Though I don’t like to think about it, I sometimes wonder how I went from enthusiastically running a service business that doubled every year from word of mouth alone to homeless, struggling not so proudly just to get by. It was a long, slow decline. Overall, it took about 19 years to go from rocking it to suddenly shocked senseless by a devastating flashback that derailed my whole life. Trauma memories erupting violently to the forefront eroded my ability to stay on track as various trauma triggers increasingly knocked me off it.
In retrospect, there were warning signs, hints of things to come long before then. Panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, depression oozing from every clammy pore. Hyper-vigilance, confusion, the inability to make decisions. A growing commitment to isolation. Then, suddenly thrust back into that waking nightmare, I had to start life over from the perspective of a terrified and traumatized 8-year-old. As a child, grownups were something to fear, certainly not to trust. Sure, I still looked and talked like a middle-aged adult. Yet hidden behind these eyes was a scared and scarred and vulnerable little kid, having little clue as to how to function in an adult world. And I was surrounded by them. Yikes! That’s no way to spend a day, much less a decade. Hijacked by a C-PTSD trained brain, even simple activities became difficult, at times impossible. Still, I had to pretend as best I could. After all, it surely felt like my life and my safety depended on it.
The quest to recover, to find some semblance of peace, comfort, and functionality in a world that hardly seems real, to overcome years of adverse and multi-layered childhood trauma, has been lifelong and daunting. A confirmed and committed introvert, I’m already in the minority. As a male-bodied survivor, that circle shrinks even more. It’s common for survivors to feel like aliens in a strange world. At times, I’m sure I must be completely invisible – like a time traveler just out of phase with this reality. It’s like I don’t exist here. It’s like I don’t exist anywhere – except within the haunted maze of my own shattered psyche.
There’s no place for me here. I’ve thought that so many times. Especially in being homeless the last three and a half years, that’s the ultimate confirmation. Watching others going about their day, shopping, working, living their lives, I’m happy for them. And I marvel. How do they manage it? Such good fortune seems so out of reach. The brightness of their shiny cars and elegant clothing hurts my eyes. Then there’s the shabby crackhead ambling down the road hand in hand with his much too skinny girlfriend. Lucky them! Whatever their struggles, which must be extreme, at least they have each other. I can’t help wondering where’s the bright side for me?
“There’s always room on the other side.” I often say this to comfort myself. “If it ever gets bad enough, there’s always room on the other side.” They call that suicidal ideation. One of the many paradoxical symptoms of C-PTSD. A warning sign? Sure. In some respects. It also provides a sense of control in situations that feel mostly beyond my control, beyond hope to affect meaningful change. Numb as I sometimes am, I know I’m really in pain when I start thinking that way. Ironically, it’s also a comforting thought that keeps me plugging along, just one more day, one more try, seeking one more chance, one more clue of how to finally get it right. After all, it’d be nice to actually live, at least a little, before I leave this world.
But I’m not entirely a lost cause. Not yet. I can still write. I can still speak. I have lots of skills both intellectual and physical that I enjoy using for personal fulfillment and to help others. Maybe I’ll never function consistently enough to really make ends meet. And yet, this world is filled with possibilities. My motivation and ingenuity are still intact. I may have to design and plot my own customized course. But isn’t customized anything better? Besides, as those aspiring to recover, to self-actualize, isn’t charting our own course part of the point?
Frozen in one place – free in another. Despite any deficits, I can and often do help others connect the dots in their own recovery. When I’m wandering somewhere within the lane of my resiliency zone, I welcome such opportunities. Fellow survivors have said, “But I don’t want
to bring you down, venting all my crap.” I try to keep a straight face while smiling inside. “It’s OK,” I say, “It helps me too.”
It’s a chance to express my heart, to fulfill my purpose, to connect with someone who’s motivated to grow. What I don’t say, maybe never had the courage to say, is, “Please, you don’t understand. You give me a chance to feel like I exist: here, now, with you… if only for a little while. Let’s connect in some mutually meaningful way. I thrive on beauty. Give me a chance to see what’s cool about you. Give me a reason to exist, before I disperse once and finally and forever into the mist. After all, trauma may be hell, but hell shared is soothing solace.”
As I observe the ebb and flow of my history, I’m reminded of something I heard early in addiction recovery. “This too shall pass.” And that reminds me of something I realized back then. “How it looks isn’t always how it is.” In fact, I’d say that nothing is only how it seems at first, especially the negative. It’s only one perspective. One of countless others, not all of which are so dire.
We may feel stuck in adverse circumstances. Daunting though it can sometimes be, one thing we can change is our perspective. There are other options. Always. Especially when depressed and despairing, we need to remember this. When we’re feeling OK, it helps to make a list of positive options as a reminder to refer to when times are hard.
We can choose another perspective. It’s not about getting the “right” perspective. If in a negative rut, anything different is potentially progress. Start with the opposite. While never a fan of conflict, it sometimes pays to argue with ourselves! “I’m worthless!” “Bullshit! I’m worthwhile!” Or challenge the negative belief with a question. “I’ll never get over this!” “Are you sure about that?” Despite any black hole we may be facing, there really is a bright spot somewhere. To challenge negative beliefs is to pull back the veil, if just a little, to see ways beyond them. It helps to remember this. Otherwise, it’s far too easy to default to negative perspectives and bury ourselves in the muck of them.
Maybe you need to be seen, heard, validated for the amazing being you are. So, for your sake and mine, I’ll ask you what I silently wonder about everyone. What’s cool about you? If you read this, you obviously have something going for you. What is that: motivation, determination? What makes your heart glow – even just a little? What’s the opposite of some nagging negative belief that won’t seem to go away?
Or, as inspired by one of my favorite songs, Hands, by Jewel, “If you could tell the world just one thing, what would you say?” After all, I’m betting that someone somewhere in your world, in our world, needs to hear it.
J. Bradley O ©06062020
J. Bradley O is a writer, peer mentor, and author of the forthcoming memoir, Shimmering Shattered Self – Reclaiming Treasure from the Trauma of Childhood Sexual Abuse. He has devoted over 30 years to investigating the devastating personal impact of childhood abuse trauma. Using the uncanny perception of an empathic introvert, he identifies and reveals obscure factors critical to personal recovery. As a salvaged wood crafter, he revels in demonstrating the inherent value, purpose, and splendor of materials invalidated by status quo standards. For more insights and updates on his forthcoming book, subscribe to his blog at dancinginthemaze.wordpress.com.