Saturday, November 19, 2011


So... where were we? Oh, right. Numb arms.

"My arms are numb," I said to Dr. Oz.

"Describe the feeling," she said back.

Damn. Describe the feeling is usually as bewildering a concept to me as translate your favorite novel into Greek. It was one of the reasons I was seeking therapy-- I don't really feel much of anything, ever.

I sat there for a minute, opening and closing my mouth, wordlessly, like a fish, until Dr. Oz clarified. Firmly. "I'm not talking about emotions, here. Forget about emotions. What does it feel like, physically?"

It came to me after a moment. "Numb isn't quite the right word, but it's close. It's like the feeling when your foot first begins to fall asleep, when it turns cold, before the pins and needles. Except it's not unpleasant."

"And where do you feel it?"

"Mostly my right arm. Upper arm, elbow, forearm, wrist." It was spreading as I spoke. "Now my shoulder. Both shoulders. My left upper arm."

Dr. Oz nodded. "Is there a movement that goes along with this feeling? Do your arms want to move at all? Is there a word or a sound that goes along with it?"

I tried to come up with something. Nothing came. "No."

She nodded again. 

"Wait," I said. I was mortified. I felt ridiculous. But there was something. Suddenly, as if it had been there for years and I'd never noticed, there was something I wanted to do. "I want to push something away, like this."  I pushed up and outward from my right side, as if something were there, pressing down on me.

And, weird as it sounds, there was something there; something I could feel physically as well as viscerally. A large, shadowy shape looming over my head, forcing it sideways (that quizzical tilt!), pressing my right eyelid down. My skin prickled, suddenly hyper-aware. 

I could feel the mass as clearly as I could feel the couch under my legs.

If this surprised Dr. Oz, she didn't show it. "What happens if you push it away?" she asked.

I pushed. The mass moved away, but then came right back when I lowered my hand. I pushed again, and again, and each time, it seemed to move a bit further away, and I could feel the pressure lifting. I could breathe more easily. My head sat straighter on my shoulders. I sat there on that couch with my arms outstretched, pushing outward, creating an invisible sphere of space around myself...

...and feeling like a complete lunatic.

"What the hell is this?" I asked Dr. Oz. "What the hell is happening to me?"

She just smiled. "The body knows what it needs," she said. "It could be a sense memory. Your boundaries were compromised in the accident, so the urge to push could just be your body's way of trying to establish them again."

I didn't feel as casual about this... whatever this was. I felt out of control of my body, my faculties. "I feel like this is happening without my conscious consent," I said. "I feel like my body is doing things without my permission."

"We're not dealing with your rational brain, here," Dr. Oz said. "Trauma activates your reptilian brain, the primitive part that controls life functions and autonomic responses. It's at the very center of your brain, surrounded by your limbic system, which controls emotions, and your intellectual brain--the neo-cortex-- surrounds that. Your intellectual brain can't communicate with your reptilian brain directly. The two parts can only communicate by going through the emotional center."

Oh my god, I understand Dr. Oz's explanation so much better after finding this picture. Of course the two parts have to communicate through emotional processing-- the neurons literally have to travel through the limbic system to reach the other side.

So for a dissociated person, whose emotional center has gone offline and can no longer communicate well with the neo-cortex, getting through to the reptilian brain is a hell of a lot harder. This is why PTSD is so difficult to unravel. There are so many layers to the work.

"So these sense memories are my reptilian brain talking?"

"Yes. You've done a lot of work to get to this point. Your reptilian brain is beginning to process this trauma."

"And what's the numbness? Is that part of it?"

"Researchers believe this is your body's way of releasing that trauma energy that got trapped so long ago. It's like... off-gassing. It's letting it go, and you can feel it in your muscles, like it's evaporating through your skin."

I stared at her. That is exactly what it felt like. "So this is what's supposed to happen? Other people have had this happen? Have you seen this before?"

A slow grin spread over Dr. Oz's normally-composed face, and her eyes sparkled. 

"Only on film," she said.

Over the next few weeks, two things began to happen. 

At Dr. Oz's suggestion, I started using some of the arm and chest machines at the gym that allowed me to push against a weight, which was much more satisfying than pushing against an invisible mass on a shrink's couch. It stopped feeling silly and started feeling like I was taking real, physical control over the situation and changing my circumstances through action. And it was working. I could actually feel the space around me growing as the...whatever it was... receded. 

Most importantly, the claustrophobia attacks began to fade. I haven't had one in months. 

The second thing was that the numbness/off-gassing, which happened during every therapy session, began to happen not only then, but whenever I talked about the therapy or the accident with someone else. It was as if it started during a semi-hypnotic state that became easier and easier to enter whenever I sat on Dr. Oz's couch, and soon I could put myself in it just by thinking about the issues we discussed.

I also began to notice that the pattern of numbness changed every time, as well. It typically started at the site of an injury: my neck, my chin or forehead scar, my kneecaps, my hipbone, my solar plexus. And it spread to the surrounding areas, sometimes extending to the tips of my extremities, other times concentrating very strongly in one spot, building in intensity until I was convinced I could see the skin puckering and shifting under the waves of cold fire.

Cold fire. It still comes whenever my body is doing the work it needs to do, nearly all the time, now (still, as always, without any need of input or permission from the rest of me). It feels more active than passive these days, less like something evaporating and more like something being forced out from within at the sites of greatest disturbance. It's like an awakening of dormant motion; ghost impulses trying to compel me to move, to fight, to run, to stop the car.

Right now, as I type this, my body is numb with cold fire from my ankles to the bottom of my abdomen. If I lift my feet to press phantom brake and clutch pedals beneath my table, these prickling muscles are the ones I need to use. 

That's the movement that goes along with the feeling, now: Press. Brake. Stop. Prevent. The body knows what it needs. What it remembers. What it never had time to do in a blinding moment of panic, but knew it needed to do to ensure its survival: 

Press. Brake. Stop. Prevent.

"At the heart of it, that's what PTSD is," said Dr. Oz, some weeks later. "Your reptilian brain is stuck in survival mode, continuously scanning for threat and responding as if everything were life-or-death. Your job now is to convince it it's safe to stop. Part of you is still not convinced you survived."

A puzzle piece fell neatly into place, and I was suddenly very sure of something. 

"Part of me is pretty convinced I didn't."


  1. THIS IS SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO AWESOME! Ok, that seems like a weird thing to say, but it truly is! I am so honored that you are sharing this with all of us. I keep saying that, but it's true. I wonder what it is going to be like to feel again after all these years?

  2. KateTheGirlWhoLived21 November, 2011 20:50

    I love it when I can make a therapist go caps-locky. ;> I wonder, too. So far, it sucks. Ha. But I'm sure it will get better. Right?