It’s Story Time!
Story Time is when I look through my Journals and find creative writing pieces describing what it’s like to have PTSD and share them with you.
This Story has to do with how PTSD changes perceptions of reality.
March 21, 2017
Today I noticed the siding. The siding of the apartment outside my window. It’s light blue. The sun makes triangular shadows appear on it. I’ve been here for 5 years and never “saw” it before. I never “saw” any part of this place, actually.
But today I “saw” the light blue house siding sitting innocently there outside the window.
What does it mean? To see?
At that moment, I stopped everything and I looked around. I slowed down.
The stress of PTSD is like a whirlwind that rises up out of my body and blinds my eyes. Deafens my ears. Makes the world empty of substance. Even if I appear calm on the outside, inside my body – in my viscera, muscles and nerves – panic and terror fill me. Terror is embedded in my body and brain, eyes and ears. The reality of all the things around me disappears and in its place there is — stress. Extreme stress.
There is a threshold of threat that when exceeded, obliterates the world.
It really does.
It’s unnatural for my organism to have endured and survived those things. And I simply can’t settle it all out; I can’t settle back into the world. There is a white-out of reality, a panicked paintbrush applied to everything that exists. It feels like chaos and broken mirrors and pieces of glass everywhere. It looks like flat cardboard. All is flat. Nothing is full, nothing is solid, whole, substantial. It’s a pretend world. The real world is gone.
Except today. The siding appeared. And disappeared again.
It was like something beckoning to me. The end of a rope that shimmered off into the mist.
The rope whispered, “Follow me.”
I stopped and became still.
“Follow me,” it whispered again.
All the stress melted and slid off and huddled in corners for a moment… I could see again.
“I can take you to a place that is sensible, coherent. A place you know, are familiar with. Do you remember? Do you remember waking up and the world made sense? The sounds you heard made sense? The pieces around you linked together to form a coherent image, not a bunch of puzzle pieces flung everywhere? The puzzle was all put together correctly.
“And your foot could reach out of bed and actually touch the ground? The ground, the real ground. Not the ground you have now that’s formed out of a million stories spun out from your head, the one on the ceiling, the one that belongs to the upside down topsy-turvy world?
“What about your stomach? No butterflies. No lurching. No fright of all that is, all that is around you. No whited out eyes, no eternal fishing for footing, no incomprehensibility of all that is, and was, and ever will be. Rather, a floorboard. Soft, yielding, exactly as expected.
“Do you remember when the air smelled as if you knew it like a friend? And the air came from places you understood. Places of coolness, wetness, of tall weeds where the crickets lived? And your hand was connected to your arm, and arm to your body, and all body parts were in order and accounted for?
“There was a time like that. A time when walking one foot after the other would predictably lead down the road and end at the Dairy Queen or your elementary school? Sure there was a lot of chaos and rage and insanity then, but the entire world had not been shattered yet. The sidings — all the sidings everywhere — had not all been swept up in eternal whirlwinds of stress.”
“Yes. I remember,” I say.
“I could still ‘see’ then.
“A best friend.
“A friend; not an abuser. No, not then.
“Just walking home from school.
“No struggling to live for days and days on end. Gravely injured and ill for so, so long.
“Just the sun and asphalt. And my best friend. And in my hand, the flowers we picked from the ditch at the side of the road.”
And then, the rope slipped from my hands. All of the places it showed me disappeared and, I could no longer see.
In this MyStory piece we see:
- differences/changes in perception
- seeing things as less alive and more dead than before
- unable to feel self as existing within a 3-D, spatial reality
- feeling apart from reality – not feeling within reality
- not feeling objects in the environment as if they are solid and have weight and presence but feeling them to be images
- feeling numbed out in relation to external stimuli of the present but feeling hyped up in relation to stimuli related to the past
- not much filtration or prioritization of input, everything is overwhelming and has impact, lack of focus
- things are very sped up, in order to perceive there is a need to slow down
- not feeling connected to anything familiar due to memory impairment
- living in a “snapshot” of the present that has no history
- lacking a continuity of experience that builds on past experiences
- having no natural past, having only the feelings related to trauma that dominate the present
- not having the ability to access any part of a personal past that would bring a sense of comfort and familiarity
- having few memories and therefore not being able to build a sense of a relationship with a place – an apartment or town – but feeling brand new to that place indefinitely
- experiencing a loss of self, identity, personhood
- experiencing a loss of place, home, belonging
- heightened and unrealistic sense of danger blocking many other kinds of perceptions of the environment
- a sense that the natural laws of the universe no longer apply to the world
- a sense that nothing is predictable or can be relied upon
- a different relationship with the world
This My PTSD Story is about living in a new world after trauma. All the ways the destruction of trauma impacts the body and mind form an entirely different way of being in the world. There are also many losses, losses that are very subtle. There are losses of self, home, place, body, family, loved ones. Losses of skills and ways of being – of going slower, of having a memory and a continuity of experience, being able to focus, and of perceptions of things. There is a loss of being able to make sense of the world.
An important thing to note is the idea of a “best friend” at the end – which points to an attachment trauma repair. I didn’t mention this, but my work in therapy around opening to, connecting with and having safe friends and using this to start repairing the attachment wounds from childhood trauma is actually what opened up the perception of the non-trauma-based reality – the siding – in the first place.
A lot of the fear in the perception of reality comes from adulthood trauma, but the repair is about remembering about what it is like to have a best friend. What it was like to have someone with whom I had an experience in my body of being safe around and experiencing a secure attachment with. My best friend when I was little had a great relationship with her Mom and I always felt in awe of this secure attachment. It was wonderful to hang out with her and it seemed like her world made more sense in some ways than mine did. So in therapy I’ve been working on figuring out how to open my system up to friendships that just have that sense of safety and of making sense out of the world. That is what led to this brief opening of “seeing.”
The whirlwind began in childhood and was made larger and larger due to adulthood trauma. I am hoping that some point I can find a way to feel safety in a relationship with another person to the point that it repairs some of the attachment damage, and that this repair can help the body settle the PTSD out and re-imagine the entire world into something new.
Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer in Asheville, North Carolina currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
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