Comrade Checkhov is right. But throw PTSD on that day-to-day living and little things become crisis and big-things become a battle.
Last Friday morning, at 0342 (as far as my clock was concerned), my entire house shook and then a noise so loud it could only be a bomb in my mind. Startled from a dream where I was already running, had there been a hidden camera in my bedroom, you would have seen me sprint out of bed, crying as if in pain. My startle response freaked out the rest of my family, who were clearly having their own freak out moment. You would, too, given the circumstances.
Was that an earthquake? I posted on Twitter and Facebook. Then we saw the eerie glow of an intense fire and a smoke plume that rose up higher than the highest trees around us and slowly filled up the valley with a cloud of ash.
Hubby grabbed a flashlight and went outside, in robe and barefooted, while I calmed children as best I could and surveyed the damage in the house. My garden starts that had been on our kitchen widow sills had fallen. Knicknacks on shelves had fallen and broken, and the art throughout the house all hung crookedly. Surely it had to be an earthquake. Hubby found nothing going on that he could see.
Then my 18-year-old son, currently staying with friends, texted me and said that the barber shop next to the gas station in town was on fire…
Facebook and Twitter started to come through with the gas station had exploded; that the electric sub-station by my house had blown. No and no.
True enough, however, the entire valley was awake.
Within moments we had our police scanner app on and found that the building next to the barbershop – two down from the gas station was leveled. It was likely a natural gas explosion. People 5 miles away in either direction heard the blast. My home sits about 100 yards as the crow flies – just a 3 minute walk out my back door – from the impact zone.
Once first responders were on the scene, hubby thought it best to get everyone to bed. Daughter and spouse had no problems going back to sleep. Youngest son went to room, but just lay there; I could hear him listening to his music. Me, I lay there and just stared at the ceiling in the dark. I would have fits of involuntary physical shaking. I tried to calm myself, saying it was just from the adrenaline rush and its subsequent come-down. But, I also knew I was fooling myself. I was amped up. I could think of nothing but getting dressed and arming up. All manner of continued crisis and disaster was going to befall my home and my loved ones. My brain raced. My combat vet, the domestic abuse survivor, and plain, ol’ mama bear, were very worked up and merging into one giant PTSD attack. My heart palpitated. Then the writer’s imagination kicked in. I wanted my ol’ trusty M16 or M4. Hell, at that moment, a 9mm would work. Anything beyond the hunting rifles we had, which are packed away for “safety.” There had to be something more nefarious at work, my brain was telling me. A building doesn’t just explode.
I tried to snuggle next to my husband and seek comfort. But it was no use, I was triggered. Hubby snored; I lay there doing nothing more but trying to control this obnoxious voice in my head to “take cover,” or “patrol the perimeter.”
So I got up; but, that little piece of reality I clung to, the tiny corner of my brain I use to talk myself out of these flashback-type moments convinced the adrenaline-fueled side of my brain that staying in my pajamas was just fine. If you were going to make me get up and out of bed, I certainly wasn’t going to get dressed.
That’s how my mind has been operating, as I try to cope with my PTSD: I make deals with myself. I deal with the anxiety, the hyper-alertness, the inconsolable need to be in control. I clearly know that no one is in control; life is impermanent. But, when I’m startled awake by the sound of an explosion – there’s no persuading that part of my mind, my world view, from going full-throttle. It was then that the news helicopter descended on the scene and it made my son nervous, too. He is very sensitive to my own anxiety, so I try hard to quell any outward cues that I’m in the midst of a PTSD episode.
Hubby goes to work; children go to school. I took some time then to just concentrate on small things. Quiet things. I waited to go out beyond letting the chickens out of their coop, until I knew the gas was off and the fire was out. There was some debris – insulation, a sliver of wood, ash…but little other than that. All was good on my homestead – oh, I would discover the next day that all my “company glasses,” the ones I use for when we have big family gatherings, shattered inside the cupboard. In fact all my cupboards were opened, but hubby had closed them quick in the initial inspection of the house. There are some new cracks in walls and ceilings – I would say the house sustained a good 6.0 jolt – as if it was an earthquake. But, I had all my windows intact. Some of my neighbors were not so lucky. Certainly those next door to the blast sustained even worse damage to their homes. I used this fact to try to calm myself down. I could look as if I was okay, but I really wasn’t. I was in spaz-out mode.
Then I made myself go to the site and reassure, that everyone was safe. And, miraculously, they were. No one got hurt beyond some cuts and scrapes and bruises. A whole block of our town is gone. Erupted. Peripheral damage was obscene. The tire store next door’s bay doors were imploded, as if they were paper. Glass was everywhere. Insulation looked like popcorn. The Pizza Place, where my kid had had several post-baseball game team parties was annihilated. There were comfort stations for the first responders, investigators, fire-fighters, power-company reps, and anyone else that had to be on scene. I could still smell the fire. It took me back to 9-11 for sure. I stood there for a moment. Helpless. Wanting to help, but I’m not in that position any more. I’m just a bystander, a neighbor standing next to a sheriff and a power-company rep, trying not to completely freak out. My heartbeat raced. My breath became shallow and fast. I battled back. I did my little PTSD mantra inside my head: “you’re safe; you’re calm; everything is okay.”
But I didn’t feel okay. Even though no one was hurt, people’s lives are changed forever. Businesses lost. Memories blown away. The scene also brings up memories and thoughts that fly in like Odin’s ravens and nest crazy in your head. I left the scene as quickly as I could. I was shaking all the way home.
By about 2200 hrs. I was exhausted and ready to go to sleep. I’d been awake, remember, since 0342 hours. I dreamt of fighting with my ex-husband, scenes from the Pentagon, from Iraq, and I was trying to figure out why my special-needs son was driving an armored personnel carrier (silly subconscious). I awoke restless; but, life goes on. There’s no time to deal with dream hangovers or PTSD episodes. It’s time to clean up and move on.
The next day the town began to get back to normal. The blast site was fenced off, the roads all opened back up. North Bend had its Blues Walk as planned. The historic train carried young kids and their families back and forth between North Bend and Snoqualmie. Other businesses opened, some even welcoming the lost business owners to their fold. Clean up and investigation continued. Healing for most folks began. Hubby, in the brilliance of his support of me as my partner, helped throw a little humor on it and we wrote this little ditty about the whole thing. It’s silly, but was a nice respite from thinking the more grisly things that PTSD wanted me to think, with apologies to ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas…
It was 3:40am, I’d been up until 1. Running your own webserver isn’t always much fun.
When out in the park, there arose such a clatter, I sprang from my bed, no idea what was the matter.
I shuffled out side, in my bare feet and robe, and I saw in the west a lurid red glow.
The house, it had shaken. The plants they had spilled. By the merest of chances, no one was killed.
Things aren’t always quiet, in my one-horse town. But there’s nowhere I’d rather be, when the shit goes down.
It’s been five days now. I’m still processing, which I know seems silly given I’m in one piece, my home is unscathed, and my family members are okay, too – even my couch-surfing young adult son survived (although he was right across the street when it happened). That’s the tough-guy soldier attitude in me. “Quit your belly-aching, Brewster. Suck it up, Buttercup; drink a can of man.” It’s why, often, military members push down PTSD symptoms. We’re too tough for that kind of weakness. The true weakness is not getting help, not admitting that you’re not okay. In fact, this blog post is an exercise in bravery and coping skills.
Dealing with PTSD, or any type of fear, counselors (certainly mine have) will tell you to face it head on. You’re afraid of wind? Go sit in a chair outside during a wind storm. That kind of thing… I’m facing this latest trigger all the time now. I have to go by the scene all the time to do my business in life – meet clients, take the kids to activities, even go grocery shopping. I’m angry when people slow down to look and block traffic, or worse nearly cause another accident. I don’t want to look. I don’t want my life interrupted any more by this. That’s the PTSD, again. My world view is forever changed. I can’t rubber neck and gawk at tragedy, because it turns me into a person I don’t want to be.
Yet, this is the person I am now. There’s not a be-all, end-all cure for PTSD. It’s almost like being an addict. You’re always in recovery. For instance, in these last five days my desire to get my own weapon in the house is stronger, I haven’t followed through. Part of me feels like it might calm that PTSD voice in my head. Another part knows that’s just a bad move. I’ll likely wrestle with that as long as it takes them to clean up and rebuild that entire city block. Hell, they still don’t know how the explosion happened. But the evidence is there. It’s just like we don’t know who will end up suffering from PTSD. Hell, mine was latent for a long time. But the evidence of it comes to the surface in all manner of triggers. This week, for me, the trigger was a gas explosion. Next week it could be a truck back firing, or a hiker lost, which means the search-and-rescue choppers will be landing in my back yard. Somehow, just typing that out makes me a bit calmer. It’s going to happen. I’ll trigger again, and I know, I’ll cope. It’s all you can do.
Oh, except maybe get your own M16. (Just kidding…)