How PTSD has led me to the here and now
I arrive at 9:30 a.m. I’m thirty minutes early as requested by the text reminder I received on my phone the day before. And as requested on the reminder email that I received the day before. And for the cave-man in me, the business card that is clipped to my refrigerator.
This is my first appointment with my E.M.D.R. (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) specialist.
I was referred here by my recent psychiatrist and It’s taken every bit of three months to get my foot through the door. But before I made the appointment, I did a little research on the doc‘s recommendation. With a quick “Google” search, I came across a website, nonetheless, it provided the bare bones. The “About” page of the website listed the doctor’s referral first. Her name is Atonia. Her thumbnail-sized portrait portrayed a round face with an ear to ear smile. Blonde hair. Lighter eyes. Late 40’s to early ’50s, maybe. Her basic life interests were listed followed by a bio. Essentially, it was a resume written in full sentence structure. It was boastful. But impressive. She’s worked with both adolescents and adults with PTSD. This is what I need.
So here I am.
As I pull forward, over the slightest bit of hill and onto the street that’ll connect me to my destination, I frown instinctively at the scenery. Cookie-cutter townhome rentals are suddenly scattered throughout. Businesses come and go all too often in places like this. It is simply too expensive and they shut down causing me to start all over again. This doesn’t resonate with me very well. I’ve had enough of this.
But I’ve waited long enough.
Everyone has waited long enough.
The lines in the parking lot didn’t exist. There’s an unnaturally large spot that's closest to the entrance and with no otherwise indications, I deem it a legitimate parking spot and park. I gather my items, open the door and place a single boot onto the concrete and then whoosh. An unsettling wave came crashing in from the top of my head and then settled into the soles of my feet, causing a warm pressure in my calves as if they were heavily blanketed. I clambered back into the car, my head exploding with answers to unwavering questions.
Is this a parking spot? It’s not a parking spot.
Am I crooked? I’m crooked
Did I deserve this spot? No.
Will I get towed? I’ll get towed.
Will someone kick my car? Someone will kick my car.
Will I feel safe, walking to my car? Not if someone wants to get me.
Will someone be waiting at the entrance? Yes. I’ll need a chance to run.
I moved my car further back and all was forgotten. I cut across the parking lot to make my way onto the sidewalk. The sidewalk swirls to the side of the building where I see the entrance is to my left. But my gaze carries to the right. I linger in the colors before me. The sun touches it all, exaggerating the blues of the sky, the reds, and yellows of the hibiscus plants and the greens of, well, the greenery. Brightly and crisply cut hedges sit along with the privacy barriers made out of brick. Two benches sat opposite, so simply placed just off the outer edges of the sidewalk. The seats are made of chocolatey wood-grained slates. Perfected metal swoops on each side of the benches served as armrests. They made me want to say the word “Classico.” The sun rests on my skin like a warmed silk blanket straight out of the dryer. I close my eyes and lock this picture in my head. A gentle floral note perfumes the sun-shining morning.
I enter the building. I’ve always pictured places like these to resemble the looks and smells of a clinic. I expect the smell of floor treatment at minimal. But only the sliding glass window that separates the employees from the patients mildly appears that of a clinic. In fact, it is the only reminder that I am here with an insurance card.
I was greeted by the weird guy behind the glass window. We exchanged awkward pleasantries. He looked so out of place. Like he should have been working in a vape shop. Thickly black-rimmed glasses, an unkempt beard, gauged earlobes that hung loosely… at least he wore a short-sleeved checkered shirt. Still, he could have worked anywhere besides a doctor’s office. “Have a seat in the waiting room please and meanwhile, please fill out this paperwork,” he taps the pen to the paperwork, making accidental ticks. The ticks annoyed me. But It was the way in which he motioned the pen, pecking down at the surface, that pulled back my senses. I heard every implication of a bad day in those three taps. My mood quickly shifted, mirroring his, and I seized the clipboard with all of the contents.
I glance down… Name, Birthday, Sex, Referred by, etc. I already filled out these forms through the online patient portal, sent via email, months ago. Begrudgingly, I snap around, scrutinizing the lack of uniformity down the hall. There were six doors in the hallway. White noise machines were set on the floor just outside of every door. The power cords lay disheveled. Three were powered and plugged in from the hallway. Three were powered from within their respective rooms. These should be mounted to the wall and the power cords should be concealed. Everything should be orderly. This isn’t professional.
I open the door to the waiting room. Moving slowly, methodically, trying to avoid pulling or pushing the door the wrong way, making loud noises, dropping something, and/or tripping over myself. I do not close the door. It’s entirely too stressful.
I sit across the room from the only other person in the room. He’s old. 70’s maybe. He has grey hair and glasses. He’s dressed in a plain white shirt. His shorts are entirely too short and I’m slightly amused. He sits up straight, both palms resting on a cane. I wonder what he is here for. PTSD? His hat suggests he is a veteran. The TV is on. The instrumentals of Sylvester The Cat cut harshly into my bones. The dramatic ups and downs, fast and slows. It’s loud with absolutely no speaker range. The treble makes me tremble. I drop my pen, pick it up, and minimally fill out this paperwork for the second time.
The therapist calls for me. *I jolted at the sudden change in noise direction.* There’s an urgency in her voice. I feel it. Matching her determination, I scramble, ensuring everything is secured on my person. I do this awkward skip thing and I catch up to Mrs. Atonia. I can smell her as air wafts around the edges of her hair. Spiced vanilla. She hums and despite her perfectly rounded frame, she walks with finesse in her ballerina flats.
She makes her way through her office doorway and gestures me to the couch, “Go ahead and have a seat.” I press my lips together, smiling thinly. I sit in the middle of the three-seater couch. I shiver. My arms are wrapped well enough around my torso and I am legitimately hugging myself. “Would you like a blanket?” she asks me. I feign relief after I run my hands up and down my arms. “Nah, it was just a chill.” But my arms remained crossed. I would have normally set my hands gently into my lap masking my uncertainty. But I needed to see if she could read the basics of body language. How good is she, truly?
“Ahemm…,” the therapist was seated in front of me all of a sudden. Pen and paper in hand. She was trying to get my attention. I raised my eyebrows instead of my eyes. My eyes are drawn the patterns that ornament the area-rug. Paisley, tear-drop patterns collide with unnamed shapes. I’m analyzing the print. Do the colors provide enough contrast? Are the patterns symmetrical at any point? I revel in the formation. The decorations grow and shrink. The rows of woven fiber move upwards like credits at the end of the movie. My brain is messing with me. I’m losing it.
Out of my peripheral view, I notice Atonia while she sneaks a glance at her smart-watch and it annoys me enough that I actually lift my gaze. That’s when I realize the room is missing a coffee table. It would have been nice if she had one here. So that I could have placed my coffee on the table.
She’s wearing an oversized yet short-sleeved cardigan. It looks amazingly comfortable. I need one of those.
Atonia breaks the turbulent dead-air, that is my brain, “How’s your morning been?”
I’m racking my brain. I’m unsure of the weather. Was it cold or hot outside? I don’t know what time it is. Is it AM or PM? I don’t know what day it is… it’s clearly not a weekend, and answer is subconscious as always. I shrug, “lovely.” This was my signature answer to anything remotely close to a question of the sort. What a fantastic ice-breaker.
She’s ready to take notes. “Who referred you?”
I am undoubtedly doubtful after Mrs. Atonia asked that question. Upon making this appointment a couple of months ago, I was instructed to check my email, join the patient portal, and fill out the questionnaire. I spent over an hour answering those questions. I took the time to write in complete sentences. In fact, out of the dozens of doctors I’ve seen, this was the first time I actually answered every question. And I answered that exact question. Twice now.
I ran my fingers through my hair, dropped my elbows to my thighs, and collapse my chin into the palms of my hands. Have I wasted an hour of uneventful stop-and-go traffic for a test of my memorization? Or were they milking my insurance? “The IOP program just down the road, not a mile away.”
“What brought you here?”
“A series of unfortunate events. I was recently Baker Acted and hospitalized. I’m going through a divorce. I have kids that are being used against me. I’ve hit rock-bottom.”
She smiles. But her smile is warm. She’s heard this before. She looks determined. “We will discuss this more in detail. I will be taking brief notes for future visits. Tell me about the most recent counseling or therapy you have received? When and where?”
I start to ramble, hemming and hawing over the recent events as if the events meant nothing. It’s the easiest way to get it all out:
“Last year I was Baker Acted in central FL, a city located in the middle of Orlando and Tampa if you are at all familiar with Florida. After I was Baker Acted, I was admitted into a ten-day partial hospitalization program at an Orlando Behavioral Hospital. My hometown physiatrist worked with the hospital as they tweaked my medications. During this period I was on F.M.L.A. for ten weeks. When I was cleared to go back to work, I was voluntold to step down from my position as a manager. Yeah. Harsh. That has since, absolutely crushed my ego. My pride.
And then, after two months of dating my current boyfriend, I impulsively moved here to Mississippi. I’ve been here ten months to date. I just recently finished an eight-week intensive outpatient program down the street from here. I am still trying to find a physiatrist who seems legit. I’ve been through four since moving here. Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated.”
“I will write you down a recommendation for the lady upstairs. She is refusing new patients, but she’ll take you in with my card.”
I’m intrigued. It’s upstairs? Convenient.
“Tell me about your experience with the Baker Act (72-hour hold) and Partial Hospitalization Program? What was your diagnosis? What medications are you taking? What do you hope to accomplish?”
“The baker-act was what I imagined a prison would be. Everything was suicide foul-proof. Not that I was going to attempt that again. I was literally stripped of all my belongings upon check-in, including my nose-ring. While I waited for the doctor to determine that I was no longer a risk to myself or others I read half a book and slept. They’d given me Seroquel, something I haven’t taken before. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I couldn’t stand without the fog rushing into my brain. I was there for the full three days as they milked my insurance and finally released me.
Next was the ten-day partial hospitalization program, “highly recommended” by my hometown psychiatrist. It was also mandatory if I wanted to take a leave from work. This program turned out to be the biggest pain in the ass, simply because of the hour-long trips back and forth every day. I learned nothing. I repeated my past life for the 87th time to another three doctors or so. I finished the program. This was last year, a couple of months before I left.
And again, I finished the eight-week IOP program just recently. Note—this was entirely voluntary. I have a folder here of all the activities and information I was given while I attended. It’s a lot.”
I’ve taken every medication, every assortment, every cocktail. I’ve been diagnosed with everything. I’m tired. I just want to try this counseling thing and stay on the same medications. I don’t want to switch again. Do you understand?”
Atonia, “I need to list your medications and diagnosis.”
“Here is my discharge papers from the eight-week program.” I hand those over. It lists everything.
Antonia, “What do you hope to accomplish?”
“I don’t know.”
What am I supposed to accomplish? A doctor and medication-free lifestyle? I’d like to rid myself of sleeping and waking nightmares. I’d like to live my life without this mulling anger, skepticism, and suspicion that lies just underneath my skin. It’s of everyone and everything. To rid myself of unhealthy, impulsive and unorthodox behaviors that led me here, to begin with. To stop screaming. Covering my ears from the sounds. Second-guessing everything I do. I want to walk through a grocery store without memories staring me down from the shelves. Without the sounds of children—happy, sad, or otherwise that generally haunt me into the night. Into my dreams. I want to work without a constant paranoia that someone, customer or employee, is here to hurt me. Talk about me. Hit me. Stalk me. Shoot me. I want the cloud that lingers just above my head to dissipate. I want to believe that I have hit rock bottom and that the only way from here is up.
“I want to get better. I want people to understand. And it sounds so simple, but I want people to believe me.”
“I understand what you mean.”
“No. I don’t think you do. I’m writing a book.”
She stops mid-word. Her eyes adjust and focus just above my head. It’s that cloud. “That sounds like it’ll be very therapeutic for you.” I’m unsure if she believes me. It’s in her tone.
“We will move on to background history and your first memories. Where were you born? Who was present during your birth? Were there any complications?”
“I was born on October 13, 1988, at Tampa General Hospital. My mother was 16. My father was 15. They must have adored me. I was told that they were over the moon with me. I saw the picture of my dad holding me in the hospital room, smiling. My mother on the bed, smiling.” Basking in the afterglow and relief of the ever-tiring and grueling process of childbirth. Proud and delighted parents. I know this feeling.
“Do you have any siblings? Tell me a little bit about them.”
“Technically I have 9 siblings, however, during this time period, there was a total of four of us. I was the oldest followed by Jacob, Paul, and Erin. We are all about 11 months apart. I couldn’t tell you much about them because we don’t communicate. There are times I check in with Jacob but it’s not consistent by any means. He remembers just as much as I do. He is aware of the book and to be honest he is scared of the book.”
“Can you tell me about your very first memory?”
“We lived in Plant City, Florida. Plant City is known for the Strawberry farms and the Strawberry Festival, where artists (usually in the country genre) perform concerts. Somewhere in this small town, we lived in a mobile home park. And when you entered the park, we were located on the left side. A tall fence divided the park from the little business office next door. The homes were tucked in tight. The driveways were dusty. There was a minimal amount of foliage within the park.
My first memory comes to mind on a blazing day. Hot and sunny. I can imagine myself trooping on over, toddler style, en route for the chain-link fence. The red and pink shades transcended beauty. On impulse, I leaned into the fence, stretched through the diamond-shaped hole, and eagerly snatched one up. Completely unaware of the defense mechanism that roses exhibit, I was then pierced. I instantly drew back, leaving cat-like scratches all the way down to my wrists, howling and screaming. Someone came to my rescue. I think it was my mother. I’m not entirely sure who it was, but I was swooped up and told to stay away from the fence.”
“Can you tell me about your second memory? Can you remember anything soon after that event?”
“My second memory occurred in that same house. Through the narrow stretch of the kitchen, our secondary door was located at the rear, in the “breakfast nook.” The door was open one day. I simply remember falling to the ground. There weren’t any steps installed.”
“What about your third?”
Memories flood my mind. It’s hard to gather anything specific. “I know that my “Nana” had the house moved onto her property. She lived in Brooksville, Florida. She wanted us all to live in close quarters. Her daughter, my biological mom was entirely too young to be without financial help.”
“What’s the first thing that comes to mind after you moved?”
“I was sleeping in my own room. I slept on the bottom of a twin-sized wooden bunk bed. The bed was positioned alongside the bathroom wall. The top mattress was supported by four slats of wood. There wasn’t much of a ladder to reach the top. At the foot of the bed an extra slat that crossed horizontally. It helped, but it wasn’t a ladder.
I remember wearing “nighties.” The cartoon pajamas. Long, hot, and ruffled at the bottom. I absolutely despise those now. And only because of the material, not the memories. One night I woke up, restless. The living room lit the foot of my bed just enough for me to see the shadows move about. Roaches. I was hesitant to shift. It frightened me. But I found a bit of courage and dashed out of my room just as quickly as the roaches scattered. I wasn’t a fan of bugs. As time passed, my fear of bugs was seen as a weakness. Whoever lived in the house during that time purchased plastic roaches and would place them around the house, which I get, are funny. The first or second time. Maybe the third. As time passes, humor is lost. Things become inappropriate. I’ve dreamt about that particular night as an adult on several occasions as strange as that may sound.
I remember my “blue blankie.” That is what I called it. It was a quilted blue and white checkered blanket with Winnie The Pooh stitched on the top. The back was blue. It had the blue ruffles around the outer edges. I slept with it. Napped with it. Took it on car rides. It followed me everywhere. The smell was intoxicating. I’d draw it all in, sweet and milky, I lolled in the warmth. I’m not sure why that bounced into my mind.”