All this to say that he enacted a very elaborate revenge plan that left me with severe PTSD. I’m sorry that I can’t talk about what happened. The truth is I can barely think about it without devolving into complete all-encompassing panic attacks. Which means that I think about it constantly unconsciously to prevent thinking about it consciously.
It’s been a bit over a year since the height of the events. I actually went into a state of shock at the time and my fear is that at any moment I will return into a state of shock. And not just in the face of triggers. I question my ability to handle any and all forms of stress just because that one time I could not mentally cope with an extreme situation that I felt was an imminent threat to my safety and concerted plan to actively ‘destroy my life’. I used to work in a hospital as a Unit Coordinator including a permanent position in the ICU. I used to perform better on exams than on essays. I can handle stress. And suddenly it was like everything I thought I knew about myself was also potentially not true. I wondered who I was. I wondered especially if I deserved everything that had happened to me, if only because I was weak.
For the first week I could not stop crying and had recurring nightmares of being hounded by dogs and militiamen while trying to conduct interviews on rapists or otherwise trying to do something dangerous but socially important. My doctor placed me on a powerful sleeping-aid and discussed PTSD with me. For the first few months I could not leave my house or return phone calls or texts. I went completely M.I.A. I just watched T.V. and stared into space. I had no desire to kill myself but even less desire to live or participate in life. I wished the world would forget about me. I wanted to be allowed to watch time pass me by comfortably and safely alone. For the first time in my life I started emotional-eating and gained 25lbs. When I returned to work, I cried during all my breaks for no reason. When I started seeing my friends again I felt no enjoyment. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I became hyper-sensitive to judgment. I have a sister who has always been very critical and yet this never used to bother me. ‘I don’t like your hair’, ‘your friends are weird’ or ‘you dress weird’ used to be met with ‘I like my hair/friends/clothes. And who cares anyways?’. Now suddenly I was straightening my hair, suddenly not responding to someone whose profile picture she didn’t like and dressing conservatively. I no longer had any conception of what normal was and somehow the only thing that made sense was to defer to other people’s judgment. I had no self-esteem left and needed direly to avoid any form of judgment. I understandably had no interest in dating anyone but I suddenly felt like there was something wrong with me for at least not even pretending I wanted to get married and have kids, or like surely it was symptomatic of my own failures that I still hadn’t gotten to the point where I could trust someone enough to even reciprocate flirting.
Every thought was plagued with ‘am I normal?’. I didn’t feel normal. I started judging others. Obviously, men were all potential abusive lying psychos but far more damaging was how I started wondering what was wrong with my friends that they wanted to be friends with me. That is, when I wasn’t flat out obssessively wondering which ones were talking behind my back, which ones had been in contact with him but not stepped forward to tell me, which ones had contributed even if unwittingly to his plan but for whatever reason couldn’t come forward. I had gone from someone that was probably a little too accepting of other’s to someone who was just completely cut off from any capacity to have a connection. The fact I still have friends after how blunted, robotic, dark, self-absorbed and M.I.A. I’ve been in the last two years is a miracle and a fact I don’t think I’ll ever take for granted.
In this way, even things that weren’t triggers per se fuelled my PTSD : as a consequence of this guy, I couldn’t have a connection, ergo I was now fake, ergo maybe I always was, ergo maybe he was right about that, ergo maybe he was right about everything, ergo maybe I deserved everything he did to ‘destroy my life’. Surely the fact I was blaming my PTSD on this guy and his twisted actions and words instead of my own inner failings was a sign that I was the one to blame in all this. Even when I tried to be logical and rational about the process of trauma – I was fixated on blaming myself and fixated on the thought I wasn’t blaming myself enough. As if somehow I could hate myself enough to make what had happened make sense. It was the only way I knew how to fix it. Everything could be interpreted somehow as way this was my fault. At least this would be a reason and a reason was something I desperately wanted. I needed a reason so that I could predict or prevent anything like this from ever happening ever again.
This was exhausting. I’d say 99.5% of times I was in a state of disinterest and disconnect from life, with the other 0.5% of times being completely consummed by the kind of anxiety, panic, recriminations and paranoia that easily explain why I was spending the rest of the 99.5% just waiting to die and avoiding anything that might make me have to participate in life and admit I was still alive : the 0.5% where my brain would force emotion into my field of consciousness were just so exhausting, so draining, and just so dark that I had simply no reserves of energy left for anything else. I spent 99.5% of my time trying to remain as still and inactive as possible because the second an intrusive thought entered my head, I would spiral out of control with panic. I was 20 000 leagues away from feeling like myself and the 40 yard stare kept my life, myself and others at bay. The 0.5% of times I was actually living in my own skin I found intolerable.
For months if I went out I wondered if I would see him, or be confronted with a trigger, or have to deal with someone who had heard one of his lies and not be able to handle that, not because I don’t know who I am or what happened or what my role in all this mess is – but because I can’t handle the PTSD, because I can’t explain what it’s like to live through something like this, because I’m ashamed of how neurotic and self-absorbed it’s made me, because I’m ashamed at how unable I feel to participate in life let alone a conversation justifying why I can’t participate in life. Because temporarily when I’m confronted with something that triggers the fight-or-flight reflex in my brain I automatically defer to flight and just go hide into my bed for days or weeks until I feel OK with the fact that this is my reality now and it’s OK to cry or get really really nervous for what appears to be no reason. Until I’m OK with the fact that this is something I can’t communicate and that, in general, my ability to communicate at this point is severely impaired. I have ceased believing I will ever return to my old self and this is something I had to become OK with.
I never used to be ashamed of my emotions or wish that I didn’t have them. I believed anxiety and depression made me more creative, empathic and even intelligent. But PTSD isn’t that. PTSD is the inability to feel emotion because it’s too overhwelming. PTSD is sort of catatonic. Yes, there are outbursts of irritability and panic attacks but outside of that there is nothing. Nothing at all. No desire for things to get better because things getting better means participating in life which means the possibility of something bad happening again. PTSD is holding your breath. It’s not even threading water. It’s refusing to surface because it’s better to continue drowning then to experience the fear of drowning all over again. So you stay stuck in the moment even if most of the time you are completely disconnected and uninvolved with that or any other past, present or future moment.
Perhaps because I have never been ashamed of my emotions, I continue to express myself as openly as I can. I know I commit myriad Facebook faux-pas by admitting that I actively struggle at times through life but I simply do not want to be any other way. I’ve tried faking it til I make it and it makes me feel empty and nauseous. I might have pretty severe anxiety as to how other’s perceive me in my admitted imperfections but when I pretend I’ve got it all figured out that anxiety is heightened, not relieved. I feel as though I’m participating in a system of oppression that shames me and people I care about for not always being happy. Or for not being superheroes triumphing over all obstacles and adversities. I feel as if I would rather not have friends than have friends under false pretenses. I alsothink about the relief and inspiration I feel when I listen to other’s talk about trials they have lived through and think if even one person feels less alone, feels like it’s OK to be imperfect, feels like it’s a bit easier to understand their own emotions knowing other’s have experienced them then it is worth all this vulnerability.
It has been said that everything has been said and done before – what’s particular about this day and age is that now more than ever there are strict rules and regulations over socially acceptable forms of expression. So that now less is actually available from that collective body of work. There was a time when you could talk about depression and it didn’t have a name or connotation : it was just a fact of everyday life. It was grief, trauma, anxiety, nostalgia, bitterness — it was all connected and everyone knew they were not immune to glimpsing shadows. Now depression is something best kept secret unless you have an acceptable reason for being depressed and it doesn’t last a long time and you don’t, you know, actually talk about it too much. Some people tell me it’s because everyone’s depressed and everyone’s struggling just to get by so they don’t like to be reminded of it. Especially if that’s true, I think we need to remind ourselves life can be really fucking shitty but at least we’re all in it together.
I’m talking about PTSD because it has been an experience that’s very different from depression or anxiety. But depression and anxiety are its corrollaries. I think maybe post-manic schizophrenics/bipolars can understand this sudden crushing void and irrelevance of experience and self. What I’m experiencing are ultimately just feelings that are labeled PTSD because there is a traumatic life-threatening event that leads to alternating dissociation and panic — but I was already depressed as hell and experiencing some form of cognitive dissonance from a lengthy and soul-crushing abusive relationship with a lying and manipulative narcissist. Living in shadows is not proprietary to PTSD-ers. Right now I’m writing to anyone who is living in shadows, be it from trauma, abuse, depression, anxiety, other mental illness, or just feeling stuck-itis in life for no goddamn valid reason.
Of course, time heals all wounds. Slowly, I’m beginning not to want to participate in life again but rather to not want things to stay like this forever. I’m accepting my limits but also beginning to push them. My family does not place much value in education and really only cares about paying your taxes. For this reason I always worked my way through my education. I’ve realized though that I’ve paid my taxes my whole life, that the job market is shitty and that this negatively affects my self-esteem and overall that I’m understandably far too unsatisfied with life to do nothing but work a job that doesn’t make me feel good about myself. While I’m sadly not excited about the choice to start school again I think this is the best chance I have of remembering what it’s like to be excited about life. I’m lucky enough to be talented at philosophy and until all this happened I was well on my way towards an actual academic career. I’m ashamed I let a man firstly convince me what I was passionate about wasn’t worth pusuing and then my family. I’m ashamed my limits are that I cannot both work and return back to school. I’m terrified I will prove all the nay-sayers right by failing at this limited project. I’m terrified I will suddenly not be able to perform under pressure. I’m terrified this is is my last chance at life. Even though it’s the first chance I’m giving myself in a really long-time. My first chance to fail. My first chance to feel ashamed and terrified because of choices I’m making, My first chance to maybe feel passion and engagement again. My first chance to replace the nothingness with light. There will always be shadows but that also means there is light.
I have described PTSD as being nothing. Nothing punctuated by momentary outbursts of pain, inability to breathe and general extreme negativity. As hard as these moments have been – they are the only hope I have. When you are sitting in the complete darkness, if you see shadows flitting across your field of vision, then you know somewhere in that darkness some light is being reflected that is casting that shadow. When you are sitting in the dark bemoaning the nothingness, as counter-intuitive as it might seem, those shadows point to something positive : the ability to still care. Follow the shadows to the source. Even if you cannot see the light know that it is there and turn that shit into art, whether art for you is poetry, painting, math, yoga, social work or whatever. Embrace the shadows because it means you’re still alive. Without shadows there is no beauty to life. So find the beauty in your shadows. I’m not saying happiness lies at the end of all this suffering, but I am saying in this suffering primarily we will find beauty and meaning.