PTSD—What It’s Like

Ever had stage fright? Levine

I don’t mean the good kind. Where you have some butterflies in your stomach and a bit of a metallic taste in your mouth. Maybe that’s slightly unpleasant but it can also help you focus a little better and in the end it seems to come out all right. The audience applauds, your boss loves the PowerPoint, you rock the guitar riff and even forget yourself in it.

I mean the bad kind, where you throw up.

Have you ever hyperventilated to where your fingers and toes curl up and lose circulation?

If you’ve never had this level of anxiety, take the flutter in your stomach, multiply it by a factor of at least 10, add a pulse around 160, shortness of breath, numbness in your hands and feet (even if you’re not hyperventilating, or aren’t aware that you are), and a feeling of “floodedness,” where the cortisol seems to rise out of your gut, up through your chest, and into your throat and head until you feel like you’re going to pop out of your skin like an overcooked hotdog. Jump out of that skin at every loud, or even medium, noise. Have nightmares every night, if you can sleep at all.

Put your head down between your knees and breathe. Maybe for several hours.

Be grateful you work from home. Hide all this. Become even more stressed out by the effort of hiding it. And for God’s sake, don’t write a blog post about it.

What causes these episodes? That’s the thing. Nothing.

Well, not nothing. Stuff in the past.

“In circumstances where others sense more than a mild threat or even a challenge to be faced, the traumatized person experiences threat, dread and mental/physical listlessness, a kind of paralysis of body and will.”  —Gabor Mate, MD

This isn’t always like me. There have been plenty of times when I had a fight response to challenge. Sometimes, I’ve thrived under stress—graduating double summa cum laude while working 32 hours per week, creating a career out of thin air after my divorce—but other times I’ve collapsed under what’s looked like a lesser load.

For a long time I thought it was over. Medication I was taking for another condition had so well controlled the PTSD symptoms, I practically forgot I had it. Then along came #boulderfire. And several other stressors that simultaneously attacked my baseline sense of my core survival capabilities—home, job, relationship. Whether you want to look at psychoanalytically in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs or new-age-ically in terms of the root chakra (I have lived near Boulder for 29 years), I felt pretty undermined. Even if my house didn’t burn.

When I was little, my alcoholic father, a WWII vet and likely PTSD sufferer himself, would burn through the house, tossing children headfirst into walls.* Yeah, thank you for bringing that up, wildfire.

I’ve been calming down a little, but I’m pretty sure it’s only because I haven’t had as much deadline pressure in the last month or so. My experience is that in the absence of external stress, the symptoms do subside with time. But it can be a vicious cycle: you take better care of yourself and as a result you feel better, so you take on more responsibility—most of us want to be productive—and then you have less time to take care of yourself, and wham, there you are again…

I planned this blog post wanting to talk about the difference between post-traumatic stress, which anyone can have after anything bad, and post-traumatic stress disorder. But apparently there may be more hope for all of us than I thought. There’s some new thinking, as well as some more insight coming out of Peter Levine’s ongoing work, suggesting that PTSD may be more injury than disorder, and more amenable to healing than previously believed. It’s still controversial, but as I said, there’s hope.

In the meantime, this seems to be what I’m in the middle of, so I thought I’d stick my neck out and tell you what it’s like.

 

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*(Re my father’s rage: this type of potential response to combat trauma is discussed with insight here.)

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Bookshelves as GPS

I was recently on some website reading a post analyzing the future of paper vs e-publishing (probably in relation to the iPad release), and I saw a comment from another reader who implied that the only reason anyone would keep real books around anymore was to show off how smart they were.

I found this amusing because of the reverse echo of Paul Sogge’s witty post on how e-readers would make it hard for people to do this very thing, especially if they wanted to document their social media guru-ship by filling their office shelves with books about Twitter. (I responded to him via Twitter that I could at least read dumb books in public on a Kindle without anyone knowing. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could get a Kindle that would flash smart-sounding titles, like Ulysses, across the back, while you were actually reading Twilight?)

Hardback1 Well, okay. I do sort of think I’m smart. It’s not totally my fault. I was told this from an early age, partly because I was so good at reading. But I’ve also had occasion to doubt myself over the years, and it does look like I’m going downhill. Even if I was smart at some point, I never did get rich, so I don’t have a house with which to show off how brilliant I might be, if I still were.

That is, my library isn’t half as impressive as Neil Gaiman’s.

If exhibitionism were my sole motivation for owning books, I could brag online, via Shelfari, a site that enables users to build virtual bookshelves. So I wouldn’t need to keep actual books around, taking up all my wall space and making it so hard for me to show off my great taste in art, not to mention my exquisite sensibilities regarding vinyl albums.

However, once in a while I have a party, and on those occasions, I do enjoy the spirited conversations that spring up around my books. I’m not sure this is showing off so much as facilitating. In any case, these discussions definitely wouldn’t happen if all I had were lousy little e-reader to pass around like an appetizer.

Years ago, a friend, the Canadian writer and performance artist Susan Scott, told me, “I’d get lost without my bookshelves. When I forgetCherryGeo who I am, I go and stand in front of them.” At that time, she and I were both reading and sharing a lot of spiritual geographies. Memoirs that were tied up with landscape—Teresa Jordan, Gretel Erhlich, Linda Hasselstrom, Kathleen Norris, Wallace Stegner, Rick Bass, Annie Dillard, James Galvin, Sharman Apt Russell, Ivan Doig, Sharon Butala, Terry Tempest Williams, Donald Hall.

Maybe that sounds alien to some people—losing sight of who you are in the heap of stuff you’ve read. But yesterday the New Yorker offered to psychoanalyze photos CherryDictatorsof people’s bookshelves, and I had to post a comment about that. Which shelf should I send a picture of? The one containing books about Russian history?  Arthurian arcana? General mythology? Native American history and religion? Comparative religion and early Christianity? Psychology and brain science? Physics? Children’s literature? Serial killers? Science fiction? Writing advice? American literature? International literature, organized by country? The relationship books? The ones on grief? Poetry?

Long ago, I learned not to go back to graduate school every time I got interested in something new. Though I have often been tempted.

Of course I get lost. Of course I need to stand in front of my shelves to remember who I am. It’s not about how many books are on each shelf, but about the journey each book represents. The period in my life when I was exploring that topic, all the way back to when I was eight and reading everything I could find on woolly mammoths. And Nancy Drew.

Then there are the bookshelves themselves. The ones built in to my study walls—thrown up in a hurry by my brother after a long remodel project when he really needed to be elsewhere. Montana, in fact. These shelves didn’t turn out the way I imagined them, but when I look at them, I remember how hard the two of us worked to make my new house livable after my wrenching divorce, how much I needed my brother’s support, how torn he was because he loved my husband at least as much as he loved me, how much he helped me despite his anger at me, and how tired we both were as we came to the end.

 StudyCorner4   StudyCorner1

And then came the beautiful cherry shelves he installed above the piano in the living room a few years later; the healing between us is evident, at least to me.

LRbooks

There’s the battered old lawyer’s bookcase, which used to be in my grandfather’s study. (I never met that grandfather.) When my alcoholic father died, I inherited the shelves, their glass shClassics1attered years before, a tennis racket, an X-acto Knife, and several rolls of duct tape. Seriously. That’s it. The shelves’ scars, a legacy from my dad, as well as from his father and from his father’s father, speak as loudly as do the contents of the shelves—a  dusty set of Harvard Classics from 1926, the year my father was born.

A rickety oak shelf holds all the seminal books from my childhood, the ones I shared with my son, as well as the ones he refused to hear, which I hold in trust for potential grandchildren.

Finally, there is the absent bookcase, the one my first husband built for me. It was perfectly sized for a wall in the study I loved, in the house I loved, in the town I loved, in the valley I loved, in the life I loved.

It exactly held a certain subset of my scholarly books that fit together in such a way as to represent a certain section of my mind. Perhaps a piece that’s never been whole since that part of my life ended. That shelf now holds the books of my ex-husband’s new wife.

nightstand4So, to the guy who thinks book owners are a bunch of show-offs, I don’t agree that’s fair, or precise. We’re just pretty un-Zen. We find it reassuring to stand in front of our shelves, from time to time, and think, oh, yeah, I remember how it felt to be 20 and studying the Soviet Union, thinking I was going to straighten out communications between our countries. And I remember when I was writing about the Anasazi and thought I would explain what happened to them better than anyone else could. And this is what it felt like when I decided that King Arthur and Jesus Christ were not discoverable as individuals.

Rather than showing anything off, I remind myself again and again of how much I’ve tried to learn, how far short I’ve always fallen, and how much there still is to know.

I’d be lost without my shelves.