DOGS, CATS & THREAD SPOOLS: Complex PTSD on Frontal Lobe Damage
“You know how you get scared or worried or nervous but you don’t want to be scared or worried or nervous so you push it to the back of your mind; you try not to think about it…It’s like a filter in your brain that keeps your feelings in check. She feels everything. She can’t not.” ~Simon Tam, on speaking of his sister, River, and her damaged brain, Firefly
Me and the Bitor
January 4, 2001
28 years old
“I’m just so sick of it!” I snarl across my kitchen table.
(In truth, I probably said, “I’m just so fucking, FUCKING sick of it!” The remainder of what I said that day was most likely pockmarked with profanity, too, because swearing is a function of the brain’s emotional center, whereas vocabulary and the ability to shove it out one’s mouth are stored in one of the places I’m most damaged. But we’re in a public space here, so I’m going to refrain from F-bombing this entire post the way it actually happened. Now back to our garden-variety explosion.)
My father’s eyes are two large buttons of shock. I’d really like to pet him, hug him, tell him, “It’ll be okay, Daddy. I’ll be okay once I get to puke all this out.”
But I know full well that that’s not accurate. I’m watching myself go off about this — have been watching myself go off since we sat down for a nice cup of father-daughter coffee. Instead, it’s this again.
He asked me how I felt this morning. That’s all.
Because I will answer. I can’t not. Once asked the question, the deluge gushes from my mouth. If only that were the case when I wanted to speak words, but no. No, then it’s “stutter-stutter-glitch-ummmm…”
Not this morning. Today I can’t halt the flood of face-melting, acidic bile. It sprays all over the kitchen table and our nice Dunkin’ Donuts that he got for us before I was able to haul myself up from the festering dregs of my nightly coma. Lucky for Mom, she’s in the shower.
My poor father. One little piece of me sits chained and gagged in the back of the movie theater, watching the onscreen antics but incapable of influencing a single thing.
I rant. I rail. I snarl. I wail. I froth and foam and go on and on about this putrid snowball rolling down the mountainside, picking up speed as well as issues of complaint with every revolution. It all gets mashed up into one big ball of SUCK.
The headlights in my rear-view mirror. The catapult stone slamming through my bumper into the base of my spine. The energy rippling up that lash-shaped collection of bones to whip my skull forward like a morning-star flail-head at the end of its chain and
My face slams down into the mattress. My jammie pants are yanked down. Thrashing and screaming and screeching bloody murder as his hand pulls back and
His ram-rod pulverizing my cervix as my cheek and lips are ground into the carpet. I try to buck up but he shoves me back down and
My face slamming into the locker and the laughter as her painted nails gouge my shoulder. She whips me back around and shoves and
The car rights itself and my head flies toward the driver’s side door and
Her hands bash my chest. I scrabble for the railing but it slips from my grip and the world disappears from beneath me and
The skin of my naked ass-back-shoulders breaks through the ice crusting the snow and for a second, there’s nothing but the winter sky and his icicle-snide laughter as the door slams shut, locks me out in the cold and
The orange dashboard lights and the black sky.
The fluorescent lights and the gray ceiling.
The ice-frosted clouds.
The spiraling, whirling, greenish-gray sky.
The whirling stars and streetlights…
It all blends together in a tangled mess I can’t decipher, and when one of those images strikes, it’s sure to be dragging the others in its wake. It’s all one giant snowball rolling down the mountainside to steam-roll me.
“Every fucking time,” I roar into the morning sunbeams warming my kitchen, “it always comes from behind! BLAM! Somebody’s always gotta be back there, fucking around and waiting for the moment my guard is down so they can just…” My fist slams into my palm because one movement is worth a thousand words.
They’re all jamming up the too-small pipes anyway. I wouldn’t be able to get them out my mouth fast enough before the next image needs to be regurgitated.
But I can’t. I’ve never told him about that one thing. And especially that other thing. My dad still lives in the same town as that motherfucker — and he’s a dad. But I can’t stop raging. “It never fails. Just grab me by the back of the neck and slam me down, face first, so you can give it to me gooooood! Had enough yet? Nope? Well, here ya go, kid! Another round of ramming for ya! UGH! Take it!”
On and on and on and on until I finally lose the ability to sort jagged jumbles into words for a second. My brain buffers. I gnash my teeth. Glance up.
My father’s eyes are huge. I wonder if my head has been spinning around. There is green puke all over the table between us. Maybe nobody else can see it, but I can, and he certainly does. Horror roils in his gaze. He’s never looked at me that way.
I don’t blame him.
I’m rather horrified myself, especially up there in the back row where I’m being force-fed popcorn with my wrists zip-tied to the armrests.
His jaw is tight. His brows furrow. “You know…it really seems like there is a whole lot more going on here than just this car wreck.”
This time, my head does spin around. The reeking green mass surges up my throat like a firehose set free from its kink. “That’s because THERE ISSSSSSSSSS!”
Ohhhhhh, cPTSD…what a lovely little creature you are. As I mentioned in a previous post, this is how the difference between Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Complex PTSD was explained to me:
It’s the difference between dealing with one IED explosion vs. an explosion that led to a firefight where everybody died except the one dude who was held as a POW and tortured for 3 years before coming home to find his wife in bed with his best friend he thought was dead. Both suck. One is a bit more complicated to treat.
Now, I don’t have combat stress. I am not a refugee. Neither did I grow up in a war-torn country (or neighborhood), have my school under bomb or shooting threats every other week, or get smacked and kicked around by a parent/caregiver throughout my formative years.
One of the biggest banes of my existence comes from wondering, “WTF is wrong with you? Are you that much of a weakling? You’re just a melodramatic, hypersensitive drama-queen. There are people out there with real traumas. You’re just a…*insert other denigrating adjectives and nouns here.*”
But I hear a rumor that mine are real traumas. And not necessarily piddly ones.
Maybe you’d never guess it. My parents’ home was the safe place for me. Loving, kind, affectionate, supportive. As a child, I felt it was about the only safe place on the planet (except that spot deep in the undergrowth of the woods where nobody could ever find me).
To a toddler’s mind, is there a difference between the familiar neighbor who stole your innocence vs. having it thieved by the guerrilla army descending on your home town and killing your family as you watch through the pantry door slats?
To an elementary school kid, is there much difference between the pack of bigger, stronger, older kids lying in wait to terrorize you in the woods because they know you sneak home that way vs. the opposing gang’s members, the occupying soldiers, or that mountain lion that snatched your neighbor’s dog from the very mountain path you used to take home every day from school?
I honestly couldn’t say. I did not grow up with gangs, guerrillas, military occupation, or mountain lions in my neighborhood.
All I knew was:
1) You can’t trust what things look like on the surface, and some of your favorite things can kill you (I almost drowned when I was four years old).
2) Bigger, older, stronger kids will do mean things to younger, smaller, and/or weaker kids, and some of those things (rocks, concrete, sharp metal, etc.) have the capacity to kill you, or at least wound you.
3) I was one of the younger kids in the neighborhood.
4) I was also a shy, petite, Celtic/Gaelic mutt amidst a society of tall, robust, Scandinavian/German descendants.
5) Adults don’t want to hear it.
6) Some adults are bigger bullies than their kids — even to children.
6.2) And animals.
7) You never, ever, EVER hit back, or you are just as bad as the bullies (which means you’ll go to Hell — and you’ll deserve it).
8) It doesn’t matter who started the fight, everybody involved is getting suspended and you won’t even get to tell your side because we don’t care. (This was the 80s, man, and the anti-drug policy slogan extended to fighting.)
9) If I were to get suspended, the Hammer of Doom would descend from my ex-military father, and I would lose the only safe place I had. (Not accurate, but a guaranteed certainty to my child’s mind.)
10) I was placed up in front to receive accolades and awards from my teachers way too many times, which had the opposite effect of what it’s supposed to do to a person’s esteem and for said tribe, because that meant I was going to get it doubly the second the adults weren’t around, even from people who normally let me be but were sore losers.
11) I was very, very alone.
12) And hated.
13) And ostracized.
14) And stalked, hunted, cornered, threatened.
15) And stolen from and given ultimatums (get beat or let the giant farmgirl cheat).
16) And lied about every time someone new moved into town and expressed interest in befriending me because I was kind and helpful.
17) And pushed, kicked, tripped, punched, shoved into lockers, shoved down staircases, shoved into toilet stalls with the threat of swirlies (at least I wasn’t a boy — they followed through on that whether or not you cried, “Uncle!”), day after day after year.
Yup. The denigrating bombardment is still there. “Oh, wah-wah. Everybody gets bullied.”
True. And not everybody is bullied to the same degree. Additionally, maintaining popularity and the things you have to sacrifice to keep it (um…your conscience, your successes if you’re not top dog, maybe your soul) carries its own scars. So does being the bully. So does being the unnoticed, forgotten kid everybody just calls “Meh.”
That’s why I don’t laugh about or condescend other people’s scars.
Sing it with me now: it’s called compassion. It’s called empathy.
But condescension seems to be the thing to do, no matter how old we are. I’ve never been capable of comprehending that mindset — one of the biggest reasons I was an outcast.
In my class, there were only two individuals lower on the totem pole than I was. One arrived new to second grade. He had the misfortune of being of Polish descent at a time and place when the ultimate insult was to be the third guy in “So an Irishman, an Italian and a Polack walk into a bar” jokes. He also had fire-red hair, a fire-red temper, and his face went fire-red whenever he was upset. Woe unto him, he cried when he was furious, so he took it horrifically, and they ganged up on him, which meant he lost his fights.
That’s always how it was.
The ganging up. Safety in numbers, don’tcha know.
It was especially lovely when the first teacher charged with supervising the classroom of one’s age group turns out to be one of the worst name-callers and bullies you’ve ever experienced. Pretty much gave license to my classmates to do the same.
And they did.
The one other kid lower than me in the pecking order had the misfortune to be from a smoker household, with negligent parenting so his hair wasn’t always combed and his clothes carried various scents to provide all the ammunition that shark-toothed children needed. He also had a few learning disabilities, and that hurled him straight down the garbage shoot, in their opinions.
I thought he was funnier than heck, had an awesome imagination, and he was a really sweet kid. Both of them were.
And that was the trouble with us. We refused to be cruel to others in order to gain popularity or position.
I didn’t have negligent parents, red hair, or learning disabilities — in fact, quite the opposite, and that was also an issue. I could do both arts and sciences in my sleep, I was a multimedium performer, and a medal-winning athlete. I could even smoke the pants off the boys in sprints for a few year there (before their legs outgrew mine), and I was singled out time and again for things like needing my own reading group with one other kid.
What I didn’t excel at was social skills.
To top it off, being hyper-sensitive to sensory stimulation, I’ve always had the issue that public spaces are Too Much for me. This turns me into a wall-flower and deer-in-the-headlights, single-syllable grunter, even though I am a social butterfly at heart.
Additionally, I had been raised in a household where “Love Your Neighbor” was an action, not just words. So were “Turn the Other Cheek” and “Forgive Those Who Trespass Against Us.” Many of the earlier generations’ rules, respects, and expectations that had gone by the wayside were still in full force at my house, so I couldn’t get away with jack squat. Everybody knew that one of the fastest ways to get caught doing something they weren’t supposed to be doing was to invite me along, because my parents checked up on me, asked very specific questions, and I wasn’t a liar.
Kiss of death.
But there was something else lurking beneath my geeky, gawky, gullible demeanor. Something I wouldn’t discover until I was 28, amidst all the varied night terrors, flashbacks, and horror-laden images slammed into the forefront of my mind, day after day, all day long while I recuperated.
I was walking around with repressed memories from…something.
Something that had exchanged my intact hymen for supreme self-loathing and insane-screeching, it’s-gonna-kill-me terror over having my pants pulled down and being forced to bend over.
That forgotten incident running a detrimental program in my subconscious, combined with being bullied until the age of 15, combined with the various sexual traumas that pockmarked my existence into adulthood, combined with the incidents of domestic violence and college rape my brain had conveniently wiped from memory for five years, then delivered back to me in an additionally traumatizing manner, and combined with all my failed attempts to get some psychological, emotional, mental, or spiritual help about it all but sometimes made it worse…
That was the chemical cocktail I had swimming around behind the fortress of my mind when a drunk driver rammed me.
Losing my ability to compartmentalize emotions or thoughts, or to prevent horrific memories from pummeling me hour after hour, whether or not I was awake, opened a floodgate I had no tools to deal with.
Every traumatic episode I’d ever experienced twined with anything remotely similar (because that how the brain works — it’s a hunter-seeker for patterns and connections, and that is one skill I can still do on steroids).
The best way I can describe the process of dealing with and healing from cPTSD is this: You have a box of thread spools. The cats — adorable assholes that they are — have gotten in there and batted them around until the various colors are all tangled up and knotted.
Now add frontal lobe damage to that mess: the dog — an even bigger and funnier asshole — decides it would be fun to upend the box across the kitchen tiles. The cats agree. They batta-batta those spools all over the room, further tangling them around the legs of the chairs and table and under the stove — wheeeeee!
Somebody finds it hi-flippin’-larious to hack up a hairball in the middle of it.
Somebody else (not naming names, ahem) decides the art project is not complete unless he’s dragged his dingleberry butt across the few open spots left on the floor that anybody could safely step.
And here I come, bleary-eyed and shuffling in my bunny slippers, to make my morning coffee.
That’s Complex PTSD on Frontal Lobe Damage. YAY.
Me and my Issues. (Role assignment depends on the day)
Below is one of my gazillion attempts to untangle spools of thread. I got curious last summer as to how in the infernal Sam Hells I had been rendered incapable of walking. Following that thread back and back and back all the way to college brought me to many knots that I couldn’t pry apart. Those knots branched off with different colors and led to other knots.
Here is my box of spools. If you’d like to delve, I recommend starting at the top-right. Or if you want to trace patterns backwards, the most recent episodes are at the bottom left.
This map led to several others about the miraculous tools, toys, tricks, and connections I’ve made in order to deal with the mess. I enjoy those ones much more, but creating this first map gave me a miraculous gift of its own.
Upon taking in the whole thing as one conglomerous entity, I finally earned some bloody compassion for myself, even though I didn’t grow up in the ghetto, a war zone, a concentration camp, or a foster-system hellhole. Apparently you don’t need that degree of trauma to exhibit symptoms similar to someone who has.
And you certainly don’t need to have my caliber of trauma to be symptomatic either. We only know what we know.
So can we quit trying to one-up each other yet?
Can we quit telling each other to “suck it up” and “get over it” on the timeline that would be more convenient for us, instead of the timeline that is someone else’s?
Can we quit telling each other (and ourselves) to shut up about it? Can we quit condescending and pooh-poohing each other’s pain because our pain is different?
Maybe we wouldn’t need to, if we could quit condescending our own pain like that nasty little voice that hisses, “Weakling.” Can’t we just say the simple friggin’ words to somebody who’s hurting?
“Geez, that SUCKS.”
“I’m sorry/sad/pissed that happened to you.”
“Would you like a hug/tea/beer/bath or for me to hold mitts for you/leave you the fuck alone for awhile/just let you cry/yell/vent?”
“No, that doesn’t make you crazy/disgusting/stupid/unloveable/icky.”
“I FUCKING LOVE YOU ANYWAY AND I’M NOT GOING ANYWHERE.”
And you way over there: