Normal Not Normal
Content Warning: This post has some description of agressive, threating behaviour. Also it’s very personal and it got pretty long. If you decide to skip it, I totally understand.
Oh, peeps, I feel like I owe you many apologies. First because it’s been so long since I’ve made time to blog here. Second because my last post was kind of moody in tone. Third because this one’s about rough times too.
Before I delve into what’s bugging me, I have to tell you that generally speaking life has been good. Things at school are going well. I’ve got a book in the works and other career plans that have me excited about the future. California continues to be a source of fun and family adventure. I want to write about all of those things. Time permitting I will, and soon, but today’s post is about something far less pleasant.
A couple of months ago, I was riding the subway (or BART as it’s known to locals) after school, when a man sat down beside me and proceeded to threaten me. I wrote about the incident on Facebook the night it happened, so I know some of you already know this. It’s difficult for me to recount the entire incident (I’ll explain why shortly), so I hope bullet points are okay for now:
- I suspect this person was ill. They kept confusing me with other women in his life. They seemed to perceive me as a threat to both him and to “children”. They indicated repeatedly that his plan was to rape and kill me/these women in order to “stop” me from hurting people.
- It was a rush hour train, very crowded, which made it very difficult for me to get up and move away from him.
- They had a bag full of random items. I didn’t know if he had a weapon. At the time, I wasn’t very worried about being sexually assaulted but I was very afraid that if I inadvertently said the wrong thing they would stab me, or pull out a gun on the train
- I tried, without further agitating my seatmate, to enlist the help of the nearby passengers. I noticed some of them watching what was happening. I managed to make eye contact with a few people, but they turned away. Now it’s possible, even likely they just didn’t know what to do. It’s also possible that someone called for help after they left the train, or that someone I couldn’t see was monitoring the situation. But my perception was that I was left alone to fend for myself.
- Ultimately, I made it off the train unharmed.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been through something like this. I was definitely off-kilter for several days following the incident. I figured feeling feelings was productive. After a couple of weeks, I wasn’t exactly over it, but I felt a lot better. Life was good and I felt like I was moving past it.
Last week, I started getting weird. Not weird in my typical adorkable way. Not even weird in the way that my anxiety disorder makes me weird. My brain and my body started behaving in odd ways that I do not like at all. It’s still happening right now, which is why I’m feeling pretty desperate get some of this out of my head and into words.
The good news, is that I’m pretty sure I understand what’s going on with me. The cruddy news is that what’s going on with me is that I’m experiencing psychological trauma. Pbbbblt!
I’ve been given lots of great suggestions for how to cope, while my mind and body sort through the ickyness this experience has churned up for me. What I can’t do is make these feelings magically disappear. I know because when I Googled, “make these feelings magically disappear”, the results were, “No. In order to move past the crap, you must experience the crap.”
So, for the time being, I’m left with coping. I may not be able to change what I’m feeling, but understanding it definitely helps get me through the day. Between work and years of therapy, I had some good go-to resources to help me bone up on the symptoms of trauma. In many ways, what I’m feeling is typical. In some ways it isn’t. Which is also typical, because everyone who feels traumatized gets to experience it in their own way.
I’m gonna talk about some of what I’m feeling. Mostly because writing about this stuff kind of helps to clarify and organize my thoughts so they aren’t so overwhelming. I also thought it might be helpful if any of you are going through something similar. But remember this is totally #NormalNotNormal. If you relate, I hope this helps. But you may have felt or feel traumatized in ways that aren’t anything like what I’m feeling and that’s legit too.
I don’t have a lot of nightmares. Last week when I started having violent, dreams virtually every night, it raised a big, red flag. Interestingly, the dreams almost never have anything to do with what happened in real life. Often times, I’m not even in them – I’m just witnessing scary shit. I’m not quite sure what my subconscious is doing there, but I’m guessing it’s some sort of fear-processing mechanism.
What’s weird about these nightmares, is, as violent as they are, when I wake up, the cognitive part of my brain is completely unphased. I think, ‘That is not a thing I need to be afraid of in real life. I’m going to back to sleep’. Unfortunately, my body does not agree one bit. Physically, I can feel bricks of fear in my chest and stomach. Mentally and physically, I’m totally out of synch, which brings me to the other thing I’ve noticed.
Lately, there is a profound diffence between my thoughts and how my body feels. Mentally, I feel as rational as I ever have. Physically, I’m always afraid. Yesterday I went to an event in the city. I parked my car a block from the venue. I looked around, assessed the situation and I knew that the odds of anything dangerous happening were extremely low. In my mind, I was calm. But my body was frightened. My body had been frightened on the drive over. My body had been frightened when I got in the car. My body was frightened earlier that afternoon when I was sitting at my desk writing a book report. I feel scared even when there’s no reason for me to feel that way. It’s not overwhelming or debilitating. But it’s always there. My brain understands that I’m relatively safe. My body is like, “Whatevs, Brain! The playground at three in the afternoon is a scary-ass place to be and you’re not convincing me otherwise!”
My brain is doing okay with the risk-assessing. Not so good with retaining information, organizing thoughts or concentrating on tasks. I’m a reasonably smart gal, but I am not on the ball. I’m constantly using the wrong words to describe things or calling folks by the wrong name. Reading is a challenge. Writing is a challenge. Getting this post together is slo-o-w-w-w going. Now, I’ve got to be real. I tend to be disorganized and a little distracted even at my best. But this is pretty bad, even for me. By all reports this is also typical of the traumatic process. Good to know, but it’s still the pits.
Out Of Order
At some point I will schedule a Skype session with my shrink in Ottawa. I haven’t done it yet, because I don’t want to tell her what happened. It’s really hard for me to talk about the actual incident. Not because of the emotions it triggers, but because the timeline of events is completely mixed up in my head. My memory of what happened, starts with a guy in a green shirt. He was standing in the aisle and we made eye contact, before he turned away. That happened maybe ten minutes after my seatmate started harassing me. It was neither the first, nor the most significant part of that incident. But that’s what I remember first and that’s what I remember most clearly.
The event is like a puzzle. All the pieces are there, but they aren’t cohesive. Talking about what happened in chronological order is remarkably difficult, right now. I might write the events, as I remember them on cue cards and then try to order the cards in the order I think everything happened. I’m not up for that task right now, but I think it could be helpful down the line.
I’ve never cottoned to the “don’t talk to strangers” approach to life. First of all, how am I supposed to make friends if I can’t talk to people I don’t know? Also, my experience of strangers is that most of them are pretty helpful if you’re in a jam. The reason I love urban environments is that there’s always someone around. I normally feel more comfortable surrounded by strangers than I feel being isolated and alone.
Now, I’m uncomfortable around strangers. Again, there’s a brain-body disconnect. I encounter someone new and I think, “Odds are you’re a decent person,” while my body is like, “This person might be dangerous.” I dropped off Twitter for almost a month after the incident. Now I’ll make the occasional appearance, but I don’t linger. There are strangers on Twitter.
Everything I’ve read confirms that this is a normal part of a traumatic process. But I find itdifficult to accept. I identify strongly as a people-person.The most rewarding aspect of my life are my relationships. Being with others is how I derive energy and inspiration. People, for the most part, are kind and interesting and helpful. But right now I’m really struggling to engage with folks. I’m mistrustful and I don’t like it, because I know I’m not being fair.
I’m not trying to beat myself up. I know I’m allowed to feel how I feel, but this just really sucks. I don’t like feeling timid. I don’t like avoiding eye contact with people. I don’t like going into situations with all of my defenses up. And the worst part is, avoiding strangers doesn’t make me feel safer. It makes me feel lonely. I really, really hope this is temporary, because keeping people at arm’s length is not my style.
Where Do I Go From Here?
It sounds weird, but on some level the fact that I’m having all these gross feelings is a good thing. Whether or not my perception of the events on the subway were accurate, I was legitimately afraid that my seatmate might harm me. It would have been nice if that fear had resolved itself as soon as the encounter was over, but that didn’t happen. I’m not enjoying these feelings, but if they’re here, I’m probably processing them, which means they’ll probably(mostly) go away in time.
- Writing all of this down is helpful. Sharing it and getting support is helpful. The Man of Mans is, as always, doing a phenomenal job of listening, accepting and supporting me.
- When it feels manageable, I go out and I try to talk to new people. Meeting folks who are nice, is a helpful reminder that people are nice.
- I’m trying to exercise most days. A lot of times it’s just going for a walk or taking a yoga class, but sometimes I feel a bit better after.
- I make a lot of jokes. Humour is one of my most trusted coping mechanisms. Plus laughing feels good.
- I am avoiding some things. I used to love taking BART to get around, but I just can’t handle riding the subway alone right now. I’m driving more, which I don’t love, but it’s what I can handle right now.
- I’m thinking about how I can get more rest and feed myself well. Obviously my body is pretty stressed. She could probably use some extra sleep and nutrition.
- Finally, I’m thinking about ways to inject a little fun, relaxation and enjoyment into each day. Processing is important, but it’s probably also important to take a break from all of that and chill out for a bit. I don’t want to spend my last months in California being all tense and miserable. This is a rough time, but if I try, I can still find moments of happiness and pleasure.
That’s where I’m at. I’m hoping these feelings will pass by the end of this paragraph, but experience has taught me they may linger past my concluding statement. People have survived much worse and I will survive this. And the writing does help. It has helped. If you made it all the way through, thank you.
This too shall pass.