Trigger Season

fall leaves

Still awake at 2:43 a.m.

Third night in a row.

I could easily stay up all night until dawn, but I have to try and get a little rest, at least, so I can be the mom that I need to be for my children tomorrow. When I do finally fall asleep, it is restless and disturbed, full of half-lucid dreams and recurring nightmares. I get up several times to check the lock on the windows, the front and back door, as well as the porch light, and before I can go back to bed, I have to make sure that the curtains are drawn, the kids are okay, and the phone is within arms’ reach. It is a task.

A cool draught blows through the room.

I am reminded that summer is nearly over and start to cry in the dark.

I wake up on the wrong side of the bed. On the wrong side of myself. I feel ugly, exhausted, out of sorts, on the outside of everything. I bumble through my morning routine in a fog. Easily exasperated, far too impatient, I sigh and mumble under my breath as I rush the kids to get ready for daycare, my words stumbling over themselves in an effort to appear normal, whatever the hell that is. It is bad enough that I had to leave the sanctuary of my bedroom today at all, really, but is it truly necessary for me to be normal, too?

If so, I think, epic fail.

I smile harder, because I do not know what else to do, and keep going.

I take my meds. Remind myself that a bad day is just a bad day and not the end of the world. Keep going. Keep going, yes, but with a belly full of fanged butterflies determined to escape. Usually, the medication settles the rush of wings, but today—these days—it barely takes the edge off. On the balcony, catching the last rays of the summer sunshine, I try to figure out why.

Then it occurs to me. Fall is on the way.

It’s in the air, at night, I can smell it. Trigger season.

After a number of incidences in my childhood involving various forms of sexual abuse, I was raped at the age of seventeen, in autumn, by a boy I had previously dated. Every year since then, without fail, as soon as the first leaves begin to fall, the first chill touches my nose, the first hint of pumpkin spice arrives, I start to feel it, all of it, again, in my throat, my chest, my breasts, my guts… all over. Anxiety, panic, fear, depression, sorrow, angst, a sense of impending disaster, an urge to run, hide, avoid, disappear.

One by one, they arrive, like uninvited guests to the worst party ever.

And I’m the unwilling host, shackled to the floor and gagged, unable to get rid of them.

Oh, they will leave when they are ready, I know. By December, the dreaded gang will have gone, for the most part, leaving only a few stragglers behind—nothing I cannot manage with help from the Christmas Spirit—but for now, oh, for now, as my PTSD symptoms start to slowly worsen day by day, I find myself holding my breath, waiting.

Maybe it won’t be as bad this year, I tell myself noncommittally.

Guess we’ll see, I reply.

Since opening up about my experiences and sharing my own story, I have come to know countless other survivors, many of whom also experience a Trigger Season, a particular time of year, associated in the recesses of the mind with a past traumatic event (or events), which leaves them feeling unusually vulnerable and susceptible to flashbacks and triggers. For some, it is the high heat of summer. Others may find discomfort during the colder days of winter.

I feel paper thin from late-August through to late-November.

If you know someone who suffers from PTSD, please be aware that certain times of the year may be more challenging than others, and while we may not be able to express what we need, you can still ask. Understand, we may be utilising every ounce of available energy just to get through a day. We do not mean to be short, snippy, cranky, or rude, so if it happens, we probably feel worse about it than you do. Forgive easily. Since we are used to feeling less than and not enough, remind us to be gentle with ourselves, and be gentle with us. Show your love and support by checking in.

PTSD can be very isolating and lonely, and it helps to know that, even on the days when we do not want to face the world, we are not alone and we are loved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Should I Stay or Should I Go?

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I was 106 years old.

At least, that’s how it felt my first night on campus, wandering around sweaty and bedraggled amongst all those young, fresh-faced twenty year olds in my Mom pants, trying to locate my classroom in the Tory Building at Carleton University. I was almost late for my women’s Bridging class, a course basically designed to bridge the distance between me and a post-secondary education, and I was almost frantic.

Okay, so I don’t have Mom pants, but you get the picture…

Once located, I blew into the room with a bright smile plastered onto my face, despite the fact that I suddenly felt as though I might vomit right there on the floor in front of everybody. Casually, or so I thought, I slipped to the back, tripped over my own feet, stumbled awkwardly into a chair, and stole a few glances at some of the other women before clumsily extracting my pen and notepad from my backpack. Nobody looked convinced they would be able to sit through the whole three hours either.

Okay, so it’s not just me, I thought. We’re all scared shitless. Cool. My kind of people.

Angela, who sat to my left, quietly introduced herself, and added, “I’m totally freaking out.”

I liked her immediately. Forever.

During break, Angela and I swapped the nut-shell versions of our life stories and our reasons for returning to school, further solidifying our bond. But it wasn’t long before our friendship had grown to include every woman in the room. On that first night, there were about eleven of us altogether, but by the second or third week, our little group had whittled down to an even six: Raven, Elizabeth, Dana, Rose, Angela, and myself, plus our engaging instructor, Olivia.

Six is a harmonious number. Just ask Numerology.

Over the next twelve weeks, we became a community. We learned and struggled together, sharing successes and small victories; we encouraged each other, offered support and friendship, and shared one of the most important seasons of our lives. Once in a while, we met to break bread and share wine, and to whine about how hard it was to make such a significant change in our lives, what a challenge it could be to juggle our everyday lives with our education. We also discussed how amazing it felt, after decades of lying to ourselves, to discover how intelligent and capable and brave we actually were!

Because, well, we were, and we needed to pat ourselves on the back for it once in a while.

Angela had lived through hell and survived. I admired her ability to stay vulnerable and open to life, and adored the fact that she could make me laugh and cry (multiple times) in the same conversation.

Raven, although not the eldest, became a mother-figure to our little band of misfits. Many times, she was available to lend and ear or offer sage advice, and I learned to trust her natural wisdom implicitly.

Elizabeth seemed more reserved, initially, but once she opened up, she blossomed. Always thoughtful and kind, Elizabeth had a keen intellect, and we had many wonderful, thought-provoking conversations.

Dana always had the information. Unbelievably resourceful, kind, and genuine, in all areas of her life, Dana was also an incredible hostess, who went to great lengths to ensure her guests had a great time.

And Rose was doing school for her. She didn’t have goals or plans beyond Bridging, at least not as far as an education went, since she was fairly close to retirement and quite comfortable in her life, thank you very much, but she loved to learn and discuss the issues and always brought something new to the table.

Olivia—a.k.a. Oh Captain! My Captain!—changed my life. I will forever be gratefully indebted to her for being the first teacher ever to recognise my potential and urge me to fulfil it. Olivia made learning accessible and adaptable. She acknowledged our barriers to success and, rather than discount them, offered solutions and examples of others who had faced similar challenges and overcome them.

Although different paths had led us here, to this crossroads, for a short time we had landed in the same space, and it mattered that we had each other for company. Crossroads can be lonely times.

Our first class email from Olivia was titled, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”

Should I stay in my comfort zone or should I step outside?

It was a decision we all faced, and it was a comfort to face it together.

We covered a lot of material in a short amount of time. We researched and searched for journal articles on the university library database, learned about Peer review and how to cite our papers, studied some sociology, learned how to define hegemony, and wrote essays, among other things. But the most important things we learned, as far as I’m concerned, happened on a very personal level and had to do only with ourselves.

Our unlimited potential.

At our small class graduation, there were no dry eyes in the house, and when we met again a couple of weeks later to celebrate, we all cried again and promised to stay in touch. For the most part, we have.

I entered university with a confidence I had never known before, thanks to Bridging, and within one year, I had published my first essay in a national publication, the Globe and Mail. This summer, once again, I had to decide…

Should I stay or should I go?

But this time, school was my comfort zone, and the unknown was myself.

Again, I chose to take a leap of faith. As I take the next steps in my journey, a hiatus from formal education to further my goals as a writer, I take with me the love of these women and the strength, wisdom, and self-awareness I discovered in Bridging class.

Onward.

 

 

 

 

White Feathers

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Summer 2012. It had been about a year since my father died —directly from liver cancer, indirectly from years of drug and alcohol abuse—and I felt a sense of true freedom for the first time in my life.

For decades, I had chased after my dad’s love and affection, tripping over myself to get his attention, longing for him to acknowledge the damage he had done, to make amends for the pain he had caused, but it had never happened, and now the chase was over. No more what-ifs, no apologies. We had finally reached the end of our story, and I could make my peace with it at last, in my own way, on my own time. Dad had wounded me intensely with his regular absence, but his presence had hurt just as bad, and so his death was, I like to imagine, a release from sorrow and suffering for both of us. Contract fulfilled. See you on the other side.

My second marriage had just celebrated its one-year anniversary, my youngest child—one of four under the age of ten—had barely weaned off the breast, and I was submerged in major PTSD-related symptoms on a regular basis, including flashbacks, nightmares, and hyper vigilance, as well as anxiety and depression, so it was perhaps not the best timing in the history of the world to make a change, but I was restless and ready for a little something more. I figured that a formal education might be my next right thing. As it turns out, I was right.

I chose university for a few reasons. I wanted to open doors, to alter pathways in my brain by creating new ones, and to challenge myself in new ways. I needed to prove to myself, and to everybody else who had ever doubted me, that I could do it. Make my dreams real. I knew that my life could not support the structure and regular routine of college, with its daily classes and required attendance, but I figured I could handle a few hours each week on a uni campus. At least, maybe I could, most weeks. It was worth a shot.

I sat on my balcony one afternoon watching the sun tickle the leaves of a tree my landlord has always insisted is nothing more than an overgrown weed, closed my eyes, and asked God for confirmation. A sign. If I was meant to make such a massive change in my life, surely the Universe could send me some kind of smoke signal—yes, I am One of Those People who believe in God, the Universe, signs, and symbols—so that I could be certain I was on the right path. I opened my eyes slowly. Nothing. I waited for a several more minutes just to be sure.

Still nothing. Oh, well.

But then, suddenly, just as I turned to head back inside, a flawless white feather drifted down from the sky and across the yard to land at my feet. And I knew what I had to do.

I found daycare for Baby Girl and, once a week from September through December, I attended a women’s Bridging course for mature students, in order to determine my eligibility for school.

I passed with an A+ and got accepted to Carleton University, where I took two classes the following winter term, and then continued to do so for the next ten consecutive terms—nearly four full years—without a rest. Oh, sure, I had a week or two off classes here and there, but without fail, one or all of the kids (or myself) would get violently ill—maybe break a toe, require surgery, or contract lice—and before I knew it, my so-called break would be over, and I would head back to class more exhausted than ever.

In any case, I loved school, I really did, everything about it. I got excellent grades. Gave it everything I had and then some, often to the detriment of myself and, occasionally, my family, but I could not help it. Couldn’t half-ass it. I had something to prove.

Once I knew that I was capable of success, I pushed myself, harder and harder, adding more and more to my plate each year: a non-profit (creator of The Ottawa Journal Project), a magazine (senior editor at Anthem Little Magazine), research for my first book (the Biography of Bronwen Wallace)… But perhaps the fact that I hit a wall was inevitable. Over the past few years, my personal life has been a fucked-up series of ohnosoclosetogether storms, and I cannot always determine where one ends and the next begins. Joy has been elusive (to say the least).

I survived last fall by the skin of my teeth.

By the end of April, I had reached my breaking point, and I knew it, but refused to pay attention and registered for summer courses anyhow, only to withdraw in the eleventh hour, shell-shocked from another heartbreak, and empty, hollowed out, bone-dry.

Grief had run me down.

Actually, grief had knocked me on my ass, punched me in the face, then sat on my chest until I could no longer breathe, let alone, say “Uncle!” Grief gave me a hard stare, challenged me to acknowledge it, dared me to face it once and for all. I was afraid—okay, scared as hell, truth be told—but I knew that if I wanted to move forward on my path, I would have to let grief run its course. I could no longer avoid it.

I just needed to be brave, to listen to my body and trust in it, to love, honour, and nurture it for once in my life, rather than neglect, abuse, and ignore it, and if I did, grief would loosen its grip. I would be free. It all sounded fantastically simple in my head, totally doable when I explained it aloud to my friends. In reality, however, letting grief “run its course” has been a lot harder than it sounds. In many ways, I suppose I would still prefer to distract myself from pain than to face it, but I am working on this.

Summer 2016. Quite surprisingly, rather than sitting at my desk in the cool office to write feverishly all summer long, as anticipated, the majority of my time has been spent barefoot in the backyard, under an audacious sun and cloudless cobalt sky, tending to an ever-evolving faerie garden, playing in the sprinkler with my children and our dog, and growing baby grass, sweet peppers, and basil, among other things. Nothing fancy. But, oh, how we have all blossomed! Still, there is always room for more growth and pruning…

The seasons continue to change and, soon enough, it will be September again. I sat on my balcony last week contemplating whether or not to return to school this year. This time, I was far too exhausted to talk to God or consider signs and symbols, so I just spaced out instead. It was a huge decision, but I had been vacillating for what felt like aeons, and it was time to make up my mind. I knew what I wanted to do, what I felt like I needed to do, what was my next right thing, but that did not stop the critical voice inside from tearing into me, or keep the teeth of fear in my belly from gnawing holes in my dreams. Still.

As I watched my daughter’s smile catch the last sunbeams of the day, and quietly reminded myself that change did not have to mean failure, I observed a small white feather slide gently off the roof of our house and drift, drift slowly, slowly across the backyard to land delicately in the newly sprouted grass growing in the shade of the tree my landlord always insists is nothing but a giant weed… I knew what I had to do.

I reached for Baby Girl’s small hand and, together, we collected the soft white feather.

It has been five years since my father died, and in that time, I have rediscovered and reclaimed parts of myself that I had forgotten even exist. I am more like Arwen at ten than at thirty, and that is a very good thing, because it means I am finally becoming myself again, who I was before I became who I thought I had to be, back before I started denying Who I Really Am, in the beginning, when I was just me. Arwen.

Education has opened my mind to possibility again. New doors open every day. The dreams I have nurtured since childhood are beginning to manifest, piece by piece, and I feel like I have found my place in the world. I have begun to, as my friend Jessica recommends in a recent post, claim my space.

I will not be returning to university for this year.

Instead, I am taking time to focus on my family, my health and my overall sense of well-being, as I write every day, go for long solitary walks, and attempt to make a serious dent in my first book. Although I am not quite finished my degree, I know this is the next right thing for me. My path has never looked much like one anybody in their right mind would ever choose to travel, I know, but it is mine, and it is beautiful.

My path has a heart.