There’s a common misconception about mental illness that those afflicted can just set it aside and leave it on a bus stop bench like an unwanted gift from a relative you don’t like very much. That’s actually a pretty accurate analogy given that a lot of people can trace their neurosis, in one way or another to their family and nobody wants to be mentally ill. What isn’t accurate is the idea that we can just discard whatever is wrong with us.
In fairness, it’s easy to understand why neurologically typical (NT) people might feel this way. For the most part, if you’re an NT and you experience a negative emotion you’re able to move past it after a few minutes. There’s exceptions of course. The death of a loved one, the loss of an important job or your place to live. But those are big issues, major problems that don’t fall under the heading of “Day to day bullshit” . People tend to expect that others will experience the world and process it in much the same way they so there’s a belief that because something doesn’t hit them as hard or for as long the rest of the world should be able to as well.
The problem is that mental illness, by its very nature derails are ability to respond to, well, pretty much everything, the way out NT friends and family do. Neurotypical Uncle Joe might get sad over something, feel bad for an hour or two and then move on. His nephew Billy, diagnosed with clinical depression gets sad about the exact same thing as Uncle Joe and hermits up in his house for three weeks hardly eating, bathing or interacting with anyone .
The problem isn’t that Billy wants to hide out in his bedroom wearing the same clothes for days on end and forgetting to take a meal or a shower. It’s that Billy’s brain is re-wired in such a fashion as to make it almost impossible to do anything else. Telling Billy to just let it go it like telling a diabetic to just chose to have a functioning pancreas.
Since this blog is supposed to be about PTSD let’s drag the discussion kicking and screaming back over there shall we? Allow me to cite an example from my own life. When I was, I guess, twelve or so my never-to-be-sufficiently-damned father-figure and I were at the Sears store in our local mall. The old bastard was a big fan of camping and every weekend he’d drag us all up to this nice little place in northern Wisconsin to hang out amid nature. I happened to spot an inflatable raft, the kind you could blow up and three people could sit in and paddle around a lake or pond. I pointed it out to the old man. And he flipped shit on me .
Right there in middle of the store, without bothering to ask why I’d shown him a three-person raft when there were five people in our household he started ranting out about what a selfish little shit I was who never thought of anyone else but myself. Given that I’d caught the odd black eye for way less at that point in my young life I was pretty sure I was about to get decked. Even if he didn’t hit me, being twelve years old, on the spindly side and getting ranted at by a body-builder who routinely beat the shit out of you for no reason at all was terrifying. I didn’t quite piss myself but it was a near-run thing.
Fast forward to the modern day. This past weekend to be exact. It is no longer 1983. Dad has been dead and in the ground since the early 1990’s . I’m sitting at home, on the couch with my beautiful wife and idiot dog. Seriously, if you’ve never met the beast you can’t conceive of just how fucking dumb he is. But I digress. We’re watching an animated Justice League movie because, hey, nerds.At one point, two of the characters are fighting and one throws a yellow inflated rubber raft at the other.
Now, I don’t know why the writers decided that weaponized neoprene would be effective against a guy capable of shrugging off a punch from someone who had just thrown an engine block like an empty beer can. What I do know is that it spun my ass directly into a flashback and panic attack. Think about that for a second. Here I am, thirty years later, hundreds of miles away from the original incident. I’ve got people around me who actively enjoy hurting those who threaten me and there’s a fucking loaded shotgun and tactical combat shovel (yes, tactical combat shovels are a thing and I have one. What? My friends buy good gifts) within arms reach of me. And three seconds of a ninety minute movie cause me to go fully symptomatic under circumstances where I could not reasonably be more disconnected from my trauma.
Do you really think I wanted to experience that? Does it seem like the sort of thing that I thought would enhance a pleasant afternoon relaxing with the love of my life and our knuckleheaded little sidekick? Of course not. And it wasn’t even as if I was actively carrying that memory around anywhere near the front of my brain. Shit, looking back I don’t think I had actively thought about that episode in ten, twenty years easily. For all intents and purposes it had been forgotten.
The problem is that while my conscious mind had relegated that memory to the same place as the number and location of my locker my freshman year of high school, my illness had its own agenda. Kind of like a search engine programed by Satan. Type in a keyword like “rubber raft” and the first image you get isn’t one of some hottie partying at a lake. It’s of a violent sociopath screaming abuse into your face while you struggle to maintain bladder control.
And that’s mental illness for you. When you have a trauma disorder like PTSD the trick isn’t letting your past go. The trick is that your past refuses to let go of you. A bad moment can lie dormant for decades. And then one day, out of nowhere, the most innocuous thing will cause it to jump out and completely dump all over your day. Imagine having a trapdoor spider living inside your skull and you’ve no way to get it out without killing yourself. That’s what it’s like for us. One second everything is fine. The next, something in your life right now pings on something from your past you didn’t ever remember and it’s all hungry hairy legs and venom-dripping fangs going for your face.
If you have PTSD it’s a certainty that you have something like this in your own book of experiences. If somebody who doesn’t have the condition flippantly advises you to “Just let it go” share one of those stories with them. Let ’em see what it’s really like for you to deal with this this. Or if that’s too private, personal or painful send them to this post. Obviously I don’t mind running my mouth about such matters.
But what if you’re not the PTSD sufferer? What if you’re the neurotypical? Well, in that case, think before you speak. Read what I wrote above. Put yourself in that place. Imagine getting jumped by something out of your past that you hadn’t thought of since the turn of the friggin century . And then ask yourself how you’d feel if somebody told you to just let it go when you didn’t have it in your hands to begin with. Maybe I’m way more naive and idealistic than a guy racing towards his forty-fifth birthday has any business being but I’m willing to gamble you won’t be as quick to go there.
Take it easy everybody. Talk to you next time.