This article was previously posted on Medium.com *8/24/2021
Mental health, am I right? Reentering the “real world” after my brain shut down in June has been…interesting.
They call it a partial hospitalization. I was home evenings and weekends, but my weekdays were dedicated to studying coping skills, mindfulness, sharing feelings, and navigating big truths. On day two the floodgates opened. After 15 years of therapy to deal with Bipolar Disorder and ADHD, surprise! Sexual abuse by my father. Complex PTSD it is.
How could a person not remember that for 40 years? I don’t know. I’m not a psychiatrist. What I do know is that many of my memories are like looking through a tiny telescope. For years I’ve only recalled small snippets of a much larger event. What’s happening now, is that the image is widening. I’m remembering before and after the tiny event, and I’m also getting vivid flashbacks. The flashbacks are familiar. I’ve actually felt the emotional and physical effects of them my whole life, I just didn’t know what they were. I didn’t have an image to connect to. Now there is no doubt…or is there?
I recently learned that I was the scapegoat of a Narcissist father. This basically means that when he needed someone to blame, someone to back up one of his bullshit stories, someone to humiliate or discredit, or just someone to attack, I was his main target. When my core beliefs were being set up between birth and age 7, my father was purposely filling my head with lies.
There’s the “don’t trust your instincts because people who say and act as they like you, are lying. They really don’t like you, they told me so.”
There’s the “I never did that” when I caught him doing something devious, a.k.a GASLIGHTING.
There’s the “you behave disrespectfully to me and need to apologize to me at all times whether or not you know what you’ve done..or really even when you’ve done nothing wrong.”
There are the “secrets that belong in the family. Never tell anyone the truth.”
And so many more. Lucky for me, my brain grew around trauma, so I essentially have brain damage that keeps my Fight or Flight engaged. Mmmmm…constant adrenaline.
Negative core beliefs lead to negative self-esteem which leads to an inability to trust yourself. See? We’re learning together. Even when a flashback takes over your mind and body for an hour while you scream and punch your face, the next day you’re like, “Did that really happen?” Yes, Jamie, it did. You know that because you had another paralyzing flashback a few days later and a few days after that. This is your brain talking. I’m tired of being silenced so I’m showing you everything.
It’s fascinating picking up groceries after something like that. I’ve gotten panic attacks in grocery stores for so long that under “normal” circumstances I can put on a simple mental mask and shop through them. Well, now the mask is ripped off and I’m like a mermaid who just got her legs. Stumbly, confused and completely overwhelmed.
“May I help you?”
“May I help y-”
“Don’t touch me! Apples! I need apples!”
Isn’t this fun?
It won’t last forever, I’m told. As I work through and process the trauma and learn to be present, it will be quieter, a far off memory, not a paralyzing, combative embarrassing situation for which I automatically feel the need to apologize because my core beliefs say I am always wrong and I am not allowed to make mistakes. So, before I promise to buy the produce manager a car for yelling at him, then torture myself for the rest of the day, I think I’ll limit my public appearances until I do some more work.
But then there’s the 8ft. trip to the mailbox where I run into my neighbor.
This isn’t awkward at all.
“I’m on medical leave for Complex PTSD caused by childhood trauma.”
I’ve always been a truth-teller. Why sugarcoat? I’m an open book. Ask me anything…and he does. We get into a lovely conversation about emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. I learn a lot about his family’s history, he learns a lot about mine.
“Yes, my father is a registered sex offender. He was convicted of owning and distributing child pornography in 2009. Your mother was abused by her father? That’s terrible.” Just a typical neighborly chat. “Ooh! Valpak coupons! See you tomorrow!”
Strangely, this has been a more typical conversation than I’d expected. It seemed disingenuous to post happy pictures on social media, so I “came out” posting a public reveal of my diagnosis: Bipolar 2 (which leans to the depressive side), ADHD, and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (like regular PTSD, but instead of being based on a single event, it is due to prolonged trauma). Suddenly I had people revealing their own diagnosis, trauma, or suspicions of both. It seems to be a common thread we all share, but no one quite knows how to put it into words. Especially without apologizing.
A fascinating part about trauma is how it’s physically manifested in me. In my first week at the hospital, my body looked like one of those blow-up characters in front of a car dealership. I’m just doing the wave while people are sharing their deepest fears. Don’t mind me, I just need to stand and sit suddenly for the next hour, no wait, it’s leg jiggling time….and now it’s time to lie on the floor. When my neck, back, and arm muscles get so tight that I’m nauseous and can barely sit still, that’s when I know something big is about to be revealed. I’ve gotten some temporary medicine to deal directly with the physical ticks, flashbacks, and nightmares that continue to emerge.
Hypervigilance is an especially exciting effect. When I sense danger my vision tunnels in a small and targeted way. My ears pick up sounds at a higher and more distinct volume. My skin feels like it burns to the touch.
Being a highly intuitive, empathic person who picks up on people’s emotions before even being close enough to see their faces, this has been happening a LOT (especially in a hospital where other patients display traits I associate with my lying father). It just happened this weekend when my husband and I went out to celebrate my birthday. Just when I thought it was safe to re-enter public life, I spotted a male predator hitting on and touching a woman inappropriately. That cackling laugh, those wandering hands, STOP! STOP!
“Jamie!” Oh, sorry, husband. Forgot you were there. Yes, I would like to switch seats. There’s a predator in my eye-line. How long has the waitress been here?
Dissociation is the most fun of all. That’s when I get to the checkout line, but all I can think about are the coupons that I’m not sure I clipped on my app. Coupons remind me of my Mom and how difficult my dad made things for her which brings me back to childhood trauma, which leads to me unloading the grocery cart of the person behind me. People love when strangers handle their produce. Especially in a pandemic. It’s really fun to explain why you didn’t hear them the first 10 times they tried to stop you.
Other occasions include driving without knowing how you got there, being in a conversation but having no idea what’s been said, or my personal favorite referred to as a “brownout.” I am in a familiar place, like my neighborhood for example, but none of the buildings look familiar, and, oh yeah, I can’t read.
Running through a theme park in fight or flight can be equally as entertaining as being on a ride. There’s nothing like that rush of adrenaline that sparks DANGER! in your body, closing your fists into such tight balls that your fingernails make your hands bleed. You hold your fists to your body because you’re having a flashback and are about to punch everyone around you. All you can see are the holes on the ground where people’s feet aren’t, and you jump from hole to hole until you find enough open space to feel safe. It’s kind of like a water ride because when it’s over, you’re completely drenched.
So, reentry. Still working on that one. If you see a blonde, former mermaid in public, loudly reciting her grocery list while staring at a carton of eggs for an obscenely long time, just give me a wave, and a little understanding while I attempt to start my car with a breadstick.
Creative storyteller working through Complex PTSD one post at a time