Friday June 30, 1989
It’s 12:36 a.m. and I’m screaming because I am now alive.
Psychoanalyst Otto Rank called it “the trauma of birth,” because no matter how you exited the womb, no matter how beautiful it may have been, you were, one way or another, torn from a sheltered world and entered into a hostile one. You were cut from your provider, your protector – your mother. And that shocking separation, Rank believed, impacted your psyche so much that the anxiety of becoming human has the potential to last until your last breath is taken.
“What a cute baby I was,” I said to my mom this past Christmas Eve, thirty and a half years after the trauma of my birth. I held up a framed portrait of myself as an infant. I asked, only partly joking, if it was the last picture taken of me smiling as a child.
“You stopped smiling when you were two,” she said. I couldn’t tell if she was kidding or not, though she had already once told me that she first thought I was depressed when I was two. “Actually you stopped smiling when you were sixteen-months-old,” she added. I knew now that she wasn’t kidding.
“Isn’t that when Dad moved out?” I asked, already knowing.
And so there I was, with another separation, sixteen months after the first.
But could those separations still live with me three decades later? Or is my brain just wired differently? Not everybody lives with depression and anxiety, but we all, as far as I know, were born.
Sunday December 30, 2018
It’s the early afternoon and I’m screaming because I can’t find my cat.
The National Institute of Mental Health defines Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a disorder “that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.” The psychiatry definition of trauma, itself, is “an experience that produces psychological injury or pain.” We’ve all experienced that, right? Pain. So why is it that some of us are more susceptible to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, better known as PTSD?
I was diagnosed with PTSD in the Spring of 2019, a few months after the events that shattered my world. In between the events and the diagnosis, I’d also be diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. And in between the events, I couldn’t find my cat.
I adopted Brady from a shelter in 2007. He lived with me in North Carolina, but when I made the move to California, he stayed with my mom in New York. I move around too much and am currently without a yard, which he loves. At age 12, he’s perfectly content where he is. I, on the other hand, miss him like crazy. So when I couldn’t find him shortly before I was to leave for the airport, all hell broke loose.
I’d already had three massive anxiety attacks that week, but I was still numb. I lived in my childhood bed, having hopped on a plane back east the morning after what, at the time, had been the worst night of my life. I couldn’t breathe and being awake was excruciating. My stomach sunk inward and I was disappearing into nothingness. I was practically dead.
Brady wasn’t immune to my mood, but it’s not why he was in the basement. He loves it down there, but it’s full of junk and I hate not knowing what he could get into. I also hate not knowing where he is, and in the basement, there’s just too many places to hide.
I screamed and threw whatever was in front of me, wreaking havoc amongst the ruin. I sat on the floor and wailed in a way I hadn’t in twenty-nine and a half years, since the trauma of my birth. But was it because I couldn’t find my cat? Or was it because my heart had been smashed to smithereens, and I hadn’t yet felt it, I hadn’t yet cried?
I don’t know how long this lasted, but I do remember looking up at the top of the stairs and seeing Brady, big and grey with green eyes like gemstones. He sat and stared, wondering what the hell all the ruckus was about. I ran to him and held him like our lives depended on it. I couldn’t bear another separation.
My psychiatrist would later say that I was already exhibiting signs of PTSD that week. Was it four and a half years in the making? Since the day I first laid eyes on the other half of my nightmare. Or was it twenty-nine and a half years? Since the day I was born. All I know is the layers of the human psyche are too complex to pull back, especially when they make you physically dizzy. But it hasn’t stopped me from trying.
What I don’t have questions about is why I broke down the way I did on that day I couldn’t find Brady. It was the pin to my over-inflated balloon. BOOM, there I went. At least until I became numb again, a numb deflated balloon.
Living with mental illnesses does not make me weak. On the contrary, the past few years, 2019 especially, have reminded me of my strength. Does it come from my soul? Or from my chemically imbalanced brain? I imagine a bit of each. The human’s capacity to tolerate emotional pain and heartbreak is incredible.
Maybe we truly were born into trauma. Maybe it came from the literal process of birth, or maybe it was already imprinted into our DNA. Again, I imagine a bit of each. But for most, death is a long way off from birth, so perhaps what they say is true: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.