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.

Advertisements

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(n old) death threat, and being a real person.

I had to do some banking the other day, and in conversation with the lovely girl at the teller’s window, she informed me that I still had two joint accounts with my ex. Helpfully, she suggested that if I could arrange for him to meet me at the bank, the accounts could be closed and the contents divided between us. Eager to help, she mentioned a number of ways in which this issue could be dealt with, all of which informed my ex finding out my general location. She was so keen to help, that I had to tell her: sorry, it can’t happen for safety reasons. The last thing I heard from my ex was a death threat: I’m not keen to manufacture a situation in which there’s any chance that we might bump into each other.

I was fairly calm when I explained this, and I spoke quite lightly and made a joke out of it (there are instances of dark humour which real people simply don’t feel funny, which survivors of violence tend to appreciate) and I was struck by the look of horror on her face; horror, and such fear that I was compelled to reassure her that everything was ok, there’s no threat at the moment and certainly no concern for her. But she was pale, and I could see that I’d knocked her with a reality that, while I’m no longer particularly concerned about it (if it was going to happen, it would have), I have been told by numerous people I do need to take into account in my meanderings through the world.

There are things that I take for granted as a social worker – things that I see as part of my nine-to-five that a bank worker (although she’d handle things that would leave me for dead: I don’t do numbers) simply wouldn’t conceive of. But there are also things that I take for granted as a survivor of violence, of daily fear, of threats, of rape, that real people struggle to hear about. I’m getting used to that knowledge, and I’m becoming more seasoned in choosing what to say, and what to keep to myself, when I’m talking to a civilian. I’m having these jolts of someone else’s reaction – oops, shouldn’t have disclosed that – less frequently. But this was one of them.

Real people generally don’t come across death threats, and they probably wouldn’t make light of it if they did, for all there’s really no reason to take it seriously anymore. Real people feel sorry for those who have been through such things.

I’m not one of those people anymore, and while there’s often a sense of regret and resentment of that, there’s also a sense of acceptance. I’m stronger for what I’ve experienced, and I refused to be scared of what frightened that lovely girl behind the teller window, and I refuse to be bowed down by it.

For today, at least. But I’m getting stronger, and odds are, tomorrow will be a strong day as well.

Ambivalence and resolution.

I discovered just the other night a poem by Robert Frost. I know nothing about him, I’ve never read any of his work, but I was transfixed, and brought almost to tears:

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. 

Whose woods these are I think I know. 
His house is in the village though; 
he will not see me stopping here
to watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
to stop without a farmhouse near
between the woods and frozen lake
the darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
to ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
and miles to go before I sleep,
and miles to go before I sleep.

~

I would like nothing more than to dwell quietly in someone else’s woods, watching the hypnotic gentle fall of snow, wrapped in the warmth of tranquil darkness. To step out of my life sometimes. Because it gets demanding. Because people and things rely on me – on my competence, on my caring, on my capacity to hold it together. Because I had a panic attack at the Cathedral last night and I’m ashamed, and grateful, and determined to keep strong and see this through.

I can’t step out of my life sometimes, resting in peaceful hiatus until I’m ready to step back in. Because I have promises to keep. Not only to others, but also to myself. I promise that I will continue to stand straight and keep my dignity and integrity and strength in all the storms and stills of flashbacks and anxiety. I promise that the life I saved for myself – at huge cost – will be worth something, that the safety I have won from violence will stand for something. I promise that, even though I don’t always believe it, I am worth the life I have.

So I can’t watch snow gather in someone else’s wood. Because I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.

And miles to go before I sleep.

A surprising view of strength.

I had a conversation with a colleague the other day, about anxiety and why it’s crippling. She’s experienced anxiety before, of course – every human being has. But she’s experienced normal anxiety: money worries, or an argument, or the anxiety you get before a workplace appraisal or a driving test. She’s never experienced the gut-clenching, throat-twisting, suffocating terror of an anxiety attack. She’s never experienced the vicissitudes of an anxiety disorder: fine one minute, crippled the next, struck down by a trigger you can’t even begin to identify.

She asked me to describe an anxiety attack – she genuinely wanted to understand – and the best way I could describe it as that it’s like being punched in the stomach and in the throat simultaneously, by someone you didn’t even know was in the room. It’s painful and frightening and agony to watch, and to go through it is a different kind of agony. Understanding the neurology and the physiology of it – it’s ok, I’m not having a heart attack, I can breathe, there is enough air in the room, this is just a panic attack and it will pass and it won’t kill me – doesn’t help, any more than it helps to understand the geological reality of tectonic plates when the very earth is heaving and turmoiling under you.

Today I didn’t have an anxiety attack, but I watched a friend – someone for whom I would walk through fire without a second’s hesitation – have one. It was long, and agonising. And then I watched her strength as she persevered through a day that had become excruciating, and I admired her integrity and resilience.

And I realised just how gutsy we are, those of us who do live with anxiety, or depression, or PTSD, or the ghosts of pasts that harrow us. We get up each morning, knowing that the day might be easy, or it might be hard, and that there’s no telling which it will be. We get up knowing that we can’t predict what will trigger an attack, but we get up anyway. And we face our day and those fearful, beautiful things within it, and we remind ourselves to have hope, and we keep being people and at the end of everything, our souls will be intact because we have endured.

We’re damaged, and fragile, and gutsy, and strong, and we will survive, because we are survivors. And we deserve chocolate. Go us.

 

Survival mode and the vicissitudes of being out of it.

Anxiety is a strange beast. Sometimes it makes sense: yes, I’ve just seen a clenched fist. Of course my amygdala will arrange for a huge amount of adrenaline to be dumped into my system, just in case that fist is actually heading for my face, and I need to defend myself, or flee, or retreat into my own mind to get through another beating. That’s where I appreciate my limbic system – it’s kept me going. Cheers, brain.

Other times, though, it’s less convenient, less obvious. Why, in the middle of a lovely lunch with people I adore, should I be visited by churning, writhing anxiety so that I can barely breathe for the solid mass of it in my chest? Why should it attack out of nothing, clenching my throat in a choke-hold so tight as to be painful, constricting my voice and thinning my breathing? And why, a year and a half after the last beating I took, should the innocent movement of a hand cause me to cringe in a way I never did when I was living that constant sense of threat?

I know, intellectually, that it’s ok. That a soldier can go through a war, live through bombardments and battles and survive them without a second’s hesitation – it’s only when he arrives home that he snaps out of survival mode and the clatter of the neighbour’s bin lids sends him screaming into full fight-or-flight mode, body arching without his conscious permission to take shelter or to reach for the weapon he no longer carries. It’s only when he’s freed of survival mode that his mind is opened to begin to make room for what happened to him, to begin to carry such dark reality and to heal from it.

I’m not in survival mode anymore, and so – counter-intuitively, perhaps – I’m more frightened of a non-existent threat than I ever was of the real one. I hate it –  I hate that I cringe away from a friend because he’s bigger than me and talks with his hands, or because she comes up behind me unnoticed to give me a hug. But I also have to celebrate that: because I’m not in survival mode anymore. Because I am healing. Because I am making space for what happened, what was done to me, what I survived. I am learning to make room for that in my story. I am learning to heal, and I am learning to be strong.

And I’m learning to sit at the dinner table with anxiety screaming in my chest, and I’m learning to stand up straight and to laugh more, and to turn around and hug my friend right back because touch is no longer something to fear. I’ve drawn from the light and strength of my friends and I’m grateful for that and now I’m learning my own light and strength.

And I’m grateful for that too.

On being a chorister, and what I pay for that.

Pretty much the first thing I do in the morning is turn the radio on: ABC Classic FM’s breakfast programme. I then sit at my desk and write for half an hour before I commence the process of preparing myself for what my day will bring. It’s a nice way to begin: music and writing.

One of the things that I’ve been wrestling with – that I struggled desperately with in the sprint to the finish line that was Advent and Christmas, demanding and intense and exhausting – has been how difficult it is to sing. How painful. How debilitating it has been to find that the PTSD symptoms are so much more intrusive and disruptive when I sing: the thing that kept me alive has been the thing that’s opened the door to flashbacks and anxiety attacks and it seems that I coped better with domestic violence when I was living it than once I escaped. I honestly thought about simply cutting my losses, quitting the choir and letting the loss of indescribable richness be fair payment for the loss of indescribable pain.

Only, the other morning, I was listening to ABC Classic FM, and suddenly I was surrounded by the silvered strains of a choral Ave Maria. Renaissance, probably – my musical theory is not good enough to date it precisely, but the glory of the unaccompanied polyphony – intertwining melodies vibrant with radiant yearning – filled my mind and soul and I found myself brimming with the power of the music, like a seedling which can break through concrete in its longing for the brightness above.

Music like this, over the time I’ve been in the choir, has become my staple diet. Each week, each rehearsal and service, revolves around music like this: small human creations which, like a tarnished mirror, reflect the Divine and in doing so become divine themselves. Music which fills my soul with breathtaking heaven, and with breathtaking pain. And, listening to this musical prayer, exquisite in its agony, I found myself thinking: How can I possibly leave the choir? How can I yield to the burden of these symptoms, the weight of this diagnosis and its reality, if it means that in doing so, I cut this music out of my own soul? How could I possibly mutilate myself in such a way? I’d be better of stepping off the edge of the cliffs that mark the sheer rocky border between land and sea. The only difference is that the death as a result of that action would be physical. I think I’d rather that than the death of my soul that would result from the severing of such music from its very core.

Because I am a chorister. No matter how hard it is, how painful; no matter what memories rise to the surface with all the brutality of a thorn tearing through flesh or what emotions sever their way to the surface, I cannot not sing. Because I am a chorister. I could no more cut that music from my soul than I could cut my heart from my body, or my brain from my head. That’s what I am; so that’s what I do.

Which leaves me with one path: to persevere, to sing, regardless of the pain which has overwhelmed the joy, and to hope to God that it gets easier and that, once more, singing becomes a source of vitality and animating spirit in my life. Because, up until Christmas, it was an opening for pain, and fear, and shame, and grief. But surely – surely, she whispers fervently – what once gave me life will continue to do so, if only I can persevere.

All I can do is hope. And, in the meantime, show up to rehearsal and sing.