A few years back, I met this girl. Fiery hair, calm eyes, a knowing smile, swagger when she walked, and a spiritual vibration so intense you couldn’t help but feel the pull of connection towards her soul.
One night, she asked me if we could talk – so we did, and this is what she said:
“We all have a box. And in this box, are all of our past experiences, future hopes and fears, every good or bad thing that has ever happened to us… and what if the whole point of Life is to take these things out of the box, one by one, and examine them – choose what things we should keep with us and decide which ones we should simply discard? And what if every person that comes into our life has a part to play in helping us decide which things are worth keeping, what lessons we need to learn from them, and then help us light the match that will burn away all the things that no longer serve the greater good of us, as human beings?”
My response back then was, “Perhaps some things should be left in that box? Perhaps that box should be locked? And stuffed way down in a dark, dusty corner in the basement and the key destroyed?”
I’ll never forget how we both laughed on the phone that night… but, deep down, I knew that she was right. I never knew exactly how right she was – until today.
I arrived at work this morning several minutes early. I am always the first one there, so the Office was dark. I unlocked the door and, as I stepped inside, two gunshots rang out in rapid succession.
I immediately took cover and, as I crouched there on the floor, holding my breath, pressed up against the wall, my mind transported me back in time… “seeing” the bullet holes peeling back the metal, wondering if the next shot would be to my head? My heart was racing, my ears were ringing, and my nose burned with the smell of… LATEX??? This discrepancy in perception pulled me back to NOW. If those were gunshots… why did I not smell the gun powder?
My senses heightened in keen awareness, I now noted nothing threatening in this building which I have come to know as a safe space. I could see enough in the darkness to know that nothing was out of place and I was, indeed, alone. I stood up and turned on the lights. Further investigation found that two balloons, which had been decorating our Office in celebration of Dr. Cotey’s military retirement, had burst against the rough, wooden planks that make up a wall in the front of our Office.
If I wasn’t so scared, I probably would have laughed out loud. By now I had already lost quite a bit of time, so I got right to work, preparing the Office for our 6:30am start time.
I quickly realized that I couldn’t function normally. My brain just wasn’t working. I stared at the computer for minutes, sweating, trying to remember the password. I was picking things up, putting them down where they don’t belong, forgetting where it was that I’d even put them at all. Duplicating tasks I’d already done because I’d forgotten that I already did them. Difficulty standing still, or staying engaged. My mind wandered off in conversation, an other worldly feeling, as if my mind had exited my body, trying hard to pull away as flashbacks would hit me, one after the other, unprovoked and out of the blue – remnants of real life memories, “locked up” and tucked away, deep in “that box”, now released.
My heart continued to race, my skin continued to crawl, internal tremors distorted my perception – was I hot or was I cold? I could literally feel both simultaneously at the exact same time.
“Do your f*ck*ng job!”, I told myself… and I surely did my best. But I knew that I was not okay. I told myself to “just breathe”, and sometimes this would help. Sometimes. Other times it just magnified the choking sensation I felt in my throat. Hours passed. And, here’s the thing – when you’re a high-functioning person, the symptoms of P.T.S.D. are not always visible or easy to see.
As a Paramedic, it doesn’t matter what you’re feeling at the time, you have an obligation to respond and the responsibility to yourself, your partner, and your patients to remain calm and fully functional – no matter what is going on around (or inside of) you. And so today, just as back then, I did just that – just as I’ve always done. But, as our morning shift slowed down and came to an end, so did I. Just as in EMS, once my job was done and there was nothing left for me to do, I crashed. Hard.
Terrified and distraught, despite the lack of legitimate physical threats before me, it was as though my body had kept score of every past trauma I’d ever experienced and buried. Today, no matter how much I “talked myself down” or looked toward vibrant colors to ground me and pull me back to NOW, the “things” would not just let me go. So I did the only thing that made any sense to me in a moment like this – I called Dr. Michael.
Dr. Michael and I have tried EMDR therapy before. It has not worked well for me in past sessions… but today, in an already distressed state, it was the only thing powerful enough to slow the mental spiral and calm the physical sensations! And, just like that, it all makes perfect sense…
“Traumatic events, by definition, overwhelm our ability to cope. When the mind becomes flooded with emotion, a circuit breaker is thrown that allows us to survive the experience fairly intact – that is, without becoming psychotic or frying out one of the brain centers. The cost of this blown circuit, however, is emotion frozen within the body. In other words, we often unconsciously stop feeling our trauma partway into it, like a movie that is still going after the sound has been turned off. We cannot heal until we move fully through that trauma, including all the feelings of the event.”
Susan Pease Baritt, “The Trauma Tool Kit: Healing PTSD from the Inside Out”
It doesn’t matter what “things” you “put away” in your own “box”. It doesn’t matter how long ago you may have “locked” that box up. And it doesn’t matter how deep down in the “basement” of your brain you think you’ve buried this box. If you’ve never taken the time to really examine what’s actually inside – if you’ve never taken these emotions out, turned them over in your hands, and chosen to see them for exactly what they are – fear, anger, resentment, abandonment, betrayal, distrust, humiliation, guilt… they will never be gone forever. They will simply hide in the shadows, patiently awaiting the moment when they can (and will!) make their comeback. As fast as the popping of a balloon against a rough surface, all those previously suppressed emotions will rain down upon you in the heaviest proverbial deluge, distorting absolutely everything in your “safe” new reality.
Just as my friend was trying to make me see, way back then, in the beginning of us – the only way OUT, is THROUGH.
(Pretty sure a very wise “Zen-Master Michael” spoke these same words to me again today too.)