What It Takes: a personal essay on PTSD

AlisonTyne @ Etsy

What It Takes

Be as a bird perched on a frail branch

that she feels bending beneath her, still

she sings away, all the same, knowing she

has wings.

-Victor Hugo

I used to think that my story was a tragedy. That’s bullshit. My story is about love and our centers and what it takes to find that love. What it takes. I certainly didn’t feel that way a year ago—or even ten years ago. I lived through child physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and I was left to my own devices from the age of five on. I was also born with Bipolar Disorder and ADHD. Before the Complex PTSD set in—around my early twenties—I was a numb, fractured, unattached, empty girl, destroying myself as often as I could. Let me start from there.

I was in another city, wasted, when my biological father fell on the barroom floor and died. He drank himself to death. I remember the phone call from my mother at two in the morning. I felt nothing, as was often the case in those days. I pretended to hurt. Even though he left us when we were young so he could have his drinking life, my earliest memories of him are the safest ones from my childhood. He wasn’t like my abusive stepdad. My real dad loved me as best as he could. He was shy and slow, driving us around the old farmhouse in a wagon behind his tractor. There were two wild apple trees in the yard and in the spring the slightest breeze created a snowfall of the soft, pink petals. That was my purest time. That was a time I vowed I’d return to as a woman (though I never thought I could).

My mother drove the three hours to pick my sister and I up that night. It was on that ride back home that I began to feel it—something cracking, something opening–deep, deep in my body. The next morning when we viewed his body in the basement of the funeral home, I remember one minute I was staring at his waxen, long eyelashes that used to sweep across those big, terrified eyes. I just remember those lashes, and the next thing I knew I was launched into a full-blown panic attack. That was the beginning of PTSD’s temperature starting to rise. I moved home and lived with my mother until I was well enough. I went to college to pursue writing. I made the Dean’s List. I had a baby girl named Emma Jane. I was on top of my game for several years, dedicated to psychotherapy and a guinea pig to different anti-depressants, trying to find the right one. My moods were out of whack (still not diagnosed with anything but depression and anxiety) and I was having flashbacks, but nothing that I felt was dangerous enough to mention. I wanted to be well. I had to be well. I was strong, wasn’t I? I was a fighter, wasn’t I? I fought against my abuser and my mother because of her abandonment. I was invincible. Then why this creeping sensation? Why these shadows? I think you know, or your body knows, when something is coming. Busy your life all you want, but when issues go unattended, they’ll come back.

It was in my late twenties, after being properly diagnosed as Bipolar and finally, finally medicated that my life collapsed. I lost my job, I was losing friends, my fiancé and I lost our house (and soon I’d lose him, too). Inside it started as this static that disrupted my thinking. I had fevers. I wasn’t sleeping. I was having body memories and disturbing thoughts and they grew and spread. I’d catch myself, laying in bed at night, crying, and suddenly there were voices—voices in my head. They didn’t talk to me or demand me to do anything, but rather it was like I was listening in on a conversation of a young boy and an old woman, and they gave me peace. Of course it freaked me out in the morning. It added to the fever I ran around in. I was physically sick as well and the doctors had no answers. I was hypervigilent. I saw death around every corner. My daughter was the age I had been when I was molested, and I couldn’t deal with her. She scared me, honestly. My control was slipping, and with that loss I feared suicide. I wasn’t strong enough to stop myself if I did it. I hid all this from everyone, until I found myself running around the empty house holding my head and crying and breathing hard, whispering to my dead grandmother to save me. My mind was out of my control. I was terrified. When I shut my eyes I was seeing things—black figures and red eyes. I threw my things together and ran for the car, and drove myself to the mental hospital. I was like a five year-old in a woman’s heels, banging on the heavy security door. “Help me help me help me.”

It took months and several more trips into “the bin” before I was diagnosed with Complex, Chronic PTSD, Dissociative Disorder, and Psychosis. I wasn’t put on new meds at first—only pumped with shots of Abilify (my Bipolar medication). In the hospital I died. The girl I was was dead. I couldn’t save her—I thought I had to, and I was too weak. I had flashbacks of blindfolds on my eyes, blood on my face, and sexual body memories. I lost all control and identity. My sisters came to see me on Visitor’s Day and they bawled right along with me as I told them I was gone; a caged animal, half-beating. I knew in my very bones that I wasn’t going to make it, and that I had lost. I had lost what was mine because my stepfather chose to take it from me. I knew I’d never get her back, and I was right—only I didn’t know that what I would gain would be so much more.

As time went on, I got worse. I began to have sporadic, psychotic break-throughs. All the world dissolves around you and no one can save you—it’s a delusional trip. Voices I heard appeared in strings coming from the phone receivers. The only thing that calmed me was having someone holding me while it happened, me shrieking in their arms, telling them I wasn’t going to make it. It always passed, but they came on more and more often. I was so terrified of the psychosis that it froze me. I wouldn’t go anywhere, fearing it would happen, and I wouldn’t be left alone, because I was sure that it was going to kill me—or I was going to do it myself. My sisters and I developed a support system that saved me, along with a five-point-scale to let them know how I was feeling or where I was with my psychosis and moods that day. This fabulous way of living continued on for over half a year. I was finally put on a new medication during my fourth or fifth stay at the psych ward, and it eased the flashbacks. I couldn’t stop the psychosis though, but it had slowed to about once a month. As the symptoms let up a little (aside from the dissociative states and hypervigilence) I was finding I had room to breathe. I began to write again. When I can’t find my way, I use my pen. My questions and obsessions about my illnesses were turning in a new direction. Each moment that I wasn’t freaking out in was a decided and much appreciated blessing. I began to meditate. I began to read Hinduism’s Upanishads, Alan Watts and his Eastern thinking, Buddhist scriptures, books on Christianity. I was this swirling eddy. I was awakening as if from a long, long dream. Each day brought me closer to myself, and I began exploring who that self was. Where were my fractured identities? Why wasn’t I feeling like all split lines and divides, half-thoughts and doubts? Who was this woman in the mirror? My eyes were back somehow, as if a veil had been lifted, or was lifting. I cried every day for a long time, relieved that the worst had passed. I was gaining control. But how?

The body has to enter into its own darkness in order to find the light. The light is in the darkness. I had to accept that I had lost, and I had to let myself fall. I died. But somehow, be it faith or God or some divine intervention, I was becoming whole. And I’d never been whole in my life. I realized I had curled up in my own wounds and shadows and I faced utter fear and terror, and because of that sacrifice to my soul, I was able to become from it. As I grew stronger in spirit, my symptoms began to vanish. Your mind is not your friend, it is your enemy. Go with your instincts, your soul, your spirit—that is where the truth is. I let go of the stigmas attached to my illnesses, as I decided that they were not who I was. Letting them go meant breath, I gave them to something else as vague as air and I was new. The mental illnesses were becoming to broken, too translucent, to damage me anymore. I was becoming, at last, enough.

Writing it all down in poetry, essays, memoir pieces, and stories played a major factor in my healing. Once you’ve put down on paper, you’ve given it away. It becomes a thing, instead of part of who you are. I also spent much of my time alone in silence, just being. I was learning to love myself—no matter how messed up that self could be. I accepted myself, I loved myself, I gave myself what I wanted. The ache of what happened will never leave me, but it’s a small scar to own. It’s not ever an emptiness but a numbed, sacred ache that will never know grace or relief but grief for all that was lost when I was young. Sometimes I think of the woman I could have been had it not all happened. Sometimes I ache for that lost little girl. Sometimes I think he stole my life from me. And maybe that’s so in a way, but the parts he took away from me died because I took it to the edge, fell, and came back different. I know that had it not all happened—the abuse, the PTSD, even the bipolar (which I’m still learning to live with)—I never would’ve found myself. I never would’ve had a reason to search and discover. I’m more of who I was meant to be because of it all. In a strange way, PTSD saved my life. What did it take? What does it take to make it? I think that maybe, aside from courage, it’s the will to go on—and that will is so deeply in us that we don’t know it until we’re stripped bare of everything else, and we choose. We choose to survive.

4 thoughts on “What It Takes: a personal essay on PTSD

  1. I think this is very well told. Honest, raw but not in a shock value kind of way. It is also not a poor me story but rather one full of inspiration and hope.

    I started a website of daily meditations for those who have mental illness and I am thinking of including a section for stories of hope and inspiration just like this. If you are interested in helping me out with this project, email me. great work, here, Amy. Really wonderful!

    Like

  2. This is an excellent portrait of surrender. The last paragraph shows a woman who is doing great things in recovery. It takes what it takes and time takes time. Thank you for sharing.

    Like

  3. Amazing…Amy Jo…. What fab writing, with such meaning. Emma is a lucky girl to have you as her mamá. All my love.

    Like

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