Flashbacks and nightmares are... disorienting, I think, more than anything. You have little to no control of the present while they're going on, and you have even less immediately after they're done. Your sense of where you are slides back and forth so fast you get left standing there, a little dazed and probably confused, wondering what the hell just happened. If you're like me, sometimes you feel like a sack of shit for a few minutes or a few hours until you get your bearings back.
Most of what I've read about flashbacks and nightmares with regard to PTSD suggests that the brain is remembering a specific event. I disagree. My intrusive thoughts are never close to that organized. Events and feelings that are miles and sometimes years apart mingle with each other, swirl together, and get woven into a storyline that never makes any sense. I remember things that have no bearing on anything, things that aren't traumatic at all, and things I've forgotten for so long that I can't place them at all. Or maybe they are traumatic, and as life goes on, I'm realizing it.
Much of what I flashback to and dream about, I wonder how it is connected to the reasons for my PTSD at all... although lately, I'm beginning to think that I understand. Maybe. I think it might be that my life's been one long trauma timeline.
In the beginning...
It starts with sexual abuse as a kid, and goes on to include the social issues that came with that-- different level of knowledge about sex than your peers and feelings of guilt and shame as sex becomes revealed to you through sex ed (and your peers). There is a point where you realize something's really out of whack here, but you're 10, 11, 12 years old and have no idea how to process "out of whack". Then your parents are divorcing when you're thirteen, and all of a sudden your Dad's moving in with your Mom's sister, who lived with you for a while, and your Mom's dating this guy she met at work.
Mom has an engagement ring on the day the divorce decree arrives in the mail. During the time she's dating the new guy and the divorce is actually happening, you're dragged along shopping so they can look at rings and making plans to build a new house. You're thirteen and don't know shit, but years later you look back and begin to understand that a lot of things in your house were kept hidden from you. In junior high school, when Mom's new guy showed up, all of a sudden you weren't allowed to have a key to your own house anymore so you had to knock when you got home from school. It takes years for you to realize why.
When you're a year or two older, you almost hook up with your half sister, who's 25+ years older than you. It seems natural to want to do so, for you and for her.
The first girl you kiss: one weekend the two of you are at your Dad's place (he's since broken up with Mom's sister), and its snowing. Dad has no problem with girlfriend sleeping over, and sleeping arrangements are not even discussed. Girlfriend's Dad drives through the snow to come get her; later, you stay at her place one weekend. You sleep in her bed, but she sleeps in her parents room. The next Monday she breaks up with you-- it occurs to you years later that you might've had a wet dream that night, and yeah... parents do the laundry. For them 2+2=4.
As relationships go, if there's a promise of sex immediately involved, the relationship goes forward. If it's nice, but sex isn't in the equation right away, it doesn't. Every relationship you know has involved sex as the premise, so a relationship that doesn't involve sex right away is confusing and frustrating. You don't want to be alone, so you cling to partners that are looking for the sex, too-- but those relationships end up being just as traumatic. Even your marriage, which ultimately ends because she likes girls and married you to try to hide it.
So fast forward a few tracks...
And there are other relationships-- ones that burned brightly for a while, ones that mirrored what you'd seen before, usually with someone who'd had a similar life to yours. Those are the most intense. They were at times the most fun ever, and at other times the worst fun ever. You've left them, and all the other personal and family relationships behind, but they haven't left you. The memories, the emotions, and the hurt are all still there. So is the confusion, the not knowing what step to take next. Your fantasies, of what might be and what could have been... single again, you look not one step back at your most recent relationship, but two and three and four steps back, searching for something you know that makes sense to you.
You do that with war, too. You remember the good times, the brotherhood, the esprit de corps. The order, the structure, and the pride that went with it all. The feeling of coming home from war, being a part of all the history and pride that came before you. When you take off the uniform, you lose all that. Some people walk forward and it's not so much an issue, but maybe they didn't have all the things happen that you did, maybe they don't carry all of the baggage that you do. Your relationship with the world doesn't seem to make much sense anymore. You think about what might have been, and you come up empty. Duty, honor, country... yeah, but I'm sitting in a bar getting drunk alone because everyone around me is different. No one understands. I can't relate. Where can I find that feeling of belonging again... and it doesn't matter what I sacrifice to have that feeling back, or if I have to make the feeling up as I go along.
I attended a semester kickoff event this week for the veterans group on my campus, and the American Legion had a table there. I'm already a member, but stopped by the table anyway. I heard the same things I always hear from veterans organizations these days: you young guys are the future of this organization, we need you to get involved, you need to transfer into a specific post, here's the schedule of all the things we do...
Two days later at one of my part time jobs, I had a chance to talk to one of my exes-- she's worked there longer than I have, and in fact helped me get the job, and we'd had an interesting but really bad for me relationship. We chatted a bit; when I broke it off, I did my best to cut off all contact except at work, and even there I don't say much. I don't reveal any feelings, or details about what I'm up to or why. I don't trust her with my feelings. But, talking to her reminded me of some of the fun times and some of the adventures, the sex, the parties, the friends we included. We didn't discuss it directly, but we'd always done a lot of communicating without words. I recently had a relationship end, and she asked if I was ok... which triggered an entire day, yesterday, of flashbacks to things that happened and things that didn't. I spent the rest of the day and night sitting alone in my apartment thinking about those days in the past. And, I'll admit, lusting after my ex a little.
... and that's why you should get involved, so you can have that same spirit of belonging, that feeling of supporting your fellow veterans and your country. You can enjoy at least some of those things from the past, here in the present. Oh, we understand that you're in college full time and you work two jobs, but you don't have to do anything right now. Just remember that you're the future of this organization and we need you...
I broke off the relationship with my ex (the one I talked to yesterday) because I was lost in the relationship... my needs became less and less of a factor as time went on, and trying to figure that out was the reason I ended up in therapy for social anxiety (and PTSD, but it hadn't been diagnosed yet).
Events swirl together...
Since I moved, I've been staying inside my apartment an awful lot, enough that I'm starting to worry myself. I feel really isolated, and I don't like it, but I fell really threatened as well. My most recent girlfriend and I drifted apart... that relationship was an effort on my part to have a "normal" relationship that wasn't based completely on sexual chemistry. It was supposed to be a healthier relationship, one that was less intense and hopefully less characteristic of some of my past relationships where things burned brightly and quickly. It was that, but it lacked the connections of the past too.
The questions... so many questions...
...and no one else sees all of the events that have happened before. Where do you draw the line, where do you decide how much of your life until now to reveal? It's not story time, where you can sit and discuss it all... but do you go to the party, do you get drunk, do you find that drunk girl and take her home with you, knowing that you both understand the rules but knowing how it'll feel tomorrow? It's been your life until now, where love and sex are confused and mixed up.... is that how you want life to be?
...you feel like someone's looking over your shoulder. Is it your conscience, perhaps? You're second guessing yourself, looking at the tools you've put together from your years of therapy, wondering what the rules are now. You wonder if it makes sense to try to hook up with your girlfriend from two relationships ago. Then you feel bad for even thinking about it, because you know that everything you've learned in therapy says it's a very bad idea.
...thinking about it, I realize that talking to the guys from the Legion really bothered me. I heard the same things from them that I heard from VFW, the same lines and the same reasons. The VFW was there, too... their rep boasted about how he was a member of the VFW and the Legion and several other organizations, and how I should be too... and that bothered me as well. Which actually has a lot to do with my past romantic entanglements... because it's the same thing, this idea that a normal relationship is one that's based only on immediate chemistry.
In romance, it's sexual chemistry, and in organizations it's the spirit of brotherhood that exists in the military-- in both cases you're seeking something, looking desperately for that connection. In romance, you're willing to give up certain things, perhaps you limit yourself to one partner, you allow your career choices to be influenced by having to move with your partner). In an organization, you're willing to give up your time and energy for the good of the organization's goals. It's supposed to be an equal give and take, but it seems it never turns out that way.
I think that my drawing in, staying inside my apartment so much, is because I'm afraid of being myself and what might happen if I drop my guard. I feel as though I risk rejection at every turn. I've spent so much time and energy working on making things the way they're supposed to be, instead of the way they were, that I don't know what's safe right now and what isn't. I don't know who to trust, how much to reveal, how much to say... my life used to have two halves, inside of school and outside of school. Now that I'm here, so close to campus and I'm single, without an "off-campus" relationship, my life is in one piece in a way it has never been before.
It's new, and it's scary, and I'm not quite sure how to deal with it. I don't know anyone who would understand if I tried to explain it. In the past, I might well have tried to gloss over the rough spots with drinking... which isn't a path I want to take. I don't know how this plays out, or where it goes.