I needed to go on a diet or that I was lazy or disgusting when he was feeling like that about himself does not make it so for me. I had decided I have beauty, inside and out and it was there since the day I was born. Sure, I am capable of being a bullshit artist but so are we all. The difference is I kept the artist part and left the bullshit. Unlike him I do not use my powers for evil. I knew it was not okay to neglect myself today, just like it was not okay to be neglected then. My teeth need brushing, my limbs need exercising, my heart and mind need kindness, friendships, human connection, responsibilities. I have a good and fulfilling life to live today and in the future, with many things in store.
The thing is, during almost every emotional flashback I feel that stuff anyway, and I can’t get rid of the feeling. I can’t imagine I even have a good future, let alone a good present. The bad feelings are happening because most of my childhood I felt just like that. As far as I know (and I am totally open to suggestions here) it seems it just has to play out and pass. I am lucky in that my PTSD has never brought me to thoughts of death, but I know a lot of people’s do. Because it is so incapacitating while it’s going on, I truly hate it though, wish it would go away, and I would honestly consider doing something rather extreme to get rid of it, never have it happen again if I could. I want to be productive.
I have a problem with “auto-insubordination,” while it’s happening, in that I just don’t listen to my own self telling me what to do. I give myself responsible directions and I don’t take them. I don’t take care of myself when I feel like this. (I figure this part of the emotional flashback might be about somehow “recreating” the conditions I lived in as a kid) If I can, I stay home in pajamas, don’t brush my teeth, don’t make myself breakfast or lunch. If I can’t, I go where I have to go. I watch the clock. I waste the day. I can’t concentrate on tasks. I accomplish little. I don’t feel hungry. I just get a headache from not eating and then go eat something with carbs or dairy in it, preferably both. Nothing else ever sounds good. That’s why I don’t keep boxed cereal in the house anymore. It was my go-to food when I was a kid as well. Too tempting.
Emotional flashbacks for me have lasted anywhere from just a few hours to up to three or four days long in what feels like a prolonged anxiety attack. I’m distracted, tired, and avoidant of people. I see my phone ringing and I turn it over and push it away no matter who it is. I wish I wanted to answer it but I don’t, not like this. I don’t want people to see me or hear me this way and I don’t want to have to fake that this is not how I’m feeling. (I can fake it pretty good, by the way, it’s just exhausting to do so.) How would I explain “I’m having a bad day because of the ghosts of the past?” Then I would get misguided “cheering up” and intense scrutiny – the last thing I want when I feel like this. When I feel like this, scrutiny and attention seem dangerous. So I avoid everyone. My safe space is my bed or my comfy chair with something to read in my hands until its over. So I read a lot when I feel this way and I guiltily make excuses to friends afterwards. I do feel bad that I ignored you.
The truth is PTSD can sometimes have similar symptoms to being flaky or being an asshole. Were you avoiding me because you were mad at me? Why didn’t you get this to me when you said you were? Is it because you don’t respect me? I hate this part because I am all about southern politeness, I am a young professional, and I am a big sister (the very definition of responsibility, right?). Turns out PTSD is often just not that compatible with any of those roles. It leaves you empty, bereft of your stellar identity, your shiny medals, your sense of trust in yourself. It leaves you feeling confused and paralyzed while somehow being revictimized by your own self, a sense of being your own worst enemy but it not really even being “you” doing this stuff. You are just along for the ride.
So that’s pretty much what PTSD has been like for me. When it flares up it gets in the way of my dreams and happiness, yet speaking about it openly goes against my instinct to clam up and wish it away, pretend it away, keep other people from my vulnerability. This is the first time I’ve written much in detail about it.
I have no idea what kind of reaction people who don’t struggle with PTSD might have to this post. I don’t have much of a frame of reference. Perhaps you think that it seems kind of normal, or pretty out there, or kind of sad and pathetic, or whiny and self-indulgent, or understandable given the circumstances, or completely surmountable if I was to do X,Y, and Z, or that someday I will be set free, or that you have no idea what would fix it but what I just wrote helps you understand what your second cousin twice removed felt like when they acted like this.
I don’t know. I just figured I’d share what my struggle looks like.