I DARE YOU - My 20th RebirthDay
Updated: Sep 20
Twenty years ago this morning, I thought I'd be waking up like usual. I thought I'd scribble my thoughts into my journal for fifteen minutes, then get out of bed. I thought I'd take a shower, towel off my hair and brush it, then put on my work clothes, put food into my mouth and chew it to mostly mush.
Instead, I woke up to a roaring alarm and a screaming headache. I peeled my swollen eyes open to find dual spears jammed into them. I snoozed the alarm three times. Finally, I managed to roll out of the covers. I could barely lift my arm up to put on my glasses, so the idea of showering and brushing my hair was slightly horrifying. As it turns out, I wouldn’t do either of these activities for four days, and would require help the first time. The best I could do was haul my battered carcass into the living room where my only phone was plugged into the wall. (Only a land-line for me back then.)
Twenty years ago this morning, I thought I would be putting on my warmest winter-wear, warming up my car, and driving to work.
But there was no car parked in my spot outside my apartment. Its crumpled remains had been towed away and locked in a lot until it could be assessed and officially totaled. Upon calling in to work, I told my boss that I didn't have a ride and asked him if anybody could come pick me up. When I explained why, he told me to go sit down and not move until his sister could come check me over--she was a chiropractor.
To my surprise, I was not "just fine" like the hospital had told me when they sent me home in the middle of the night. My boss's sister lifted up my hair to discover a golfball sized lump on the back of my neck. We had no idea if I had any fractured vertebrae because the emergency room tech hadn't been able to figure out how to unhook the clasp of my rhinestone costume necklace to take X-rays. "Eh, you won't need those anyway," he decided.
The emergency room also never so much as breathed the word "concussion," which turned out to be the most significant of my injuries. This brain injury also turned out to be permanent.
Thus began the nightmare of having to prove my injuries to the world.
Twenty years ago this evening, I thought I'd be dancing for a private Christmas party at one of the Moroccan restaurants in town. I thought I'd be doing the same thing at my regular gigs on Friday and Saturday nights. On Sunday, I thought for certain I'd be sharing my second make-out session with the man I had just started dating.
That last one was the only thing that happened. Sorta. Tentatively. Softly because I was wearing a neck brace and couldn't really look up at him.
Twenty years ago at 12:13 a.m. I could not have imagined who I had become by 12:17 a.m.
As explained to me by my neuropsychologist, this splintering between “was” and “now is,” between “I thought I would” and “but I didn’t get to” is part of how the Trauma Brain is created. It’s part of how PTSD happens. (1, 2)
So many of us traipse about our lives with countless clueless assumptions, especially when we have a long history of successfully accomplishing our daily tasks:
--I WILL wake up when my alarm goes off.
--I WILL take a shower.
--I WILL eat my cereal.
--I WILL get ready for work.
--I WILL start my car.
--I WILL drive all the way to work.
--I WILL work all day.
--I WILL drive home.
--I WILL make and eat supper.
--I WILL help the kids with homework.
--I WILL watch my favorite show before bed, curled up with my spouse.
--I WILL go upstairs and climb into bed.
--I WILL fall asleep.
--I WILL wake up the next morning and do it all over again.
Once you've experienced a significant trauma, an alternate set of mental folders gets moved to the top of the Operational Procedures. You've always had these folders. You've always known that there's a chance you might not make it to your destination every time you operate a motor vehicle. But because there are so many times that you have, and because you know countless other people who get to their destinations in their vehicles every day, the un-traumatized brain expects that you’ll make it there again.
My brain no longer lives under this expectation.
For a brain caught in the traumatic cycle, it goes something like this:
--I WILL wake up when my alarm goes off--oh shit! I better double check it to make sure that I remembered to set it. OK, whew. I woke up on time.
--I WILL take a shower--oh shit! Do you know how easy it would be for me to slip while getting in there? Steady now. Oh, geez, or washing my hair - do NOT sing! Don't break your concentration. Get out carefully. One foot. And the other. Whew! Didn't slip and break my neck.
--Holy crapdoms! I could die just by putting on my pants! If I tripped with one leg half in, my skull could slam onto the corner of that dresser, right into the temple and that'd be that. Okay, sit down. Breathe. Cool. I'm dressed.
-- Time for--ohhhhh man. Fucking stairs. Seriously? Who invented those death traps! That was so stupid! Why did I ever rent this place? Ok, release your white knuckled hand from the railing. Whew.
--I WILL eat my cereal--why do they make this shit so huge? And those sharp, crispy edges? Do you know how easily I could choke on that? And there's nobody here! If I was choking, I'd have to try to give myself the heimlich over this chair--would I break my ribs? Would I suffocate and die anyway? Whew. All eaten.
You realize that we're only a half-hour into our day, right? Tired yet?
Yeah. Me, too.
And yes, this is exaggerated for effect. But not really. It’s those blips in my brain that happen all day long. These constant warning pings that I have to calm down, smooth the hackles, turn off the flashing light, and ignore. Yet sometimes this is not exaggerated at all. If it’s a significant enough trigger, it results in a panic attack that stops me in my tracks, refusing to let me put one foot in front of the other.
It feels so stupid. I watch it happening from outside myself and I cannot get my shaking finger stable enough to push the Manual Override button on the warning system so I can do the “scary” thing I’ve done countless times without dying or being mauled by tigers.
Worse is when forcing myself to override the panic response triggers a neurological meltdown because my shaken-and-stirred brains can’t process that much colliding information through its faulty wiring along with doing the thing. Most often this happens when I’m also having to deal with sensory overload from being in public while trying to maintain The Face that says my neurological SWAT team has not gone to Code Orange. That’s always fun.
This is why PTSD consumes vast amounts of Spoons. It's also why things like talk therapy and drugs don't work for so many traumatized people. They didn't work for me, and antidepressants actually made things worse both times I've been on them. I wasn't depressed. I was traumatized. Depression was just an intermittent symptom of that. Trauma is a neurological, physiological thing. It actually rewires the brain (2), so it’s not a matter of “getting ahold of yourself and being mature/evolved/positive enough, just talk about it once to a therapist if you need to and then let it gooooo.”
Even when my warning pings are under control, if they’re still pinging, it doesn’t matter that they zip by more quickly than the blink of an eye. That still eats up a Spoon to dismiss it.
Now add in any injuries or illnesses or health conditions already gobbling Spoons? Mmmmmph. For me, the very mechanism I need for keeping the trauma reactions under control — mind-over-matter — has been damaged, further complicating things. PTSD on TBI with naturally hypersensitive neurology is the primary reason why I am highly reclusive.
This is my brain on PTSD: around here, we go through the day ASSuming that there is a high likelihood that when we get into that vehicle, we will NOT make it to our destination, because that one time we did, WE DIDN’T and it obliterated the life I had been building for twenty-eight years and three days. Forever thereafter, the Klaxons continue screaming, or at best, pinging about how we might not make it to where we're intending again.
And it doesn’t just apply to vehicles or anything related to what caused the injury and deviated “I WILL” into “I DIDN’T.” Ohhhhhh, no. It copy-pastes this crappy ASSumption onto everything else that we’ve always known in the back of our minds could be hazardous. Then it slaps warning labels onto things we had once found innocuous.
Until you can break this cycle, it might also slap these warning labels onto everyone you remotely care about. Now your spouse MIGHT NOT make it home from work--heck, they might not even make it TO work. Better call just to make sure--whew.
And kids? Pfffft, those feeble, weeble-wobbly little suckers are just doomed.
Oh yeah. I almost forgot.
With every subsequent trauma you acquire? Well, my old trauma therapist likened the first incident, particularly if it happened at a young age, to one of those nasty hanging stickie-traps for flies. Any traumas that come after, even if they're small, can easily get stuck onto that thing and make an icky, tangled mess of goo and bug guts. That's the difference between single-incident PTSD and Complex-PTSD.
It's really fun, I'm telling you.
Once my sticky-trap of alarms has been triggered, it’s now my job to tame down this automatic survival mechanism that has gotten a little too happy with itself. It thinks it’s the CEO rather than the security team, and it demands a CEO’s salary of Spoons, as well as the top floor suite office. Its services are soooo much more valuable and necessary and crucial and needed than anybody else’s, see?
So what do I do about it? Sheesh, that’s the majority of what my blog is about. My personal cocktail of techniques includes EMDR (3), meditation, art therapies, physical therapies, cognitive therapies, and intense visualization of arriving at my destination safely, complete with imaginary “Woohoo!” and selfie-fist-bump.
It totally works--at least for me. I'm not nearly as much of a basket case as I was when the injuries first happened, because I come at this stuff from a myriad different directions.
Each trauma reaction is as unique as each TBI, so each of us has to find the combination that works for us personally, and adjust it as the healing goes along. (2)
And yes, I can hear a few of you already. “Wow, must be nice to have the time to do all that stuff. All I can do is haul myself to work and back before collapsing.”
I suppose I could respond, “Wow, must be nice to be capable of working a job. I’ve stymied Voc. Rehab agencies in two different states, as well as everybody who’s ever tried to help me solve this issue...” But I won’t. Oneupsmanship is counterproductive in this circumstance. (Is it helpful in anything?)
I miss my dream job. I’m still in mourning over the reality-check that the dream job I thought I would cultivate after age fifty is as unobtainable as the dream job I finally had to quit. I even miss having the capacity to work a day job, which had once allowed me to pay my own bills and participate in life after work. So now my job is healing and trying to figure out how to jerry-rig a system that was not designed for the disabled.
In the meanwhile, I try to work with and learn from my hyperactive mental security team. I let each of their pings remind me that I don’t have much time left on this planet, and that I need to cherish every moment with everybody in my life, because in a split-second, I could lose all that, too.
And someday, I will.
This is why I have named December 21 my official RebirthDay even though it's the anniversary of one of the most traumatic things that has ever happened to me. Winter Solstice is, after all, a celebration of the return of the Unconquerable Sun.
But it doesn’t happen overnight, as much as we might wish for it. It’s a process. It’s the minute-by-minute, hour-after year kind of process. And it’s a choice, every second of every day.
This...ahem...slight detour to my life (and several others) taught me things I never could have learned otherwise. It sounds cheesy when I say it, but they were instrumental in transforming me into somebody I love, value, cherish, and protect a thousand-and-one times more than I cherished myself at twenty-eight.
Yes, in spite of my inability to stop dropping F-bombs in professional circumstances.
In spite of losing that beloved supercomputer of a brain, my day job, and my dream career.
Even in spite of the Rage Thang.
I’ve said it a gazillion times, and I’m sure I’ll say it until I croak. This is not some Triumph Tale with a tidy Hollywood overcomer’s ending. My tale cycles and spirals, it's up and down like a toilet seat, and it gets tangled up in complex knots, then releases again. It’s a Scheherazadean labyrinth of how I live day after day with the things I’ve experienced and the things I’ve done. Sound familiar?
Happy Winter Solstice to y'all! Happy RebirthDay to me! I just turned twenty, and it is a really, really good day.
I dare you to have one, too. Go on. Just one breath. And then another, even if that's all you have the Spoons to do as you curl up like a seed in the deep dark of the winter ground with the covers over your head.
I DARE YOU TO:
'TIS THE SEASON
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE:
--UP NEXT: MY 20TH ANNIVERSARY HOLIDAY TRIGGER: WT-Actual-F, 2020?!
--Or if you want to start at the beginning of this anniversary series, it starts HERE.
2) The best book I've ever read about trauma, including a myriad ideas on how to deal with it: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D.
3) EMDR — the trauma therapy that has worked the best for me. It got me back driving a vehicle after my car wreck, allowed me to be an only slightly jumpy passenger, and now I’ve started using it to detangle my exploded box of spools from Complex-PTSD.
This tale and many others were cross-posted to Medium. If you're a member over there, you can read my stuff HERE.