I was 25. I was walking around one of those new mall-complexes (the ones with mostly high end stores and restaurants and apartments/condos on top that try to recreate an old city feel of market and residence, only it doesn’t have any feeling of community and feels like hollow capitalist posturing [the streets, as packed as they might be, feel consistently empty, because that community feeling just doesn’t exist. A lot of people coming to a place to shop at a bunch of high end stores doesn’t bind people, unless it’s in only the most superficial manner[i]]). The street was new enough that the black asphalt had a slight laminated look, even in the dull winter sun when streets tend to seem laconic and sleepy rather than sharp and sparkling, the way they do when the summer sun burns of them. The shops effectively built a wind tunnel, albeit one walled with high end consumer products (Apple, gourmet chocolate, a bunch of inscrutable clothing stores that carry three blouses a piece it seems like). All I can really hear is the dim thump of my heart. I’m walking around, face red and windblown and squinting, with thick orange earplugs expertly embedded in my ear canals. I say expertly because by this point in my life I’ve put earplugs in a few thousand times; multiple times a day, every day for years. I’ve honed it from a practice to a craft to an art: Cock my head to one side, open my jaw to open the ear canal, right hand goes up and pulls on ear lobe to extend opening, left hand is rolling earplug into needle like shape, earplug is inserted without hesitance, wait and let ear plug, repeat the process for the left ear changing hands as needed.
I’ve done this multiple times a day for years because I have (had then, still do now even though it’s in a different form) PTSD; post-traumatic stress disorder. Basically, I lived through something (which I’ll get to, but not in this particular post) which peeled back what little was covering my nerves and left them to the cold winds. The worst was being in a perfectly peaceful shopping area with complete strangers going about their own business in that bickering-giggling way that I imagined contentment might sound like. It was the worst because I knew that the fact I was overwhelmed in a nice area was weird. I probably looked weird, or at least I was really worried. In fact every stimulus gave me something to worry about. My brain was rewired to look for possible threats. This is often explained with a guy coming back from Iraq hitting the floor after hearing a car backfire, and this can be true, but the example does enough wrong to mislead those without PTSD into thinking they can never understand it[ii]. This example does a few things: it highlights the external reactions to stimuli, it downplays in incessant rumble of anxiety that causes the above reaction, and it allocates PTSD to an Other place (war). All of these distance the listener from the idea that they might be able to—under case “u”—understand PTSD. I’d like to extend the example a bit. Afterwards the man is embarrassed and angry and confused. He thinks he shouldn’t feel any of these things so he only becomes more embarrassed. He puts his hands in his jackets and squeezes his fists so hard that the whiteness extends from his knuckles to the whole back of his shaking hands. He chews the inside of his cheek until a bleeds a bit because it somehow calms the tightness in his chest. He can hardly hear anything besides voices that are obviously his own thoughts and also something other. The voices seem girlish. Was it those women who gasped and hightailed it away from him? He hears them talk about being a psycho. He was determined not to let this happen. Maybe he drinks, maybe he yells, maybe he cries, but eventually that hard edged anxiety fills him up again.
The thing is, everything I added is uncomfortable stuff I’ve held in my head and heart and I sure as hell didn’t get sent to war. So I tried to cope with it by controlling the intensity of the stimuli. Thus the earplugs. It was not a great strategy. Or rather, it wasn’t a great strategy because it worked too well. I could walk down the side of the road no longer feeling jarred by a dog barking five miles away. If I stumbled into the road I’d only be jarred by the force of a car, rather than the sound of it coming. But, more than that, I started shutting off stimulus wherever I could unless I was perfectly in control of a situation. I spent more time playing video games and less time reading and writing[iii]. I was living in a consistently more frightening place. No one really knew why. I didn’t even know it was happening. And then something would upset me and I’d have to go outside and furiously chop at a stump with a hatchet or hit a boulder with a sledge hammer, both cases until my hands bled and I’d spent all my strength so I could finally cry because I had nothing to hold myself back. All of this getting worse because I was hurt and I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t put the earplugs in to block the world out; I put them in to stop hearing myself.
The shoppers at the mall-complex weren’t cackling, they were laughing. I was involuntarily creating a terrifying world and warning myself about how dangerous it was to the point where I was so numbed with pain that I would get afraid I was some kind of sociopath with the capacity to take life because I swear that guy on the corner in front of the Barnes and Noble has a knife and I’d take that fucker out before he got to me and this whole train of thought would end up scaring me even more. If it sounds crazy I’m a little glad, but there’s also an ingenious logic to anxiety spirals that makes them all the more frustrating and dangerous (if confused, follow logic set in fn. III but use anxiety instead of compassion).
I can say this with some finality. I don’t use earplugs to avoid myself anymore. Most days I can be good to my pain. Not every day, but most days. It also isn’t steady progress. I have to trust the progress is happening and only in retrospect does it seem like I’ve been anywhere. But I have to believe, I don’t have a real choice. I have to believe I really have made progress, right?
[i] In fact it was actually right outside the mall-complex Blue Back Square where I saw two white men, one around sixty, but a money-healthy sixty (tan skin, white button down with a little chest hair showing) and another one with pitch dark hair, talking about their respective Benz’s. They both owned the same model, just different colors. The thing is, there was nothing weary or jaded about their conversation. Each man’s eyes beamed with the exuberant excitement I know I get from having a damn good conversation with a stranger: connecting and feeling connected too. The sad part though was that it was through the parlance of their cars’ accoutrements (not even the workings of the engine, the kind of car stuff I’ve always admired and wanted to know more about, what makes the damn things work and all their intricacies). It was stuff like “Oh did you get the heated seat?” “Yeah I love them”. There’s nothing inherently bad about this kind of discussion, it’s just the material stuff seemed to get in the way of what the men really enjoyed about the interaction with each other. The exciting part was the fact they were both so open to talk, not that they had similar cars. The cars became really expensive excuses to realize a stranger can be fully real and open and revitalizing to us, rather than an anonymous face. But, once the amenities of the cars were all listed the conversation started stalling until it came to a halt and they said well nice talking but gotta go. I like to think (as childish and naïve as it may sound) that they became friends, but I really doubt it. There are so many weird rules about making friends as men. It’s frowned upon to just meet someone randomly and become friends because it seems too close to romantic and quite possibly gay (Eve Sedgewick goes into great and interesting detail about this in her work on homosociality among men. Epistemology of the Closet is a good place to start). It is not sad that they had something in common, it is upsetting that this commonality was also a limitation to their interaction. Something ventured and nothing gained.
[ii] If I have a strong bias it’s this: I believe humans (some more than others) are incapable of incredible compassion and imaginative force. I believe that there is a meeting ground upon which differences can be understood. The idea that depression can never be understood or PTSD can never be understood are helpful in an argument against some a-hole that thinks they’re just a failure to have a strong will, but they stop being helpful once they tell those untouched by the emotional violence of these conditions that they shouldn’t even try to understand. No, you should, and if not for the benefit of those around you then at least for your own benefit. Cynical as this argument is, attempting to really truly hear someone’s pain and the particular ways it cuts them can deepen you capacity for compassion, your ability to tolerate stress, your ability to deal with your own special pain. I’m serious with this. So, of course you can never truly understand the particular pain of a cold dark afternoon when depression rears its head and sinks and teeth, but the attempt can deepen you as a listener. There’s a lot of talk about how millennials are self-absorbed and materialistic, but I haven’t found this to be true. I found that people really do want to “connect,” we just aren’t great at it. What tended to be left out of the narrative (or at least mine) was the fact that real connection has nothing to do with pure euphoric love and a whole lot to do with the ability to hold the anger or sadness of others in your chest and let it sit without reacting back in a defensive way. Look, before this gets too long, obviously anecdotal evidence and assertion won’t win any arguments and they shouldn’t, but what would you rather believe—that Millennials are narcissistic knuckleheads that’ll screw the whole world up or that maybe there are thing about our generation that are like every damn generation before us and some things that are a lot different and that most of us want to work hard and connect and feel enough to be able to look back and say “okay I really did live”? What do you think would be better for you, in your gut, to believe”
[iii] This might not sound like it makes sense, but hear me out: Part of PTSD is a constant running away from how I really feel. I never wanted to engage with anything I had to really concentrate on because that meant that outside my own cone of concentration my subconscious was allowed to bring up any old painful thing it felt was necessary. Painful memories or even simple feelings that don’t really have a home, raise to consciousness because they need attention and compassion. I didn’t want this. I’d feel my fear and anger and get confused and angry, spiraling out into a panic attack. If there’s any big change I’ve been allowed to work on it’s been how I react to my reactions. It sounds too subtle to matter but it does. The more I tell myself it’s okay to be in pain the less pain, conversely, I’ll be in because when said pain rises to conscious thought I can coddle it, play catch with it, let it hang out in my mental house until it changes a bit.