Climbing out of PTSD (and discovering you’re not there any more)

I had a sad day today. A little while ago I came across a poster for free Arabic lessons. I pounced on it. That’s just my sort of thing! Beginning to try to climb out of the hibernation of the shock which they call “PTSD”, tired of the isolation and boredom of unemployment, this seemed perfect. Gets me out the house, it’s free, and it’s an opportunity to work on my “blocked voice chakra”, which could hopefully help my back pain. Speaking has been hit hard by the trauma. I barely speak at all, and that’s a big change. So I thought what a great way to get back onto the bandwagon of life. I was always a linguist, and when I lived in London was always badgering colleagues and friends to teach me little bits of language. Free conversational Arabic lessons, just a short bus ride away, how perfect.

But it wasn’t. It really, really wasn’t. From the moment I arrived, every cell in my body was screaming “Get out! Get out!”. I know how to “play the game”,so I did, making small talk, “being friendly”, but it was torture. That’s new. The Old Me would have loved that, chatting away, finding out about people, eating Jaffa cakes. Not The New Me. When the lesson began, it was even worse. “This is how we say “hello”: “marhaba”. Repeat together, “marhaba” ” and the class obediently repeat. I couldn’t do it. I felt choked. Dragging up my memories of church as a child, I moved my lips around the appropriate words, hoping no one noticed that no sound was coming out. Again, not like me. Not like The Old Me. Speech, totally paralysed. It felt too ridiculous, this call and response, and us all repeating the meaningless phrases like idiotic little parrots for approval. “Hello! Pleased to meet you! I live in Leeds!”. It was all too stupid. The sounds sounded stupid. The scene in the room was stupid, to me.

We split off into groups, and we have to practice with each other. “Hello, how are you! Pleased to meet you! I am very well, thank you!”. I felt like a total prick.

I realised, this is how most of the class felt back at school. I liked languages, always did. But a lot of kids didn’t, and this is how they felt when they tried to make their mouths say these strange sounding words and faintly ludicrous model conversations. They felt like fools.

When the class ended, my group said “it was nice meeting you, see you next week!” To which of course I said “yes, see you then!” When of course I knew very well I won’t be back next week. Waiting for the bus, the tears were running down my face. Because I knew that The Old Me is dead. This is part of the trauma, how I let the attackers “kill off” The Old Me, who was a person I liked by and large, and The Old Me died. She just isn’t there. I became a different person, one I don’t like as much. I huddled down and tried to survive. After a couple of years, I felt ready to put my head out again and try to get back into the groove of my life. An advisor asked me what I would hope to gain from counselling, and I said “to get my old self back”. But I realised after the class, My Old Self isn’t coming back.

In the old days, that would have been right up my street. But I don’t like it any more. And you can’t make yourself like it, just because you once did and you’re nostalgic for the person you were when you did. For all that I hate it, I have to accept that yes, The Old Me is gone. She was killed by the trauma. I have felt so guilty for letting her die. But she’s gone. I can’t get back to her.

If I get through this, it will be a different person who emerges. I didn’t want to change, I was happy with the person I used to be. She was better than the person I am now. This Me is much reduced. She is less confident, more guarded, less engaging, certainly less popular, less everything. Smaller all around. She’s more cynical, much angrier and more bitter. I don’t like her much. I miss The Old Me. But today showed me that “recovery” is not going to be as simple as finding the rhythms of my old life and just picking them up again. Like it or not, that life is gone and the person I was has gone too. Moving forward out of this hole is only going to happen by making a whole new person. I can’t pick up where I left off before this happened. You can’t go backwards. You can only go forwards, and that means accepting The Old Me and my old life is dead, and when I think about that I just cry and feel panicked. I don’t feel “oh good, I wonder who The New Me will be”.I just feel afraid at the future that stretches out ahead of me, totally blank. No signposts, nothing. I don’t want it. I don’t want to move forward into that, and I see why people take drugs or drink, anything to blot out that future which is coming towards you whether you like it or not, and in which you see no place for yourself.

So I wanted to share with you, how it feels to come out of the other side of trauma. When you’re in the hole, you’re like a rabbit in the headlights, you can see all this shit racing towards you and you are trapped in fear, unable to move or even cry out, just trapped. Eventually, you start to try to act, to sort out the mess, and stop this being your life and rejoin the world. But it isn’t like you think it will be. You have kept your head above water by remembering the things you used to do, how you used to enjoy them, and how maybe you can do them again one day if you can only get out this hole. When you do start to climb out, you look around and find that the landscape is totally different. You don’t recognise anything out there, you don’t even recognise yourself. I am going to have to come up with a new personality, and I don’t know how to do that. I know I’m not happy being the person who sits indoors all day with no job and no friends and no money. I want to stop being that person. But I thought I’d go back to being The Old Me. Now it turns out, The Old Me didn’t make it. How do you make up a new personality? I don’t know. If I work it out, I’ll let you know.

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