Category Archives: PTSD

A Break for Some Art

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.

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Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

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.

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So it goes…

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.

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Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment.  There is no why.

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.

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All of this happened, more or less.

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.

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Filed under art, mental illness, personal, PTSD

My Brain and the Crazy Shit It Does to Me

I’m going to take a quick break from ranting about gender issues to talk about my experience with mental illness.  I mentioned briefly in my first entry that I have PTSD because of the 5 years I spent being continually intimidated, berated, controlled, coerced, and sexually and physically assaulted.  And let me tell you, not being in that relationship has been a huge celebratory relief since the moment it ended, but the things my head does now because of it are no picnic.  My symptoms are crazy, distracting, exhausting, and often downright terrifying.

But one thing that has been a huge help is simply knowing that I’m not alone.  I have a friend who has unfortunately experienced some of the same symptoms in his lifetime, and just hearing him say, “This is a thing, this happens, it’s not that weird, and you’re not crazy” helps keep me from falling into complete panic and going off the deep end.  I’m going to assume that some of my readers are dealing with trauma of their own, so for the sake of those people, I’m going to talk about what my brain does to me and how I deal with it.

Obligatory Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or a psychotherapist.  I’m just a lady who talks a lot.  If you have a mental illness and the means to do so, the best thing you can do is get professional help.  I am seeing a therapist, but these are the things I’m doing to cope in the meantime.

Anxiety

PTSD is an anxiety disorder.  I have anxiety about all kinds of things.  My triggers (oh gods, I really hate that word, but that’s what they are)* are weird and varied because the aspects of my own personal trauma were varied.  I have anxiety about the safety of my home, my privacy, my friends and acquaintances, how I come off to others, and especially about work.  There are things I worry about frequently, but I also just feel nervous for no reason most of the time.  My heart rate is usually high (even when I’m trying to sleep, which leads to insomnia), I’m usually a little bit nauseous, I’ve got symptoms of GERD, and I spend most of the time on edge (seriously, don’t surprise me, it won’t go well for you).

Sometimes I will decide that I am a massive burden to my friends and they are all sick of me.  For days at a time, I will believe that it’s only a matter of time before the people I love all abandon me.  This often extends into the belief that I am annoying, boring, and nobody wants to hear anything I have to say.  All this, of course, combines neatly with my depression.  So I’ll sit at home for hours or days watching the walls close in and spiraling into depression, self-loathing, and existential malaise.

Sometimes I will decide that I’m terrible at my job and I’m going to be fired soon.  I will worry that every sideways glance from coworkers or bosses means they are quietly judging me, and every time they walk by me they are keeping an eye on me to determine just how much I suck.  Sometimes my misinterpretations of reality drift into the downright delusional.  For example, an admin of mine, in a group of coworkers, commented when it was relevant to the conversation that she would hope anyone who was getting fired would know it by this point in the semester (presumably because you’d be a really terrible boss to surprise someone with that at the last minute, and presumably to allude to the fact that nobody is getting fired this year).  Naturally, I interpreted this as a statement directed at me: “You’re terrible at your job, and I can’t believe you haven’t figured out by now that you’re getting fired.”  I spent the rest of the day shaking, on the edge of vomiting, and barely slept that night.  The next morning the feeling had passed and I felt like an idiot.

These are all passive, emotional types of anxiety.  Other incarnations are more active and disruptive.  Until I worked through this bit, knocks on doors set me off.  And I don’t just mean I got uncomfortable.  I used to hide in the bathroom from my ex while he pounded on the door, so for a while a knock on the door would send me into flashbacks and panic attacks.  One day I spent 20 minutes frozen on the couch with a bokken in hand, staring at the door after some random neighbour came knocking.  My heart rate skyrocketed, my limbs froze, my vision sharpened, and I’m confident that if anything had managed to come through that door (which I always keep locked), it would not have left in one piece.  This then led to the fear that I was going to snap and hurt someone (which is not completely unfounded, as I did once black out and swing at someone who surprised me).

Of course, these are all at least somewhat irrational thoughts and behaviours.  They come from responses that were programmed into my brain at a time when they were necessary for survival.  That’s what PTSD is.  The best thing I can do is try to reason myself out of them.  It helps that I’m obsessively analytical and good at logic, but sometimes I can manage to reason my way out of these anxiety traps.  It helps to be around people.  My friends help keep me grounded, and they are willing to look me in the eye and tell me I’m being ridiculous.  When none of that works, I meditate.  Mindfulness meditation, if you’re not familiar, is the art of focusing on nothing but your own breathing (or something else to fill your attention) until you’ve managed to push the disturbing thoughts away.  It’s an easy focus because it’s always present, you can feel and hear it, and the act of doing it is calming.  It may sound silly, but this works wonders.  Try it if you haven’t.

But honestly, the biggest step I’ve taken is just to face the things I’m irrationally afraid of.  I started answering doors despite my fear, and the fear and flashbacks went away.  It was as simple as deciding that an adult shouldn’t cower on the couch just because there’s a stranger at the door, and I can’t live with myself if I let that fear control me.  Agency.  It’s a thing.

Dissociation

To a lesser extent, PTSD is also a dissociative disorder.  Dissociation is basically an involuntary separation from reality.  Some of it is as simple as spacing out, and some of it gets downright weird.

If you’ve watched Breaking Bad you’ve heard of fugue states, where a person will wind up somewhere having no idea how they got there.  I’ve never found myself states away from home in my underwear, but I certainly do lose time.  This is frightening, because I never know what happened in the time that I missed, or what I did.  Sometimes I will look at the clock, acknowledge the time, and then seconds later (from my perspective) notice that half an hour or more has passed.  Sometimes while driving, I will suddenly be miles or more further in the drive with no recollection of how I got there, having completely missed a turn or two.  Sometimes I will suddenly realize I am not in the room I was moments before.  Kimmy Schmidt mentions this phenomenon in the eponymous TV show, when she confesses on a date that she once found herself washing a knife in the shower, with no memory of how she came to be doing it.

The nice thing about dissociation, though, is that to a certain extent it can be predictable.  If I’ve had some unfun thoughts going through my head, been focusing on unpleasant memories, or am suddenly reminded of something I’d rather not think about, I avoid doing important tasks like driving for a little while.  I also know that something is probably coming when I perceive a sudden shift in lighting: if the room appears suddenly much brighter and all the details of my surroundings sharpen, I know shit is about to get weird.

And it does indeed get weird.  You ever watch a TV show for a while, and then they replace one of the actors?  They don’t get rid of the character, but for whatever reason they find someone else to play that role.  You can sort of tell that they tried to pick someone who looked somewhat like the original actor, but it’s jarring and a little bit weird to see a new person playing that character.  Now, imagine that rather than a character on TV, this is your reflection.  You look in the mirror, and the face looking back at you isn’t yours.  The hair is kind of the same, and she’s wearing your glasses, but that isn’t you.  The first time this happened, naturally, I freaked out.  I stared at myself for what felt like hours (though I’m told I was only out of the room for a few minutes), mumbling over and over, “that’s not my face… THAT’S NOT MY FACE.”  But a friend really helped me out here.  After I had started to calm down, he smiled and said, “yeah, it’s scary… but it’s really interesting, isn’t it??”  I stopped and thought about it.  Abnormal psychology has always interested me.  If I’d read about this experience in a book, I’d be fascinated.  I had to acknowledge that he was right.  Looking in the mirror and seeing someone else’s face is scary as hell, but dammit, it’s actually really neat and interesting, too!  Now going for a pee is an adventure, because I never know who I’m going to see next.  I make faces at myself, pretend to shake hands with myself, and dance around in front of the mirror.  It’s silly, but it really helps me deal.

Of course, not everything can be joked away.  When my brain gets bogged down by the really bad stuff, I go completely catatonic.  The first time it happened I was watching a movie.  I meant to comment on some plot point, and realized that I couldn’t talk.  Or move.  At all.  My limbs were frozen in place, my body attached to the couch.  I was in a fuzzy haze while I was trying to interpret what was happening.  Somewhere in the back of my brain I was aware that it was scary, but my foremost thought was that the friend sitting next to me was trying to talk to me, and I was being rude by ignoring him.  Finally, I managed to turn my head.  I felt like I must have looked like one of those sloths in a nature documentary, moving little by little until my friend’s face appeared in my periphery.  Another few minutes and my mouth was open.  Another few and I managed to say “um.”  This went on for over half an hour.  When I came to I was too shocked, afraid, and upset to cry.

The second time I was a little more self aware.  I was at a party and I realized it was happening again.  I couldn’t move my arms.  My legs were seizing up.  I couldn’t speak.  The merciful mental haze from before never appeared, replaced by abject panic.  Praying that nobody would notice (and I’m atheist), I thought frantically for a way out.  Into my head popped an image of Uma Thurman in a truck, staring at her lifeless feet and mumbling, “Wiggle your big toe.”  So that’s what I did.  I focused on my toe until I could wiggle it.  Then my foot, then my leg, both legs, my arms, and my head.  I was shaken, and my friends did notice that something was off about me, but it was really nice to learn that I can unfreeze myself on my own.  Thanks, Tarantino!

Losing Reality Entirely

I’m at the point where I can’t trust my perception of what’s happening around me all the time.  And that is scary.  I never know what my head is going to do next, or how real my surroundings are.  I do have flashbacks, where I forget where I am for a moment, or I am convinced that something from my past has returned to haunt me.  The nightmares are bad enough, but while wide awake and sober I’ve heard my ex’s voice in my house.  I once saw the door to the bathroom stall where I was sitting kicked in before realizing it hadn’t actually happened.  At one point I even saw my ex poke his head between the curtains to watch me mow the lawn.

In these instances all I can do is find reminders that it’s 2015 and all that is over.  I try to engage my senses in the moment: touch my surroundings, search for smells, sounds, anything to ground myself in the now.  I make myself aware of things that are not the same as they were.  I have a pet now that I didn’t have when my ex lived with me.  I have different furniture.  I have different hair.  I have a piercing I didn’t have.  Reminding myself of where and when I am helps bring me back to reality.  I have a necklace that I never take off, which I’ve had since the breakup.  It serves something like the little toy from Inception, as an indicator that I am conscious and in reality.

But more than anything I just try to find distractions.  I find the symptoms are the worst when I’m idle, especially mentally idle, so I throw myself into work.  I socialize all the time.  I read and write, I paint, and I spend hours at a time on my activism.  Anything to get my mind off the things that will mess with it.

I will close by repeating that I’m not a doctor, but my strategies have been recommended or approved by one.  Hopefully some of you find them helpful.  Next time I post you can expect to see a rant somewhat like the last one, pertaining to the ways in which women’s unempowering empowerment belies its roots in America’s puritanical fear of sexuality.  Stay tuned.

*A tangent on triggers: Part of the whole agency deal for me is being aware that my mental illness is my problem to deal with.  Help, accommodation, and support are sometimes appreciated, but in no way required.  It is not your responsibility to walk on eggshells for me, warn me about upcoming triggers, or avoid topics for me.  It is not your responsibility if you are a friend, and it is definitely not your responsibility if you are a stranger.  I know what sets me off and how to deal with or avoid it when necessary.  I will take care of that because I am an adult, not a child that needs to be cared for by everyone around them.  I will not be your burden to bear.  For this reason, I will never post trigger warnings on my blog.  You know what this blog is about.  Don’t read it if you can’t handle it.

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Filed under domestic violence, mental illness, PTSD