My free-spirited daughter is finally in her first apartment after several tricky starts to college life during the pandemic. The class of 2020 lost a lot of their rites of passage. Her first semester of university was done online from her bedroom in our house and her second semester was taken virtually from a single-occupancy dorm room sequestered from the city that drew her to this school. She moved into an apartment with two other girls for her second year, all prospects for a more normal experience looking good in the waning numbers of covid cases. I drove home through Iowa, Nebraska, and eastern Colorado celebrating her and her new life while I listened to the master craft of Taylor Swift, that she introduced me to. And saw a large figure enter an unlocked kitchen door while they slept. I don’t see the violent act because I close my eyes tight when the vision gets to that part, but when I open them my mind sees the aftermath.
Recurrent medical T/traumas over the past 20 years manifest into a special skill - that of seeing and feeling terrible events that will probably never happen.
This terrible burden of mis-seeing the future is a direct result of living through T/traumas. My scarred nervous system knows what terror and grief are experienced like in my full body and mind. My ability to understand the worst things that can happen finely attuned.
I shake my head vigorously to dispel the images. I pray they never happen. I love them hard knowing we’re all just a sliver away from total devastation. I don’t expect these things to happen, I just see them. In his book, The Body Keeps Score, Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk offers a possible explanation for this. That perhaps I have “….not integrated [my] experience into the ongoing stream of [my] life.” He says, “They continued to be “there” and did not know how to be “here” - fully alive in the present” (p. 47). That somehow the remnants of my ongoing medical T/trauma kept my emotional brain stuck in the sensation of anaphylaxis, waking from a coma, laying on the floor while my eight-year-old daughter called 911 and then my parents, and so on.
My refined skills as a mis-fortune teller were my body’s nervous system responding to recurrent traumas, and the knowledge that there are unavoidably more on the horizon.
I sat within the white overly soft cushions of my therapist's couch. She sat across from me in a high backed chair with the wings around her upper body, like a throne. She had dark long hair and inquisitive, intense eyes that were not comforting but not upsetting. I was no stranger to therapy. In my early teens I had experiences sitting across from a bald man with no affect and zero compassion, another man with a sparse ginger beard and wire rimmed reading glasses that seemed clamped to the end of his nose as he looked over the tops of them to question me about my “behavior.” None of my therapy was helpful in adolescence. Talking to psychologists was demeaning, shaming, and punitive. But after my experience in the coma and recurrent hospitalizations with terrible pneumonias that left me barely able to stand, I felt pulled to talk it out. To bare my soul to someone other than family and friends who could not relate to the insides of my head and heart most of the time.
The first time I saw mis-fortune with raw vivid detail, my soon-to-be husband and I were living in a small condominium that we bought from my sweet grandma as she transitioned into assisted living. I was twenty four years old, three years after the coma. The layout was a main living space with a bedroom on either side. The condo was on the first floor with a unit above where another young couple lived who became our good friends. We adopted two rescue dogs. Delilah was a gorgeous shepherd and heeler mix with deep black fur and white freckles along her paws. Samson was a chow and border collie mix. He was so black his fur seemed almost blue and was fluffy with a curl in his tail. He had sweetest face that was pure love. They were both about sixty pounds and only a year old each. While we were at work or while I was in classes in grad school, we put them in huge plastic walled crates next to the sliding glass door that opened to our small patio. We did this to keep them from trouble and trouble from them. I loved these dogs, and every dog we’ve ever had, intensely. Every time I left home and pulled the blue door shut behind me, locked, I saw them. Trapped in their crates. Suffering as the condo burned in a fire. I heard their yips. I felt it. Some days I left the door unlocked. My brain, struggling to be rational, thought that an unlocked door was worth the risk so that the fire crews could save them from a fire that never happened.
As I sat across the woman with dark hair, a large coffee table between us, I shared these visions. I cried at the pain of just seeing these awful events knowing they were not reality. I felt it throughout my entire body - the raw terror of tragedy.
“I can tell you that you have PTSD”.
I never really looked therapists in their eyes. I learned from my adolescence to guard a small bit of dignity by not fully acknowledging them and their diagnoses. I played with my fingers, pinching my pointer and thumb together until the color in them disappeared. I pulled on the hem of my shirt laying on my crossed legs.
“No, I don’t think so.”.
“Yes, Kelly,” her voice suddenly gentle,”You have experienced trauma. I think the trauma from your medical experiences have manifested in your body as post-traumatic stress disorder.”
“No, I don’t think so,” I said again, “I mean, that seems like a diagnosis for war veterans and rape victims. Real victims. I’ve just been sick.”
For the first time in all of my mental health treatment, this woman looked at me with a blast of empathy. She explained that the visions were actually my mind experiencing the aftershocks of big T trauma like nearly dying in an ICU bed and subsequent little t trauma like 105 degree fevers and repeated rushes to emergency rooms. The visions were similar to what war veterans experience when they hear fireworks after coming home from battle. A triggered visceral experience played out in a body that knows what T/traumatic events feel like are experienced like. A body that knows repetitive trauma and comes to expect it.
Since then, I have treated therapy like a routine, like I treat brushing my teeth. Necessary for the present day me and the future me and our survival.
I have primary tools. I go outside. I breathe in outside air. I hear birds (and watch them). I stand up paddle board. The laps of the water on the tip of my board and the ability to be surrounded by a lake, mountains, the bugling of elk, it soothes me in ways none of my other practices can do. The ability to see into the water from a standing position is akin to flying. I count paddle strokes.
The sounds, the smells, the sensations of balance and liquid on all sides, floating, the infinite scales of vision from the small bees taking a rest on my board after risking it all for a drink from the lake to the mountains on the horizon. This is my medicine for my mental state. This is how I become “here” and not “there.” Snapping my attention to the sensory channels of real, to rest and digest. Massaging my emotional brain with calm, grace, and ease to knead out shame, pain, and fear.
There are only two downsides to living in my hometown outside of Denver - all of the people moving here and the winter when the lakes are frozen over. I have come to require water. But in the winter I hike with snowshoes or skis strapped to my boots, I walk with the dogs, I sit on the porch baking in the winter sun.
I have other tools. I do yoga and meditate. It sounds woo-woo and there’s no doubt you can wade into bliss bunny territory quickly, especially online. I’m not that kind of person. I get in, I get it done, and I shake off the visions far better as a result. Van der Kolk calls this phenomenon befriending our body (2014). I became a yoga teacher. I do teach sometimes, but I completed the 200 hour training so I understood more of myself and how yoga made me better. I got certified as a master Reiki practitioner. Reiki is energy work that provides solace similar to meditation. I don’t treat others, only myself. I lay my hands on my heart and my belly and feel warm comfort through my hands.
I also write. Prolifically. Every morning. I sketch what I observe in nature and paint with watercolors. Only for me. I have countless notebooks that no one will ever read until l die and they have to clean out the closet in my office.
PTSD opened a nook for anxiety in my mis-fortune telling body. My visions come like tsunamis in my mind. I see car accidents, I hear the call from the police who have arrived on scene to a death, I see my loved ones and hear their pain, I see fires and plane crashes. And I have tools to work with the aftershocks reverberating throughout my nervous system. Again, and again, and again.
#CFawarenessmonth #CFirl #chronichealing #PTSD