A Little Story about PTSD

This morning I awakened at 6AM under a star cracked sky that frames the window behind my head… The owl was singing outside my window. Walking down to Red Willow River in the predawn light while listening to the sound of water blurred the boundaries between a woman and the element she yearns for, flowing water, (a natural antidote to having an intense fiery nature).

 

I remind myself that approaching old age doesn’t mean that I am no longer made of water – I have just less of it than before. Feeling that I am part of this river helps me breathe deep into my belly, releasing some of the mountains of stress – at least temporarily – that I have accumulated over the past few weeks… My dog Lucy has been ill. Too much fear, and a body too exhausted to sleep leaves me walking on air with no ground under my feet.

 

A few days ago we finally found a veterinarian who didn’t whisk my terrified dog out of my arms to do blood work, dismiss my ideas, or tell me what was right. Instead, he noted my dog’s terror, bent the rules for the blood work while offering his opinion as to where we should go from here (When I told him I was losing it he agreed saying bluntly “I can see that”). Finally, we have a plan. No more invasive testing for now, unless Lucy becomes ill again.

 

Dr. Martin said it was his policy to work with the people and animals that he sees (what he didn’t say was that he wasn’t attached to the need to dominate), a rare perspective for a doctor to hold but one I value dearly because I have been gifted with a friend and vet of 30 years who wouldn’t consider behaving any other way. In the last chaotic, fear dominated weeks, Gary has been the one stable influence (besides Iren and Bruce) in a sea of veterinarian misery. However, Gary is in Maine and we are making our permanent home in New Mexico and there is a limit to what he can do long distance. It is such a relief to have the sense that another personal thread might be being woven between a vet, my dogs, and me (unless I am so desperate that I have become delusional).

 

I can’t function without that personal thread.

 

For now anyway my sweet Lucy eats, rests well, and waits for me at the window as I return from my morning walk… perhaps one day soon I will sleep just as soundly again as she is doing now at my feet.

 

Meanwhile, a demon from the deep has arisen to haunt me.

 

PTSD and a Generalized Anxiety Disorder have been my unwelcome life-time companions. My present perspective is that I was born into terror, and had no way to metabolize it as either an infant, a child, an adolescent or an adult. I was branded too intense, too emotional, too high-strung, even too stupid, as if these qualities were somehow my fault. Unfortunately, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t believe the adults were all correct and that I was not worthy to be on this planet. I was intrinsically flawed.

 

It is unfortunate that I was not dually diagnosed with PTSD/ Acute Anxiety Disorder, both debilitating mental and physical diseases until mid- life. Up until that point I functioned mostly in the breakdown lane. The one exception was my relationship with animals and plants. Animals and plants always seemed to accept me for who I was, loved me unconditionally, became my best friends and eventually taught me how to love myself. As an adult I have never lived without either, and my dogs have literally supported me through intolerable losses when I had no reason to go on except for them.

 

Unfortunately, being diagnosed at 45 with both conditions was too late to reverse their devastating effects. Around the same time I was also diagnosed with severe directional dyslexia. Although this third diagnosis is another facet of the same story I won’t be focusing on it it now.

 

I had always used walking in the woods and by water as a means to alleviate emotional stress and fear, kept animals close, had been journaling for 20 years; now I learned to meditate, and to do deep breathing. I also took up yoga, believing somehow that diligence and hard work on my part would “cure” me.

 

I was wrong.

 

The poison of intergenerational terror thrives in every cell of my unwilling body and/or it takes over my mind. I live my life on an edge that most people can’t even imagine. I may know that my terror is unreasonable, but my bodymind is still forced to carry that fear.

 

Now in my seventies, I no longer attempt to change what is, but rather to be mindful of what is happening to me when I am going into an acute phase of PTSD, to lean into it as much as I am able, and to be gentle and non – judgmental with myself.

 

I still use writing, walking, meditation, and deep breathing as de –stressors, and my animals are my dearest companions, but do not expect myself to relax mentally or physically when some frightening situation like Lucy’s illness (and even more recently a dear friend’s operation) triggers the acute phase of this disease because I know the dark man has risen out of the depths of my unconscious and he is more powerful than I am. With him dominating both my mind and body I am unable to think clearly, relax, and my poor body is deprived of sleep. I develop terrible headaches that blur my vision. I am nauseous and often can’t eat. My mind is flooded by catastrophic thoughts that I am unable to rid myself of and I lose complete access to my short – term memory, ending up in a room for example, with no idea why. This terrifying force of negative energy literally brings me to my knees. But the one thing that helps me is knowing “it” will eventually have to let go of me if I can wait it out. The key is “if”.

 

I use the phrase ‘the dark man’ because this is how my dreams forecast either a future or mind/body attack in progress. For example recently I dreamed that I am with the dark man trying desperately to please him when he says with disgust, ‘we have nothing in common’ and dismisses me. This controlling inner demon is gender neutral – both male and female – but relentless in his pursuit and when I am in his power being patient with my emotional and physical state is the most important thing I can do. I will no longer give in to self – hatred to feed this parasite who is feeding on me.

 

The most debilitating aspect of this disease in its acute phase is my exhaustion. I am unable to sleep without taking medication, and even then, my sleep is short lived and I awaken heart pounding with fear. Sleep deprivation destroys brain cells and eventually causes physical illness.

 

I am hyper – aware and my startle reflex is intensified by these attacks. A dog barking, or the sound of music can literally send me over the edge.

 

Although I have been forced to take anti-anxiety medication since I was 50 (when I finally gave in to the reality that I was unable to cure my condition with diligence and personal actions), I am only too aware that this medication is only a palliative measure. It cannot stop the acute phases of the disease from occurring.

 

In the last year prolonged sleep deprivation and stress led to serious of physical infections that I can no longer treat with antibiotics. This current situation has left me on a new frightening edge. I will need surgery to correct a chronic stomach condition (diverticulitis – that is exacerbated by too much stress) unless I can get this stress under control. The surgeon also tells me that there is no guarantee that surgery will correct the problem.

 

How ironic, since it was stress that brought me to this edge in the first place.

 

These days I can feel a fragility in myself that I have not experienced before; my body is weary. Every time I experience the acute phase of this disease (like I am now) I feel less able to cope with it. I am depressed and feeling hopeless.

 

There is absolutely nothing I can do to control what happens around me. There is also nothing I can do to put an end to this acute phase.

 

When people tell me I “should” relax I feel crazy.

 

I am writing this narrative on a blessedly cool morning in New Mexico hoping that hearing the owl’s song at dawn might mean that help is on the way in some unknown way.

 

Throwing myself on the mercy of Nature, is at this point, my only hope.

Losing Your Children to Patriarchy*

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There are many ways to lose your children. Some parents endure the death of a child from illness or accident. Others, like my own parents, lost their only son to suicide.

 

I lost my children to the dominant culture. Of course, as a young twenty one year old mother I colluded in this process without knowing it. First by repeating the cycle of abuse I had been born into, and then making a series of poor choices as a young woman and mother.

 

I grew up in a terrifying abusive family, one that looked like the “American Dream”- great from the outside – rotten from within. Living in an upper middle class environment in a “nice” house in the country in upper Westchester New York my father ran a successful business and my mother was a stay at home housewife and artist. Both considered themselves academics because each had attended the colleges of their choice, although my mother never received an undergraduate degree. My father was an immigrant who came to this country from Italy when he was 12 and put himself and his brothers through college becoming an aeronautical engineer in the process. My mother, an only child, came from a family of privilege and she never let anyone forget that, particularly her daughter who she treated like a servant.

 

Inside our family walls unspeakable violence of all kinds occurred. Both of my parents drank – a lot. My mother used deathly silence as a means to control her husband and children, sometimes refusing to speak to the perceived offender for a week. Sometimes, she inexplicably left home for days. I was so terrorized by the threat of those silences/abandonment that I did anything my mother wanted me to, giving up my personal self in the process. My father’s explosive rages kept both his children walking on egg – shells whenever he was around which fortunately was only on weekends. We both hated him, gravitating towards our mother who seemingly was the better of the two because she endured this abusive behavior although she struck out at her children instead.

 

Theirs was a marriage made in hell. Silence and Rage make poor bed partners, and I remember begging my mother to divorce my father when I was barely six years old (it is astonishing to me that I knew what divorce meant at that age).

 

To escape my family I went away to college and got married.

 

My abusive drunken husband threw me down the stairs when I was three months pregnant with my first child.

 

Four years later my brother killed himself just after graduating from Harvard.

 

Single motherhood became the worst nightmare in my life after the loss of my only brother who I adored.

 

As a suicide survivor I believed that I owed my parents my children and willingly surrendered them whenever my parents wanted them (a prime example of what survivor’s guilt can do).

 

How did I manage to forget what it had been like living with people like that?

 

It wasn’t until mid –life after having made the terminal mistake of letting my parents “parent” my children that I began to suspect that something was very wrong with them, and that maybe I wasn’t the whole problem after all.

 

By that time I was divorced, my children were grown, and both had left home. It was too late to repair the damage. I didn’t understand at the time that my children had internalized the very worst of their grandparents’ patriarchal values of “power over” and were embracing my parents’ view about how defective their daughter was as a human being.

 

I began to craft my own authentic life.

 

I thought time would soften my children’s vicious treatment of me.

 

I didn’t realize that my children thrived on this sense of having emotional power over their mother.

 

Power Over, not Love.

 

I am ashamed to admit that I kept trying to repair the damage with both of my children up until this year, enduring the silent treatment, endless bullying, and verbal abuse at the hands of my youngest son after my oldest simply shut the door on our relationship 25 years ago.

 

This is not to say that eventually I didn’t became aware of what had/was happening.

 

I did, but like Cinderella, I kept “hope” alive for a different ending.

 

Until now.

 

This spring the chains that once bound me as a sorrowing mother snapped and I was set free.

 

Grace intervened.

 

At this point in my life I respect who I have become too much to sanction more “family” (familiar) abuse.

 

Still, it is frightening to acknowledge how our personal accounts repeat themselves over generations without interruption.

 

These family stories are bigger and more powerful than we can ever know, creating a cautionary tale for those who think they have escaped abusive situations. We either repeat the story, or embrace its opposite. In rare cases, if we have the courage, we can break the cycle, something I hope that I am doing today.

 

First Harvest Moon (The Blueberry Moon – 2017)

Published on the day of my youngest son’s 49th birthday.

 

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Afternotes:

 

The word Patriarchy requires an explanation:

 

Historically, Patriarchy was defined as “The Power of the Fathers.”

 

This definition is partially correct. Patriarchy is a hierarchal system of domination that thrives on white lower, middle, and upper class men (and some male identified women) having power over other less fortunate individuals especially other women.

 

Carol Christ defines Patriarchy as a system of power that seeks to control women through their sexuality.

 

However we define it, Patriarchy is a destructive system that is endemic to our culture and is mirrored by the collective in countless ways including our insatiable need to “control” nature.

 

(As an eco – feminist I believe that what we do to nature we do to women. A poignant example is the way we continue to sanction rape of both women and the trees that provide us with oxygen to breathe).

 

An equally horrifying example is the attempt by the dominant culture to control a woman’s right to have an abortion. A woman’s right to choose is just that – a basic human right to have control over her bodily processes including pregnancy.

 

I have worked with women for most of my life, and I have never met a woman who didn’t struggle with the right to choose abortion, and then have to deal with the guilt and shame she endured as a result of making the choice to end a pregnancy.

 

As a naturalist/ethologist I am struck by how nature has built in abortion as a response to too much stress in most non – human species, if not all. If the mother in question does not have enough food or resources to survive, spontaneous abortions occur without danger to the mother. Survival of the potential mother comes first.

 

Black bears, for example, practice something called delayed implantation, which means that the mother mates in the spring, but the fetus will not develop unless that mother has sufficient food and has gained enough weight to survive hibernation. If she has, cubs will be born and cared for while the mother is denning during the winter.

 

In my own life I experienced a spontaneous abortion after leaving my abusive alcoholic husband. I had no money, no place to live, one toddler and one 6 month old baby (I went to work as a waitress). Without support from my family I did not see any way through this horrific situation until Nature mercifully stepped in and ended a third pregnancy.

 

Most desperate women are not as fortunate.

 

I have come to embrace Carol Christ’s belief that Patriarchy is primarily a system that seeks to control woman through every aspect of her sexuality. The obscene emphasis on the way women are supposed to stay “ young” is yet another way we cage our women like the animals we consume so mindlessly, objectifying ourselves and animals without consent or compassion.

 

As women, we still struggle to develop an identity beyond being someone’s mother, wife, grandmother, servant.