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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Southern Exposure

It comes without warning. No alarm bells, no whisper in the ear. Just boom! And there it is.

I am writing to you from inside a full-blown post-traumatic attack. If you can imagine a person writing from inside the fetal position, circled around a laptop, on her bed, under the covers, subsiding bursts of sobbing, aqua towel at hand to dry the tears, you've got the picture.

I blew it, actually. I talked about my trauma. What happened. How it felt, feels, some consequences. To the safest group of friends I could imagine. Implicit trust. So what's the problem?

At first, driving home, yes, I did drive the four blocks home, I thought it was the awkwardness of exposure. Period. We all feel awkward and uncomfortable letting pieces of our stories out into the ether of conversation from time to time. You don't have to be drunk or have PTSD to come to your senses after and think, "Geez, did I tell them that?"

Even with people we know well, or have known a long time, we withhold significant bits of information, whole chunks, whole continents even. And a time comes when it seems right to reel ourselves out slowly, revealing more and more. As I did tonight. And it felt safe. I felt heard, respected and caringly received. I didn't wallow in my stuff any more than anyone else did. In fact, I spoke less than most. But what I said was significant. Exposure. What it's like to be me.

The thing is, our book group read two rather different books about Alzheimer's Disease. And tonight we discussed them. And that led to lots of rather personal conversation about end of life decisions, living with a terminal disease, living with awareness that you aren't yourself anymore, "I miss me," one of the women in the story said about living with her Alzheimer's shredding more of herself everyday.

I said I could really identify with her comment.

And here and there, popped in and out among others' comments I said a few more things. About brain injuries. About dignity. I don't even remember what I said. Simple things, though. No details about an attack, no images of bloated raging red faces in mine. Just a few comments about being totally "out of it, not knowing who I was," for awhile.

Turns out there are a few things about PTSD that might raise the matter of Alzheimer's to mind. For example, just a few,

Cognitive and conceptual gaps, holes, failures. For the life of me I couldn't process the concept of what a number was for months. Numbers are abstractions, symbols. They meant nothing to me. And tonight, back in the heart of the beast, they are impossible to connect to anything real.

You think your computer processes material slowly sometimes? Let me tell you, I could take an hour to get from "In" to "the" and by then forget all about "cabinet." It took an age to reboot, if rebooting was possible at all.

Continuing the computer analogy (see, now I'm capable of some sort of complex thinking!), files were scrambled and lost, wires were all haywire, going in the wrong directions, or no directions at all (oops, mixed metaphors). My memory was shot. Did I already say that for periods of time I didn't know who I was?

Scary stuff. And that's in addition to the basics: feelings of constant panic, anxiety, the sensation of cortisol or adrenaline filling up my limbs to the point of bursting, inability to tolerate light, sound -- including voices of my family talking, noise, inability to concentrate, failing muscle strength, lack of coordination -- how many times did I fall down the stairs? and this, the worst, no trust.

Beyond the narrowest circle, of three, Dave, Kaia, and Annika, I trusted no one. No one. Including myself. Isolation was my goal as much as possible. And I was in a constant state of terror. Of another attack. Of bad people, bad behaviors, danger, threats, death.

The only thing that survived intact was my sense of humor, though it warped severely. But that surviving sense of humor is the reason I survived at all. To somehow laugh at the absurdity of what I had become, what had happened, was my salvation.

Good Friday fell on April Fool's Day one year and I thought that was perfect, the ultimate God's "gotcha" on the devil. "You think you be winning, kid? No way in hell."

I'm writing through this tonight for one specific reason. Our book club, these witty wonderful women, every one of them a diamond of wisdom, decided that people really need to talk about the hard things more often. Tell the truth about ugly realities like Alzheimer's and ALS and strokes and how it breaks your breast bone when they use the paddles on your heart to restart it after you code, about living for days or weeks or months intubated so you can breath, when the diagnosis is terminal and the patient is begging to be let go, about the noxious awfulness of chemo, about death, and dignity, and decisions that create space for truth and intimacy and, yes, dignity, even in the most dire situation.

This is but one example of the hard things we need to talk about. So we can understand each other better, respect one another more, care more tenderly.

My arms are pulsing so strongly right now that I have to stop writing and let them calm down. Dave has made me some tea and that helps. I am back in my safe place. There is classical music, barely audible and lights that are dim. I am beginning to calm down. I might be able to add up 4+6 before the hour is up.

I had another reason for wanting to write this now and I'm forgetting what it is. Hold on, it was important. I'm not looking for pity, god forbid that, or sympathy. I'll be glad to be empathic with those who know from the inside just what I'm talking about. Oh, it's coming, this other reason, had it close a second ago.

Oh, this. I am learning from my highly skilled, expert new therapist that it is actually not good for someone who has been traumatized to talk about the trauma. Just talking about it is retraumatizing.

Here, I thought the cure for everything was to blah blah blah. Get it out, get it out, get it out. Well, there is a way to get it out but it is not the casual blah blah blah. Or even the well-intentioned blah blah blah.

The way I'm learning to process (god, I hate that word) the trauma I experienced is in structured settings where talking about it is done within safe perameters (therapist, doctor) and with these wonderfully magic tools, like EMDR and the one I mentioned weeks ago, with the wand. Brain spotting.

So, however tempting it seems to be honest and forth-coming and help others to understand what this life is like from the inside so you might be empathic to those who would like your caring attention, I need to just shut up.

And wish you peace.

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