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A Thought Experiment for Understanding PTSD

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So many people have asked me what it is like to have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

• What is PTSD?

“What do you mean you it feels like your memories aren’t really in the past?” they ask me.

They genuinely want to know. And genuinely seem to not understand.

So here is a thought experiment for you.

Close your eyes and imagine standing in the midst of a maze of your memories. Your maze is made of pale, stone panels onto each of which is projected a memory that plays over and over. You begin to walk through your maze and a familiar face on a sunny day brings you to a pause. You stop and watch the entire memory play — a picnic, sunshine, a sprinkler, laughter — and then drift to the next one.

Your maze largely feels safe. There is joy in watching happy memories, while others you
walk more quickly past. When you don’t want to remember them, you pass them by and they stay there. If you do start to feel afraid, you can open your eyes. Come back to your present. Like most people, you can do this.

I can’t. So now imagine this:

When I close my eyes, I stand in a void. I look down and see ashes beneath my feet and then I understand that the walls of my maze have crumbled. Wrenched away from their crumbling panels, my memories rage freely, relentlessly. They move through the very air with such silent stillness that they are not a wind, not a hurricane, but purely a force. They unremittingly attack — over and over. They hit with such power and bring such real pain and fear that it doesn’t matter if I open my eyes. The memories, the pain, the fear just keep coming. They dictate my reality far more than the actuality of what is going on around my physical body.

Fighting my memories or trying to rationalize with them is no good. All I can do is hold on and wait for them to stop.

In these moments, I wonder: What is your reality when memories feel more real? I am no longer “here.” But I’m not truly in the past. I am no longer anywhere.

This is what it feels like to have PTSD.

Getty image by Viktor_Gladkov

Originally published: June 5, 2020
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