A friend of mine who writes a gaming blog recently posted a fabulous article on gaming mechanics and mental illness. Interspersed between his ideas, my friend posted art created by mentally ill people about their various experiences and struggles. I dabble in art myself (I created the cartoon jackalope banner at the top of this page), so his post inspired me to translate some of my own experiences with mental illness into imagery.
I’ve talked a bit about my diagnosis in the past, largely to give some potential readers something to relate to. When I was first diagnosed, the sudden onset of new symptoms was terrifying. Having a friend who suffered a similar disorder (not the author of the article cited above) was an amazing relief, because he was there to tell me, “This will happen sometimes, but you’ll get through it. It’ll be okay.” Knowing that there was someone else who had been through what I was going through made it less frightening and unpredictable. I talk about my own experiences periodically with the hope of recreating some of that comfort to readers who might have disorders like mine.
To that end, I think art can communicate on a more personal and intuitive level than some other modes of communication. Given that many of my symptoms are poorly understood by the layman, I thought the following might provide some readers with a much needed reassurance that they’re not alone.
Among other things, PTSD is a dissociative disorder. This means that the brain will sometimes forcibly remove you from reality in order to deal with something. This can manifest in a number of ways, from seeing things that aren’t there, to losing time or feeling that the world around you isn’t real, to going full-on catatonic, the real-world version of the meme-ified “thousand yard stare.”
There are a number of things that could be going on inside someone’s brain after they zonk out, and I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, the most notable dissociative episodes take a few distinct forms.
1. A minor flashback: This is what happens when something sets off a time-travel trigger, but my brain catches it before things get too ugly. It’s like floating through the space between the past and present, seeing shadows of another time but unable to move forward or back. It’s distressing, but not panic inducing, and all the while I’m uncomfortably aware of my inability to move my body.
2. Some stimuli are (apparently) more than I can handle in that moment, so I’m dropped into a sort of temporary stasis, a hazy dream state, while my brain figures out how to deal with the stimulus. This is inconvenient, but otherwise quite pleasant. It’s not unlike that fuzzy, relaxed feeling right before falling asleep. It’s less like being frozen and more like being suspended in air, and I just chill there until my mind is done processing. Though I’m often aware that boiling under that fuzzy surface is something extremely unpleasant that’s waiting for me when I come out of the haze.
3. Not all flashbacks are minor. If I pass by someone who smells like one of my exes, or some other intense lizard-brain reminder of some obscure past moment, I can be transported backward, which can mean hearing voices, seeing people I very much don’t want to see, or physically feeling a prior experience on my skin. It’s every bit as horrifying as it sounds. Typically I’ll be stuck in place in a fetal position, mentally begging it to go away while a panic attack rages in my frozen body. Often I have difficulty breathing, which creates a negative feedback loop of anxiety, panic, and asthma. In short, this is the absolute worst.
4. To end on a less frightening note, not all episodes are nasty. The above examples occur sporadically when something reminds me of unpleasant events. The better I get, the less often they occur. But this one is constant: when I look in the mirror I don’t see my own face. Usually I see one of a variety of women, with roughly my hairstyle, who don’t look at all like me. Well, I’m assuming. This has being going on so long that I have no idea what I look like. Some of these faces are rounder or sharper or more square. Some are covered in cuts and bruises. One is twenty or so years older than me. Another is an adolescent. Very occasionally I’ve seen a young girl, or a boy, or an alien creature with long, spindly limbs, gigantic eyes, and unnatural joints. It used to frighten me, but now I find it fascinating.
The figures in these drawings are intentionally somewhat androgynous, because, as always, I want to constantly remind you all that, just like every other human experience, my disorder and the events that led to it are not specific to women. I may draw more of these at a later date. And by the way, you get 10 internet points if you know which book I’m quoting in these captions.