On PTSD and the Kindness of Strangers
I don't know why, but sometimes it's harder to communicate with those closest to us, yet the next ring, people we know but aren't close to, can be reached. It's been easier for me to say to this outer ring that I've had some stuff to deal with, and that's why I haven't been around, but you know, I've got my man, and I look after myself and I'm grateful for small things like Sky Now and Tai Chi and sunshine. A little squeeze of the hand, a smile, a real 'it's good to see you', an understanding 'yeah, life, eh,' and there's an affirmation of human connection. I need that. I need to know I matter. Since PTSD struck, I have found it hard to cover up, to put on a front, to plaster over entirely what's going on inside.
I willed myself to a friend's 60th because how could I explain not going. She had planned the party for months. My boyfriend is an introvert who doesn't do parties and doesn't even try. Yet I forced myself to go, weighted with the baggage of my fear and sadness. I put on a favourite dress, my beloved jewellery, and a bright lipstick. Tonight my inner demons would not strike.
I sat, at the edge of the last table, so far off the partying radar that my glass of bubbly wasn't even filled. I couldn't drink anyway because I need to stay in control and handle flashbacks and panic attacks, and waves of sadness. And I'm not a get-drunk drinker. But I'd have toasted the birthday lady, I'd have sipped at my glass and been happy to hold the pretty bubbles, to be part of this all.
Everyone drank and drank. Here I am again, the old story that therapists explore: feeling an outsider, never fitting in, being on the outskirts. It made absolutely no difference whether I was here or not. I wasn't even in any of the birthday shots. One person plonked herself next to me with a spilling glass and slurred the words: 'So come on, stop being so mysterious, what are you hiding?' My face must have revealed something. 'Oh you're no fun,' she shouted. 'You don't want to tell us'. No one can yell it like a smart drunk. I slid away, and cried all the way home. The next day I got an email from the birthday lady. 'Did you have a good time? I was soooooooooo drunk.'
Why did I put myself through this - especially when being around alcohol and inebriated people is a scary issue? Why didn't I protect myself? Why did I have the expectation that the evening would be different?
I made another attempt to socialise, having confided in one friend because she herself suffers from anxiety. I imagined, now that she knew, she would whisper something like: well done for coming, are you ok, how are you feeling. Nada. I almost left but thankfully stayed just a little longer for a interaction that gave me hope.
'How are you?' The psychology lecturer and psychotherapist was looking at me (not at his phone, or over my shoulder or at someone else) when he asked. He and his wife are hobby friends. I went to their wedding but they're not close friends. I am not in touch with them regularly. 'Well,' I began slowly. He's a tall man, and he was looking downwards, lowering his head so his eyes might meet mine. 'I'm,' (big pause) 'going through an existential,' (big pause, oh god, did I say this? I can't say crisis. Oh god, too late now, I've started the sentence) 'pivotal time of change.' I stared at the floor, engulfed in shame. I was talking rubbish. 'Mmmmmmmmmm,' I heard, a tone reassuring enough for me to edge my eyes up. 'These times are hard to get through. But when you do, and you will, you come out the other end so much better.' I looked up and he was smiling. It was a smile that said so much to me: I feel for you. I'm a human being rooting for you. I know you and I know you can do this. I want you to know that this will pass. 'It's good to see you,' he said. 'You must come out more.' Simple words said with meaning.
I stayed for the whole evening.