Imagine this… You’re driving along with your 17 year old son in the car.. Suddenly you start to get upset.. Your son asks you what’s wrong. You have to tell him you don’t know what you’re doing.. He looks at you blankly, then realises you are serious. You’ve forgotten what you have to do. You can’t remember how to drive!
Sounds pretty crazy doesn’t it? But it happened to me. At this time I’d been driving for probably 23 years and as any of us who do drive will attest, it becomes second nature. How often are you aware as a driver that you have changed up or down gears? How often do you acknowledge that you just checked the rear view and side mirrors? Do you actually realise that you have noticed the car four cars ahead of you has put it’s brakes on, so you automatically slow down a bit to avoid slamming yours on.?
Driving IS second nature to us.. It becomes an automatic reflex. Now, I’m not saying we don’t concentrate when we drive, but all those reactions are so ingrained into an experienced driver, that we no longer notice we are doing them. They are automatic responses. So the fear I felt when I suddenly realised that I was driving a car and didn’t know what to do was terrifying.
Thankfully, Lachlan had an insight well beyond his years and recognised that I was in a total mental blank. He ran me through what I had to do. I could steer the car, that still came naturally but changing gears and road rules were beyond my comprehension at that time. He told me to put my foot slowly on the brake and pull over to the side of the road. I didn’t change down gears, so stalled the car as I pulled up. He got out, put his Learner plates on, as he didn’t have his license, and drove me back home, made me a cup of tea and then escaped his loony mother as soon as he could, into his room, leaving me to ponder what the hell had just happened.
I had recently shifted house, changed jobs, broken up with a boyfriend and just generally, messed up my life. I felt an abject failure at everything I touched. To make it worse, Lachlan’s 18th birthday was coming up and suddenly I missed my daughter more than I had since she’d died 9 years earlier. I didn’t get to give her an 18th birthday party and was feeling the loss badly. All in all, my brain was in total overload and just decided it couldn’t keep going.
I went to see a psychiatrist and he diagnosed me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Anxiety and Depression. He put me on a new course of anti depressants and I had to see him on a regular basis. He explained to me that basically, my brain had been trying so hard to stay on an even keel, that I had used excessive amounts of serotonin (our happy juice for the brain) and unfortunately, the brain had stopped producing it for the moment. The antidepressants gave me the Serotonin back again and would hopefully, kick-start the production of it once more.
Hearing it explained like that was a bit easier to take. I mean, if I had a heart condition and needed medication, I would take it.. If I were a diabetic who needed insulin I would gladly do what my body needed. I didn’t feel that I was mentally ill and what’s more didn’t want to admit it to myself, let alone anyone else. The fact that it was my body that had failed me felt so much better than it being my brain that was fried. A chemical imbalance had far less stigma involved as far as I was concerned.
You see, I have always prided myself on being able to get through anything. I was sexually abused as a child, I felt like I never fitted in anywhere, I had been in a violent marriage, my father died, then my daughter then my mother.. all in a space of 8 years. I had been in and out of courts on, pretty much, a weekly basis for 7 years. I was raising my 2 remaining children, holding a job down, trying to make a social life for myself and just generally trying to find my place in the world. So if I had lived through all that, why would my brain pick this particular time to short circuit? Why, when life was feeling semi normal again, would I start to wig out and lose control? Control was an all important factor in my life.. and suddenly, I was losing it again.
The psychiatrist helped me understand that my brain was finally allowing me to process everything that had happened to me and now was the perfect time as I was no longer living in fear of constant emergencies and danger as I had been. I started to feel pretty normal again. I believed in my own strength much more than I should have. Don’t get me wrong….. I AM a strong person. I know that. But I was not and am not invincible. Everyone has a breaking point. I had stayed standing well beyond mine and finally my body and brain said… no more.. You finally have the freedom to rest, it’s time to do it.
I left the job I was in as I was working within a mental health team and I didn’t feel it was the best situation for me at the time. That’s when I really started to spiral down into a place that after all these years, I’m only just starting to climb out of. I would go for an interview, get the job (I’m fantastic at interviews) work for 6 months, then fall apart again. I’d leave before it was obvious to people what was happening, so I could save face, take some time to heal.. then repeat the process. I was basket case city on the inside but was still wearing the mask of normality on the outside.
Where once I had had one of the best memories I knew of, suddenly, I couldn’t remember what I had to do 10 minutes after making an appointment. That was and still is, probably the most frustrating and destructive part of PTSD for me. I was used to relying on my memory without ever having to write a thing down. Suddenly I was forgetting to write down what I had to do, and had no hope of remembering what I needed to do if it wasn’t written down. I forgot names, something I had never done. I forgot words to songs… totally inconceivable. And I forgot words.
For someone who is such a lover of language and the written and spoken word (that means I talk a lot), I was embarrassed to stop short in the middle of a conversation because I couldn’t remember the word I wanted to use. I forgot people’s names when I was talking to them. I would lose concentration mid sentence and completely lose the thread of what I had been talking about. Now, one of my worst personality traits, is that I absolutely abhor losing face. So when I perceived myself to be doing just that, I started to shut myself away from people. I lost all confidence in my ability to do any job so shied away from looking for work.
My psychiatrist said that my level of PTSD was such that I should probably be on a Disability Support Pension and give my brain a complete rest for as long as it needed. He said I was emotionally fragile and that I needed to give myself the permission to be just that. I ignored him. I mean , the pension is for people with medical issues or real mental issues. Not a bit of depression. I just had a bit of a chemical imbalance that would be fine once the Serotonin kicked back in. The trouble with that was, as soon as I started to feel a bit better, I’d come off the antidepressants again, as I was better after all. My judgement was completely clouded. The roller coaster existence was beyond ridiculous but I couldn’t seem to find my way off the ride. My belief in my own strength became my biggest weakness.
I wasn’t delusional.. I didn’t think I was someone else (hence the reference to Martin Scorcese… besides, nothing else rhymed with crazy or lazy lol).. I wasn’t totally loopy.. I made sense when I spoke to people and became fantastic at covering up when I lost track of conversations by reverting back to being funny. I made fun of it all the time. If I got in first, people would think I was fine. My favorite line was.. yes I’m crazy and I have the paperwork to prove it.. I joked my way through the hell that was my life. The fact is, I was terrified of losing my mind completely.
Lack of sleep had been a major problem for me since my ex first started stalking me and I had become so used to sleep deprivation, that it felt normal. But it’s difficult to get up at 7 am to go to work, when you haven’t been able to doze off till 3 or 4am. Still, I was so used to living on that tiny amount of sleep that I coped… or so I thought. It started to get harder and harder to function. I started a business so i could work my own hours and be kinder to myself.. I could barely run a bath.. what made me think I could run a business at that time.. It failed.. of course. My home was always a mess… my finances were unbelievably appalling… I kept starting relationships with men who were completely unsuitable and unavailable through distance or just being emotionally guarded. My life was totally screwed. And I was in complete denial.
I finally gave in and applied for a Disability Pension. I had a young girl at Centrelink, all of probably 23, tell me, to my face, that my only problem was I was grieving and if I had a bit of counseling, I’d get over it. To have my whole situation minimised and brushed aside like that only made me feel less like facing it so I went back to the same destructive cycle I’d been on for so long. Get a job, start to lose the plot, give it up, rest up and then start all over again.
The major problem with this, is that, you start to lose your reputation work wise. When you have a resume that has so many jobs of such little tenure, you can only sell it as a “wide range of experience” for so long. It starts to look really bad. So work became harder to get. The harder it is to get work in your chosen field, the more likely you are to take work that is less than you are used to, added to your self esteem and financial woes. I honestly kept digging and digging but I couldn’t get myself out of the hole I was in.
The amazing thing about the body and brain, is that they work so well in cahoots with each other. The more my brain frizzled, the more my body decided to join it. I ached constantly for no reason. My energy was at an all time low and just exerting myself for one day was enough to knock me off my feet for a week afterwards. I forced myself to go out walking to boost my endorphins.. Then would come home and be so exhausted, I couldn’t physically stand up again. It’s not that I didnt’ want to… my body wouldn’t allow me to.
I knew people saw me as a failure. No, it wasn’t my imagination. I have heard time and time again that my only problem was, that I needed to snap out of it and get a job. Ah if only life were so simple. What I didn’t realise was that my whole adrenal system had shut down. I was so used to living on adrenalin due to being in constant “fight or flight” mode that I had worn, not only my Serotonin supplies out.. but also my adrenal system.
I’m sure most of you will have heard of the “fight or flight” mode. Basically, when we are living in a high state of fear or tension, we are constantly “on”. We are ready at all times to fight for our lives or run.. It’s one of nature’s most basic life saving necessities. It’s a perfectly healthy and normal function that usually kicks in when we are faced with a fearful situation.. I’ve no doubt you’ve all been there. You are walking home at night and hear footsteps behind you. Your blood starts pounding and you can hear it in your ears, like the ocean rushing in on a wave. You become completely aware of every sound, smell and shadow around you. That’s your “fight or flight” mode kicking in. You are, at that time, ready to either fight if you need to or to run like hell to get out of there. It’s natural, it’s normal and it’s healthy..
I’d heard about all of this in men who had been to war and had lived in that hyper vigilant state for so long, they no longer coped with life. I understood it for them… they had been to war.. I hadn’t done anything like that. I had minimised my own trauma. Because, I didn’t feel I had the right to be so traumatised. When you have lived in that highly charged, “always on guard” state on a daily basis, year upon year and are so hyper sensitive to your environment, that you no longer have the ability to differentiate what is a scarey situation from the everyday stuff, it’s pretty tough on the system. You are in such a highly emotional state all the time that your whole life is one huge drama. The smallest thing has you panicking and falling apart. It’s a horrible way to live. Eventually, you have to burn out. Eventually you have to give in before your body does. I left it too late.
I got advised to shift away from Geelong by mental health practitioners across the board. By the time I finally listened, my body and brain were in total melt down. I hadn’t realised how on guard I had been until I removed myself from the very real threat of physical danger. You see, as much as I was hyper vigilant and overly scared, a very real danger was still present. My situation hadn’t changed. I still heard someone creeping around outside my house, no matter how many times I’d shift. The boys would drive somewhere and they would phone me, upset and scared as their father had seen them and tried to run them off the road. The threat hadn’t left my life or theirs. I needed to leave the threat. I finally gave in.. I caved. In my eyes I was weak as I was the one running away. In reality, the weakness was believing I should stay.
I gave myself time when I shifted up here to finally heal.. I did a few part time courses, enough to encourage me to think my brain was on the mend. I still didn’t have the memory or recall that I once had, but I was coping again. I thought I’d given myself lots of time, and once again, the almighty belief in my own strength proved my undoing. Of course I should be better by now.. People were right.. I was just lazy and needed to get a job. I took all that was on offer up here… a Night Auditor in a major hotel.
So here I was, the only person working at night, in a huge, old hotel, counting thousands of dollars of money on my own. No security, no back up.. Just me. Guests staying at the hotel would come down the stairs to go out for a cigarette and my heart would jump into my mouth. I was back to hearing every noise. On top of that, the sleep deprivation was back as I couldn’t sleep through the day and an out of the blue assault by someone and I was back to my old self again….. totally messed up. This time, the breakdown was a major one.
My doctor urgently sent me to a psychologist again and she helped me to understand more and more about myself. To finally admit to myself that I’m not invincible was a really hard task, but I finally got it. I am strong.. there’s no doubt about that.. but I have had to learn to allow myself to be weak on occasions. She encouraged me to start writing.. To put down on paper (or on the screen anyway) what I was feeling. The written word has always been easy for me as I seem to be able to process what’s in my head more so than I can speaking about it. Writing is a logical process. I had a great English teacher who taught us how to construct an essay. There is a beginning.. there is a middle and there is an end.. Once you have that process down, you can get it out of your head and onto the page.
So to be able to logically, process all the stuff that is in my head has been an easier journey than I thought. For me anyway, I’m not sure about you guys who are reading it lol. I still forget words. I sit here sometimes and wrack my brains to find the word I want to say. Sometimes I get it.. sometimes it proves elusive and I have to reconstruct what I want to say.. then I wake up in the middle of the night, and remember what the word was. grrrrrr!!!!! I have found myself phoning friends to clarify the details of some things as I’m not 100% sure of the accuracy of my memory still.. It is working though. It’s helping me. I feel relieved.
I feel like I’m in the process of defragging my computer (brain).. everything I write down is another thing I don’t have to try to remember. To put it completely in computer terms.. It’s like I’m filling an external hard drive (this blog) with data that has been clogging up the computer (my brain) for so long, making it run sluggish and slow. Finally, I am starting to think a bit clearer. It’s been years since I felt this good. My physical health is finally coming back and I have more energy than I’ve had in years. Most importantly, I don’t feel the need to have to be strong. I’m allowing myself to be an ordinary human being….. vulnerable, fragile and weak at times.. but able to cope with life. It’s a great feeling.
I now run a small slideshow business. It’s not much but it gets me through.. I write, I garden, I do art and soon, I’ll study photography. I’m being kinder to my brain and it in return is being kinder to me. I no longer care if people think I’m lazy, I know that I’m doing what is best for me. I probably am a bit crazy.. but I think that’s in all of us to some degree…. I’m not delusional (until I put on a Tina Turner record and start to dance….. seriously, I’m a dead wringer for her when I’ve got my dancing shoes on)… I’m just me.. No longer a victim.. but a mother, friend, sister, writer, photographer, artist, gardener…. a survivor. . .. I have lots to offer the world, something I never thought I’d find myself saying. I hope if you ever start to feel like you’re not coping, you will seek help. It’s not weak… It’s the complete opposite. My strength was once my weakness… now, acknowledging that weakness has become my strength.
Happy healing ….. Livvy 🙂