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Where I Go When I'm Having a 'PTSD Moment'

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This is something I wrote for my wife to help her understand what a PTSD moment feels like for me. It’s very difficult for her to understand that this is going on inside me even though I look like I am watching paint dry.

• What is PTSD?

We sit in comfortable silence. Comforted by the fact that the other is there. She tells me about her day with the excitement and energy of a child recounting their first day at school. I look on with pride. The television is humming away in the background. Both of us are just happy to be in each other’s company. The sun is shining… all is well with the world. The curtain is caught by a breeze from outside and dances into the living room. I look back at her… something is different. Ever so slightly… I can’t put my finger on it. I look down at her mouth… her lips are still moving but I’m struggling to concentrate on what she is saying… like I’m underwater. It seems to have got ever so slightly darker…

There’s a tingle in the pit of my stomach that turns to tightness I cannot unclench. Ever so slowly, the puddle of panic is spreading, getting nearer. It’s passing through my toes, creeping up to my ankle! The level is rising. It weaves through my veins like an ice cold poison to my clenched fingers. He’s here. I look at her, I look round the room trying desperately to ground myself, to stay with her… but his grip is strong. My heart quickens… I can feel it, traveling up my body, he winds himself around my neck like a snake, tightening and tightening. I am terrified to my very core, beads of fear are forming on my top lip, my palms are sweaty. I know something terrible is about to happen. But what…

In a desperate endeavor to prepare myself, I play through every desperate scenario possible. There’s just too much uncertainty. What if… what if… I carefully plan through each eventuality to ensure I am ready…. But it’s futile. I give in to him, knowing it’s inevitable. I am powerless to stop him. His power is beyond anything human. His ice cold hands encase my heart. I am choking… my breathing is too fast. I know… the end is near.

The black curtain is dropping, the mist is descending… the faculties I know and trust are lost to me. I know my death is coming. Not now… not here… why now? Why me? As the realization of what is about to happen dawns on me the human impulse in me kicks in. I must get away! I am enveloped by a desperate need to escape. I know here is not safe. The level is rising a toxic bile burning my throat. I’m suffocating. I look around… why is she not suffocating? Can’t she see what is happening? Why can’t she feel it too?

This is it… the moment when the elastic band snaps. It’s all been heading to this — I’ve been lucky up until now… but I knew one day the inevitable would happen. I’ve known it would come. I’ve resigned myself to it, walking the green mile. Let it take me, let the fog engulf me. It would be easy to let it be over… to stop fighting. I long for peace. The safety of being. He’s made a mad thing of me. Like an eight ball clutched in the grip of a fist, shaken yet sturdy… solid concealing the fragile insides smashing against the edge. Like a swan gliding across the calm, concealing the struggle below in the depths. Like an invisible pulley strapped to my back. Each step I take the sky lowers. It’s falling in towards me!

The invisible weight is dropping, so I take a step back to safety… to cover. I want to run and hide up the stairs, and cram myself into the darkest corner of the wardrobe. It’s dark, it’s quiet. No one will know I’m there… No one will be able to see me come undone. It’s safe. I feel consumed. I want to scream, let it all go, give way to a guttural release. Release the pressure to the sky above. But someone might see the inner torment. The guard down, the gooey mush that is my inner being. I am ashamed. Of what I am… the inner burglar who comes, uninvited and takes a little bit more of me each time. I’m ugly… teetering on the edge of oblivion… I am… Human.

It’s getting close now… my insides are going to fail me, my dignity will spill out onto the floor for all to see. But just then, a change, like a gentle change in the wind. Like thinking you hear someone calling your name from afar.

Then… the balance ever so slightly shifts. The weight is lifting. The grip is loosening. A faint glimmer of reality is returning. I’m fighting back now. I’m concentrating. I’m willing the curtain to lift. I’m focussing with every muscle of my mind to keep one step in front of the other. Keep the train on the rails. The car on the road. Me on the merry-go-round.

I’m winning! My arm is slightly left of center in the arm wrestle for my survival. He’s leaving! He’s letting me go! I was wrong… it’s not today… I’m OK. I’m OK. I can still hear his voice — “You’re not OK, you’re going to die!” — but his voice is getting fainter. “Shut up! I’m not listening,” I scream.

I back out of the depths. I am returning to the surface. I can see the light, make out the shape of the sun. I break free. The tangled web of darkness relinquishes my ankle. I kick and I kick and break the surface, I gasp for air, my heart is thrashing, my eyes are wide and alert, looking for validation that normality has prevailed… all is well… I made it!

I feel the soft outline of the chair on my back. The contours of the cord material, the coldness under my feet from the tiles. I can make out the table… with the wax burn in the middle she tries to cover with ugly centerpieces. The television playing away to no one. The windows that need cleaning, the little stain in the corner where she spilt wine last summer that no one knows is there.

Her face comes into focus. She’s stopped talking. She’s looking at me questioningly. “Where did you go?” she says. “You were sitting there with this strange smile on your face.”

Sorry, miles away, I say. What were you saying?

Thinkstock photo via vsurkov

Originally published: May 9, 2017
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