Off the mat.

“People with PTSD don’t do well when things are really busy,” said a counsellor to me, perhaps a year ago. And, inconveniently, we’re coming up to the pointy end of the year (music to learn, anyone?), and if last week was too busy to write, it’s nothing compared to how busy the rest of November and December will be. For the moment, and before I go on holiday next week, I’m battening down the hatches in the calm before the storm.

People with PTSD don’t do well with over-stimulation – I am aware of that, and while I’m confident that this year’s pre-Christmas demands will be less heavy and traumatic than last year’s (healing is a great blessing), I’m also aware of the fact that I am feeling under the pump, and I am starting to have difficulties sleeping again, and I am finding that more nights than not at the moment I’m visited by nightmares, which linger into the feeling of the day. All early warning signs that I might not be coping as well as I could; all something to watch out for; all indicators that I need to make sure I’m taking care of myself.

The other thing I’m aware of, though, is how long it’s been since this time last year, and how far I’ve come. Singing is sometimes still fraught, and my last panic attack was only a month ago, and it was a doozy. But even in that, I no longer wake up wondering if I’ll get through the day, and it’s been a long time since I’ve regretted waking up at all.

I’ll always carry the damage that’s been done, and I’ll always live with the consequences of ten years of domestic violence. Possibly, I’ll have to manage PTSD for the rest of my life, to greater or lesser extents. There are some things on which I will never be able to retain a sense of equanimity and probably some scars will always hurt.

But there’s been healing, and I’m stronger than I was a year ago, and I can stand and look people in the face without cringing, and most of the time I manage my symptoms without really having to think about it, and I have a sense of future as strong as my sense of past, and I feel like I’ve got out from under this. I took the hit, and I fell heavily, but I’m up off the mat.

It’s an incredible feeling.

A strange visitation but I’m not crazy.

My earliest memory is of my parents reading me a story: narrative is my first conscious memory of the world. It’s something I treasure, and I’ve been writing stories since I could write, and telling myself stories since even before that.

About five years ago, one of these stories got serious. I was regularly catching the bus to work at the time – about a ninety-minute bus-ride either way – and I’d spend each of those one hundred and eighty minutes frantically typing away on the small blue Toshiba laptop with the conversations of suburban school children ringing over my head, creating a world, and events within it, and the characters – one in particular – who peopled it. For three hours every day, I’d inhabit that different world, a world taking shape under my fingertips and in the small universe contained by my computer.

Then everything changed. I moved, with my ex, and suddenly didn’t have a wonderfully long commute to work. Writing was something my ex begrudged me – he, not I, was the writer in the family – and it became impossible for me to write in a war-zone. Suddenly, far from having seemingly unlimited time to put into my writing, it became sneakily snatched in small, furtive moments. Attempts to prioritise my writing led to things I still don’t want to think about; the final argument about it led to my computer being smashed and hard copies of my writing torn up, right there in front of me. I put it aside, and resigned myself to the unmourned death of my writer self.

In the two years since Emancipation Day, I’ve occasionally wondered what happened to the main character, the gutsy, strong stranger I’d birthed from within my own mind. I thought about her in the past tense – like an old friend who I’d once known well, but with whom I’d lost contact, and with whom there was no chance of reconnecting. I thought of her with regret, but resignation.

And then, all of a sudden – and travelling seems to be the common denominator here – driving home from work, I found myself thinking of her, not with regretful past tense, but in the present tense. In my mind, she was out in the rain for a run, something she’d always enjoyed, found peace in. In the present tense. Then and there. Suddenly, in the weirdness of my creativity, she was alive again.

I’ve only had that one glance, and I’m a little apprehensive about the process of regaining connection with her – what if that fleeting glimpse, that fragment, is all I’ll get? But if nothing else, her sudden presence in my mind is a reminder of the indomitable nature of my creativity: yet another thing, precious and stalwart, which couldn’t be beaten out of me.

I’m grateful. And, strangely, I’m looking forward to re-acquainting myself with a person who doesn’t actually exist.

Nightmares, a common denominator and being a good person.

One of the realities of living with post-traumatic stress disorder is sleep disturbance, namely nightmares. It’s spectacularly inconvenient and unpleasant – things can be rolling along quite smoothly, only to be interrupted by sleep-disrupting dreams which leave me unrested and uneasy the next morning, and which often tint the following day with their own insidious brand of anxiety. The really difficult thing about this particular manifestation of PTSD is that there’s no managing it: there are no nice neat strategies which help to reduce their severity.

Sometimes the nightmares are quite overtly horrible: being raped, or fighting for my life in a crowded place while people calmly walk past, or the common-garden-variety horror-movie murderers and monsters. Those ones I can often stop from lingering; I can tell myself that it’s only the random images of a battered mind continuing to seek healing, and I can often return to sleep.

The one I hate the most, though – the one from which there can be no returning to slumber, the one which lingers like a miasma the next day – is the nightmare in which the people who love me respond to me in the same way my ex-husband used to. The same agonising illogic to arguments; the same shocking, soul-penetrating insults; the same threats; and finally, the same searing flare into actual blows. The dreams are vivid: I can feel the seat beneath me, hear the world around me, and the first touch of violence feels the same as it ever did in my waking life. The thing that always brings most horror though – not the insults or the abuse, not even the words of someone who hated me coming from the mouth of someone I know, in my waking life, loves me: the worst horror is the sudden realisation I have in the dream, that since someone else is treating me the way my ex used to, then I must be the common denominator. It must be me. Actually, I must really deserve such treatment.

It’s a shitty realisation to come to, and it seems just as brutal when it comes from my own dreaming mind as if it were a waking reality. It’s a devastating fear to sit with: do I really deserve such a thing? Am I really the horrible person my ex thought I was?

The more time that passes, the firmer I am in the belief that I didn’t deserve it, that I do deserve to be happy, to have friends, to be treated with respect and love as I treat those around me with respect and love. I’m strengthening my resolve in that, and learning to see myself – maybe – as I hope that others see me, and to hope that I’m the good person I want to be. And, of course, it’s a work in progress: but part of being a person is working towards being a good one.

The practice and practise of happiness.

One of the comforts of being half a person is that things are easy. When you live in your head, you don’t have to feel. You dwell in rationality, and the mental life is enough. You can retreat into your head when things are difficult; retreating into my head – what psychologists call dissociation – has got me through beatings and worse, barely feeling them.

The flip side of this is that, while you’re in endurance mode, you feel nothing: no pain, no fear – but no joy. You become entirely detached to the emotional world, the world of being a full, feeling human being.

Now I’m no longer half a human, and I understand that the consequence of this is that I must learn to feel. I must learn to be comfortable with my grief, my shame, my anger. I must learn to manage my fears – and that’s the easy part.

Part of learning to become a whole person is actually learning to be happy: that it’s allowed. That nothing terrible’s going to happen to me as a result of being happy: laughter will not result in a sudden sharp slap; a night out with a friend won’t earn me recriminations and censure.

It’s taking me a while to learn that. It’s taking me a while to realise that happiness can be simple; that there’s no retribution for a moment of light-heartedness; that the jealously of the unhappy will not forbid by high spirits.

And most of the people around me don’t question their happiness. They simply enjoy it, thoughtlessly, without a second’s hesitation, without even a thought that perhaps they don’t deserve it. No second-guessing, no over-thinking; happiness is easy, wonderful, something to delight in, to take pleasure in.

I’d like that to be the case for me. I’m looking forward to learning to be as comfortable in my happiness as in the distress in which I’ve spent so many years. Like everything, it’s a work in progress – but I’m happy, with this learning, to spend the time practising.

Blood flow and why you can’t be creative in a war zone.

This is why you can’t be creative in a war zone: in a war zone, you simply don’t have enough blood flow. It sounds odd, but it’s true. When there are bombs raining down around your head, you spend most of your existence in fight-or-flight mode. Blood flows from non-essential parts of your body to where its needed most; and while creativity is not a physicality within the human body, its inherent enough a part of who I am and how I’m made up for me to use the metaphor almost literally. Not that there were ever bombs raining down around me – by sheer accident of birth I don’t live in Baghdad, or Gaza, or Damascus. But for ten years, I lived in the war zone created between two people. I lived with the constant volatility of unpredictable and at times dangerous violence; I lived with the constant drip-drip of undermining, of words and insults used against me as weapons, of the capricious handing out of affection or abuse. I lived in an environment where safety was not a given, not an automatic right, not something to blithely take for granted. In fact, it was the opposite: violence and hatefulness was what I learned to take for granted – and it was drummed into me (to such an extent that I still half-believe it) that this was exactly what I deserved. So I went into survival mode. Endurance mode. I stopped paying attention to what was going on, what was being said. There was enough self-preservation, enough self-worth, for me to finally tear myself out of that precarious situation – but for the most part, I put my head down and simply kept putting one foot in front of the other. And that’s the problem with endurance mode: you switch off all those things that make you who you are. You shut down all those gentle, fragile parts of yourself which can make you vulnerable, and you bury them deep for their own protection. Not that you realise you’re doing that – with no sense of future, no sense of hope, what’s the point of trying to protect an insubstantial treasure for a time ahead you don’t have? It’s more a loss than a deliberate act of preservation: you simply forget about those parts of yourself that make you who you are, and you cease to feel them, in the same way a body part devoid of blood flow becomes numb and essentially dead. And like a body part devoid of blood flow, the rebirth is excruciating. A big part of coming out of survival mode – literally years after my Emancipation Day, that ill-thought-out, precipitous pre-dawn escape from an increasingly perilous marriage – has been watching and feeling the blood beginning to flow to that stagnant, dead-seeming phenomenon that was, and now is, my creativity. And the Universe – or Spirit – unfolded in such a way that I ended up writing a book, one of the more interesting experiences of this time of healing. And now the world contains one more book, and the fragile creature that once was my battered creativity is a little bit like me – scarred, sadder and wiser for the experience, but very much a survivor. Kind of cool, really.

Wisdom in passing.

I was talking – well, messaging, actually – with someone who’s been through a lot recently. She’s not someone I know well, but I like her: I like her gentle essence, her calm presence. She gave me permission to share something she wrote about the darkest time in her life, what sounds like one of the bleakest things a human can experience:

At the time, I cursed myself for not having the guts to end it all, but now I can see that it was my greatest strength not to do so.

Wow.

She’s absolutely right, of course, and I’m blown away by her conviction and her wisdom. Because sometimes strength is not taking action; it is not fighting; it is not decisiveness. Sometimes, strength is in simply being. Waking up each day, knowing that it might be easier but it’s likely to be fucking hard. Knowing that there may never be dawn at the end of the long, dreary night, but that the darkness can be endured for just a little longer.

What more can I say? At the time, I cursed myself for not having the guts to end it all, but now I can see that it was my greatest strength not to do so. 

There’s not anything I can add, really. So I won’t.

A new task.

Part of moving out of survival mode, away from the day-to-day struggle of symptom management, has brought great blessing. I no longer fear that I’m going to disgrace myself in front of people whose opinions I care about; I’m no longer desperately hoping that I’ll get through the next rehearsal, the next service, without the beauty of the music searing my soul and bringing on the sort of stripped-bare vulnerability that triggers a flashback, or a panic attack. I’m learning to make peace with the fact that there are certain things that my damaged psyche can’t quite cope with yet; I’m learning to give myself, and my messed up limbic system, a break.

Part of moving out of survival mode has been learning to value my anger, learning its safety and upholding its right to itself, and my right to it. Part of it though, has presented a new challenge, one which I don’t quite feel ready for but which seems to be upon me anyway: now that I’m no longer dominated by the demands of living with post-traumatic stress disorder, I’m forced to come face-to-face with the reality of what actually happened to me.

I don’t want to wallow in it. I don’t want to become overwhelmed by it. I don’t want to be devoured by memories I can’t control, which force me to relive them instead of simply recollect them. I don’t want to become unwell; I don’t want to be unsafe with these memories, unsafe with myself. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt and not keen to return.

I also don’t want to push the reality of my experience away; I don’t want to seal it all up in some mental box and hope frantically that it goes away. For one thing, that feels a little dishonest; for another, I’m pretty sure that the head-in-the-sand approach doesn’t work all that well.

What I need is a way to hold all this stuff, to make space for it in my mind and my heart and my soul, to acknowledge it for what it is, and grieve it, and rage against it, without being destroyed by it. I want to learn to carry it gently. I want to learn how not to give it power.

I suspect, though, that part of learning all of that will involve actually feeling it. How inconvenient.