What It Takes: a personal essay on PTSD

AlisonTyne @ Etsy

What It Takes

Be as a bird perched on a frail branch

that she feels bending beneath her, still

she sings away, all the same, knowing she

has wings.

-Victor Hugo

I used to think that my story was a tragedy. That’s bullshit. My story is about love and our centers and what it takes to find that love. What it takes. I certainly didn’t feel that way a year ago—or even ten years ago. I lived through child physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and I was left to my own devices from the age of five on. I was also born with Bipolar Disorder and ADHD. Before the Complex PTSD set in—around my early twenties—I was a numb, fractured, unattached, empty girl, destroying myself as often as I could. Let me start from there.

I was in another city, wasted, when my biological father fell on the barroom floor and died. He drank himself to death. I remember the phone call from my mother at two in the morning. I felt nothing, as was often the case in those days. I pretended to hurt. Even though he left us when we were young so he could have his drinking life, my earliest memories of him are the safest ones from my childhood. He wasn’t like my abusive stepdad. My real dad loved me as best as he could. He was shy and slow, driving us around the old farmhouse in a wagon behind his tractor. There were two wild apple trees in the yard and in the spring the slightest breeze created a snowfall of the soft, pink petals. That was my purest time. That was a time I vowed I’d return to as a woman (though I never thought I could).

My mother drove the three hours to pick my sister and I up that night. It was on that ride back home that I began to feel it—something cracking, something opening–deep, deep in my body. The next morning when we viewed his body in the basement of the funeral home, I remember one minute I was staring at his waxen, long eyelashes that used to sweep across those big, terrified eyes. I just remember those lashes, and the next thing I knew I was launched into a full-blown panic attack. That was the beginning of PTSD’s temperature starting to rise. I moved home and lived with my mother until I was well enough. I went to college to pursue writing. I made the Dean’s List. I had a baby girl named Emma Jane. I was on top of my game for several years, dedicated to psychotherapy and a guinea pig to different anti-depressants, trying to find the right one. My moods were out of whack (still not diagnosed with anything but depression and anxiety) and I was having flashbacks, but nothing that I felt was dangerous enough to mention. I wanted to be well. I had to be well. I was strong, wasn’t I? I was a fighter, wasn’t I? I fought against my abuser and my mother because of her abandonment. I was invincible. Then why this creeping sensation? Why these shadows? I think you know, or your body knows, when something is coming. Busy your life all you want, but when issues go unattended, they’ll come back.

It was in my late twenties, after being properly diagnosed as Bipolar and finally, finally medicated that my life collapsed. I lost my job, I was losing friends, my fiancé and I lost our house (and soon I’d lose him, too). Inside it started as this static that disrupted my thinking. I had fevers. I wasn’t sleeping. I was having body memories and disturbing thoughts and they grew and spread. I’d catch myself, laying in bed at night, crying, and suddenly there were voices—voices in my head. They didn’t talk to me or demand me to do anything, but rather it was like I was listening in on a conversation of a young boy and an old woman, and they gave me peace. Of course it freaked me out in the morning. It added to the fever I ran around in. I was physically sick as well and the doctors had no answers. I was hypervigilent. I saw death around every corner. My daughter was the age I had been when I was molested, and I couldn’t deal with her. She scared me, honestly. My control was slipping, and with that loss I feared suicide. I wasn’t strong enough to stop myself if I did it. I hid all this from everyone, until I found myself running around the empty house holding my head and crying and breathing hard, whispering to my dead grandmother to save me. My mind was out of my control. I was terrified. When I shut my eyes I was seeing things—black figures and red eyes. I threw my things together and ran for the car, and drove myself to the mental hospital. I was like a five year-old in a woman’s heels, banging on the heavy security door. “Help me help me help me.”

It took months and several more trips into “the bin” before I was diagnosed with Complex, Chronic PTSD, Dissociative Disorder, and Psychosis. I wasn’t put on new meds at first—only pumped with shots of Abilify (my Bipolar medication). In the hospital I died. The girl I was was dead. I couldn’t save her—I thought I had to, and I was too weak. I had flashbacks of blindfolds on my eyes, blood on my face, and sexual body memories. I lost all control and identity. My sisters came to see me on Visitor’s Day and they bawled right along with me as I told them I was gone; a caged animal, half-beating. I knew in my very bones that I wasn’t going to make it, and that I had lost. I had lost what was mine because my stepfather chose to take it from me. I knew I’d never get her back, and I was right—only I didn’t know that what I would gain would be so much more.

As time went on, I got worse. I began to have sporadic, psychotic break-throughs. All the world dissolves around you and no one can save you—it’s a delusional trip. Voices I heard appeared in strings coming from the phone receivers. The only thing that calmed me was having someone holding me while it happened, me shrieking in their arms, telling them I wasn’t going to make it. It always passed, but they came on more and more often. I was so terrified of the psychosis that it froze me. I wouldn’t go anywhere, fearing it would happen, and I wouldn’t be left alone, because I was sure that it was going to kill me—or I was going to do it myself. My sisters and I developed a support system that saved me, along with a five-point-scale to let them know how I was feeling or where I was with my psychosis and moods that day. This fabulous way of living continued on for over half a year. I was finally put on a new medication during my fourth or fifth stay at the psych ward, and it eased the flashbacks. I couldn’t stop the psychosis though, but it had slowed to about once a month. As the symptoms let up a little (aside from the dissociative states and hypervigilence) I was finding I had room to breathe. I began to write again. When I can’t find my way, I use my pen. My questions and obsessions about my illnesses were turning in a new direction. Each moment that I wasn’t freaking out in was a decided and much appreciated blessing. I began to meditate. I began to read Hinduism’s Upanishads, Alan Watts and his Eastern thinking, Buddhist scriptures, books on Christianity. I was this swirling eddy. I was awakening as if from a long, long dream. Each day brought me closer to myself, and I began exploring who that self was. Where were my fractured identities? Why wasn’t I feeling like all split lines and divides, half-thoughts and doubts? Who was this woman in the mirror? My eyes were back somehow, as if a veil had been lifted, or was lifting. I cried every day for a long time, relieved that the worst had passed. I was gaining control. But how?

The body has to enter into its own darkness in order to find the light. The light is in the darkness. I had to accept that I had lost, and I had to let myself fall. I died. But somehow, be it faith or God or some divine intervention, I was becoming whole. And I’d never been whole in my life. I realized I had curled up in my own wounds and shadows and I faced utter fear and terror, and because of that sacrifice to my soul, I was able to become from it. As I grew stronger in spirit, my symptoms began to vanish. Your mind is not your friend, it is your enemy. Go with your instincts, your soul, your spirit—that is where the truth is. I let go of the stigmas attached to my illnesses, as I decided that they were not who I was. Letting them go meant breath, I gave them to something else as vague as air and I was new. The mental illnesses were becoming to broken, too translucent, to damage me anymore. I was becoming, at last, enough.

Writing it all down in poetry, essays, memoir pieces, and stories played a major factor in my healing. Once you’ve put down on paper, you’ve given it away. It becomes a thing, instead of part of who you are. I also spent much of my time alone in silence, just being. I was learning to love myself—no matter how messed up that self could be. I accepted myself, I loved myself, I gave myself what I wanted. The ache of what happened will never leave me, but it’s a small scar to own. It’s not ever an emptiness but a numbed, sacred ache that will never know grace or relief but grief for all that was lost when I was young. Sometimes I think of the woman I could have been had it not all happened. Sometimes I ache for that lost little girl. Sometimes I think he stole my life from me. And maybe that’s so in a way, but the parts he took away from me died because I took it to the edge, fell, and came back different. I know that had it not all happened—the abuse, the PTSD, even the bipolar (which I’m still learning to live with)—I never would’ve found myself. I never would’ve had a reason to search and discover. I’m more of who I was meant to be because of it all. In a strange way, PTSD saved my life. What did it take? What does it take to make it? I think that maybe, aside from courage, it’s the will to go on—and that will is so deeply in us that we don’t know it until we’re stripped bare of everything else, and we choose. We choose to survive.

Lesson #1 Since Recovery: Journal: Story: Shutting Self off so I Can Reach It

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Listen While You Read: One and Only, Adele:

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I see I’ll be sitting under a menagerie of oaks, the canopy of green over the park. Emma will be older, playing, resilient, maybe even better. Because maybe I will be. But something will be missing. SOmthing I can finally put a finger on and label and recongize the associated emotion and feel it. It’s overwhelming, the emotions. I will be at my peak of my game yes, healthy, living, working, and God, laughing again. Picking flowers and planting them, making friends, writing, singing, traveling when I can afford it. And when I am alone on a more balanced plank of moods I love and need to be myself, I will feel in my chest what I feel now, what I felt when he said he was leaving, when he last kissed me and shut the door, when he knew to understate my emotions and hold me alittle longer but not too much or I start making fun of one of us. I wanted to tell him so much. It had been almost nine years, our daughter, seven. He was my only friend there too. My best friend. No one so opposite from what I am could get me more–understanding what I do before I do it, and opening his arms to consequence. He never treated me like I was “special” when I got really sick, hell I’d been sick the previous ten years with chronic, complex PTSD. He never knew me healthy. Huh, me either. I’m truly starting over here, alone, and I’m terrified. I could never…NEVER…tell him how much I loved him. I couldn’t feel him when he touched me due to my own past traumas. I could never see passed myself, I could never see this gentle, kind-hearted man who took on quite a case–me. And I exhausted the inexhaustable out. And here I sit alone, crying. Christ. This is not a pity therapy bullshit journal, it is a “piece” of shit to help me figure out who I am, what my emotions are. You want to know who I really am? Put my fingers on the damn keyboard cuz’ I don’t fucking know. Sorry anyway, hang on kinda jump back into that flowing void of my thought-strings that’s playing Adele and Cat Stevens. Man they are the tears. Anyway. I told him I loved him, and that I felt he deserved to be with someone who was emotionally capable of showing him that love every day, because I couldn’t. No matter how bad I always did. No matter how many times I’d turn the corner and cry, wipe it away, and change the subject. I believed it was weak to cry in front of him; no; I believed if he saw me emotional then I was…real. Vulnerable. I had to be stone, even after so many years with him. He couldn’t melt me down. I had to. But what he did do was by his very own shining character I was able to see what he was missing from me, what he deserved. What I was incapalble of. I tried. I tried to kiss, to say the I Love Yous, to say sweet things, to hold hands. We had nothing in common. We had everything in common except stuff. He has never known me well, all this time, except for this last half a year, and I can still barely say “I love you, take me back, I’ll be better” because I know he can’t do it. He can’t do it anymore and I don’t blame him. The thing is it IS DIFFERENT this time. I’m a new person. I’ve never been this person. I’m taking babysteps. I’m whole, not fractured. I have an identity, which, let me tell you, is a fucking handy thing to have. I can’t stress that one enough. Had I had one ten plus years ago, I would be married…right? Does everything happen for a reason? When I’m not with him there are parts of me, old parts of me, that wakes up–my music, my singing, my art, my charcoals, my drawings and portraits, my photography, my CURIOUSITY, my oldest, closest friends, traveling, and I’m becoming quite political. I’m waking up to a world OUTSIDE OF MYSELF AND IT’S LIKE THANK GOD WHERE THE HELL WAS I AND WHY DID I GO???!!! But the thing is he is not why I slept through myself, I was too sick to live inside myself, and it all accumulated and came busting through in one horrible year of ptsd, psychosis, bipolar, and dissociative states that wore us to the grind. He had all the financial burdens plus learning how to help me. He still doesn’t talk about those days. I feel three things. Guilt. Selfish. Alone. I don’t know why and no I’m not gonna explore it there’s too much to say here and I have to figure how to get it out.

His family has never known the healthy side of me either, and I’m afraid to show it to them. Well I was, but he’s gone now, it’s over, it’s time to grow up and move on and only return to each other if we don’t find what we’re looking for out there. His family is close and loud and they’re ALWAYS laughing and doing things together but what I mostly loved about them was how they cared for eachother–there were no strings attached to each other, they simply love each other and are there. They’re not forced to feel bad about themselves and others, guilty, judging, it could go on and on…as it was in, well, my family. I wanted my mother to love me the way Justin’s (that’s his names) mom loved him every time he walked into the room. So here I’d just like to say, that even though I do think his mom is not too crazy about me (i also used to be helplessly paranoid and it’s hard to shake on certain attitudes), I think she’s lovely, with a huge heart. And maybe I don’t blame her for possible negativity towards me, I’ve put her son (well, my illnesses and my perpetrators did) through the mill and he does so much for me and I can barely utter a meaningful thank you. I wish I could tell her all the times I cried just because I loved him so much and couldn’t tell him. Given the chance again, could I do it? I DON’T KNOW. How am I buildt? Is Chronic, Complex PTSD forever? I know scars are. I know bipolar is. I wish I could just hug that lady and tell her “thank you” for raising such a wonderful, amazing, stand-up, real man, a real friend, a kind, very thoughtful, compassionate, peaceful person who’d give the shirt off his back but spot a scam a mile away somehow. Anyways. I think I’m rambling. His dad, now, his dad is the dad I used to dream I’d have as my dad. He’s fricking hilarious, he pretty much lives at his cabin by the Pike Chain Lakes, fishing IS HIS LIFE. We used to have some pretty good parties at the cabin, earlier on. After Emma was born, I see that I slowly, gradually slunk inwards into myself, away from everybody. Instead of growing closer to his family, I got farther, and I know that bothered him as much as it bothered me. But they were alll so healthy and sane and I just wanted them to approve of me, to say “Hey, you can have a good family too”. Ahh well. His siblings aren’t that fond of me and I totally don’t blame them. How could they have ever known what a wreck I was beneath it all? And I played off my illness to Justin as if it were a joke. I wanted him to see me as smart and cynical, instead of flooding with emotions–more like drowning in them. I was humiliated by my mental illness “stigmas”. One of his sister’s husbands pretty much said i was too damn lazy to work and I was beating Justin down to a pulp because I didn’t want to work or some shit like that. Yeah Doug you. Ass. But a part of me felt like he was right–only for the last year I COULDN’T work because I was afraid of everything, the flashbacks were starting, psychosis, blah blah blah. But in the part I felt he was right about–I was “something” to go back to work. And as I got better little by little I realized I was afraid to work: I was afraid of change, I was afraid of people making fun of my weight, but mainly it meant it was time to begin. Time to begin to start building this life, from the ground work up, all over, all new materials, all new. And that’s scary.

So coinciding with this change is his change as well. He left yesterday for North Dakota. Probably for two years I’m guessing. We sat down one day (after we had originally split when I was still pretty sick but too much for him by then) and discussed how we weren’t living our lives, we weren’t living them together, neither of us were doing anything remotely close to what we wanted to do with our lives. He wanted to make money and get a headstart so he could come back to Ashland and start his family life with Emma in our hometown. My plan was to move three hours away to my sisters and niece. I always felt better there, alive, wanting to do stuff, meet people. But now that Spring’s here (I was going to move in June), one of my sisters might not be there, and I’d have no help with Emma, all her family and cousins would be back home. I don’t know. I’m probably not going to move. Yet. Which is a downer. But I start my classes not soon enough.

Back to the bench from the beginning. I’ll be sitting there, watching Emma play with her cousin. I’ll be alive, inside a real, whole, healthy body, respected body, a fighting body. I won’t be seeking anyone. I believe we find who we’re “meant to be” with through our journies–our choices and our rhythms lead us to them, it’s only natural. Maybe there’ll be no one. I wonder if I’ll be off most my meds by then… It’s quite fine if I’m alone, because I don’t feel alone anymore. I was alone my entire life, until I broke, and someone loved me enough to try to help me pack myself back together, to stop the flooding. We were a good team. I know that, twenty years from now, should it return, I could (though I wouldn’t) call him and tell him the signal “It’s coming” and he’d show up ready to be there. This time, his leaving, meant a little bit of everything. He’s urging me to move to be happy. He says he’ll never leave here. I love him but somewhere hidden inside I’ve somehow let him go. And it hurts. Hurts like a bitch. Life has to happen, and lots of it, before we could ever be whatever it is that we could be. The strange thing is, if I hadn’t been sick and abused my entire life, I wonder, where would I be? What would I look like? Would I have friends? Would I be singing? Would I be doing what I love most–writing? No. I don’t think so. What the fuck would I have experienced and learned in order to write about it? I wouldn’t take it all back for a “normal” life. We crazy-asses have sunshine, too, and let me tell you our good days are a hell of a lot better than yours! I’m not sure who I”m directing that too. White space. I’m trying to tell myself to stop being afraid. Everything I ever had to be afraid of already happened. So fn’ relax. That’s true. But I’m impulsive and maybe the smallest percent neurotic so my minds imagines big fears, big ones. Stupid. But big. I’ll write more later. Summary: I have a well-deserved heart-ache due to the loss of a dearly lloved one though who deserves it–is not so much me as the situation. What you gonna do?

AlisonTyne on Etsy
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