Author’s Note: It took me over a month to write this because simply describing what it is like to struggle with the symptoms of C-PTSD resulted in triggering fear, anxiety, and flashbacks. I persisted with this narrative because I want people who have never experienced the complexities of this illness to have a better understanding of what someone with PTSD or C-PTSD might be trying to manage. If you personally struggle with anxiety, have PTSD or C-PTSD, or you are triggered by descriptions of fear or trauma, you should not read this. It is hard to read. It was hard to write.
In the car today, a good friend (I rarely leave the house without someone with me) asked me if I had looked at the condominiums in town for potential rentals when I was in the middle of my housing search last year. I had, and he asked what I had thought of them and why I had not opted to live there. I told him that the basement in one I looked at had scared me. He asked what I meant. I told him that the basement was a “predatory basement.” He looked confused and asked, “Was there a walkout basement? Were you worried about someone breaking in?” I struggled with how to explain the unexplainable. Would he think I was crazy if I told him the truth? Was it possible to explain how my brain twists even the most basic things in life and makes them feel like a horror movie? I decided to be honest, and I said, “I could imagine someone chopping people up into little bits in the basement.” He gasped, “Why would you say something like that?” This is the trouble with PTSD, nightmares, flashbacks, and cognitive distortions. Intellectually, I know it doesn’t make any sense.
I can’t prevent the fears from taking over my thoughts. The first time this happened while driving terrified me. I was in my minivan in the evening and the lights from another car pushed shadows through my vehicle. The shadows came alive. I was no longer alone in my car. My heart raced. I was trapped and someone or something was going to hurt me or kill me. I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t remember where I was going, or why I was in my car. Instinct kicked in and I pulled off the road at the next exit. Flight. I stopped at a gas station, and parked under the hood of lights next to a gas pump. I took a couple of deep breaths. I repeated “it’s ok, you’re ok, just breathe” over and over again in my head. The gas station had another set of triggers. People. People I did not know; variables that were outside of my control. I walked in, still slightly dazed, and bought myself a cup of coffee. This is not a once-a-year event; I have experiences like this nearly half of the time that I am in the car alone. I don’t drive much anymore. If I have to go somewhere, I do everything I can to find someone safe who can ride along with me or to drive me wherever I need to go.
A few weeks ago I did something I had not done in a really long time. I went to the grocery store by myself. I drove myself there, three miles from my home. I sat in my car for about an hour watching the cars in the parking lot. It was nearly 10 pm, and the parking lot was mostly empty. I paid attention to how long people were in the store; from the time they got out of their car to the time they got back into the car. I counted cars. I counted people. Twelve cars. One car with two people. Three cars with one person each. Eight cars with an unknown number of people – maybe employees at the store. I looked through my grocery list which I had typed on my phone. I re-arranged the list to account for where I expected items to be located in the store. Produce first. Meat and bakery next. Then dairy. Etc. I started my own personal self-talk in my head. You’ve got this. This won’t take long. You can leave anytime you want. You don’t need to buy everything on this list. You can leave the cart in the store, walk out, and drive home if you have an anxiety attack. Thirty more minutes of self-talk and examining my list. I took the first step into the store and felt some small sense of safety knowing that the shopping cart would keep people at least a few feet away from me. I could even use it as a weapon if needed. Yes, I thought about pushing the cart into someone if I needed to escape.
I made it about 20 minutes in the store before I started to feel dizzy. Beads of sweat started running down my face. I had goose bumps on my arms and the back of my neck. I felt cold and clammy. I thought I might pass out. I was in the aisle with the chips. I told myself to walk to the front of the store. Just walk. Hold on to the cart. Walk. I repeated the instructions. Breathe. Walk. Breathe. Walk. At the front of the store, I pushed my cart towards a cashier. I managed to speak.
“Can I please leave my cart here? I will be back in a little bit. I am having an anxiety attack.” The words just came out. I wasn’t sure I was making any sense. “I am just going to my car. I will be back. I might be gone for a while, an hour, or a while. Please let me leave my cart here. I will be back.”
I ran out the door and made it to my car. I spent over an hour in my car. I tried to process what had happened. There had been a human in the chip aisle with me. A male human. He hadn’t done anything to illicit my fear. He simply existed. Was he the trigger for this panic attack? I had been feeling the effects of anxiety before I had even entered the store, so perhaps this one added variable had pushed me over an edge. I cried in the car. I felt like a failure. Why was it so hard to go to the grocery store? What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just be normal?
I looked at my list and contemplated just driving home. I only had six or seven items left on the list. I already had most of my groceries sitting in a cart ready to check out. There were only 10 cars in the parking lot. I hadn’t seen any new people arrive, but a few left. The human from the chip aisle left. He did not seem to be aware of my presence in my car. I went back in to the store. The cashier I had spoken at wasn’t in sight, but my cart was just where I had left it. I made my way back into the maze of aisles to find my last few items. I missed the laundry soap aisle and I couldn’t get myself to turn the cart around and go find it. I struggled to check out. I was embarrassed by my earlier departure from the store. The cashier didn’t mention it, and I didn’t make eye contact, avoiding any potential looks. The cashier helped me bag my groceries, which was rare for this store, but I was grateful to be able to exit quicker. I made it home. I was exhausted. Bone tired, exhausted. But I did it. I haven’t been able to go back. I am afraid of failing. I am afraid that there will be too many variables. I am afraid that if I try, but I don’t get through it, that it will set me back even further.
Nighttime is the worst; closing my eyes, and praying that I will fall into a peaceful sleep. At the very least, that I’ll be able to tell myself in the middle of a nightmare that it is “just a nightmare,” and not real. But most of my nightmares do not work that way. Usually I am trapped in a service tunnel that weaves through a mall to give employees access to the loading docks and dumpsters. Sometimes I am outside of a mall near the loading dock itself. I am being chased. Guns are being fired. Someone grabs me as I turn the corner just as I think I am about to get away. Sometimes I get shot, and I am lying in the dark tunnel, dying. I had once been told that you can’t die in a dream. I assumed that meant that I could not dream anything that resulted in my own death. Now I know that is not true. I have died in my nightmares. I have come to terms with dying in my nightmares. It is better than the fear leading up to the death. Unfortunately dying in a nightmare does not end the nightmare. Instead it recycles itself and I find myself making different decisions as I try to escape. It’s like a “choose your own adventure” book running in my head with all decisions leading to more and more fear. Many times I can’t fall asleep at all. Or if I do, a nightmare wakes me up, and I can’t fall back to sleep. Sometimes, as I lie awake in bed, trying to fall asleep, light from a passing car will slide across the walls in my room. In those moments and the minutes that follow, the shadows move, the sounds of the house are louder, I think I can hear someone breathing, or walking, or moving in the house. I tell myself it’s the cat, or the dog, or the refrigerator cycling. But my heart races. I have to get up. I check the locks on the doors. I play a game on my iPad. I try to distract myself. As the sun finally comes up, I feel some relief. The number of variables decreases when it is light outside. There are still a great many things that frighten me, trigger flashbacks, or cause an anxiety attack, but with daylight, there are more visual checkpoints, better sightlines, and a higher number of potential escape routes.
I did not write this to elicit pity. I tried several times to write about a one of my recurrent flashbacks, hoping that if I could put words to it, I might have better success processing the triggers. I was unable to do it. That alone speaks to the challenge of treating mental illness. Each person fighting this battle has their own set of experiences and triggers. Hopefully they have, or are in the process of, developing successful coping skills. I speak from experience when I say that the process of learning how to manage or cope with this illness, or others like it, is slow and exhausting. There is no specific road map, and no set timeframe to heal. Instead, I fight every day for something I believe is possible: life without constant debilitating fear, a life where I can engage in a meaningful way with others around me and where I can find some level of joy in my day. And, if the only value in writing this is that one more person can understand what a loved one or friend is experiencing and that knowledge helps either of them, then it was worth writing.