Danger to Myself

The title to this is probably more concerning than it needs to be. I’m not writing about a concern here. I’m being analytical about how I’ve ended up in the place I’m in mentally. It’s going to be far from pleasant, but any concern is also far from immediate. If you want to read that analysis, please continue.

When people are traumatized, it’s because something horrible has happened to or around them. If it’s not something violent like war or abuse, it’s something sinister like illness or being stalked.

It’s been hard for me to understand why I feel traumatized and even have many of the textbook symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, when nothing truly horrible has ever happened to me, or when the things that have happened to me that could be thought of as truly horrible are not at all the same things that keep me up all night, not the same things that have made me an expert in distraction.

I actually have lived in some terrifying places and been through some terrifying incidents, but most times I felt fear, it’s been just fear, traditional fear, the “looking into a dark forest at night and not knowing what dangers might jump out at you” kind of fear, or the sort of fear that comes with simply being alive in an uncertain world. In all those scary and dangerous times and places, I never really came face to face with my own mortality the way people who are truly traumatized have.

Today, I made a breakthrough.

All of this mental health trouble for me began with the death of my cat. The death of a pet is a deeply sad event, yes, but it’s not something that even at my most compassionate I would consider to be traumatic in a medical sense. And yes, at the time I was going through off-the-charts levels of stress (moving, getting married, graduating, assorted troubles, all happening at once), but even as a whole, while living and growing through those things compounding into the space of a few months was difficult, those stressors can’t really account for the trauma that has echoed through me over a decade.

So why and how did I end up this complete trainwreck of a person?

It turns out there is something that happened as a consequence of that cat’s death that accounts for a far more serious and real trauma.

It was the first time I honestly thought I was going to die. It was the first time I was actually afraid of experiencing mortal harm. At 20 years old, it was the first time I stared death in the face and had to deal with it. And it wasn’t from anything outside of myself. I was afraid of me. Deathly afraid. Of me.

And that has echoed.

I didn’t feel like I wanted to die. I didn’t even feel like I wanted to cause myself harm. I felt those things only much later. What I felt at the time of my trauma was that I couldn’t bear to live any longer inside a person who was capable of killing her best friend for thoroughly selfish reasons, to be free of caring for him, to live a different life without him. That person horrified me. The person who was capable of that was absolutely repulsive. Continuing to live as that person was not something I could bear contemplating. I needed to escape the person I was stuck inside. I needed to escape, and the only way to do that was obliteration.

I couldn’t articulate any of that back then. At the time, I couldn’t even think. The only thoughts in my head were constant screams of agony. Trying to live around a brain that is shrieking in pain 24 hours a day, even in sleep, especially in sleep, is difficult at best.

And I have never really recovered.

There are two circumstances that exacerbated everything, turning a deep horror of my self into trauma with severe, lasting consequences. The first is I lived on the 19th floor of an apartment building. I lost track of hours staring out those windows, not at the horizon line, but at the ground. The ground at that distance looked like something I needed. I needed the blackness, the nothingness it promised. I needed it very, very badly. I needed that distance to free me from the person I couldn’t stand to be. I needed it in a primordial, essential way, more than anything else, more than oxygen. From this vantage, I’m not entirely sure how I avoided it. I believe my husband gets the credit for my survival, as I didn’t get professional help until several years later.

The second was the internet. I have seen things no one should ever see, except police officers and emergency response workers who have gone into those situations with at least some small sense of what they were signing up for. Now everyone can see those things with nothing more than a computer and a touch of curiosity. I saw what everyone else would have seen if I’d done what I felt that aching need for. Just seeing things like that has echoes of its own.

To silence the screams, at first I tried to use logic. It seemed like loss. All of this started around an episode of loss. I thought if I could help other people cope with their losses, that would help me cope with my own. There’s good sense in that train of thought. I went back to school to become a veterinary technician. While there, rather than learning to cope with my loss, I learned that I am not only capable of killing my best friend, but I am capable of killing many and more as well for reasons that may have been slightly less selfish but were just as flawed.

Logic didn’t work because at the time I didn’t really know what was causing my mind so much pain. I thought it was loss, so I tried to remedy loss, but it really wasn’t the loss that caused my trauma. It was the vicious, visceral nature of my reaction of self-hatred that harmed me, and my faulty appeal to logic ended up intensifying that hatred rather than healing it.

The screams have changed. They’re still there, but now instead of screaming, it’s inescapable ugly chords of sound, the discordant music of long years of self-loathing. The sound is much easier to survive alongside now, but it’s definitely impossible to live well with this mental cacophony.

Maybe now I can work on finding ways to turn this agony into real music.

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