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.

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.

Singing, emotion, and an irritating irony.

Sundays are all about singing for me. They revolve around singing and the choir. Actually, to be fair, my entire week revolves around the choir. Generally, my first thought on a Friday or a Sunday morning (other than, “Really? It’s that time already?”) is “Ooh, choir today!”. I realise, of course, how nerdy that makes me. And how blessed.

The choir kept me alive. Quite literally. It kept me going, through the bleakest time in my life. It remained the only point of light in darkness; there was a long time when the choristers’ vestry was the only safe place for me in a very unsafe world. And, with a very few exceptions, the choir is the one thing I never compromised. On so many occasions, I chose to sing knowing what would happen to me. Knowing that I would pay for the choice. Everything else I compromised: friends, my writing, jobs, my own integrity. Not the choir. Some things are worth taking a beating for.

There is some irony in the fact that while I (almost) never compromised the choir, it is now the thing that is most compromised by my mental health. I think the most difficult thing about living with PTSD is that it hugely impacts on my capacity to contribute to the choir. Anxiety, panic attacks, flashbacks, dissociation – I’m so much more likely to experience all of those things when I’m singing – the thing that kept me alive in the first place. If I didn’t know that God’s not a bastard, I’d think that He was having a laugh.

It makes sense, of course. I took more punishment over the choir than over anything else; it’s linked in my inner mind, the part of my mind that’s not connected to rationality and logic (thanks, brain), with fear. Also, the Cathedral’s the place where I can be myself. I don’t have to be on my guard, pretending, being upbeat and friendly and engaged. The Cathedral’s the place where I am safe to be who I am, to be quiet when I need to be – even to sit in silent Presence and weep. And it’s when I let my guard down that the emotions come up.

Also, singing itself is emotional. Sometimes the beauty of the music means that I can barely breathe. And although I’m using my brain constantly, thinking analytically about the music I’m reading, concentrating on the quality of the sound I’m making and how it blends with the other voices, singing is also the only activity where my rational, logical, language-focused mind has to take a step back. Has to let my emotion, my fear, my memories, come to the fore.

And (bad language alert), I hate it. I absolutely fucking hate it. I wish I could just show up and sing. I wish I didn’t have to battle the anxiety writing behind my sternum, screaming at me that everything from a touch on the shoulder to my own bad note is a threat. I wish I didn’t have to put as much of my focus on preventing dissociation or a panic attack as I do on singing. I wish I could be confident that my past would stay in my past and that I could keep from being assaulted by memories when I’m trying to do something that I value. I wish that my mental health didn’t prevent me from repaying with my contribution a group of people who were light and strength to me when I had none for myself.

And I’ve no idea what to do with it all. It would be nice to have a quick-fix, some technique I could learn or pill I could take (beta-blockers, anyone?), some task I could complete with my usual competence. All I can think of is to keep persevering and just hope that with time, like everything else, it gets better.

It’s as good a plan as any.