I rounded the corner from Laurel Canyon onto Ventura Boulevard. I clutched the steering wheel and drove west in a slow motion. The cars around me roared with intensity. I watched them go in the opposite direction, driving fast, standing still. Was I moving? Were they? Everything around me jumped into my eyeballs with an unusual force, yet they did so as if it was the most normal thing in the world.
Everything was bold. Everything was loud. Everything was alive.
And I hadn’t a clue what was happening.
I drove home in a panic and tightened my grip on reality. If only I could get home. If only I could get into the child’s pose. If only, if only, if only.
The closer I got, the calmer my surroundings became, the more settled they appeared. I drove north on Whitsett and it hit me. It was sensory overload. The surprises my Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder had for me never seemed to end.
I had avoided that area earlier in the year, Laurel Canyon and Ventura, but I wanted some sense of my life back, and that neighborhood was a part of it. So there I was, engulfed in an explosion of my senses.
It wasn’t the first time I’d driven home from Trader Joe’s feeling havoc spread through my veins. Just weeks before, my legs almost gave way when my eyes caught a carton of mint chip ice cream. It’s funny what reminds you of a person or a place. It’s funny what triggers you into a meltdown. I had to get out of there before I succumbed, before I hit the floor.
That was my safe place – the floor.
When I wasn’t on it, face down in the child’s pose, I’d walk, and I’d do it for hours on end. Sherman Oaks would blur into Van Nuys as I wandered Auto Row. The yellow flags from the shiny new and used cars littered the neighborhood like the last leaves left behind. I welcomed their distraction, just as I did when the old jingle rang through my head. “Keyes, Keyes, Keyes, Keyes on Van Nuys.”
I’d eventually catch my breath on the steps of Van Nuys Junior High, or a bench at the park on Hazeltine. I’d try my damndest just to breathe. It was exhausting to walk, it was exhausting to exist.
Still I’d walk until I felt I would collapse. And after dark, I’d ride electric scooters. I felt a sense of freedom as I whizzed down Van Nuys Boulevard. The lights from the hills shone down like the only stars I could see. Finally I felt alive again, if only for twenty minutes.
I rode scooters because it beat pacing the living room and I couldn’t sleep. Sleep meant nightmares. Sleep meant staying still. And staying still meant being present. I wanted to be anywhere but inside my own head. Being present was too much to bear.
But so was the past, so was playing with the kaleidoscope.
That’s what I call it – the kaleidoscope. It’s not as fun as it sounds, yet I couldn’t put it down. Sometimes I still can’t. The flashbacks and intrusive thoughts spin through my mind; eyes closed, eyes open – there they are, words and images of an unpleasant nature; memories that I can’t escape. I can’t keep up and I can’t always gain control. The kaleidoscope plays with me more than I play with it.
“You’re not there. You’re not there. It’s not happening,” I repeated to myself one afternoon as the kaleidoscope spun round and round. I’d escaped from my classroom and paced outside of Manzanita Hall. I fought hard to stop the slide into the past, into those days. For once, I wanted to be present.
I stopped and watched the rooster wander the yard in front of me, then continued to mutter to myself as I gripped a support beam. But when the rooster crowed, I was immediately brought back to where I was – the Northridge campus of California State University. I caught my breath just enough to laugh.
(I have no idea why there was a rooster on campus.)
Muttering to myself wasn’t only in the form of new words, but old ones too. I’d repeat what was said to me on those painful days until I couldn’t speak any longer, or until something or someone soothed me back to the present.
“I can’t hear you,” I said to my coworker one night after she helped me escape a waking nightmare. Everything was mumbled, like my head was in a fish bowl. She walked towards me in the dim yoga studio and repeated herself, but I had tunnel vision and couldn’t focus on anything but standing upright.
The words didn’t always come out from under my heavy breaths and I didn’t always have people around to help. “I’m sorry! Stop looking at me like that! I’m sorry! Don’t look at me like that!” I shouted over and over again as I drove down the 405 last May. I could see the cars in front of me, yet my mind relived a night five months earlier. I screamed and widened my eyes, forcing my attention onto the freeway around me.
“There are feelings inside of me that are desperately trying to break through, only something won’t let them.” – April 2, 2019, 10:50 a.m.
Since I mentally and emotionally numbed my feelings, they’d come out physically. I’d have an episode for hours and then feel hungover. I’d have the spins. I’d be out of sorts. And for months, I felt dizzy. For months, I felt an anvil sat upon my chest. My body was weak and my soul rattled against my bones.
And so on.
And on and on.
There is no way to sum up a year of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in such a short piece, nor do I feel the need or desire to. Like other mental illnesses, the effects span the spectrum of one’s health – emotional, physical, spiritual, and of course, mental. And like other mental illnesses, it can affect anyone.
Rep. Jim Banks, a veteran who served in Afghanistan, recently mocked Rep. Ilhan Omar’s claim of PTSD, calling it “offensive to our nation’s veterans who really do have PTSD.” Rep. Omar not only fled war-torn Somalia at age eight, but spent four years living in a refugee camp in Kenya before moving to the United States. Sounds pretty traumatic to me. She still lives with PTSD over two decades later.
In “12:36 a.m.” I wrote, “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.’”
Veterans do not have a monopoly on trauma. They do not have a monopoly on psychological pain. The series of events that led to my PTSD do not include warfare, nor do they include violence, but that hasn’t stopped my psyche from spilling what did happen out of my mind and through my pores.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can be clear to the naked eye, but like other mental illnesses, it’s not always. We can’t possibly know all that’s going on inside the mind and life of another. As the saying goes, everyone is fighting some sort of battle. Even if it’s not on the frontlines of war.
Please be kind.