Tried to describe PTSD to a friend, recently. What it’s been like for me, and why my recent encounters with EMDR are so miraculous, given the world I’ve been inhabiting.
To illustrate, I spoke of the creations of Wes Craven’s classic schlock horror, Nightmare on Elm Street. Y’know, how those kids in the movie tried really, really hard to stay awake and out of that nightmare zone.
But inevitably they had to fall asleep. Though, they never saw sleep coming. Didn’t know they were in the dream until, well, they were in it. The slippery divide between those worlds was translucently thin, sliding over the boundaries without realising it.
And Freddie was always waiting for them. Scaring the crap out of them. In some cases, scaring them to death.
Throughout most of that movie, they didn’t feel like they were in control at all.
This is the insidiousness of PTSD. And I believe, it’s partly why it’s so traumatic.
It’s not just the memories being on repeat; it’s that you seemingly can’t control when they appear or how it impacts you. Triggers can be both known and unknown. The unknown ones are the real kickers.
And the trauma is caused by having life as you know it continuously swamped by this broken record, stuck on repeat at random intervals.
The memory itself, was terrifying in the first place. Of course. But repeated over and over… it can stop your heart. Makes dying feel like a much simpler solution. A rest. A break.
But then, it’s not just the flashbacks, though that’s a hefty chunk of the issue. When PTSD arrives, fear and anxiety are the bitter after-taste in your mouth you can’t quite identify. Always there, flaring up when it’s least welcome.
The trickiest thing to understand from the outside looking in… someone who looks perfectly ‘normal’, can, at a moment’s notice become a complete wreck. Can suddenly act like a different person. And mostly, they can’t possibly explain what’s happening to them.
I lost a friend that way, once. She wasn’t exactly a very good friend. But one of the few I did have here in Melbourne at the time.
We were walking to a cinema, and were suddenly walking in very crowded area. There was some sort of festival on, and it became a flesh press… to move from point A to point B, it was necessary to slowly force your way through the crowd physically.
Which completely freaked me out. From my friend’s perspective, I totally over-reacted to what was going on. I had what I can now recognise as classic panic attack symptoms.
But this was only months after I was assaulted, and I had no idea what was happening to me.
My stress levels didn’t evaporate, and when we finally got into the movie, once again I over-reacted to what was going on. Which was (one of my pet hates) people talking in the cinema. It was just previews, which I usually tolerate. But this time I was really angry and aggressive towards the young dorky boys in front of me. Completely out of character for me.
Apparently the combination of these two events was enough for my friend to decide she couldn’t cope with hanging out with me any longer. I was too ‘unpredictable’ for her.
No one likes rejection, and I tried to explain to her what happened (as best I could) but she wasn’t buying it. Which, actually, was kinda fine with me, given she was one of those people who would complain about her other friends to the person she was hanging out with.
But it’s tough… like those kids in Nightmare on Elm Street, it’s impossible to put a stop to PTSD while you’re enclosed in its iron grip. And really hard to properly communicate what’s going on to other people. Especially non-empathetic people.
And it’s a process, waking up to what’s happening to you… to know your triggers (if you ever can know them all), and then… to finally feel like you’ve got a shot at beating it.
PTSD is after all, a kind of warped safety mechanism of the mind, trying to protect the person who’s been traumatised. The twist is, it actually traps them inside a fragile ‘safe space’. Makes them feel like the ongoing trauma is being done to them by someone or something else. Mostly, because the trauma was inflicted by someone else/an external experience.
But its not. PTSD is a defective thought process. It’s broken. It’s stuck on repeat, and in fact, its your own mind torturing you. A tough one to accept, because the flashbacks are so all-encompassing and terrible. It doesn’t ever feel like its something your own mind is creating.
However, it is possible to recover from. That’s what I’m discovering.
For my next trick, I need to let go of the vestiges of this thing. Apparently, I can start getting used to living in a world that doesn’t suddenly shift into a nightmare any more.
I can’t tell you how amazing the idea of that seems to me right now. And I’m slowly trying to trust that it might actually be the truth…
P.S. Note: This is not what I’m experiencing right now. I’m not struggling with PTSD once again. I just felt moved to write this explanation because I realised… there’s a lot of people who really don’t get what’s going on for someone in the grip of this very tricky mind game…