Flashbacks are not funny, which is a shame because I always hoped the silly jokes about people flashing back and doing ridiculous things with comedic effect were true. Mental illness is horrific. Flashbacks are confusing, dangerous and traumatic. Maybe that’s why we joke about it? I never had flashbacks — or at least, I never identified an experience as a flashback — until I moved into a safe place. I never understood I had anxiety until I fixed my hormone balance. I never realised I was abused until I got away from it. I never understood that my need to please stems from childhood trauma until I found myself living with someone who didn’t need me to justify her faith in me. Problems need to be solved before I can work on the next layer. That sounds obvious, but, like the flashbacks, I wasn’t prepared for that truth.
Two years ago, I was living on my own for the first time in my life. The volume of problems around me kept me numb. I cried, I didn’t eat. I went to a weekly D&D game with the friends that took me in; they had changed houses but the game continued. I bought a computer game. It didn’t distract me, but it kept my hands busy while I worked on my voice. Anyone who asked would get a list: I lost my dad, my married family, my home. I was uncertain about whether friendships would endure. I felt I was in danger leaving the house.
I referred myself to therapy, and they asked me what I wanted to achieve. I didn’t know. I wanted to sort through the terror of my head and pick at the knot of destructive thoughts. There was no cure. No solution. Being assaulted by a housemate gave me a tangible problem until he left, but the feelings of insecurity at home remained. Emotion soup.
"HORMONE THERAPY STRIPPED AWAY THE FIRST LAYER. I HAD ANXIETY! A LOT OF ANXIETY."
Hormone therapy stripped away the first layer. I had anxiety! A lot of anxiety. Where did that come from? But my mother told me at some point later that I was always very anxious. Something about estrogen made me aware of it. Clearing away the testosterone unclouded my mind. All that clarity brought anxiety into sharp relief. Panic attacks became a thing to grasp and understand. And a regular occurrence, or at least I knew when they happened. Also depression, but it seemed to flip between the two. So that’s fun.
Knowing what they were didn’t mean I suddenly got better. I got worse. I was feeling better for having the right brain chemistry and feeling more right in myself, but I was feeling worse for having explicit feelings of depression and anxiety. The knot had frayed. I picked at it to little effect.
Eighteen months away from my ex and I come to understand that she abused me. It took a further four months of processing before I decided I needed help with it. Therapy ensued to little effect: I was still dealing with my loss and unsafe living space to work on it. It loomed on the edge of my mind, neglected for want of energy.
Leaving my unsafe house to be with my fiancée took away the second layer. The flashbacks began. Yet again, I felt better but also worse. Safe environment, unsafe mind. It was my mum that came out and said that bad things have happened to me and now I have the ptsd to work through. She said that before I moved and I took it as an intellectual puzzle; a label that worked for the moment. I was foolish to not take it at face value.
"EVERY PROBLEM SOLVED UNLOCKS SOMETHING I’VE SHUT AWAY."
Every problem solved unlocks something I’ve shut away. I had to shut almost everything away when I was homeless. There was too much. On reflection, I was anxious, depressed and having flashbacks for as long as I can remember, but I couldn’t work with those labels. Naming my enemy prompts action. It gives it power and creates avenues of enquiry. Survival demanded I use my spoons to get to work, manage my existence in a hostile household, and eat enough to live.
It makes sense that the first step in figuring out the layers in the knot was hormone therapy. Hormone damage demanded I clamp the rest down to survive the betrayal. It came up in a conversation with a friend and I began prodding that part of myself to find there were no words. That knot shows no signs of fraying. After a night of nightmares followed by a day of emotional exhaustion, I decided to leave well enough alone. For now.
I don’t know if this is normal, but I’ve survived by partitioning my self with walls of pain. The older the wall, the nastier the consequences of looking at it. As life becomes safer and my confidence grows, the more less established or more processed walls start to lower. The pain comes out, and I appear to get worse. But I guess I’m actually getting better: I’m feeling something as opposed to nothing.
New therapist next week, and I have to wonder what problem might be solved. I approach the whole thing with trepidation because there is no name for my enemy this time. No immediate environmental causes. Only symptoms and history.
It’s a remarkable thing, to say that life is a safe thing to live. Not common enough in our community, where everyone has a horrible story and a terrible situation to manage. When survival is uncertain, assault is everyday, and suicide is a regular occurrence, it’s almost revolutionary to say I feel secure. Of course, safety lets the demons loose. I guess we all just have to find our own way to survive.