Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Nightmare Should Be Over: Dealing with PTSD

♫ And though the nightmare should be over
some of the terrors are still intact
I hear that ugly, coarse and violent voice
and then (s)he grabs me from behind
and then (s)he pulls me back ♫

The lyrics above are from a song by Meat Loaf called "Objects in the Rearview Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are." 

Those lyrics strike very close to home for those of us with PTSD. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can happen for a myriad of reasons. Basically, it boils down to a person being exposed to stress where they feel that their life or safety may be in danger. If this happens often enough over a period of time, the body and the mind can be effected long after the stressful situation has passed.

For those of us who have survived abuse or trauma, our lives can be ruled by the effects of PTSD. We avoid certain places. We alter our habits. The most seemingly innocent things make us uncomfortable, scared, or even (in the cases of war survivors) violent.

I am not the first of my family to have PTSD. My dear father's father killed himself by carbon monoxide poisoning when my dad was 18. My dad found the body and tried to perform CPR on a body that had already gone through rigor mortis. To this day, the smell of car exhaust fumes in a confined area makes my father sick to his stomach. It reminds him of that horrid day and brings up all the emotions associated with how his family fell apart, after that tragedy.

 My father at 18 years old

In the case of having been abused either by a parent or lover, after one gets away, they may unconsciously put themselves back into a different abusive relationship. And a person may do this because that is what "feels normal" to them. I know that's what I did and it took some real inner work to break that cycle.

Throughout my life, my mother was severely psychologically and emotionally abusive to both my father and I. There was physical abuse thrown in there, as well, but it happened less frequently. My mother controlled what we ate, how much we were allowed to sleep, what clothes we could wear, almost every aspect of our lives. She accused us of "crimes" we didn't commit. She spread rumors about us, lied to us, stole from us and generally made our lives miserable. If her whims weren't satisfied, we paid the price. 

My father and I even developed our own sign language to communicate with each other so she couldn't hear us. It got so bad that she even manipulated how my father and I could even speak to each other. And, when we did speak, she pitted us against one another.

When you're a person who is trapped, living with a crazy-making person like my mother was, you almost develop a sixth sense. Other abuse survivors I've talked to have this sense, as well. This extra sense is the ability to read the energy of a room. You learn this as a survival trait. If you can "sense" when your abuser is mad, even before seeing them, you can try to preemptively soothe them or maybe steer clear and avoid their wrath. 

To this day, I notice very small modulations in people's speech, tiny differences in the way their face moves that may indicate either anger or sadness. When I think someone may not be 100% on stable mental turf, I still try to almost instinctively soothe them. Living a life on the edge of distaster with an abusive person made me hyper-aware of changes to my surroundings.

It wasn't until I was 27 and my parents got divorced that I realized how bad it really was in "The House of Unending Hostility." Once I got some physical and psychological distance, I realized how badly she had effected both my father and I. Five years after their divorce, my father and I still talk about it, we still try to process those years and we still sit in disbelief. Yes. It did happen. No, we're not crazy and we're not making it up. It really was that bad.

When an abused person gets out and then goes back to what we think is "normal," the cycle is incredibly hard to break. When I left college at age 20, I moved in with a boyfriend who turned out to be an abusive alcoholic. For 2 years, our electricity got turned off periodically, but there was always whiskey and beer in the refrigerator. 

Living with him was a dark time of high drama and he literally tried to killed me, once. There are times, still, in my nightmares, when I can still feel his hands around my throat, feel myself losing breath and see the world going dark.

And now I still believe (s)he never let me leave
I had to run away, alone

So many threats and fears, so many wasted years
before my life became my own

Now that I haven't spoken to or even been in my mothers' presence for 5 years, I can see how bad it was. Now that I can begin to distance myself and reflect on the relationships of my past, I can begin to heal the wounds and scars that they left.

The day before Thanksgiving, I went to the store where the abusive alcoholic boyfriend was employed while we were together. I haven't spoken to him in 9 years, but I live back in the town where he and I lived, together. It's hard. There are businesses I refuse to go in because of the association with him. There are people I am afraid to talk to, even though I'd like their friendship, because I'm afraid that information about me will get back to him and I'll have to run for my life across state lines, again. It's irrational. I know this. But that's how PTSD works. The fear for your safety is so ingrained that it turns into either fight-or-flight or complete shut-down when the memories are brought back up.

Through counseling and medication, I've come to accept that the abuse that has happened to me wasn't my fault and that I don't have to let those past traumas rule me. I can begin to retrain my brain to remember that I'm no longer back there, in those situations. I am safe. My daughter, Pookie, and my hubby are my reality, now. 

I haven't completely been able to forgive the perpetrators for their actions, but I've begun to challenge and beat the fear.

Today, I went to his store. I hadn't set foot in there for 9 years. I used to take him his lunch every day. He brought home dinner from this store. I walked in there, so many times, with a smile plastered on my face, yet afraid that someone could read on my face what was really going on. He had made it very clear that, for office politic reasons, it was important that I impress these coworkers by being a "dutiful girlfriend." I was terrified of displeasing him. I was petrified that they would see through my eyes and down into my heart, all the way down to my wrenching desire to be loved and the desperation I was experiencing.

I parked The Visionary Van outside and I looked up at the store's sign. Even 9 years later, just seeing the logo of the store made me want to run, to pass on by, to avoid. Deep breaths, I thought. Deep breaths. He's not here. He hasn't been here for a long time. None of the people that work in there would probably even remember who he was. I talked myself into walking across the parking lot, opening the wide glass door and going into the store. You're safe, I told myself. 

Still, I found myself glancing at every employee, ready to run. See? They're not even wearing the same uniforms. It's okay. You're just a customer. Look around.

As I browsed the store, I noticed that the various departments weren't even laid out in the same manner that I remembered them. That helped. Making my way through the new layout, I wandered down aisles. To any on-looker, I was just another customer perusing the shelves. But, inside, this was monumental. My heart wasn't pounding in my ears. My feet weren't backing away. 

You don't own me anymore, I thought. You're not going to live rent-free in my head anymore. You can't hurt me. See? I am strong. I'm getting over all the crap you beat me down with. I'm not angry, anymore, and I'm not scared. I will not let this rule me.

I looked at Christmas gifts for my Precious Pookie. Amid all the colorful softness of the toy aisle, I felt so thankful that I had come so far. I had the little girl I had always wanted, but never thought I'd have. Holding a stuffed lady bug, silky soft and sweet, I just knew that Pookie would giggle with delight when she saw it. In that moment, my eyes welled up with tears of joy. To come full circle and to stand on the exact same cream and brown tile floor, so happy, where I had once stood and been so sad and scared, my heart broke open and I wept.

I wish that, when I left that store, that it was magical. I wish I could tell you that I walked back to The Visionary Van with my fist raised to the sky in victory. I didn't. I wish I could tell you that I fell to my knees and thanked every god that ever was for helping me on this road. I didn't. I just walked back to my purple minivan.

That was it. Plain, simple and innocuous. No triumphant music gave any clue to the world what I had just stared down. Memories. Past. Fear. Helplessness. To any observer who doesn't know my history, who doesn't have these memories or this heart that was crushed by people who professed love, the title of this blog post would have been, Today, I Browsed Christmas Gifts In a Store.

Dear souls, as you go about your lives, please occasionally try to remember this. That person who just cut you off in traffic? Maybe their sister just died. That lady who was three cents short for the ice cream? Maybe she just faced down a personal demon and was rewarding herself. (Psst! That was me!) 'Cause we don't get theme music rocketing down from the ether at significant moments in our life. We're just people going about our day and living. We're just little beings, trying to make the best of the hand we've been dealt. And, in my book, that's worth a little ice cream, from time to time. 

 My father (today) with his awesome girlfriend and my daughter, Pookie

Lovelies, this isn't the end of my story or my struggle, no. This Earth-shaking day was only one step in a process. Coming out the other side of trauma and abuse can have a happy story that follows it. No matter what you've gone through, your story can continue past fear. It can continue past pain, past betrayal, past hurt and lies, negative self image, anger and the urge to run away.

And maybe your path will take you far away. To mountains and oceans. Maybe you'll be known by a different name. And maybe, just maybe, the road will wind and bend you gently back to the town you started in, to friends and family that will sing triumphant out-of-tune songs with you while passing the chocolate syrup.


Whatever you're facing, my dears, please remember that we are all visionaries. We just have to figure out where we excel.

My heart goes out to you and joins with yours.
I send you hope and serendipity.
Love to all,


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