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Moving to a Place of Possibility With Complex PTSD

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I used to see myself as a one-trick pony.

The singer.

My job was to perform and look pretty.

Wear the costume. Shake your ass.

Smile, repeat.

On the outside, I appeared invincible. Then, without warning, I’d lose control, becoming angry, combative, fearful or withdrawn.

• What is PTSD?

Before I sought treatment for my complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), every show began with a battle within myself. Each night, I stared into the mirror, trying to create my idea of perfect beauty.

Nothing else would do.

I employed a variety of techniques to achieve this elusive goal. Paint, wire, glitter, glue. No matter what I did to change my appearance, my nightly efforts resulted in an emotional meltdown of varying degrees.

Sometimes, I could recover quickly after a glass of wine, puff on a joint or a quick bump.

Maybe adding a wig, shorter skirt or lower neckline would make it better. If I managed to leave the house without breaking down, it was a miracle.

A costume I loved the night before would suddenly become unacceptable. The seams weren’t even or my butt was too big.  Hyper-focusing on a small detail, I’d scream and cry until I had myself in a complete frenzy.

Annoyed, my ex-husband/guitarist would yell from the other side of the door,

“Naome, you look fine! Let’s go!! We have to leave now!”

Exhausted, I’d finally take my place on the passenger side of the car, nursing a cocktail on the way to the club. I couldn’t drive, even if I wasn’t drinking. I was nearly 30 years old and had never driven a car. Through it all, the eyes of my daughter watched. Her mother losing control, making a spectacle of herself, loudly bemoaning her unacceptability. Over and over again. Year after year. That’s how I kept the dysfunction going.

For the most part, the music, substances and applause kept my insecurities at bay for the duration of the evening. Until they didn’t .

Six nights a week, I smiled, sang, drank, danced and twirled. The audience cheered and told me I was wonderful. They had no way of knowing it was an illusion. My self-esteem was all smoke and mirrors.

The author with her daughter circa 1993.

“It is not my responsibility to be beautiful. I’m not alive for that purpose. My existence is not about how desirable you find me.” -Warsan Shire

In the spring of 1975, I left my home on Purdy Lane in a police car in the middle of the night. Three months later, I returned, transformed. While I was away, I learned how to shape-shift. I became adept at sensing and anticipating the needs and emotions of others. It became my superpower. I also discovered people liked to hear me sing. Returning to my family, armed with these new capabilities, I was able to navigate my fourth year of elementary school with surprising ease.

This was the year of my first best friend. Yvette sat next to me in Mrs. Combs’ class. She would do hilarious things when no one was looking and cause me to erupt in uncontrollable giggles. I spent a lot of time out in the hallway that year. It was worth every minute. I became the queen of the fourth-grade talent show. Wearing my favorite pink dress, I belted out my signature number: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” So, it was no surprise to me when my chorus teacher, Mrs. Hendrix, took me aside. I would be starring in the big Christmas show that year as the Sugar Plum Fairy!

I wasn’t really sure what that was, but I really loved fairies! On the tips of my toes, I danced down to the cafeteria, where rehearsal was already in progress. “Mrs. Hendrix sent me,” I announced to a woman who looked to be in charge. “I’m here to be the Sugar Plum Fairy!”

“Oh… no dear,” replied the bewildered teacher. She pointed to the stage. “That, is the Sugar Plum Fairy!”

I looked up and saw a little girl in a tutu dancing on her toes. She was everything I’ve ever wanted to be. Beautiful, poised, graceful, sparkly. A ballerina.

“I can do that!” I blurted out. Demonstrating my abilities by standing on the tips of my very long toes, which were connected to equally large feet, and falling over. I’m not sure why my chorus teacher sent me down there that day. Maybe she thought it was a musical?

In the end, I sang “White Christmas” during intermission, secretly wishing I was wearing a tutu.

“One of the greatest regrets in life is being what others would want you to be, rather than being yourself.” -Shannon L. Alder

The Sugar Plum Fairy story is legend at my house. Since completing two years of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, I no longer tell the tale with regret. Now, I tell it with a smile, because it’s funny! Today, I stand nearly 6 feet tall in my size 11 bare feet.

The reprocessing and desensitization of my emotions has given me freedom I never thought possible. Instead of drowning in my emotional memories, I am able to stay afloat. On the occasion I find myself underwater, I have an emergency plan. A life raft I created just for me. A safe, quiet room with soft warm blankets and pillows. Blackout curtains, candles. Siri stands by to play my relaxation playlist. I’ve got the tapping and breathing exercises I’ve learned ready to go. When life becomes too much, I go into that room to decompress and process my difficult emotions. I take care of me.

“The better you feel about yourself, the less you feel the need to show off.” -Robert Hand

It’s the day after Christmas 2020.

My 18-month sober anniversary. I should be ecstatic and completely proud of myself. Instead, I feel a heaviness in my heart.

I go to my safe place and close the curtains, flopping onto the bed. I am thinking about 2021. What lessons will I take with me into the new year? What will stay behind? What lies ahead? Fear rises inside my chest. I breathe in deeply and acknowledge the emotion. Exhale. What if I didn’t let fear limit me? What if I saw my fear for what it really is? The desire to be accepted and loved. If I’m not a singer, will people still want to hear me? If I’m not pretty and sparkly, am I still worthy of being seen? If I show all of my inner ugliness, will I still be loved?

In the past, I would try to force the answers to these questions by sabotaging myself. I’m really glad I’m not in that place anymore. Right now, I’m standing at the corner of Tell Your Story Street and Recover Your Joy Avenue. I really like it here.

A shadow of a thought crosses my mind. “Maybe you don’t belong in this neighborhood, Naome.”

It is pretty far away from Just Keep Smiling Street and Shake That Ass Road. Don’t get me wrong, I am not disparaging my old neighborhood. I had some really good times there. It’s just that I’ve outgrown that zip code .

It’s time to move on.

I take another deep breath. As I exhale out doubt, I smile to myself and imagine the possibilities of what lies ahead in 2021.

Originally published: June 5, 2020
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