*Feature Photo by Claudia Back
*Second Photo by Steiner-Engeland
I don’t remember the exact moment I lost the ability to handle everything emotionally. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder caused by a traumatic event, and it never completely goes away. PTSD is the panther crouching in the shadows, waiting for the exact instant you are at your weakest to pounce.
Anything traumatic can cause PTSD. For me, the initial cause was childhood trauma, compounded with early adulthood traumas, and then as I got older and other events occurred, my threshold for coping became smaller with each traumatic experience.
When my symptoms are at their worst, I wait too long to use the restroom if my only options are public restrooms with stalls and no lock on the main door. I become so anxious about walking out and finding someone waiting for me, I just wait to go. At home, I lock the bathroom door and shower with the curtain open, with my back against the wall. I need to be able to see what is happening every second. As I walk into a new place, I make a mental note of all exits, every seat option against a wall (so I can see people come and go). If walking or standing alone in a line, I am extremely uncomfortable with people standing close behind me, especially men. There are certain movements and touches that also trigger symptoms, depending on my environment. Many of us are also triggered by certain types of sounds, language, and smells as well. I can go months without many symptoms, then I can suddenly have them all the time.
When I am already stressed to the maximum, something minor might be the thing that triggers the symptoms. Maybe someone yells at me (and it could even be in traffic), which is something I really don’t respond well to, and my body sends my mind the fight or flight signal. My stomach ties itself into knots, my heart thuds wildly, and my clothes become damp with sweat. Every movement around me feels hostile, and I feel like I need to get away. Now! Each little noise, every little branch that scrapes against the house, and every footfall is coming toward me. Nothing is logical anymore. That part of my brain has gone to sleep, and telling me to calm down will not be processed. There are other times when I am unable to deal with reality at all, so I completely detach — my brain just shuts itself off, similar to a computer rebooting itself. I want it to work, but I have to wait for it to restart itself when it’s ready in its own time. If things are really bad, the insomnia, nightmares, and flashbacks return.
As I stand in the grocery store, feeling the breath of the stranger behind me on my neck, every hair on my body rises like antennae. The cashier smiles at me, oblivious. The man behind me takes a step close enough that I feel the heat from his body and the graze of his jeans on my bare leg. As I swipe my card through the machine, my hand trembles so violently, my card almost tumbles to the floor. Flashes careen through my mind. Ripping. Tearing. Being held down. Hot tears. The cashier asks another question, but I don’t hear it because the stranger’s leg continues brushing against mine. The rancid alcohol on his breath envelops me, and bile rises to my throat. The second my receipt is printed, my legs move toward the door, and my shaking hands tightly grip the grocery bags at my sides. I don’t remember if I grabbed my debit card or if I even have my purse, nor do I care. I no longer see the other customers sailing past with their full carts. The only thing I know is I have to get to my vehicle right now before I am hurt again.
The next time you come across a man or woman who appears to be agitated, irritable, panicked, terrified, angry, or detached, remember we can never assume to know another person’s situation by appearance. Just beneath the surface is a woman feeling her attacker’s hands on her; a man hearing bullets whistle past his head; a woman screaming for help as her child takes his last breath in the back seat of a crumpled car on the side of a highway; or a child who has been tormented day after day by bullies. As survivors of trauma, we are not always in control over our own bodies or brains, but it does not make us weak. It makes us human.
Trauma strips away your life one piece at a time, leaving you ragged and scarred. When the emotional threads that hold us together snap, they can be woven back together. The pattern might not quite look the same, but it will eventually be whole again. My scars are a daily reminder of how lucky I am for everything I do have.
*Reprinted with permission from Her View From Home.
This essay is also in an anthology: Voices of the Plains Volume III by Nebraska Writer’s Guild and Julie Haase
Trish Eklund’s first book, Abandoned Nebraska: Echoes of Our Past, was released in November of 2018. Her second photography book, Abandoned Farmhouses and Homesteads of Nebraska: Decaying in the Heartland will be released on February 22, 2021. She is finishing up her third book; Abandoned Farmhouses and Homesteads of Kansas: Home is Where the Heart is. Trish’s photography has been featured on Only in Nebraska, Raw Abandoned, ListVerse, Nature Takes Over, Grime Scene Investigators, and Pocket Abandoned. She has a photo on the cover of: Fine Lines Summer 2020: Volume 29 Issue 2. She is the owner and creator of the photography website, Abandoned, Forgotten, & Decayed. Trish has an essay in the anthology, Hey, Who’s In My House? Stepkids Speak Out by Erin Mantz, and another essay in another anthology: Voices of the Plains Volume III by Nebraska Writer’s Guild and Julie Haase. Her writing has been featured on The Mighty, Huffington Post Plus, Making Midlife Matter, and Her View From Home. She owns, moderates, and writes for the blog: Trigger Warning: Surviving Abuse. She has written four young adult novels and is hard at work on her first adult novel.