This morning I woke up from a nightmare, screaming. I didn’t intend to share the particulars anyplace public, but I’ve changed my mind for two reasons. The first is, though I don’t have this kind of nightmare often, when I do it’s terribly difficult to get past. Every detail is etched in my mind, sometimes for months. What makes it better is talking about it. Journaling doesn’t help. If I write it out in a private place, it remains part of me. I have to get it out into the open. Which means sharing with others.
The second reason is that when I mentioned this nightmare on my social media, I realised I have thoughts about the way Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is perceived, both in mental health fields and in the public at large. And I wanted to share those, too.
The dream started in an innocent enough fashion. I was at a shopping mall. It’s the same mall I always go to in my dreams. I know the layout, recognised the stores. I don’t know about other people, but there are certain places to which I return regularly in my dream life: The Mall, The City, The Office Building, The House That Is Not My House. It was the present day–I had my same cell phone–but all the real people from my life who appeared where about thirty-five years younger. I was either in my early twenties or still in my teens.
Anyway. There was some stuff about a pawn shop and talking with another woman about playing the flute. Then she disappeared, and I was hanging out with a blonde girl who worked in one of the shops. It was late and the mall was closing. We were flirting. I wasn’t sure whether I was male or female in this dream. This also happens often. Usually I don’t notice it, but this time I was aware of it. At one point, I took a step back and thought, “Whoa, I’m making out with a girl. Am I a boy? Huh, I don’t know. Maybe I’m a Lesbian. Okay.”
All this was fine. Then I got a phone call from my brother. He told me my mother had decided to come out as a Trans man named Andrew. In a bizarre turnabout, this was perfectly acceptable to the rest of my family, but I had an intense problem with it. I started having difficulty breathing.
Long tangent about getting out of the mall and trying to find the correct parking lot where someone was supposed to pick me up to give me a ride home. Then, all at once, I am home, in the house I grew up in, in the dining room. It’s getting harder and harder to breathe. My brother, my dad, and my mom are all there. My mom has already begun to transition; I know this, but the only thing I see is that zis hair is done up in the weird perm/bouffant style my mom always got for special occasions like Easter Sunday. They’re all eating chili, and I realise it must be Christmas Eve, and that’s why my brother is home from college; my mom always made a big pot of chili on Christmas Eve, because it heats up easily when family arrives late at night. I can’t breathe.
I think I must have felt some resentment about my mom coming out as a Trans man and everyone just sitting there eating chili like nothing has happened. I go up to zer and I say, “I’m going to validate you in this because it’s the right thing to do. But I don’t want to because you all have invalidated my experience my entire life.”
My dad interrupts me: “Oh, you mean the way we’ve supported you and kept giving you money so you could continue to be irresponsible?”
I say, “You just did it again! That’s what I’m talking about!” and everyone starts laughing and laughing at me, and I am screaming because they don’t hear me, and then I wake up.
As I describe the bare events of the dream, it sounds stupid to me–nothing to get upset about. But I’m having trouble breathing right now, and I feel as if I might start screaming again. I can’t articulate the horror and helplessness I felt. Overwhelming.
When I woke up (after I stopped screaming), literally my first thought was, “Huh. A trauma nightmare. Well, that one’s for all the people who don’t believe in my PTSD diagnosis.”
I seem to remember Post Traumatic Stress Disorder first coming into the public consciousness in those terms after the Vietnam War. It’s been around longer. Way longer. The shell shock of WWI, the ever-popular “brain fever” of Victorian times…I saw an article recently that posited Homeric heroes suffered a form of it. Now it shows up in popular culture, in movies, books, and TV shows. People know about it. They think they understand it. They don’t.
I remember the day about ten years ago when my then-therapist said, “Oh, you have PTSD. No doubt about it.” I had/have a whole host of the classic symptoms: Intrusive memories, Emotional Triggers, Nightmares, Easily Startled, Hyper-Vigilance, Depression, Anxiety. Inability to recall and articulate details. Times when I relive the trauma. No, I don’t hallucinate in visual terms. No blood gushing out of faucets or anything so explicit. But times when I am back there in my gut, in my head: hopeless, powerless. When I heard the words, I felt a vast sense of relief. It explained so much. It helped so much to hear, for once in my life, “No, this is not a ‘normal’ experience of life. But it is a ‘normal’ reaction to what you’ve lived through.”
When I mentioned the diagnosis to my then-psychiatrist, however, he dismissed it. “Oh, no; you can’t have PTSD.” Why, when I had all the symptoms? “Because you don’t fit the profile.” See, in the popular view, you can only get PTSD from a single traumatic event, like a rape, or a car accident, or seeing your buddy blown to bits. The Mayo Clinic website defines it: “Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it” and “You can develop post-traumatic stress disorder when you go through, see or learn about an event involving actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violation. ” (Bold and Italics mine.)
Now, I’ve actually been through several of those in my life, including being raped at knifepoint with a towel over my head. But none of those incidents caused my PTSD. I guess I understood those were one-time, isolated events or something; I’ve never really considered it. My PTSD stems from a daily experience of being put down, disbelieved, invalidated, and having my needs dismissed or shunted aside by the people who should have made my needs a priority: My parents. I believed in my bones, from an age so early that I have no memory of believing otherwise, that if I set a foot out of line or if I violated any of the unspoken rules, they would literally expose me on the hillside for the nearest wolf pack to dispense of. My life consisted of constantly walking on eggshells. I never knew when the blow would fall, and I expected it every moment. Not a literal blow. My dad took great pride in the fact that, after one time when he slapped my oldest sister and her cheek stayed red for a week, he never hit any of us. But the fulfillment of the threat that hung over me every day. I didn’t know what it looked like. That made it worse. It got worse, too, when I was bullied in school and the people on whom I should have been able to rely to protect me couldn’t be bothered.
Well, anyway. I expect this all sounds like whining and blame-mongering. Whatever. You can believe me or not, judge me or not just as you like. My point is, for my first twenty-five years (at least) I never felt safe. I never expected to feel safe. And that kind of thing sticks with you.
How much more does it stick with a child who has grown up in an actual war zone? In an impoverished neighbourhood where violence is the norm? How much does it stick with a soldier who has spent months in the trenches, on a tour of duty, never knowing whether or when a bullet would find him in the next second? I think PTSD first came into the public consciousness after Vietnam for a reason. It was (I have read) the first war of its kind, a war where the lines weren’t clear, the mission was obscure, where trust was impossible. Having to cope with that kind of constant traumatic stress changes a person. It changes the way you see the world.
An acquaintance of mine who works in the mental health field tells me this kind of PTSD is just beginning to be recognised. She gives it a different acronym–CPTSD, CTSD, something like that, where the “C” stands for “constant” (I have recently learned the “C” actually stands for “complex”). The way she talked about it sounded dismissive to me, as if it’s not as bad, not as valid. As if it doesn’t impact lives the same way. And yeah, this could be my projection; I’m aware of that. I’m hyper-vigilant about people invalidating my experience, after all.
I wish the kind of PTSD I have would make it into the public consciousness. Into books and movies. But I doubt it will. Constant terror isn’t as easily romanticized as a single explosion. Living it day after day becomes drudgery. It’s just your life, and you have to keep breathing. It doesn’t have the rise and fall that makes a decent plot. And there’s little chance of a glorious resolution.
But you know, it explains a lot about the world, seeing it in terms of PTSD. More and more people are living with the wearing stress of poverty, the threat of losing everything to one catastrophic illness, the chance of falling victim to gun violence, the fear (real or not) of terrorism. Is it any wonder that some grasp at safety any way they can?
Life is a terrifying, catastrophic event for all too many. Think on that.