Saturday, December 3, 2011

In Which I Share Too Much Information

If the thought of reading about me naked with another person makes you uncomfortable, stop reading now. 

I will be naked in this post. 

I feel a little weird about telling you this story, but it's so essential to the process that I'm just going to forge ahead and tell you anyway.

Right then. Off we go.

The classic image most people have of PTSD is of the grizzled Vietnam vet hearing a car backfire and being transported back in time, seeing, smelling, feeling the jungle around him, the rifle in his hands, the terror in his throat. Flashbacks. Hallucinations. A tenuous grip on reality under the shadow of an ever-present imaginary threat.

That stuff actually happens, even to people who weren't soldiers, who never saw the horrors of war, who aren't living on the street in a cardboard box. 

Mine happened in a frat house at a fancy private college in Southern California. I was naked at the time. 

I was 20 years old, messing around with my boyfriend (who I remember fondly and to whom I remain indebted for the events about to occur) in his bedroom at the fraternity house where he lived. We were madly in love, had spent an achingly romantic summer writing endless letters to each other while he was working a summer job in his hometown and staying with his parents, and I was working at a camp on an island a two-hour drive and a four-hour boat ride away.

We were fumbling in the dark, exploring each others' bodies, whispering the grand, silly things you whisper when you're young and a naked body next to yours is the height of freedom and rebellion and power: We could get married. We could leave school and backpack across Europe and never come home. We could write poetry and live in France and grow our own vegetables and sleep on trains and see art and make art and make love and be like this, like this, forever.

It was actually sort of innocent, what we were doing, and then all of a sudden it wasn't, it was hotter, better, more, and I realized I was getting there, I was going to...maybe... I couldn't quite be sure but it really seemed all of a sudden like I was going to have my first-ever actual orgasm with someone else in the room.

I had that moment of clarity, this is happening, this is really going to happen right now, and I well and truly went for it. Closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and... let go.

The light glows orange behind my closed eyelids. I am slumped forward and to the left, my head resting against something solid. I can't open my eyes. I can't raise my head. The orange light is everywhere, flashing, intense. 

"Just sit tight, we'll get you out." A deep voice, a stranger's voice, calm and strong above the orange buzz. It is orange inside my head now, inside and out, everything is orange. 

"Don't try to move. We'll get you out. We're going to get you out. Just sit tight. Sit tight."

I don't know who is speaking or if he's talking to me. Sitting tight seems like a good idea. I float  away on an orange sea, waiting, waiting-- 

Jolt. My eyes flew open and I was not where I expected to be, the dark surprising, the room unfamiliar. I must have already been crying or screaming by then because that sweet boy was crouched beside me, trying to get his arms around me, weeping, terrified. 

I was shaking, flailing, protesting, my heart pounding out of my chest. The calm I'd felt in the orange light was gone, replaced by something that made no sense: scream, run, get away. It was the most afraid I'd ever felt.

It wasn't a hallucination, or not exactly. It was a memory, my first moment of consciousness after the impact, surfacing for the first time in a moment of abandon. I knew it without doubt. It was a piece of the puzzle clicking into place. That was real. That happened.

And for all intents and purposes, it had just happened again. And had scared the living shit out of my boyfriend, who was now sobbing into my shoulder and trying to get me to stop trembling.

It took a few hours.

In the days that followed, an idea took shape: there are things my body knows that it is keeping from me. It could release that knowledge at any time. I am surrounded by a minefield and I will have to pass through it to get to any strong emotion, anything outside of this new "monotone" existence I've been living. All roads out of here lead through that minefield. If I want out, I have to deal with that first.

I didn't know what "dealing with that first" would entail, but I knew I absolutely, positively did not want to do it. 

So I didn't. 

I pitched a tent in the center of that minefield and set up shop there. I narrowed my boundaries. I closed off options. I stopped trying for highs and lows and started getting used to sort-of-medium.

Not on purpose, but it's what I did.

Lest you fear for my sex life, I managed to find a way around the blockage there. My body is withholding but it's on my side, at least. Who knows how I did it, or how deeply compromised my understanding of pleasure is within the fearful perimeters I set that night in the frat house, but I've done all right in that department in the intervening years.

To a certain extent, my mind whispers. I bet there's more and better. I bet you don't know the half of it. 

Well if that's true, man oh man. How do the rest of you people function? And in the likely scenario that it is at least somewhat true, it certainly adds incentive to work this shit out and soon, no?

So. In case you haven't noticed, my explanation for that experience-- the way it felt, undeniably, at the time-- is pretty much a textbook example of Peter Levine's understanding of PTSD. My body was stuck in the loop of the unresolved trauma and couldn't function naturally without triggering the traumatic response. 

This is exactly what happens when a war vet hits the deck in response to a loud noise-- the reptilian brain, still in survival mode, interprets such stimuli as threats and acts accordingly. Fight, run, freeze, says the brain, and the body does what it's told. Someone stuck in a war- or attack-induced loop often sticks at fight and run, and in the civilian world that often looks like beat, shout, self-destruct. 

Car accident victims, on the other hand, often stick at freeze. Fight and run got ruled out early on in that fleeting moment of approaching headlights, so freeze was all there was to do. Post-impact, freeze looks like I am fearful, I am passive, I can't control what happens to me, I don't have a voice.

What's really insidious about these trauma-response loops is that they don't feel like responses to anything. They feel like the kind of person you are. "I am a person who can't sustain relationships," or "I am a person who is full of rage," or "I am a person who can't fight back," or "I am a person who is overwhelmed by the simplest of things." They become the story you tell yourself about who you are, and they control you through their cheapest, ugliest weapon: shame.

Most of us with these response loops inside of us have no idea they're there. We don't know our reptilian brains are on high alert, that things outside of our limits of tolerance, wherever they may be, are causing us to go into life-or-death mode, to lash out or shut down or whatever it is we do to flatten out that line again and get ourselves equalized. 

We just feel like the kind of person who can't quite get it together like everyone else, in one way or another. And that feels shameful.

I will talk more about this in my next post. For now, I'll take a break. Writing this entry has triggered my PTSD in a big way. My body is numb and tingling from ankle to abdomen and now my arms are getting in on the act, my heart is racing, and my hands are trembling to the point that the typos are becoming a nuisance.

Oh yes, that minefield is still there, and it's grown over the years.

I'm not so afraid of it anymore, though. 

Turns out, I do have a voice, after all.


  1. "Turns out, I do have a voice, after all."

    You have no idea. 

    Reading this entry transported me back to different points in my life, the way a song or a smell sometimes does. Young love, decisions made for the wrong reasons, whole chunks of your life lived poorly out of fear or guilt or whatever.

    Generally speaking, reading is something I do as a pleasant distraction from reality.  Entertainment. Rarely is it something that moves me, that affects me.  Your writing does.  Don't stop.


  2. I'll Say!
    Just think of all of the dimensions you will discover as you diffuse that minefield.
    What an awesome life you are having, and will be having as this story unfolds. 

  3. Kate, thank you for sharing this.  I'm really touched by your candor.  I hope that getting your suffering (or teeny tiny bits of it) out onto paper may help relieve some small bit of it?

    On a personal note, your writing is helping me with my own PTSD.  It's about emotional stuff, not physical (as if they're separate!), and you've raised a cool way of seeing it:  those years of suffering were my emotions "stuck in the loop of the unresolved trauma ...triggering the traumatic response." 

    Most memorable example is when the commercials for Lawry's Seasoned Salt were making me cry, I knew I was over the edge.  Seasoned salt for crissake!  Not normal!!  So from now on, when I think of this and start feeling like a soppy emotional cripple, I'll be thankful that my traumatic response chose essential food products to trigger reactivation, rather than getting laid. 
    Thank you for your post, it's really fascinating being able to understand this very personal stuff of yours, and you are helping me see my own stuff differently.

    Please keep writing, and sharing.  You're really great at this. I'm so grateful that you lived.

  4. OK, Kate.  I thought I knew what drunk driving looked like, what effects it had on people's lives.  Turns out I didn't.  

    "We were fumbling in the dark, exploring each others' bodies, whispering the grand, silly things you whisper when you're young and a naked body next to yours is the height of freedom and rebellion and power: We could get married. We could leave school and backpack across Europe and never come home. We could write poetry and live in France and grow our own vegetables and sleep on trains and see art and make art and make love and be like this, like this, forever."This is so beautiful.  The fact that the evening didn't end the way you deserved has no power to make this moment any less beautiful.  And how lovely was your young, sobbing, deeply concerned boyfriend?"To a certain extent, my mind whispers. I bet there's more and better. I bet you don't know the half of it."

    I'll let you in on a secret. There isn't more and better.  There is, however, less and worse.  I know some extremely frank and intelligent women, and this is what they report:  There's the husband who won't sleep with you for years on end, and you can't figure out why.  There's the man you don't love anymore, despite the fact that he is the father of your children.  There's the man you love more than oxygen who cheats on you.  There's the woman you love who can't love you back, not the way you'd like her to, because she's straight.  There's the husband who drinks and then murders somebody in a bar fight (no, I didn't make that, or any of these, up).  There's the aching for biological children and not being able to have them.  There's the getting knocked up at age 15 by someone who doesn't love you.  There's the stumbling towards intimacy when you are a survivor of abuse and assault. 

    This isn't to trivialize what happened to you.  What happened to you sucked more than anyone who hasn't gone through it can possibly imagine.  But sex was always going to be a mine field.  The question was only ever, "Which one?"

    "Well if that's true, man oh man. How do the rest of you people function?"  

    It's not true.  And we function like you:  by sharing our stories and working things out with our partners and putting one foot in front of the other.  

    "Turns out, I do have a voice, after all."

    This reminds me of the quote from Muriel Rukeyser.  "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?  The world would split open."

    Congratulations on splitting the world open.  

  5. KateTheGirlWhoLived08 December, 2011 16:25

    As long as I get out of this with all my limbs intact, I'm good. It's amazing what comes up during the week-- it's usually difficult to decide which thing to write about next. Interesting to think of this as an awesome life. You may be right about that.

  6. KateTheGirlWhoLived08 December, 2011 16:25

    Oh, Eric, your response is so meaningful to me. Thank you. I really appreciate all you've shared about your personal experience with this. I will write this thing until it's written.

  7. KateTheGirlWhoLived08 December, 2011 16:25

    I promise, Smiley.

  8. KateTheGirlWhoLived08 December, 2011 16:31

    Hey Lisa!  No, the emotional and the physical are not at all separate. I'm going to write more about that soon, too. I'm going to try to make some diagrams, too-- emotional dissociation just screams for a diagram, don't you think?  

    It's interesting that you find yourself crying at silly commercials-- I do that too during really weird phases. I always feel like my body is going for the cheap ticket-- it's grabbing any excuse it can find for emotional release. Somehow, commercials often fit the bill. And it's no-risk-- there's nothing REALLY at stake in those moments, so the body can release without fear of really breaking down, and without having to actually process anything that might be too scary.

    How does that strike you? Does it resonate at all, or is this just me?

  9. KateTheGirlWhoLived09 December, 2011 15:37

    Whew. When you write from the heart, it is devastating.

    Sex was always going to be a minefield. That is a good thing to remember. It was. It is. It would have been even without this stuff.

    There is another layer that came later that I'll write about when I figure out how. It's the one thing that I vastly prefer to think of as a symptom of this trauma, rather than the cause of so much trauma of its own-- which is how I've thought of it in the intervening years. 

    I'll give my trauma power credit for that situation, because it's by far the lesser of two evils. But your words remind me not to give the trauma TOO much credit.

  10. Oh, dear.  The next layer sounds very bad.  My heart goes out to you for whatever it is. No doubt you are right, and it is trauma-induced.  

    I overstated/oversimplified my case when I said there isn't more and better.  I definitely wasn't trying to imply that your trauma was not the cause of what happened in this journal entry - it surely, surely was, and what a terrible experience that must have been.  You and your boyfriend deserved better.  At the same time, the "more and better" sentence reminded me that we women have a tendency to think however we (and our partners) are in bed is not good enough.  Movies and magazines (I'm looking at you, Cosmo) tend to capitalize on us feeling that way.  To me, it seems like how we are in bed is how we are out of it -- imperfect, jubilant, damaged, masterful, distracted, loving, etc.  And while Cosmo says that is not enough, that there is better sex and everyone else is having it, I think it is enough.  For all our scars, *we* are enough.