How PTSD has led me to the here and now
I arrive at 9:00 a.m. I’m thirty minutes early as requested by the text reminder I received on my phone the day before. And as requested in 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, that provided the bare bones. The ‘About’ page of the website listed the doctor’s referral first. Her name is Atonia Williams. Her thumbnail-sized portrait shows a round face with an ear to ear smile. Blonde hair. Lighter eyes. Late 40’s to early 50’s, 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.
I pull forward, over the slightest bit of a hill and onto the street that’ll connect me to my destination. The hood of my car is long. “You drive a boat,” most say. But I’m proud of my car. This is my second Dodge Charger and I’m obsessed with it. As I level out, 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 washed down into the soles of my feet, causing a warm pressure in my calves as if they were heavily blanketed. I scramble back into the car, my head exploding with answers to compulsive 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 move my car farther back and all was forgotten. I cut across the parking lot and make my way onto the sidewalk. The sidewalk swirls to the side of the building where I see the entrance 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 lit and crisply cut hedges sit alongside 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 slats. 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 a minimum. But only the sliding glass window that separates the employees from the patients mildly gives the appearance of a clinic. In fact, it is the only reminder that I am here with an insurance card.
I’m greeted by the weird guy behind the glass window with a simple nod. He opens the window slowly. The long strain of the squeak has me covering my ears. The man and I exchange awkward pleasantries. He looks so out of place. Like he should have been working in a vape shop. Black thickly-rimmed glasses, an unkempt beard, gauged earlobes that hung loosely. At least he wore a button up shirt. It was short-sleeved and checkered. Still, he could have worked anywhere besides a doctor’s office. “Please sign-in first,” he said, scooting the sign-in sheet towards me. I reach for a pen, bumping my elbow on the ledge of the counter, cursing the lack of courtesy that short people are given these days. I’m all of five feet tall. I feel like a child right now unable to comfortably rest my forearms on the ledge. I sign in and quite literally look up waiting for the next step. The man is tall. “Have a seat in the waiting room please and meanwhile, please fill out this paperwork,” he taps the pen to the paperwork, forming accidental ink ticks. The ticks annoyed me. But It was the way in which he moved the pen, pecking down at the surface, that alarmed 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 its 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 in tangles. 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. I move 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 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 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 churn my belly. The TV is 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 jar at the sudden change in noise direction. There’s an urgency in her voice. I feel it. Matching her determination, I climb to my feet, ensuring everything is secured on my person. I do this awkward skip thing and I catch up to Mrs. Williams. I can smell her shampoo 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 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 to 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. She’s wearing an oversized yet short-sleeved cardigan. It looks amazingly comfortable. I need one of those.
Atonia breaks the turbulent dead-air and clash, 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 the 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.
“Tell me a little bit about yourself.”
I hate questions like these. It is too open-ended for me… so I blab...
“Well, I’m 31 years old. I have two children. A five-year old girl named Brooklyn. And a three-year old boy named Xander. I’m recently divorced, however I have a boyfriend that I live with. His name is Mark. We’ve been together for a year. I have a kitty who’s almost 12. I found her when she was a kitten. So small she had to eat from a syringe. I have an inherited dog, due to the boyfriend. He’s a boxer. My hobbies include writing. Initially I wrote poems. I am currently writing a book. I love to read. As weird as it may sound I love to drive. I love to dance and sing, not that I’m good at any of it, but it helps to get me up and moving if you know what I mean. I practice yoga from time to time. I drink a lot of coffee,” I indicate by raising my 30 ounce Yeti. “And I cannot live without it. I don’t have any close friends. I’m adopted. My father’s side of the family is Korean. My biological mother’s family from what I understand is European/Italian. I love cars, bikes, and recently have gotten myself into this hobby of UTV/ATV mudding and rock climbing due to my boyfriend. We have gone on trips to campsites and parks that are made specifically for these types of things and it’s opened my eyes further to my love of the adrenaline rush I get from driving. I’ve always been entirely too proud of every car and truck I’ve ever owned. I’m not what you would call ‘girly’ but I enjoy putting on makeup and looking the part. I currently work 60 hours a week. I’m full-time sales at an electronics retail store where I held a position of management. I was previously held a position at management level before moving here. I’m currently waiting for any position with higher pay open up. One where I’ll avoid the five am shift.
So I took the entry level full-time sales role, where they kindly maxed my pay. I work an average of 20 hours a week bartending as I supplement my income from the crazy amount of child support I have to pay my ex.”
I finally take a breath.
“I don’t know what else to say. My favorite color is turquoise. There. I think I’m done.”
She furiously takes notes and I wonder if she writes ‘turquoise’ anywhere on her pad. She’s turned her notepad sideways as she writes across the paper, outside of the margins. It takes her a minute, but she fills the spaces and looks back up at me.
“That was a good start. Thank you.”
She flips the page back and around the yellow pad.
“Who referred you?”
I am undoubtedly doubtful after Mrs. Williams 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 run my fingers through my hair. I’m a bit irritated. I drop 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,’ which is equivalent and what is referred to as a ‘72-hour hold,’ here. I was hospitalized for three days. I’m going through a divorce. I have kids that are being used against me. I’ve hit rock-bottom and I’m here to find myself. A new self that isn’t damaged goods as I’ve always been.”
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 ramble again, 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. Afterwards, 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. (Family Medical Leave of Absence) 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 I’ve never been more embarrassed.
And then, after two months of dating my current boyfriend, who I met online, 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 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 fool-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 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 are my discharge papers from the eight-week program.” I hand those over. It lists everything that she needs.
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. That novel I’m writing, it’s MY book. I want people to see. I need people to see.”
She stops mid-word. Her eyes adjust and focus just above my head. It’s the cloud she sees. The one that lingers just above my head everywhere I go. “That sounds like it’ll be very therapeutic for you.” I’m unsure if she believes me. It’s in her tone. She sounds like everyone else.
“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 it.”
“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.
So about my first memory… It was blazing outside. Hot and sunny. I can imagine myself trooping on over, toddler style, en route for the chain-link fence behind our house. I reached my hand through…”
The red and pink roses on the other side 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.
“I went for the roses. The thorns pricked me. 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 pictured 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 move. 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. Whoever lived in the house during that time placed fake plastic roaches around the house, which I get, are funny. The first or second time. Maybe the third. But 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.”
Atonia looks at her watch. I’m ticked. I hate clocks. I hate watches. I ask if we are out of time.
“We can use this as a stopping point. There are a few minutes left. Let’s go ahead and get you scheduled for your next appointment if you’d like to.”
The next available slot was an entire month out. But I didn’t have an acceptable reason to decline, so I took it.
I ask for the restroom before stepping out. With a slight dismissal of our time together she simultaneously points her forehead in the direction of the first door on the left just outside her office while she types furiously.
Another ‘wash’ fell over me. This time it was a waterfall, pinning me to the ground. I drug my feet for a second. Abruptly, the perception of an outsider materialized in my mind and in this moment they pointedly saw the markings of the ‘walk of shame.’ Clothes from the night before. Smeared make-up. Eyes burning. Hair in a bun. Shoes in one hand. Accessories or otherwise in the other. Embarrassment impending through the halls of the hotel--or in this case, the bathroom. The flight, fight, or freeze trembles into my body. I cannot decide which is best. Instead, my insides gurgle. My stomach drops into my bowels and the pressure in my groin becomes unbearable.
I step out of sight as quickly as possible and into the room she indicated—with her forehead. The breakroom. It smells of hotdogs and ketchup. I gag. The bathroom door is open, just diagonal from the doorway I stood in. I rush in, lock the door, and have a seat before the contents of yesterday fall through me. I’ve been told this is a common reaction for those diagnosed with PTSD when panic or anxiety sets in. It’s grueling and embarrassing. The toilet is entirely too tall. It doesn’t help that my feet aren’t comfortably flat on the floor while I reach around and snatch up the miniature trash can, flipping it. I dry-heave over my legs instead.
The disruption of my gut subsides. My stomach calms. I’m able to finish my business.
I sulk, dazed and light-headed towards the sink. I wash my hands all the way up to my elbows. An attempt to partially wake my body. The water is absolutely freezing. But i’m thankful. It partially awakes my senses. I’m reluctant to lift my gaze where I know the mirror hangs before me. I grasp for a paper towel. Realizing the dispenser is automatic, I clap my hands underneath it. A red dot, the size of an eraser blinks to indicate it is empty but I see that it is not empty. The plastic is semi-transparent and through the darkened grey I see the roll. There was plenty enough for at least another 50 hand-washes. Rage sets in. I want to rip it from the wall and send it through the mirror. In an instant I needed to see that mirror spider. And on impulse I wanted to hurt myself. I wanted to bathe in the shards of what was supposed to be my reflection. But then I’d see myself in a million different angles. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to see myself in those angles. On mishap, I glance ahead. I’m on the warpath of shame. I’m disgusted. I violently fling my hands at the mirror, propelling the water into my reflection. My shoulder will be sore at the joint later. And I’ll forget why. But this is exactly why.
Before stepping out, I know better. I take 5 deep breaths, Vagus style.
She looks back at me. With long and thin light brown hair, no longer perfectly straight, but sweaty at the roots. Her face has paled from it’s natural olive color, as if she’d been fighting the flu for a week. Her eyes lazy. They’ve lost their contrast with the rest of her features. Light brown with a circle of yellow around the iris, they looked as sickened as her skin. She’s small. 95 pounds. 5 feet tall. She’s a child.
I pull my hair into a small bun with the hair tie I keep around my wrist for instances like this. I’m shivering. Freezing cold. I needed warmth to gain time. Before the second round of diarrhea set in. By the end of the day I’ll lose two pounds minimum. And until I’m able to pull of a full night's rest, I’ll suffer the strain in my belly. The dreaded beat in my chest. The one that sends everything through me within fifteen minutes of eating. I’ll also avoid eating for the rest of the day for that same reason.
What was the point in all of this? It made things worse. I’m not coming back.