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.


Meditation and silent screaming.

Something I’ll do tomorrow, and something I do most Wednesday mornings, is attend a Christian meditation group. Based on the teachings of the desert fathers (or, if you’re one of the three people I know who have read An Alien At St Winifred’s, the dessert fathers, with their dedicated ministry of sweet pastries…), Christian meditation is about moving beneath and beyond the chattering, daily concerns of life, away from the mental and cerebral, and deeper into the self. It is within the self that we discover Other; it is within us that we discover the Being who created us. And, in resting in that Being, we learn to be.

That’s the theory, anyway, and it’s something that resonates within me. It’s something I’m drawn to; it’s something that I need to do, a spiritual imperative. This is the manifestation of my yearning for my Source.

It’s hard though, and at times it’s scary. In meditation, my mind quiets, and I manage (sometimes) to move below the regular mundane tumult of thought and mental to-do-lists and questions and worrying and planning…and when I do, I feel. There’s ten years worth of feeling there, and often it’s painful and often it’s scary and it’s only when my blathering rationality quiets that there’s room for feelings.

Sitting in the group, in the silence of meditation and in the company of other meditators, I’ve felt a scream build up inside me. Starting deep, just below the very bottom of my sternum, its grown and strengthened until I’ve felt that only opening my mouth and giving it voice would bring any sense of relief, of release.

I haven’t, of course. I am a person for whom self-control is a basic and valued attribute, and the idea of actually shattering that sacred silence with a scream of – what? Anger? Fear? A straightforward build-up of too much emotion over too many years? – simply wouldn’t be an option. But the scream is there, and it means something, and part of the journey to within my self that is meditation is working out what that means, and how it’s a part of the healing I’m still journeying towards.

I’ve thought about just bunking off – tossing meditation, like marathon-running, into the useful-but-not-for-me basket of things I’d once thought I’d like to do. Putting it aside until things are easier, more comfortable. But I can’t. As I seek my Source, the Source within me reaches out to Itself, and draws me ever closer to Itself.

Spirit will unfold, and doesn’t seem to care that I’m digging my heels in. I guess I can trust that Spirit knows what It’s doing.

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.

A boring blog post, and inter-species love.

I’m tired and on the edge of grumpy, because one of the really shitty things about living with PTSD is its unpredictability, and last night was a tossing-and-turning, sleeplessness-followed-by-quiet-horrible-nightmares sort of night. Which is funny (funny-strange, that is; not funny-amusing) because I had a perfectly ok day and a pleasant, peaceful evening and when I went to bed I felt reasonably at peace with the world.

And then the insomnia came, and then the nightmares.

It seems a contradiction to have both insomnia and nightmares in the same night. And it hardly seems fair.

But that’s the way the cheese crumbles.

Right now, though, I’m sitting at my desk in a quiet house (one of the joys of living in the country is the utter silence. It forms its own sort of music), wearing spotted pyjamas and woollen sleep-socks, and I’m typing this and watching my cat quietly munch her way through a bowl of cat biscuits (she carefully avoids the green ones. I haven’t quite got to the bottom of why). I know that odds are, when she’s finished her snack, she’ll come and sit on my lap, and she’ll purr and put her warm, soft head under my chin, and I’ll kiss her head between her ears (I’m sure that spot on a cat was designed specifically for humans to kiss), and she’ll hum with contentment and feel cherished, and I’ll know that she loves me, and I love her, and in that interaction the very Creator of love will be present, and alive.

And I’ll (hopefully) sleep knowing that because of this warm, solid scrap of being, there is a little more love in the world, and that despite our differences, we can communicate and share that love, and that where love is, there also is God.

And that’s it, really.

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.

…and the vicissitudes of being out of it, mark II

My life is no longer taken up with survival, either from domestic violence or from the mental health implications of it: post-traumatic stress disorder, flashbacks and panic attacks and nightmares and all the challenges of life with an anxiety disorder. Suddenly, after two years of freedom, I’m starting to feel free from the fearful responses of my own battered mind.

Now, it’s time for a new job. Now that I’m no longer living my life by simply trying to get through each day, to keep my symptoms under control, to hold down a job and keep my friends and my place in the choir when my inner world was shaking, my mind is freed up a little bit. My soul and my self are freed up a little bit.

Now the storm’s over, and it’s time for the clean-up.

Now it’s time for me to learn to make room within myself for what happened to me – literally hundreds of assaults; rape and sexual abuse; ten years’ worth of drip-drop acidic belittling, denigrating, undermining my worth. And that’s hard, because it involves actually looking at this stuff. Looking at what was done to me, things I survived, and not becoming overwhelmed by them, but no longer minimising them. Looking at them honestly, without the gentle layer of numbness – alcohol, or dissociation, or that quiet imperceptible fog of detachment which allowed me to take a beating, or live through a rape, and then get up, brush myself off and go on with my day. Looking at them openly, and in vulnerability, accepting their horror and allowing myself – for the first time, really – to feel it: not the fear I’ve lived with for so long, the fear that actually distracts from the reality of that pain, but the pain itself. The pain, and the anger.

And that’s the hardest bit, or one of them. Where do I put that anger? I have learned to trust myself that I won’t lose control, hurt myself or someone else. I won’t take my anger out on some innocent who simply bumbles into my path – most of the time. And I’m not stupid enough to seek a confrontation with the person towards whom my anger should be directed, even if I knew where he was – so what do I do with it? How to I learn to hold it gently, to find room for it? To uphold it as important, to allow it to keep me safe?

It’s a big thing to find room for, anger.

Survival mode…

A thousand years ago, or maybe only a few months ago, I wrote about how difficult it is to suddenly be out of survival mode. Suddenly, I was no longer living with that constant sense of threat, or churning volatility. I spent ten years knowing that the next innocent thing I said or did – the clearing of my throat, a mis-speak, the dropping of a DVD – could be the thing that sparked off the tirade of abusive vitriol, the slap, the beating. And that the next beating could be the one which went wrong: the human body is frighteningly fragile, and there’s only so much it can take. I lived in that constant vulnerability, and it was my day-to-day reality, and I coped with it because that was all I could do.

It changed once I left. Suddenly, no longer under threat, my body reacted with fear at every non-threat I came across: a hand flung out in the animation of conversation; raised voices; unexpected touch. Even today, two years after seizing my freedom, two years and more after the last beating I took, the sight of a clenched fist still makes me feel sick. In the immediate time after leaving, life became a struggle: the struggle to re-build, to keep myself well and safe, in the storms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Even in freedom and safety, my emotional energy went into survival: not physical survival this time, but surviving panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, that constant crawling anxiety which made so many moments difficult. My new life became about getting through the next day, and the next, and in hindsight it was exhausting.

My last panic attack was only yesterday, and I’m still jumpy sometimes, and there are still some things – pieces of music, phrases, sights – towards which I cannot hold any sense of equanimity. Sometimes I still have nightmares, and I’m told I might experience flashbacks occasionally for the rest of my life. But that’s ok, because it’s better, and it’s all managable, mostly, and even when it’s not – like yesterday – I know what to expect and how to take care of myself and keep myself safe. Life is richer now, and it’s no longer about symptom-management.

Which is wonderful, and I’m grateful, but it presents another problem: now that, for a second time, I’m no longer in survival mode, there’s now space in my head to start to make room for what happened to me.

More about that tomorrow. For now though, I’m grateful, because nothing can bloom in survival mode.