This brief Easter Morning I was sitting on a picnic table in my friends’ apartment’s backyard. They’d invited me for brunch, but had yet to return from Church service. The sun was blunt and hot despite the drafty air and intermittent clouds. A few minutes earlier their landlord had come outside, (understandably) asking what I was doing, as I didn’t look like one of his tenants. I explained and he went off to talk with a tall man with a jaw the shape of a dangling slide. I noticed how much I was staring and tried to refocus.
I watched the sky for nothing and I heard the two men talking over each other. There was nothing sharp about their conversation, but in my head it was getting barbed. Soon enough I was sitting outside on a lovely Sunday afternoon imagining the jawless man shooting the landlord in the upper shoulder. As a few song birds twittered by I imagined the blood gurgling from his shoulder and mouth as I applied pressure. I was also somehow talking to an ambulance driver who was the 911 operator who was telling me I was killing the man, and if I let up pressure he would bleed out. Then I was arrested, my face pressed up against the girth of his chest. A bird tweeted and I looked up from my clenched hands at the nice morning and wondered why I’d slipped into a thought pattern that was so frightening.
There’s a wonderful misnomer about mental illness: it’s all in your head. It’s wonderful on the basis of how patently false it is. Sure without a brain I wouldn’t live with mental illness, but without a brain… need I even continue that line of thought? Feelings tend to live in our bodies. Those butterflies are in your stomach, not because you ate them, but because the nervous system as a lot of receptors in the guts. Things are literally felt in your guts.
See, when I came to and convinced my thoughts they were way off base, my body was the shape of a clenched fist and held just as tight. In fact, it had been tense and clenched before I started thinking of such grisly stuff.
One of the stranger parts of PTSD is that it keeps the Sympathetic Nervous System (this would be the part of us that gets sent into fight or flight mode) on high alert. I am constantly set to run up on someone or run off. Eventually this state is the new normal. I don’t even really register that my hands are shaking, I’m staring out the window to feel safe, or a single loud noise gives me a small anxiety attack, because it all happens so often that it seems par for the course.
The thing is, my idle imagination picks up a lot of clues from my bodily state. My mind and body, like some karmic wheel rolling to hell, set each other off. I physically feel like I’m prepared for a threat so my brain starts thinking about something threatening using whatever’s at hand (and does a pretty good job, not to be too self-congratulatory or anything). I’m torn over whether to tell you any of the gruesome chains of thoughts I’ve had because they’re horrific enough that I feel ashamed of them, like they’re my fault or something. And yeah, they do come from me, but should I add shame onto the pile difficult emotions? The easy answer is no. But try this on for size. I was sitting on a beach next to a lake and there was a little kid five feet away. He seemed a year and a half at the oldest. He had this lovely dopey smile with his tongue sticking out has he smacked the dirt in this spastic burst of movement. And there was his father who looked young enough, had a beard, sunglasses, was reading. And I wondered what would happen if the little kid tried to fit his shovel (it was about the size of his head) into and down his throat? What if the father got sick of the child and did? What if I did? That was the worst question. What if I did? Because I stopped trusting myself. What kind of person could think of this evil shit? That’s what I thought to myself. I’m not a bad person and I’d never do that. That’s how I comforted myself. Why did these terrible thoughts keep popping up? I still didn’t trust myself.
And if you thought that way quite frequently, could you forgive yourself? If every time your brain idled, you thought of the most gruesome scenario (run someone over, bash your teeth out one by one with a rock) and they weren’t even desires, they were fears (tear out that girl’s fingernails, snap that dog’s leg feeling the fur and bones in your warm hands) that you were afraid could exist because you’d been a part of something equally as frightening and brutal and objectifying and humiliating, then what? How would you comfort yourself? It becomes very difficult not to blame oneself, if only to feel like you have control over something, even if that something does not help you.
When I was younger I spent my imagination of friendly creatures in the woods and giant animals and planet hopping aliens landing to find friends. There were darker moments, but not like this, not like the inner slaughterhouse I’m afraid to show anyone (should anyone even see it? Does that help?)
I am certain it’s exhausting. I am certain exercise really truly helps. I am certain my friends and family (as fraught as I might be around them) help. I am certain writing does something. But who am I, this person that thinks these sinful things? Certainly I don’t think these things and something else should be blamed. In my desperate moments everyone would be my priest and I’d spill my evil thoughts and beg for forgiveness; but that wouldn’t really help.
I can tell myself they’re just thoughts, but when that grow out of nothing but a conversation in the distance on a lovely spring morning while I’m waiting for my friends; it’s hard to see these thoughts as just thoughts.