In between (a poem)
my mind struggles against its own illusion
nightmare tumbles out into still morning
light is heavy,
a fog of echoes...
and I am caught
day dreams the sunlight
dreams light the day
and I am caught in between
like a stillborn ghost
who can't take a breath in the present
I live on a tropical island and just want to go surfing with my husband, but the nausea in the early morning as I try to eat breakfast and drive with him to the beach is so uncomfortable. Day after day it makes even surfing a chore, and I consider not going anymore. Background anxiety and unreasonable irritation interferes with our marriage, frustrates him enough to want me out.
For me, a trip to the grocery store or meeting a group of people awakens the same dreadful fear as rockclimbing a cliff. Perspective has been lost in the extremes. I try to gain some control over this hindering nuisance, seeking situations that bring the same surges of adrenaline so I can learn to master it. If I can just push past the avoidance that would keep me inside doing nothing, if I can just ignore the feeling I want to throw up, if I can just get out there, I am rewarded with life’s potential beauty eventually. Many days I do enjoy the thrill of mountain biking or connection with nature when surfing, but there are too many days of internal struggle that reduce what should be enjoyable to a relentless chore of wrestling inner demons.
The VA offers a few sessions of marriage counseling, and the doctor begins to explain PTSD. ***, I’ve learned to cope with an unreliable brain, but now there’s this? From what I understand (and that’s just me, an amateur philosopher) Sometimes the brain is so traumatized, that the memory is literally sealed off, encapsulated, protecting it from changing. If later something happens that is similar, the brain triggers avoidance responses as a take-no-chances survival mechanism. Literally the brain is protecting one’s self from one’s self. This all-or-nothing strategy works fending off potential dinosaur attacks, but in our complex society, these automatic avoidance behaviors complicate functioning and well being. Life becomes an attitude of constant reaction instead of motivated intention.
The website for the National center for PTSD says. “After a trauma or life-threatening event, it is common to have reactions such as upsetting memories of the event, increased jumpiness, or trouble sleeping. If these reactions do not go away or if they get worse, you may have Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.”
“Common reactions to trauma are:
• Fear or anxiety: In moments of danger, our bodies prepare to fight our enemy, flee the situation, or freeze in the hope that the danger will move past us. But those feelings of alertness may stay even after the danger has passed. You may:feel tense or afraid, be agitated and jumpy, feel on alert.
• Sadness or depression: Sadness after a trauma may come from a sense of loss---of a loved one, of trust in the world, faith, or a previous way of life. You may:have crying spells, lose interest in things you used to enjoy, want to be alone all the time, feel tired, empty, and numb.
• Guilt and shame: You may feel guilty that you did not do more to prevent the trauma. You may feel ashamed because during the trauma you acted in ways that you would not otherwise have done. You may:feel responsible for what happened, feel guilty because others were injured or killed and you survived.
• Anger and irritability: Anger may result from feeling you have been unfairly treated. Anger can make you feel irritated and cause you to be easily set off. You may:lash out at your partner or spouse, have less patience with your children, overreact to small misunderstandings.
• Behavior changes: You may act in unhealthy ways. You may:drink, use drugs, or smoke too much, drive aggressively, neglect your health, avoid certain people or situations.” It lists four main symptoms: reliving the event, avoiding situations that remind of the event, feeling numb, and feeling keyed up (also called hyperarousal)”
Four words strung together: Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. They’ve become a tired cliché, exhausted from the endless threat of random cruelty camouflaged in banality, weary of the weight shouldering back the wall that separates death and gore from the living. Living was a reflex beyond willpower and devoid of choice. Control was self-deception. The mind was so preoccupied with A: survival, B: sanity, in that order. Rest was a cruel illusion. The tank was drained, no room for emotions ditched. Empathy took too much effort, fear was greedy. Hopefully they can be remembered and found on the other side, if there is one. Sleep deprived cells were left hyper-alert from the imminent, shot up and addicted to adrenaline. Living was Fate and Chance, and meant leaving that time and place sealed in forgetfulness.
Now PTSD is a worn out acronym, a cold shadow of what it feels like. I try to think of something more personal that can describe the way it randomly visits me, now resigned to its familiar unwelcome influence. It steals through my brain, flying ahead of me with its own agenda of protecting sabotage. Its like the Guardian Trickster of Native American legend. Its an archetype but real enough to make mistakes: Chulyen, the black raven.
A decade after the ER, contentment is found in a garden of slow tranquility as a butterfly interrupts a sunbeam. My heart fills with bittersweet as I’ve finally found something I love and want to keep. Just then Chulyen’s grasping black claws clamp my heart with painful arrhythmia and it fills to burst, tripping in panic trying to recover its pace. The sudden pain drops me to my knees, in the dirt between fragrant lavender and cherry tomatoes. Pain stops breath and time and makes me remember the ER, when my heart rebelled its ordained purpose for a week. I had tried to throw my bitter life back in God’s face but He didn’t take it. Now that I have peace and a life that I treasure, He’s taking it now. The price for my mistake is due. It was all just borrowed time and I’m still so young, my children just babies. God with a flick of cruelty reminds me not to put faith in the tangible, especially when its treasured. The sharp claws finally relent and I can breathe, looking up with a gasp and the Raven takes flight overhead leaving a shadow. Bright noon warmth, unusually heavy and foreboding, seems to say ‘there will come a time when you will not welcome the sun.’ Doctors run an EKG and diagnose ‘stress’.
The bird perches on my shoulder two more decades later, always seeing death just over there. So I sit on the porch just a little longer and check my list again, delaying the unavoidable racing heart and rush of tension when I fix the motorcycle helmet strap under my chin. I know all those stupid drivers have my life in their cell-phone distracted hands and hope my husband knows how much I love him, and my daughters too.
Chulyen wakes me at 3:00 am when autumn’s wind aggravates the trees. His rustle of black feathers outside unsettles summer’s calm night. He brings an end-of-the-world portent that hints this peace is just temporary, borrowed. Tribulation will return.
Ravens are attracted to bright shiny things. Chulyen steals off with treasures like intention, and contentment. I don’t realize they are missing until occasionally I find myself truly living in the moment. I guess that is another reason why I crave adventure, for those instants and epiphanies that snap me out of that long term modis operandi of reacting, instead of being. The daily list of ‘I must, or I should’ can for a brief while become ‘I want’ and I am free.
My companion the black bird perches relaxed in the desert on the gatepost of a memory. A bullet-scarred paint-faded sign dangles by one corner from rusty barbed wire:
That Means You
I have a haunted idea what's behind the fence. Chulyen implies the memory with a simple mistaken sound:
a Harley in the distance is for a second the agitating echo of a helicopter...
or those were the very same words they said when...
or I hear a few jangling clinks of forks in our warm kitchen...
hinting a cold cafeteria at 5:00 am smelling of fake eggs and industrial maple flavored corn syrup,
and everything else that happened that day...
My cells recollect, brace with the addictive rush of adrenaline. But the raven denies access to the memory, distracting with discomfort. I trip and I fall hard into the gritty dirt of irritation at the person who unknowingly reminded me. Anxiety floods in along with fatigue of the helplessness of it all, back then and still now. I can't go further. Chulyen’s tricking deception says Leave This Memory, you never wanted to come back.
But I already knew from just recognizing the bird patiently sitting there a sentinal,
recalling every other time he tricked me with nausea and depression.
I tried to tell myself again that behind that gate,
the past has dried up from neglect.
Disintegrated into dust,
After everything else, how to work through this? The VA gave me a manual, a crudely printed set of worksheets with a government-looking blue cover page: Cognitive Processing Therapy.
“In normal recovery from PTSD symptioms, intrusion, thoughts, and emotions decrease over time and no longer trigger each other. However, in those who don’t recover, the vivid images, negative thoughts, and strong emotions lead to escape and avoidance. Avoidance prevents the processing of the trauma that is needed for recovery and works only temporarily. The ultimate goal is acceptance.
There may be “stuck points”, conflicting beliefs or strong negative beliefs that create additional unpleasant emotions and unhealthy behavior. For example, a prior belief may have been “ I am able to protect myself in dangerous situations.” But after being harmed during military service, a conflicting belief surfaces, “I was harmed during service, and I am to blame.” If one is ‘stuck’ here, it may take some time until one is able to get feelings out about the trauma, because one is processing a number of rationales. “I deserved it because…” , or “I misinterpreted what happened, I acted inappropriately, I must be crazy…” The goal is to change the prior belief to one that does not hinder acceptance. For example, “I may not be able to protect myself in all situations.”
(chapter continues with recovery methods)