The thing about PTSD is that is doesn’t always make a whole lot of sense.
I’ll tell you when PTSD does make sense. It makes sense when it looks like the guy who served two tours in Iraq and sits in my office, one of my first patients. I’m so fresh out of grad school I’m practically dragging my placenta behind me and here’s this twenty-three year old man telling me about how he had to kill everyone. “I don’t think you understand,” he says, looking at me and through me at the same time. “I had to kill everyone. A school bus full of kids…” He doesn’t finish his sentence. Now he can’t go on a date, go to a shopping mall. That’s when PTSD makes sense.
I’ll tell you when PTSD does make sense. It makes sense when I’m seeing my last patient of the day and I’m tired, but I summon enough energy to smile brightly as she sits down. The last of the day’s light spills in through the window, making bars on the floor through the blinds. She’s a rape victim, so affected by something that happened two years ago that she’s paralyzed. She can’t move forward. I’ve seen seven patients today and she is my eighth but suddenly I’m filled with a supernatural burst of determination. I tell her it’s going to be okay, that she’s stuck, but she won’t be forever. That we’re going to get her out. That’s when PTSD makes sense.
I’ll tell you when PTSD doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense when I’m home from work making dinner, eyeing the pack of cigarettes in my purse. It’s Tuesday, and since Saturday, it’s felt like there’s speed in my veins, although I couldn’t tell you why. At least not at the moment I’m picking up the avocado. All I can tell you is the moment I’m picking up the avocado is how good a cigarette is when I’m anxious. I know it’s a bad habit, and I know they cause cancer, but when my hands have been trembling for three days and I can’t will them to be still, a cigarette is good. I slice through the avocado, and the moment I’m slicing through the avocado I can tell you exactly why it’s felt like there’s been speed in my veins since Saturday. My ears buzz so loudly I clutch the sides of my head.
Saturday night there was a party, and at the party was a couple. Newly married, seemingly happy, but I’m too smart for that. I study people for a living and I can see straight through their brand new gold bands. I’ve been trained to see through things. You might think it was in grad school, where I read textbooks on human behavior, but that’s only part of it. I learned to study people a long time ago when I learned that some people don’t mean what they say.
For example, someone might say I will make you the happiest woman in the world, but they might not mean that. What they might mean instead is I’m too scared to do what it takes to make you happy but I’m going to hide that from you for the time being. It’s okay. It’s probably not entirely their fault. They probably don’t know what they actually mean to say either.
So I’m watching this couple, and the subject of her ex comes up, and she shrugs and laughs, and a dark cloud goes over the face of her husband. He grits his teeth and says something only she can hear, but I can hear it too. I can hear it in the way her face falls, in the way the shame rises to her cheeks. The way he says loudly “he’s nothing to follow up,” spitting out the words like venom. The way the rage and jealousy is so deafeningly loud and yet so piercingly quiet.
I observed that on Saturday, and felt sick for the rest of the party, which I chalked up to eating some of the dip that had been sitting out too long. I felt sick the next day too, blaming it on the late night and shitty sleep. On Monday, I felt sick and blamed it on, well, Monday. I drank three beers and smoked seven cigarettes and felt sick. Which I blamed on the beer and cigarettes.
Tuesday I felt sick, and cancelled my first patient. Then I willed myself out of bed and saw the rest of my patients, and did good work with each of them. Work that I’m proud of. I was only able to do the work by reaching inside my brain and turning down the volume of my own anxiety, and turning up the volume of my abilities as a counselor. It’s a trick I learned early on, and without it I would be very unemployed.
But when I left the office, the volume to my anxiety came back up, and it wouldn’t be quieted. Not after a cigarette, or a Taylor Swift song, or a call to my sister. I felt it as I bought items to make dinner – tortillas, avocados – and when I started making tacos. You know, it being Tuesday and all.
As the knife sliced through the avocado, I knew exactly why the volume knob to my anxiety was all the way up. I clutched the sides of my head and remembered, like it was yesterday, even though it was nearly ten years ago.
I was a newlywed, at a party with my shiny new ring and shiny new husband. Everything looked just right, all smiles and cheek kisses. He loved to show me off.
A friend of mine from out of town was there, and another friend of a friend had shown up, in hopes they might be a match. I stood between the two of them, trying to find ways to help them stick.
My friend turned to get herself another drink and the music was so loud. The guy leaned in to ask me about her – what her family was like, or something. Even yelling right in each others ears we could barely hear each other.
I don’t know how it happened, but suddenly I was being dragged away from my friend and the guy.
HOW DARE YOU, my husband snarled at me through gritted teeth. How dare you embarrass me like this, by flirting with someone right in front of me.
Shame rose to my cheeks and I could feel the tears beginning to form. My friend followed me to the bathroom and we sat on the floor of one of the stalls, trying to figure out what had happened.
“You know, if you want to leave him, you can live with me. I’ll always be there for you,” she said as we leaned against each other. The tile was cold and I briefly thought about how dirty it must be, but then decided I didn’t care. A couple of tequila shots probably helped with that.
I could hear other girls in the bathroom, laughing about the evening. They hadn’t made fools of themselves. They were allowed to have fun. They hadn’t acted like whores and embarrassed their husbands.
That night, he wanted sex. And because I was a whore, I said okay. He forced himself into me and it hurt so much I cried. It was my fault. I deserved it. I really hoped I had learned my lesson, just like I knew on Saturday that the girl at the party hoped the same thing.
And that’s when PTSD doesn’t make sense.