A Mind Gone Dark
by Victoria Brockmeier
You hear stories, growing up, of what you were like as a baby. You used to love to suck on lemon slices, you slept with your face buried in the cat’s fur, you spent every car ride trying to wiggle out of your car seat to look out the window. They coalesce into the kernel of the mythology you and your family will build around you for the rest of your life. What I heard was that I was the quietest baby anyone had ever known – I never cried, never! No matter who was talking, there was always that second, emphatic never. My mother insisted that she didn’t hear me cry until I was three years old and skinned my knee for the first time, and my dad backed her up on that. It didn’t occur to me until I was in my late teens that that can’t have been literally true.
The story about my brother was that he was a screamer. When the nurse brought my dad to see his newborn son, one baby right in the middle of the incubator room was red and just screaming and screaming, and my dad said, “Wow, I feel sorry for that kid’s parents.” And, of course, the nurse turned to him and said, “Mr. Brockmeier, that’s your son.” After six or seven years of life with a 24/7 raging child, we found out that he had all sorts of food and pollen allergies, and once those got treated, he calmed down significantly. The story about his screaming at the hospital stuck around, though. I can’t remember details, now, but there were a lot of times when my brother got something – the last Cadbury egg of the year, asked to go along on a trip into town, things like that – that I wanted, and when I’d tell my dad, I wanted that, he’d say, “well, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Young kids don’t have the cognitive distance to step back from a situation that went poorly and imagine alternative approaches that might be more effective, though; they just learn that, for them, life means being ignored. The mental health community calls this learned helplessness. Little girls’ parents call it being sweet-natured.
So I know I was exceptionally quiet, and I know my brother was exceptionally loud. I also know that my mother believed in letting babies “cry it out” when they wanted something, an attitude based somewhere between cruelty and plain old laziness, predicated on the notion that a baby is somehow lying when it tells you it needs something, or on simply disregarding what might be going on inside that baby’s unsutured little skull. It’s not an uncommon approach, of course, but alcoholism and spousal abuse and racism and misogyny aren’t uncommon, either.
I was 39 or 40, a couple years after I got diagnosed with PTSD, when I put “let ’em cry it out” together with the narrative of my having been an unusually quiet baby, and thought how bizarre it must have been for an infant not to cry. Human babies are notoriously helpless; unlike other mammals’ newborns, we can’t move on our own, so we can’t get away from anything scary, or go towards warmth or the smell of food or the comfort of our parents’ arms. For the first several months of our lives, we don’t even have enough muscle to turn over in our sleep. The only way a human baby can influence its world is to cry, to alert someone that something’s wrong, in the raw hope that they’ll fix it. Me, I was quiet – sweetly, wonderfully quiet. No one had ever known a baby who was so easy to be around.
No matter how bad things have ever gotten, I’ve always taken care of my cats, of which I currently have two. They were almost out of food. I organized myself to get a fortifying bite at a sandwich shop, then catch the bus at the stop across the street for the first leg of my hour and a half trek to the pet store via public transit. Buffalo, NY, where I live, is big enough to have public transit, but not big enough to have a well-organized robust transit system that really helps people get around; anywhere I want to go means getting one bus in to our central station, waiting anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour, and taking at least one more bus outwards. It’s always damp and usually chilly here, so, half a block out of the house, I pulled gloves from my jacket pockets, put them on, and walked up to the intersection where my day’s errands began.
There’s an ATM at this intersection that doesn’t charge a fee for getting cash out of public assistance accounts. Or rather, there had been an ATM at that intersection – when I got to the parking lot where it used to sit, there was just a concrete pad there. I could still get a sandwich with money on a normal debit card (slated for rent; oh well), but I needed a $5 bill, and therefore an ATM, to get on a bus. The next nearest cash machine would be fifteen minutes each way, which would put me behind schedule – I could feel myself starting to disappear.
Inside, I waited, I ordered, I went to get out my debit card – gone. It wasn’t in my wallet, wasn’t in my purse pocket. I reopened my wallet, thumbing through everything in it, talking to the cashier from the bottom of a rising well of anxiety, and when he asked if I had another card, I said, “only if you take county benefits cards, and you don’t, so, no.” I know, a plain “no” would have sufficed, but when I’m nervous, my filters start to decay. It had been here, my card, I’d just used it the day before, somewhere, and I remembered slipping it into my jacket pocket as I walked out of wherever I’d been, I knew I’d just had it – oh. Yes. Jacket pocket. It must have dropped out when I got my gloves, must have been lost now somewhere along the street. A broad-shouldered suburbanite wearing a baseball cap stepped towards me, holding out $20, but I smiled and waved him off. It’s fine. I’m fine. And you never know what someone might want in return for public mercy.
By the time I retreated, found another ATM, and returned, I’d forgotten what I wanted to order, and I was so keyed up that I couldn’t read the menu – I couldn’t take in enough information to identify options, let alone choose among them. I didn’t yet know to label this a dissociative episode, but that’s what it was, and all it takes to push me into one is a perfectly ordinary rough day. If I’d been able to think clearly, I would have accepted that guy’s twenty bucks. My resources are too limited to turn down any help, and, truthfully, he probably wouldn’t have tried anything. I was locked up inside my head, though, piloting my body and voice through social forms from a long, silent distance away.
Not knowing I was dissociating, not knowing I was prone to dissociation, I also didn’t know that I might have been able to bring myself back. Food is great for that, in fact, because it’s so sensory, and focusing on the senses is one of the easiest ways to restore oneself in such a situation. I stayed until the restaurant closed, putting off my errand, which left my cats, the one reliable source of happiness I have, just one meal before their bag of food would be empty; I felt too abraded to get up and go anywhere, though. I may have had knitting with me, and I’m sure I had my phone, but I have no memory at all of how I spent those hours.
Rain was misting down again when I walked home, up the suburban strip of Main Street that leads to my house. It feels so flat and artificial to me out here that the shop fronts might have been spray-painted onto the landscape behind them, as though Bugs Bunny shot one long streak up one side of the street, and another down the other side, and suddenly there was a fake town there for Daffy Duck to get lost in. I probably should have taken that left at Albuquerque – there’s no way I ended up here without making some very wrong turns.
Consider the name for a moment: post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a disordered response to stress that develops after someone experiences clinically significant trauma. Clinically significant trauma means being scared out of your mind. It’s the kind of fear that unravels the logic we use to organize reality – you lose the sense that time is passing, for example, and with that, the notion that what’s happening to you will, at some point, end. Fear intense enough to make it hard to think and hard to articulate the thoughts you do have. Fear intense enough that it changes how your central nervous system works.
When something scares or excites you, your hypothalamus, a small gland near the base of your brain, releases a hormone that goes to the nearby pituitary gland. The pituitary gland then releases a different hormone that circulate in your blood, reaching your adrenal glands, which sit on top of your kidneys, and those then release cortisol, a hormone that causes stress-related changes throughout your body. Immediately, it stimulates the adrenal glands to release epinephrine (adrenaline), which sets off your fight-or-flight response, with increased heart rate and breathing and that feeling of being hyper-aware. When it circulates up into your brain, it suppresses the hypothalamus and pituitary, so that once the burst of adrenaline has done its job, your body returns to normal.
Traumatic fear teaches your body that the world is very dangerous, and your body adapts to that reality by lowering the activation threshold for your stress response and increasing its intensity: you get scared more easily, and when you get scared, you’re more scared. If you have enough intensely frightening experiences, they begin to create a feedback loop, where less and less serious situations trigger your fight-or-flight response, which continues to tell your body the world is more and more dangerous, making that response still easier to trigger. That’s the essence of the kind of PTSD caricatured in the (still regrettably) widely-known image of the ranting, paranoid Vietnam vet who eventually murders his wife in his sleep or shoots up a public park. Of course, PTSD doesn’t actually make people dangerous. It mainly makes us afraid and sad, and it interferes with our capacity to trust people.
The medical community currently only distinguishes between acute and chronic PTSD, as far as its diagnostic manuals go. If you talk to some of the counselors and researchers who focus on the condition, though, they’ll tell you that there’s at least one other way to divide cases in two, with distinct presentations of symptoms that present distinct challenges to treat – or to live with. I keep having to try to explain myself to people, from disability claim lawyers who aren’t entirely convinced mental illness can be disabling, to friends who might have to deal with me when I’m checked out and having a dissociative episode, and so, in the absence of authoritative terms, I created my own nomenclature, based on my experiences and those others I know have, and on my layperson’s understanding of the relevant biochemistry.
Most of us recognize what I call adrenergic PTSD, that fight-or-flight response. Hypervigilance, restlessness, a pacey anxiety, panic attacks that are quite visible when they happen. When you can’t fight and there’s no way to get away from a threat, though, there’s a third way for your body to handle fear: you freeze. It’s a prey response – playing dead. Neurologically, it’s an adrenosuppressive cascade. I only started to believe my diagnosis as I learned about this other, nearly silent, form of PTSD. I have anxiety, but it usually looks more like depression, because instead of pacing around, I’m sitting or lying still, staring into the middle distance. Unlike depression, however, I don’t particularly ruminate when I get like that; I’m not traveling over and over regrets or fears or self-criticism; I’m almost not thinking at all. It’s a very aberrant state, and one that’s hard to recognize, certainly for sufferers, and I think sometimes even for professionals who aren’t looking specifically for it.
If you put someone with adrenergic PTSD in an fMRI machine, which shows real-time brain activity, and ask them to think about their trauma, their brain lights up all over the place – they’re identifying escape routes, preparing to defend themselves, looking for more threats; if you do that with someone who has adrenosuppressive PTSD, their brain goes dark. There will be a little activity, but for the most part, they’re neurologically shut off. In the deepest part of sleep, when one isn’t even dreaming, a brain is doing more than it does for someone with this form of PTSD who’s in a stressful situation.
During my PhD, I kept telling people I felt like I was living in a state of slow panic, which sounds like the kind of thing all literature grad students say, but it turns out, that’s exactly what was happening. It is a panic. And it’s a slowing-down of my breathing, my heart rate, my brain activity. When anything throws me off, a screaming hours-long fight with a particularly nasty ex or not knowing what to write next in an essay, my tendency has always been to go to sleep. I don’t wake up refreshed, exactly, after that kind of sleep, but I do feel more capable of dealing with whatever situation – my guess is that my brain starts to come back online, and that’s what wakes me up.
After I began to accept my diagnosis, it still took a long time before I could handle the idea that “recovery” from PTSD doesn’t mean getting rid of symptoms, but only managing them. It took years of therapy for me to understand the problems I had from garden-variety depression and poor self-esteem, and to learn how to forgive myself for those things. I got to a point where I was left with a residuum of weird, intense reactions to things and severely depressive behaviors I couldn’t explain, and they’ve all turned out to be maladaptive, post-traumatic stress responses. They all seem to have strong physiological components. And I can’t talk through my past with my amygdalae, or convince my adrenal glands that unexpectedly running into someone I know doesn’t warrant panic. Our bodies don’t live in a world of speech.
We can treat the anxiety problems a post-traumatic neurology causes, and the disturbed sleep and the avoidant behavior (sometimes successfully, sometimes less so); we can help people learn to recognize when they’re beginning to dissociate and to reduce episodes’ frequency and intensity. Once your body learns the world is that dangerous, though, it doesn’t forget. A veteran with PTSD lives the rest of her life with adrenaline glands calibrated for a live fire zone. A survivor of child abuse lives the rest of his life like he’s trapped somewhere and being beaten. A rape survivor lives like horror she cannot contain or label is always happening inside and around her, wherever she goes and whatever she does.
What most convinced me I have it was realizing that when I’m triggered, I physically don’t want to move. I want to lie down, as still as a living body can be, and wait. Before I learned my name, or what names are; before I learned that day always follows night, and night always follows day, and, as Rilke reassures us, “no feeling is final,” not even despair or terror – I think I learned that the one thing I could do as a baby, crying out for help, was a waste of energy that would make me hungrier and more tired, without making anything better. And I think when I slip into that slow, still panic now, decades later, I’m lying in my crib in the dark, waiting for someone to come pick me up. Come hold me and feed me. Someone. Someone. Please.
The night of my third-grade open house, I wore a blue dress, lightweight woven fabric, with a light blue top and a dark blue skirt printed with little flowers. It had a self-tie at the neck. Nice in the way of dresses in the early 1980s, meaning, identifiably formal without being pretty, uncomfortable and restrictive. I hung out on one side of the classroom with another kid while our parents talked to a teacher. I don’t remember what, if anything, precipitated this, but that kid pushed me down on a desk and tried to tear off my dress. This was before lycra, so he pulled at that inelastic fabric and got the neckline down off my right shoulder, and then he let me up. I don’t remember whether a parent said something, or if I said or did something that stopped him, or what. I also don’t remember being scared, more just uncomprehending; not liking it, definitely, but not being frozen or anything.
I have a vague memory of my parents asking me what that was about, but it’s sufficiently hazy that I’m not sure it’s a memory at all, or, if it is, whether it even belongs to that moment. If our parents did see what happened, given that this was small-town Missouri in 1986, chances are better than even that they wondered what I’d done to bring the assault on. Because that’s what it was, although it took me 32 years to identify it that way. It’d crossed my mind off and on, but the only thought I’d had about it was, “god, that kid was such a weirdo.” He grew into an abrasive, off-putting nerd, and the last I heard from him, he was working on computational models of cancer and HIV, so he did well for himself. I never saw or heard any other indications that he was a predator, but given the era and the place, again, I doubt I would have. For extra irony, his mother was the head of our county’s Department of Family Services, responsible for keeping kids safe.
In high school, I debated, not at a level that made me nationally competitive, but well enough to line up shiny trophies all along the shelf that ran around my bedroom walls. Debate tournaments use an elimination system, quarterfinals, semifinals, finals, and as long as anyone from your school keeps advancing, the whole team stays, however late into the night, even when people have events scheduled for early the next morning. Judges start to leave, whoever remains has to be begged to stay around and judge again, competitors wander off, coaches can’t be found – debate tournaments rarely run like precision-engineered machines.
I nearly always went at least to semi-finals, partly because we went to more easy, small-school, nowhere tournaments than highly competitive, rich-suburban-school tournaments, but, regardless, my team had to stick around at a lot of debate tournaments hours after trading in suits for sweats and cramming their piles of research briefs back into files. My junior year, when we went to Belton’s tournament, I kept advancing, as usual, and no one else did, also as usual. I ran into a teammate in some kind of side hallway and told him I’d won my last round and was going on to the next one – big guy, six foot-something and rather barrel shaped. He grabbed me around the throat and slammed me against the wall. I think there was a vocalization; I remember his voice. I don’t remember what he said, or if he just growled, or what. I don’t remember saying anything, myself, just feeling of my eyes widen and my chest tighten. Then he dropped me.
I was scared enough to have some adrenaline kick up, but I didn’t think of it as traumatic. I certainly never called it an assault. I did my round, and I have no idea whether or not I won, but either way, eventually we did all go home.
I may have said something to my debate coach. If I did, nothing happened. I would almost swear that she shook her head and laughed the way adults do when kids do things that make them uncomfortable. As with my parents, I’m sure we had an interaction like that, probably several, but I couldn’t say whether or not one took place at that specific moment, regarding that specific attack. Did I speak but get ignored? Did I save the energy and batten myself down in silence instead? I don’t know.
When Dr. Ford testified to Congress about now-Justice Kavanaugh and another boy having assaulted her at a party when they were all teenagers, senators asked her to describe the house where it happened, to tell them where in the DC area the house was located and how its rooms were laid out, and because she recalled those things incompletely, some of them discounted her entire testimony.
I dare you to remember the floor plan of the house where you followed friends to one of however many high school parties you went to. I dare you to remember what you had for dinner on even one of the parent-teacher evenings you went to as a kid. I dare you to remember how you placed in any regular-season school competition, if you did something that sent you out every weekend for most of the year.
As a rule, brains don’t spend energy or storage space on the everyday. They do, however, record in vivid detail violations of the sanctity of that unmemorable ordinariness that most of us, most of the time, enjoy. We’re built to learn from trauma.
Imagine you’re standing in front of an immense book, on a nondescript table in a nondescript room. The book’s cover is heavy and thick, and when you lift it, it falls to the side with a satisfying thump. Inside, the pages are black, and printed with black ink. Each one is filled, top to bottom and margin to margin, with ellipses, tens of thousands of black periods following one another, page after page after page after page of tiny, identical dots that you can barely see. You examine them intently, anyway. You don’t skip forward or thumb through on the corner to see if anything changes; you turn each page, and you look at each page, first the left one and then the right one, and you turn to the next page, and look at that left one and then at that right one, steadily observing each identical field of periods marching down each page, black on black filling your field of view while you stand there, turning, steadily but without purpose, through the entire volume. It’s not clear how long this takes. Towards the end, the pages gradually get lighter and so does the printing, although not quite as swiftly, so, briefly, you can see the periods against the paper, before the book ends with a white, unprinted page. The light it reflects back seems very bright – you can almost feel it when it hits your face.
At this point, you become aware that your feet are sore from standing, and your knees were locked. Perhaps you flex them or shift your stance. You’ll only know whether you’ve been standing there for twenty minutes, or two or three hours, if you check a clock, and then only if you happened to check a clock before you opened the book. The blank page has nothing to offer you that would locate the episode in time. It doesn’t explain why you felt compelled to stand there and turn through the entire volume. Its whiteness rises up within you, vertiginous and merciless.
This is the closest I’ve come to being able to convey what PTSD dissociation is like for me. I usually don’t notice a really serious freeze-up as it’s happening – I’ll feel worried, then scared and dreading something, and then I come back to myself, anywhere from a few minutes to a couple hours later. The time between is just gone. In a state like the one I got into after losing my debit card, it’s frustrating and disorienting, because I can’t think very well, but living through the response itself really isn’t that bad, and much more tolerable than whatever I’m wishing I could get away from, anyway. It’s what having it happen does to one’s life that makes it such a debilitating condition. I couldn’t begin to count the number of application deadlines I’ve missed, the social opportunities I’ve bailed on, the times I’ve been unable to go into someone’s office or even the damn grocery store, the times my phone has rung, and I’ve looked at it, and known it was an important call, and let it go to voicemail, because these ordinary, daily stressors frighten me to where I can’t do anything. I’ve known people to say that those of us with PTSD are constantly on edge, but it’s not exactly a question of an edge. PTSD isolates you in a zone of fear.
For most of my life, I didn’t realize I was scared in these kinds of situations, either, because my fear doesn’t look or feel quite the way we expect. I don’t get a sharp adrenaline boost. I feel overwhelmed and helpless, but I don’t feel like running away. Thoughts don’t babble through my head relentlessly. I just sink into misery. I can power through things sometimes, but then I do get into a state that looks more like a recognizable panic attack, and it takes me a full day to regain my emotional footing after one of those. Now I know my sense of helplessness is a mode of fear and not depression, and that when I’m collapsing, what I need is to calm down, not to cheer up, but I lived most of 40 years not understanding that. Lying on a couch, doing so little I’m not even sleeping, doesn’t look like a state that calls for greater calm. But it can be.
It’s hard to talk about absence; you can describe the shape of a hole, but that’s at least as much a description of the object that contains the hole as it is of the hole itself. If you note how sounds echo inside it with a frightening hollowness, you’ve canceled the emptiness you were trying to get at. What reflects sound back is, again, not the hole but its container, and the passage of those cries (of course they were cries) renders the hole a traversable pathway, and it ceases to be an interruption of things by nothing. When you note that the cries sound like those of someone in pain, you introduce a living, emoting, probably weeping subject, a presence so insistent that it shocks anyone who catches themselves staring at it, even surreptitiously, from behind a newspaper or over the rim of a phone.
Under most circumstances, absence exists in a perpetual flight from presence. PTSD makes it distinctly assertive.
A therapist who wasn’t great at her job once referred me to a psychiatrist who, fortunately, was. He diagnosed me with an anxiety disorder for the first time. I’d never thought one way or another about having anxiety, just depression – and that’s one of its tricks, anxiety, hiding behind itself, keeping you from thinking about it, which prevents you from doing anything about it.
Mental health intake interviews consist mainly of a long series of questions that ask for short answers: do you experience X; do you experience Y; do you have or have you ever had thoughts of Z; how many days a week do you struggle with X; on a scale from one to five, how severe would you say your X is right now? When they ask how much I drink, I like to grin and answer, not enough! It’s true. I both could and arguably should drink substantially more, given my circumstances. It works as a joke only because I’m lucky enough not to have had substance problems. Which I then explain. The whole interview usually takes a full hour, sometimes two.
In this intake, the psychiatrist asked me if I had panic attacks, and I smiled and said, oh, no, nothing like that. A few questions later, he asked if I associated any physical symptoms with stress, and I described what I’d always called a “stress reaction,” something I thought everyone experienced when they got really upset: I get lightheaded, my chest feels tight, sometimes I get sweaty or trembly, sometimes my vision even closes in partway. His face became more intent and more concerned with each detail I provided, and then he asked me if I knew what a panic attack was. Again, I smiled, apologetic but still wanting to be helpful, and said, not really, no, but I had a student write a paper on them one semester. If I remember right, they’re more physical than emotional? With the questioning tone that asks, politely, gently, I’m so sorry to have to bother you, but would you let me know whether or not I’m on the right track, please?
The psychiatrist ran through a list of symptoms in what I recognized as DSM-speak that matched what I’d described exactly, except that you’re supposed to feel like you’re losing control, which I didn’t. I remember having those symptoms as a teenager, and I remember not being surprised by them then, so I may have been having panic attacks my entire life and never known that’s what they were. I may well have had them as a baby, crying out nothing but infant terror, until I learned not to bother. That would probably explain why they felt intense to me, but not abnormal. At the time I saw this particular psychiatrist, I was panicking five days a week, every time I went in to the job I had. Dizziness, tunnel vision, flushed face, difficulty breathing, every day, when I pulled into the parking lot, as I crossed into the building, rounded the glass-walled conference room and went into my office, and I’d stay that way for an hour, sometimes longer. Answering emails with my ears roaring and my brain mostly dark, then apologizing from inside my neurological static for having answered things incorrectly. Every single day, for, by the time I had that appointment, six or seven weeks.
Other situations that have sent me into clinical panics:
Trying to get myself to open mail
Being asked to make a phone call to an unfamiliar office
Asking my mother if we could go shopping for fabric to make my senior prom dress (blue, strapless, with a dramatic hi-lo hem, elegant and quite cute)
Asking a friend who had raped me if he was going to leave his fiancee to be with me (spoiler: he did not)
Hoeing out a section of garden I never managed to plant in a back yard that felt very large, exposed, entirely too accessible to anyone on the street
Trying to clean my depression-filthy apartment
Hearing my landlady yell at her ten-year-old
Entering the county social services building, which I sometimes have to do five or more times in one week
Having a man sit anywhere near me on the bus
Trying to fetch, quickly, on knees and elbows that were already bruised and starting to swell from hitting the hardwood floor, forbidden the use of my hands
Getting slapped on the jaw I never realized was so horribly narrow, every time a guy felt my molars graze his cock
I spent a few years of my twenties, you see, in a relationship so abusive it apparently broke my brain. I came out of adolescence with some issues, to be sure, but my most dysfunctional habits developed while I was involved with this guy. More than a decade later, I haven’t fixed even one of them. As far as I can tell, my excessive panicking, my physically freezing up when anything threatens me, my feeling threatened by things that are definitely not serious threats, and my straight up losing time are getting worse, year on year, as hard as I try to fight them.
At one point, I loved being tied down in bed – it wasn’t even ambivalent, I just thought it was great. I loved getting slapped just because I was a kinky bitch who liked to be slapped during sex; being blindfolded used to set me loose, where I’d ride each instant into the next on whatever my partner could think up for me to feel, and it was only exciting-scary, like roller coasters, and I love roller coasters. Then I spent three and a half years with a guy who insisted on degradation and humiliation. Kinky sex can break people out, and that’s what I always liked about it – experimentation, adventure, unpredictability – but this guy was set on breaking me down.
The kink community doesn’t do a great job of interrogating itself. Theoretically, we’re supposed to respect each other’s desires and each other’s boundaries, but in practice, desire gets a privileged position. Trying to draw a line often gets one criticized as vanilla and accused of kinkshaming. That depends on an unstated standard where all human sexual variety exists on a single axis, though, from vanilla to kinky, boring to exciting, doing it wrong to doing it right. Two seconds of critical thought should illuminate how wrong that proposition is, but kink relationships emphasize acceptance, sometimes to a degree that discourages critical thinking.
When I told that ex (tentatively, shamefully; then eventually with fury) that I didn’t like calling myself a whore, for example, he’d act like I’d attacked him, and suddenly the conversation would be about me reassuring him that I loved him, crying and apologizing. Hindsight – this is exactly how abusers protect themselves; my mother did the same thing whenever I tried to get her to talk about something she’d done.
At the time, I didn’t have the conceptual vocabulary to defend myself, but my problem wasn’t one of degree, but of kind. I have yet to want to sleep with anyone who’s really set on inflicting more pain than what I enjoy, but this guy’s libido seemed to depend on having a sub screw up and get punished for it, and it turned out that I can’t handle that narrative. He’d set increasingly specific, increasingly complicated tasks, at which I’d eventually fail, and I’d crumble. Then he’d snap at me that I couldn’t handle kink, and that felt like a much worse failure.
The fights about sex probably weren’t traumatic, although they were bad. The sex itself probably was, though; I spent a lot of time terrified, terrified, terrified, incoherent and sobbing, whenever it became clear that I wasn’t good enough, and that was just about every time we fucked, for three and a half years. If, as that guy insisted, he wanted to make us both happy, he could have pushed for scenes that let me be impressively naughty. Other people have managed that just fine, so it’s not impossible. But the things that broke me, the times I exploded into tears, everything I told him I couldn’t handle – those were always the things he claimed he needed me to do.
The last time someone put a blindfold on me, I broke down without any warning, for him or for me. I don’t know how much of what I used to enjoy has been tainted by terror, either, and to be on the safe side, I assume most if not all of it is dangerous for me now. I’ve barely had sex at all for more than a decade. I’m fractured deep under my skin, and I don’t have any way to tell what’s going to break me into pieces until something does.
For a while, during the first, most obliterated years after I escaped that especially destructive relationship, I’d thumb through contacts in my phone, trying to think of something to text to someone that might cause them to respond. Not to impose – something cheerful, something relevant to their interests, something that would help them with a project or a problem. Not to bother, not to demand. Trying to find ways simply to appeal to people enough that they’d have me in their lives, even as unhappy as I was. Off and on, I’ve thought about setting up email addresses that would send out blank autoreplies, so I could text one, get a message back, mentally fill in what it might say, and fiction up conversations for myself, just to give my brain a reason to release a tiny washlet of endorphins.
I saw a therapist for a bit who’s certified in a protocol called Cognitive Processing Therapy, which I was honestly excited to try. It relies on the patient writing a lot, and it’s very structured, with specific steps for each of twelve therapy sessions. As a sort of step zero before you start those twelve structured sessions, you choose a single memory to work on; the therapist asked me to think of three particularly bad ones, and then to identify which of those was the worst, because that’s where CPT has you begin. I thought of my three, described each as minimally as I could, and told her which was the most disturbing. We were running late, so she didn’t get into anything about what I would need to do with that memory. I didn’t need to worry about that until next time.
For several days afterwards, I was in as profound a despair as I’ve ever felt, which, frankly, is saying something. This was the summer Brock Turner was all over the news for using a bottle to rape a girl behind a dumpster, and then for escaping any meaningful punishment. News services should all have added a section for sexual assault stories around then: World, Local, Science and Environment, Sexual Assault, Medicine, Business, Lifestyle, Arts. I started having full-body twitches ,like sleep jerks, some of which seemed to happen at random, but some of which were clearly triggered by the daily stream of sexual assault news. I developed a tremor in my hands that kept me from knitting or crocheting and even made eating difficult – I had to concentrate to keep a fork steady. Those symptoms lasted for two or three months, and I never got myself to go back to that therapist, although I wanted to. A lot of those days, I couldn’t get myself out of bed except to feed my cats. At some point, the clinic I’d been going to closed my case out for nonattendance.
A friend asks, why do you feel like a failure? You’re not a failure, he says. You shouldn’t think of yourself that way. I can’t open my fucking mail. I can’t take out the trash, I can’t get myself to go to enough therapy to fix anything. I give terrible blowjobs. Everything scares me. Everything fucking scares me so much I can’t move, can’t breathe, can’t see.
During the latter two or so years of that especially bad relationship, when we were having sex, I’d pull away up inside my head and watch what went on. It helped me hold back from crying, and I’d gotten worn out with ruining the sex by crying all the time. I always had the same image, of sitting on a grassy island in a small forest pond, with my knees up in front of me and my arms around them. Therapists recognize this as a protective posture, one people adopt when talking about painful memories, impossible decisions, fear of all kinds.
In a therapy group I joined several years later, one of the counselors who led it asked one day if we knew what dissociation was. One of the other people in the group, a nervous but very nice guy who’d been in the military, had mentioned dissociating a few times, and the counselor wanted to check whether the rest of us knew what he meant. She explained that it has to do with feeling disconnected from the world around you or from yourself, and that it’s on a spectrum, so daydreaming, for example, is a form of dissociation, but that more extreme forms can interfere with our lives. She mentioned it being involuntary.
I asked, then, sparing, I said, the gory details, about mentally shifting up into my head during sex, which was intentional – was there a word for that? “That. . . sounds like dissociation,” she said. Eyebrows raised. Asked if I was talking about that in my one-on-one sessions. I wasn’t, no. I still haven’t found a way to handle the bloody, poisonous pulp of those memories.
It wasn’t quite absence, though; I wasn’t gone, then, just relocated.
I know the feeling of beginning to see the ellipses, and the forceful white glare of the last page, and I remember emerging from that into a lot of bad situations with that guy. I never have tried to remember a lot of the details. I can remember crying; I can remember being intensely, intensely scared, and being unable to explain what was so wrong. I remember despair as a counterpoint to terror, a plunge just as endless and lightless and overwhelming, and I have no doubt why, at times, I fled from them into simple goneness. I’m glad I did. I wish I’d figured it out sooner. At least someone was there, trying to take care of me.
We aren’t built to live in the hither side of being, though. Once you open up, or are opened up, to literal senselessness, shutting down input from your own body and emotive mind, it eats through the subterraneum of your psyche like karst through limestone. It wells out from what should be a warm smile; any path you try follow upwards or out collapses back into it. It hollows out pockets inside you where pain lays down land mines. Its sinkholes swallow whole neighborhoods of your life overnight.
Everything fucking scares me.
Dissociation operates on two axes: derealization, feeling disconnected from the rest of the world, and depersonalization, feeling disconnected from oneself. All of us dissociate – we get lost in thought and absorbed in things we read. Being drunk, if you’re really drunk, is extremely dissociative, because your senses dull (derealization) and your frontal lobes mostly shut down, to where you can’t think clearly and can’t figure out what to do when, say, an unfamiliar guy appears and tells you he’s driving you home (depersonalization). Trauma survivors usually dissociate readily and frequently, and therapists try to help us resist that tendency by practicing mindfulness, being present to our senses and in touch with our emotions. On a bad day, it takes me an hour or more to make coffee, because I keep wandering off and pacing around, worrying about whatever I’m worrying about. Derealized. I try to make my morning coffee mindfully – here’s how the beans smell, here’s what the grinder sounds like, here’s what the bones of my hands feel like when I turn its crank, here’s what the coffeemaker brewing sounds like, here’s the warmth and the weight of the cup in my hands.
Trauma survivors, unfortunately, tend to have lives to which it’s hard to want to be present. For a while, I was in a therapy group for women with PTSD, and although they were the kindest, most patient, all-around sweetest group of people I’ve ever known, I only ever heard one of us mention having a partner. Only a few of us had family members in the picture, and those were generally pretty toxic relationships – parents who were in contact, but manipulative, needy, casually vicious; alcoholic exes, alcoholic siblings, friends who found time for us only when they wanted things. Few of us could hold a job down for long.
Our living situations, accordingly, ranged from unstable to awful to dangerous. Some of us were hoarders and others of us just lived in permanent states of chaos, if not outright squalor, because things that shouldn’t be difficult, are for us. Those of us who lived alone spent all our time in the thorn groves inside our own heads; those of us who lived with people had to fend off criticism, gaslighting, theft, constant yelling, constant lying, and when we tried to stick up for ourselves as the therapists kept trying to get us to do, we’d get accused of attacking the person. And in these circumstances, people who are primed even more than most to escape are supposed to practice being tuned in to everything around and within ourselves.
It took me well into middle age to extricate myself from my dangerous relationships, but I did it. Now, other than my therapist, there’s no one within a hundred miles I so much as talk to, though, so I may have done too good a job there. I have to sit on buses for five and a half hours and cross the border into Canada to have tea with someone. Where I live isn’t dangerous, but it isn’t great. I never relax, even when my landlady and her son are gone. There’s nowhere to put up bookcases, so all my books are boxed up in the basement, and there’s certainly nowhere I could set up the candles and rocks and other curios that constitute my pagan altar and spend time there communing with the natural world. I make my morning coffee as mindfully as I can stand to, and when I’m doing well, I can stay downstairs and hang out with my cats, maybe cook something, maybe do some laundry. When I’m doing poorly, I take my double-shot latte upstairs and sip it while tapping through the morning’s news in bed. Then I go right back to sleep, that sleep that doesn’t refresh, but only activates my post-traumatic pause function.
Evenings, my landlady watches a lot of booming TV and yells at her son with a frequency that I suspect would alarm anyone, and that’s all it takes to push me out of where I am. Two or three hours will go by, and I won’t realize it. I can never recall thinking about anything in particular, and I’m not even sleeping. I’m just gone. Every time, it’s a failure to be well, again, and still it’s all I can do for myself.
I also have periods where I live for weeks like I’m deeply depressed, although I swear, I don’t feel worse than usual. I used to think it was just being worn out from grad school, and I thought it would go away when I finished, but no. I won’t be able to get myself into a shower, I’ll let mail pile up and pile up and pile up, throw it away without opening anything and let it start piling up again. Dishes will stack up until I start just using the same glass for milk over and over again, one bowl for cereal and yogurt, another for soup. I’ll sleep too much and only at the wrong times. I become virtually silent, silent online, silent even in my head. But I won’t be suicidal; I won’t dwell on the things I’ve been through, or even cry. Afterwards, I can say what didn’t do, but not what I did – again, I run up against the problem of writing absence, of trying to write from within it. My last bout like that ran for around a month and a half, and I don’t have a clue what brought it on, or why it lasted as long as it did, or why I eventually rose up out of it.
No therapist I’ve had – six, since I first noticed these phases, yes, six therapists – has recognized this phenomenon. They believe me; they know it’s more than being tired or falling into old, depressive habits, but none of them have treated anyone who’s described the same problem. I doubt I’ve come up with a unique way to be unwell, though. Most likely, I just pay closer attention to my dysfunctions than most people. I always have been a scrupulous reader.
My guess is that I’m so internally dissociated that I somehow have emotions strong enough to shape my behavior, and yet I can’t consciously feel them. Does it count as having an emotion, if you can’t feel it? Here, my amateur psychiatric theorizing starts to unravel. Emotions I can’t feel that yet exist, somewhere, in my psyche, determining what I can and can’t do, what I can and can’t want, what I can and can’t imagine, leaving me to infer from my limits what the forces must have been that set them, pass beyond my ability to assert that I know what the hell is going on.
I do know there’s a lot deep under that I can’t access. Every once in a while, something will slip out from under what feels like a heavy, cast-iron lid resting down in my lower ribs, and it will wreck me. This is the other problem, the problem of excess, trying to convey what extreme grief and shame and terror do to a person, what, exactly, they feel like. It’s a hybrid between electricity and poison, I think, that fills every part of me, bodily and not, with nausea, if I touch it.
So I have to return to the string of events when I was younger that never registered as traumatic, that seemed disturbing or just irritating, but not frightening, not in the way I know fear now – being shoved back against that desk when I was eight, being slammed into the wall at that unfamiliar high school when I was sixteen. The boyfriend who stuck his entire hand inside me to haul me across a bed, and then got angry when I started bleeding. The first person I met from the internet, who pushed me down into my freshman dorm-room bed with all his weight and said, grinning, “I like it when they fight!” The sweaty afternoon when a friend took down my shorts and, without a word, put his dick into me from behind. (This is how they solve the problem of consent – few of us are prepared to say no if we don’t get asked. It’s very efficient.) The times I’ve come to extremely inebriated consciousness while someone was fucking me, and thought, ok, shit, I have to fake an orgasm so this guy will finish, and then I can pass back out. Get it together just for a second. Shit. Ok.
What if I was terrified all those times, and who knows how many more that I can’t remember, but couldn’t feel it? Were those clinically significant events? How impaired was I before I got into the relationship I know traumatized me? What if all my life, fear was rising up in its demersal waves and recalibrating my adrenal axis for an ever more threatening world (they will see you, they will hurt you and keep on hurting you, you will starve yourself with struggling, be quieter, be yet more still), and I never knew? Still don’t know; I can only conduct this archaeology on myself, try to imagine what these fragments may have meant to the person who lived them.
One spring day several years back, as I was driving to campus, I took a breath and sighed it out and thought, what is this slightly sad, sweet, heady feeling? I know this, but what is it? K. D. Lang’s cover of “Skylark” was playing on my iPod, and I was turning from Hertel Avenue onto Main. And, oh my god, I realized, I’m lovesick. I didn’t even know who for! I had to sort through my mind to find where it was coming from. At the time, I was (tentatively, timorously) heading towards ending that worst relationship, and this was my big sign that it was over, that I was already head over heels for someone else. I never saw it coming, even as it had bloomed up from inside of me.
I think now that I fell in love with that person when we’d met a year and a half earlier in an honest to god love-at-first-sight thing, and I was so out of touch with my own emotions, that I couldn’t feel it until I had taken my first steps to recover myself. We were in a graduate English program, where everyone is constantly recommending books to everyone else, and when he suggested books to me, I felt like, yeah, I think I want to read that, and I’d get a copy, and I’d go right ahead and read it. No one else’s recommendations had such traction with me. I was always relaxed when we hung out, and that never happens (never! to lift the narrative tic from my baby story). I was head over heels for someone with whom I hadn’t so much as held hands, and I couldn’t see it for well over a year. We did date briefly, but I was more damaged than I realized, probably too damaged to have sustained anything healthy at the time, and he had his own baggage to sort through. I’m sorry – I don’t have a happy ending to give you. Not all of us get one.
I have a good therapist, now, after several years spent bouncing from one to another, trying to find someone who could help me, but I still have trouble trying to talk about the knots of habit and memory I most need to undo, because the place I live isn’t one I can come home to and cry after opening up a crate of toxic shit from the warehouse full of it in my psyche. My brother, the infant screamer, did a law degree and became a bona fide DC lawyer; he has three children and a house in Silver Springs that he and his wife renovated a few years ago.
Next summer, I should reach the top of our area’s waiting list for federal housing assistance, and if I secure that, I hope, faintly, but I do hope, that I’ll be able to live on my own again. Maybe then I can deal with some of the memories that trouble me that I’ve described here, and others that I have yet even to try to articulate.
Memories, though, are only ever part of the problem for a trauma survivor. I may learn how to feel safer in the world, which should reduce the stress things like not being able to find my debit card cause me, but when things get to me, I’ll probably always jump straight to feeling scared. I’ll always have to fight my body’s powerful reaction to fear. I may not be able to find a way to lift the lid that keeps so much of my emotional life hidden, even from me.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be reliable enough to hold a normal job. The career I trained for as a creative writing professor and hotshot poetry critic is dead and then some, and a years-long gap in employment isn’t exactly going to smooth the transition into another field. If I ever regain the means to go places and meet people, I don’t trust that they’ll be patient enough to put up with having me in their lives. I have trouble imagining that I’ll ever have more good days than bad ones.
I make my coffee every morning, I bake myself bread, I knit some genuinely impressive shawls, and I attend to these small pleasures as mindfully as I can. I hang out with my cats and try to be patient with myself. I seem to be writing again.
Perhaps I’ve finally begun to squeak; perhaps I’ve rusted so much that I simply can’t go on in silence.
Image by Stacy Clinton via Flickr (cc).
About the Author:
Victoria Brockmeier is Senior Narrative Designer for Furkle Industries. Her poetry and essays have appeared in magazines such as Puerto del Sol, LIT, and Pleiades, and her first book of poems, my maiden cowboy names, was published by Truman State University Press.