The honest truth about PTSD

Anger is one of those feelings people are funny about it. Women, at least the ones I grew up with, aren’t supposed to get angry. It wouldn’t be ladylike. My mom dealt with anger by breaking shit. A lot of shit. And breaking me. I was usually the closest thing around. Sometimes with words, sometimes with emotional manipulation and sometimes with her own breakdowns.

My dad has anger issues too. He has classic PTSD from his time in Vietnam. He can be great but he can also explode.

When I was 21 and dealing with being mugged at Penn Station and being bullied at Princeton, I looked to the outside world like a maniac. I got a psychiatrist and an EMDR therapist.

The psychiatrist was a very old Jewish man who liked to prescribe high doses of Paxil and empathize with my trauma by repeatedly telling me how awful Palestinians were and recounting that time his house was invaded and he had to watch, tied up, as his wife was raped in front of him. This was…suboptimal, shall we say, and part of that expert malpractice I’ve discussed earlier.

The EMDR therapist, on the other hand, changed my life. I went from being a college dropout/heavy drinker/home bound agoraphobic to finishing college and attending law school in about a year.

There’s this great Stephen King short story called “Strawberry Spring” about a series of unsolved murders on a college campus years back. The narrator was a student on campus at the time. You’ll have to forgive me ruining it, but it ends like this:

This morning’s paper says a girl was killed on the New Sharon campus near the Civil War cannons. She was killed last night and found in a melting snowbank. She was not all there.

My wife is upset. She wants to know where I was last night. I can’t tell her because I don’t remember. I remember starting home from work, and I remember putting my headlights on to search my way through the lovely creeping fog, but that’s all I remember.

I’ve been thinking about that foggy night when I had a headache and walked for air and passed all the lovely shadows without shape or substance. And I’ve been thinking about the trunk of my car – such an ugly word, trunk –and wondering why in the world I should be afraid to open it.

I can hear my wife as I write this, in the next room, crying. She thinks I was with another woman last night.

And oh dear God, I think so too.

I know how he feels. The anger is getting to the point where I don’t know that I can carry it anymore. Dating the guy I was seeing from December through the first half of February brought stuff back, but, really, this has been brewing for about a year.

Last Spring I started a creative writing course at Pima in Tucson. I’d been in great therapy since my suicide attempt on Christmas 2015 landed me in the ICU/Palo Verde mental hospital. I started writing here, too.

I thought we’d worked things out. But the issues with my parents, more specifically my mother, were coming to a head as I prepared to move to NYC. My dad was superficially supportive. He didn’t think I could manage on my own so far from home. I hadn’t managed in Tucson so well on my own. But my mom wouldn’t even talk about it. Anytime I brought it up, she’s stop the conversation because it made her physically ill. At the time, I still very much needed her approval. She hadn’t approved the first time I moved to Princeton and that ended with me and the bullying and the mugging and coming home yadda yadda yadda.

And then she got drunk, as I mentioned before, and told me I couldn’t go to NYC because I would kill myself. It was a whole fucking thing that was just the latest in a lot of whole fucking things that had been really scary my whole life. But, at the time, I thought everyone was like this. How many people had told me how awful their mothers were? I’ve traded stories with people like in that scene in Jaws when they compare scars on the boat.

My therapist said something that finally got through to me. “I’ll never understand why children keep seeking approval from abusive parents.” It might not be verbatim, but that was my takeaway.

Abusive? No, my parents weren’t abusive! They were Mexican! All Mexican parents do this. It’s why all Mexican kids joke about dodging “la chancla.” That’s a flip flop to you gringos.

I went home and everything, I mean EV-REE-THING, got crystal clear. Focus and recall. This wasn’t ok. Getting beaten because you successfully dodged a Sharpie that your mother threw at your head and it marked the wall instead is not ok.

And then the memories couldn’t stop. Not just what she did to me, but what D did as well. And how it was all part of the same thing. And also the part I played.

But now it was March and I had about a month of therapy sessions to deal with what I now knew plus a giant move to the other side of the continent. I tried to keep my shit together. But I cried a lot. And I stopped talking to my mom. And my dad didn’t even say goodbye to me in person when I left. He didn’t wish me a happy birthday in June. He wouldn’t see me in July when I went home. And he told everybody that what was going on was that I moved to NYC and stopped talking to my mother because I had severe mental illness. On the fucking golf course, he’d say this.

What I know now is that PTSD doesn’t lessen over time. And it can be triggered even years after the events occurred. It happened to my dad when he started going to the VA for group therapy. He stopped because the therapy just brought back the memories.

And now it’s not just the memories of my mother or D, but a lot of trauma I was never able to put a name to.

I’m getting angry at things that deserve my anger but not irrational rage. You’ve probably read it here. I’m reaching my limit with people who have seriously deserved my dismissal as friends but not the emotional response that came from bottling up the resentment of holding my tongue. I played my part in making my bed. But now I want to take a switchblade to the mattress.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this. I remember when the massacre happened at Columbine. I remember identifying with the shooters. My life at 17 was so filled with unchecked rage and anxiety that I don’t know if I could have resisted taking people out with me.

You know this feeling. It’s what comic book characters feel. It’s Sylar from Heroes. It’s Jean Grey from X-Men. I have the power to absorb more than most do because of what I had to endure for decades. I do the harm to myself. But I can also take others out with me if it goes unchecked.

Unchecked, I’ve ruined friendships. Unchecked, I’ve burned bridges. Unchecked, I have been an asshole. Unchecked, I have attempted suicide since I was a tween. And when I asked for help before it got to the point where I couldn’t turn back, and I disassociated and woke up sick the next morning or hallucinating for days or in the ICU with a sore sternum (sternal rubs), no one listened. Not parents. Not teachers. Not counselors. Not therapists. Not D. Not friends. No one. And I really did ask for help.

I think this is where the bipolar disorder came from. It’s 100% trauma based. I don’t even know if it is bipolar disorder. It’s not borderline personality disorder. It’s me not being able to stuff anything more down and then just exploding.

I know from the outside it looks irrational and beyond symmetrical to what appears to be bothering me. I know that afterwards, I have to pick up the pieces and start my life over and regain everybody’s trust. I know that “regaining trust” is a myth because no one forgets.

I also know better. You know I know better because you’ve read to this point. The question now is…how do I get help?

I’m ok. I’m not going to do anything because I finally figured out that suicide doesn’t work. I know pharmaceuticals treat the symptoms and just postpone the eventuality. Either you die from the anger side effects or you live like a vegetable or you get disabled or die from the drug side effects themselves. That’s more truth than even good psychiatrists are willing to acknowledge. If I’m taking anything, it’s gonna be Seroquel to knock me out and benzodiazepines to tide me over until I can get help.

I’ve got the beginnings of a plan. But I’m gonna need help. Expensive help. EMDR costs money. I don’t have a choice. It has to be done because this won’t fix itself. I’m not in despair. I’m on a mission.

Until I can get there, it’s long walks. It’s concerts. It’s meditation. It’s deep breaths. It’s writing. It’s staying home when I can’t manage the energy to have compassion for people who will make my life harder. It’s staying away from politics. It’s staying away from Tinder. It’s eating healthy and taking care of myself.

I love living. I’m the freesist I’ve ever been. I’m finally in the place I was meant to be to reach maximum potential. I’ve gotten myself this far. I owe myself every opportunity to get better. But it’s hard to rely on the one person who will take me down. And that’s me.

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