Describing PTSD before I Knew I had it

Reading through my journal for  1994, I came on these paragraphs. What’s fascinating is that I’m describing PTSD, but I have no idea that’s what’s going on. I do somehow know that I need to go in deeper, but have no idea how to do that. I see that a lot of my pain is that my pain is not seen or validated, and I can’t do that myself yet. I talk about being “frozen” but have no idea that’s a stage in trauma, something instinctive that happens when you can’t fight or flee. Some of what I’m describing is the thing that happens to a part caught in a pocket of time. I find it interesting to compare my experience, that of Max in the movie, and the concern of the Somatic Experiencing practitioner to help their client get it that the event is over.

May 14, 1994

Worked in the garden for a little, then just sat on a rock listening to the goldfinches, wind chimes, occasional gusts of wind roaring in the trees.  It’s so beautiful I can’t describe it, this moment of May with warm sun, chill wind, tiny leaves just showing on birch and maple, green grass streaming in the wind.  A shad bush is out up the hill, the apple blossoms haven’t started to show yet.  I’m in a very strange state of soul, and I haven’t been able to find words.  I watched a movie about the survivor of a plane crash (Fearless) and how denial made him feel invulnerable but kept him from really living.  What I am feeling is some powerful collision/conjunction of life and death.  The moment of the corpse under the blossoming apple tree.  Life is so fleeting, moving on faster than I can grasp it, a great river endlessly pouring into eternity, and I don’t want to stop it, but just slow it down, or perhaps just feel part of it instead of standing here watching it streaming by —— yes that’s it, I’m frozen, and I’m watching the great river of life-and-death pass me by.  I had been thinking that it was like the time when I was walking with Dana, and upset because the world seemed so full of color and life and I was feeling so cold and dead inside.  This is not the same as that, and it’s not like the old days when there was a wall of glass between me and the world.  This is different, in fact I feel like I’m closer than I’ve ever been to something important, but I don’t know what it is.  I’m not enjoying the day, I’m suffering it.

I remember sunny days in May, in past years, when I wanted to go out and enjoy the bright day, be part of it, be able to experience it directly, and I couldn’t because of my fears, because I couldn’t breathe, because of the planes.  I realized as I sat with this odd state (I can’t call it “pain” or even “sorrow”) that no planes have gone over, and I thought perhaps the airport is truly closed, and now I’m able to get closer to what the planes always kept pulling me out of — no wonder I found them so frustrating.  And I’m reminded of the spring when I taught the last astronomy class (was that just last spring?) and described to Karen how I kept finding myself turning and sinking, drawn toward something and then always pulled back out again to teach the class, and I never got to go on down and in and find out what it was.

Reading Rilke I find myself struck by the painfulness of the contrast between “real life” with its power and paradox and suffering, and “puppet life” (for lack of a better phrase) with its emphasis on security and “happiness”.  I think of how in the movie, the survivors were surrounded by professionals trying to exploit or help them, and how their experience of pain and guilt and grief nullified/obliterated the lawyer’s greed, the psychiatrist’s expertise.  So I come again to the place of seeing that life-and-death is one great tumbling process, and our efforts to deny death leave us in a place of non-life.

As I wrote about the apple trees that are just starting to show bud, I thought about my analogy of how my father molesting me at the very beginning of puberty was like the frost that comes just as the tree is starting to blossom.  Yes, some part of me froze then, froze standing on the bank watching the river tumbling by and unable to participate, a Eurydice unable to follow Orpheus out of the land of the dead, and equally unable to die —— whatever that means.  If she were to die, how would it be different from being frozen?  She would reenter the river, she would accept total loss of what had gone before, she would grieve and rage, and then?  I don’t know.  [Margin: She can’t know either.  Something totally new.]

It did occur to me, as I sat outside watching the blowing grass, and listening to the goldfinches, and paying attention to this odd inner state (that’s not pain or fear, but certainly not joy or happiness) that this is one of those transition states, that I need to stay in it in order to get through it, and not keep backing out, trying to get “back” to some imagined security or happiness.  I need to go on, to whatever it is that awaits me.

Just being able to verbalize it to that extent allowed me to go for a walk with the dog and “enjoy” it as much as I usually do.  But I can’t say that I feel really alive as I’ve sometimes been able to do.  Today I’m aware that my skin is alive to the warmth of the sun and the touch of the wind, that my ears are alive to birdsong, that my eyes are alive to blue sky and glittering water and tiny leaves in the sunshine.  (and there’s the hideous snarl of a plane.  It doesn’t last very long — it doesn’t tear me apart, it’s just a sound —no, he’s turned and coming back, now fading again— I can live with.)  But I feel alive only on the surface, my heart doesn’t feel alive, it feels like I’m stuffed with cotton, like there are no organs inside my skin.  (Another plane, or the same one, like a knife ripping across the peaceful day, leaving jagged edges on the air, as I left jagged edges on the plastic that seals the cupola as I cut it to let the air through. and gone.)

For some reason, perhaps it’s the sense of the nearness of death, I’m being unable to plant seeds.  Well, I won’t push myself.

May 15

I’m really depressed this morning.  It was hard to get out of bed.  I can see how a few hours “success” in the garden set up the expectation that I would be able to continue, and then when I couldn’t do much yesterday, and it wasn’t fun, there was disappointment.

Dreams, but can’t remember anything.  I feel empty and heavy inside, back to the bombed-out house, carrying the burden of grief.  Standing on the sidelines, watching the enormous pageant of life-and-death — clouds, chickadees, hemlocks, mountains — and where is the life that’s on the other side of all this dying?  It’s not death that’s the problem, I can see the life that’s on the other side of death, lit with eclipse light, bright grass streaming in the wind, death is pageant and beauty and the edges of things, sudden violent storm, rainshower and then sun gleaming again.  What I’m feeling is not death, not grief for a clear loss, but the heavy dull frozen pain of invalidation, of grief that’s not allowed to mourn because the loss is not recognized.

Yes, I can see why I come back to this place after every success.  Managing to accomplish something gives me the illusion that “I can do it now”, and I forget that I’m wounded, damaged, still healing, that each small success is really the peak of a long climb and can’t be repeated every day.  But I deny my wounding because it’s not visible — “what do you mean you aren’t ready yet?” — and it’s very hard to validate my need to go inward and to mourn, to stay with darkness and silence and sorrow, hard to do that with all the voices calling me to come out: the voices of the sun and wind and trees and birds, which I want to heed, the voices of Mommy/Daddy/Culture, which I need to protect myself from: stop making a fuss, get out and just do it, think of others once in a while, you’re so self-indulgent, etc.  Yes of course I would rather be out in the sunshine, digging my hands in dirt and planting seeds, I would rather be organizing my house or writing a book, I’d rather be washing dishes or doing production sewing or reading a mystery novel, than hanging out with this dull pain, which I can’t seem to express or give articulate voice to, which never resolves and never changes.

Actually, that’s not true.  It is changing, but so slowly over such a long period of time.  And it does periodically “resolve” into an outburst of tears, and then I feel better for a time.  I wonder about someone whose life was cut in two by an accident that left them crippled, if they also have periodic bouts with grief, if after a while they too have to struggle with invalidation: it happened a long time ago, you’ve accepted it, no use making a fuss now, pull yourself together.  But at least if you’re sitting in a wheelchair, no one, including yourself, can pretend that the accident didn’t happen.  And you don’t imagine that you could just run up a mountain if you would only use a little will power.

So what am I mourning, what is my life now in contrast with what it “should have been”?  I wake feeling heavy, I look out at the bright sun and wonder why I should get up, I don’t rise eagerly, looking forward to a day in the garden.  It’s hard to feed myself.  Yesterday I sat on the rock in the garden, listening to the goldfinches and watching the grass blowing, and I felt like someone who just walked away from a plane crash, and doesn’t know if she is alive or dead.  Did she survive the crash?  She’s in that place of denial where she hasn’t accepted the reality of what happened yet.  Most of my life has been lived in that place.

In the movie, Max was in denial because he had left his friend and gone forward to sit with a boy who was alone, so he survived and his friend did not.  Of course he could not tell the lawyer about the last moments of his friend’s life.  And the young woman who lost her baby because she couldn’t get the seat belt on and held him in her arms — she was in denial because she thought it was her fault, that she hadn’t held on to him hard enough, and not until Max restaged the accident did she understand that there was no way she could have held on.  I see that the denial results from the pain of imagining one could have done something different.  So I take this to myself, and I remind myself that I couldn’t have done anything different: I was a child, a sensitive creative intelligent child, at the mercy of my parents’ alcoholism, narcissism, denial, and “poisonous pedagogy.”

I always forget to put down not being able to have sex with my husband as one of the pieces of damage done to my life.  I suppose it’s because I can’t see sex as an activity I would enjoy, unlike gardening or painting, which I know I would enjoy if I could do them without fear, invalidation, or expectation.  I wish I could go out to the garden as a way of comforting myself when I’m depressed, but at the moment that’s not possible.  So I turn to this notebook, which I think is comforting because it’s familiar, and easy because of long practice, and validating because it’s acting like my thoughts were important enough to write down.

Yesterday was such a strange day.  I “knew” the day was beautiful, but the beauty was like heat to sunburned skin, the piercing quality of the beauty struck my vulnerability like pain.  I did not enjoy the day, I “suffered” it, and I’m glad to borrow that word from Robert Hass’ introduction to Rilke’s poetry.  (In a comment on the Archaic Torso of Apollo he says “Rilke does not praise the perfection of art, he suffers it.” p xxv)  I think my pain is the same that Rilke describes in the elegies, the pain of seeing the angels, or perhaps it’s more like being seen by them, and yet to them we are of no account, neither there nor not there in their terrible and beautiful life.  Is that it?  The same as the pain of the one frozen, watching the pageant of life-and-death go by.  But I don’t think that this is necessary, I don’t think the chasm between “human” and “angelic” life is a thing of nature, built into the structure of the universe, I think it’s a result of “poisonous pedagogy“, a consequence of Western/Industrial/bourgeois culture, of a way of life dedicated to control and security, built on denial and satisfied with “happiness” and “pleasure.”  In a culture that was open to the gods and spirits, that acknowledged the titanic forces of nature over which we have no control, that accepted and validated the infinite inwardness of each human being, there would be no such chasm.  It would still be terrifying to meet the angels, perhaps to converse with them or to feel their voices speaking in us, it would still be terrifying to step out into the unknown, to accept that we don’t know what will happen, but life would be glorious like a day of storm and sunshine, we would be tossed and carried by the Great Powers, but we would not be separated from them.  They would live in our depths, and we would enact them, and be enacted by them, we would suffer them and they would ensoul us.    I think that it’s possible that such a culture is developing out of the Recovery movement, being built by people who have transformed their lives through the Twelve Steps, who have practiced letting go of control and building that practice into their lives.  [Margin: “Our admissions of personal powerlessness finally turn out to be firm bedrock upon which happy and purposeful lives may be built.”  (Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions)]

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