What you have to remember about post-traumatic stress disorder is that it can take time for your symptoms to improve. What you need to know is that getting better can be one of the biggest challenges in a person’s life. What you don’t want to forget is that people with PTSD can recover.
At least, that’s what the doctors will tell you.
It’s storming again, which means I’m sitting up in my bed at three-thirty in the morning, shaking and sweating. They put me on pills, but it doesn’t stop the rain. And the way the rain is—I don’t care how stupid this sounds—I think of cats and dogs. When the bubonic plague was going on in London, cats and dogs were always dropping dead in the middle of the street. After a bad storm, their corpses would float around or wash up in the gutters, and you know how medieval people were—one thing led to another, and it’s raining cats and dogs.
My teeth chatter.
I want to look at the box in my closet, but I don’t.
I hear the storm outside, and it’s almost as if it’s inside my house, inside my room, just pouring all over me. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Every sound in the house is magnified by the silence. The wind blowing on the sliding glass doors. The relentless ticking of a clock. Lizards or cockroaches scuttling around on the floor. Sounds are good, because if it’s too quiet I’ll actually think, and if I think, I’m going to be thinking about the rain.
So I turn on the TV.
ABC, CBS, NBC. CNN, FOX, BET, MTV. This is life. After global warming or nuclear holocaust or whatever does us all in, this is what they’ll find. Eighty million hours of archived television footage.
I Love Lucy.
All in the Family.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Seinfeld, Friends, Cheers, Happy Days, Three’s Company.
When they dig up our remains, at least they’ll think we were laughers.
In the TV’s hypnotic blue presence I can totally zone out and not worry about everything. I can close my eyes and not think of anything at all.
What I’m definitely not thinking about is the box in my closet. The box, which is just some old shoe box from three foot-sizes ago, is nowhere near close to being on my mind.
And I remember what the doctors tell me.
There are all kinds of criteria that they give you to determine whether you have post-traumatic stress disorder. They fall into three basic categories: intrusion, hyperarousal, and numbing.
They arrange the symptoms so that if you have four from this category, or five from this category, or three from this category, they can figure out how the disorder affects you personally. You get papers with checklists, and they make it like one of those fun little magazine tests. They have the symptoms all listed with the little boxes on the left.
Intrusion—this is re-experiencing. This is when you find yourself up in the middle of the night plagued by visions and memories and flashbacks. This is when you can practically feel the rain pummeling you into the ground.
Hyperarousal is how you jump every two seconds when it’s nothing at all. How you’re suspicious and paranoid. This is your twitch. Your nervous tic. Your wary eyes.
And numbing. This is you leaving the past behind. Moving on. Letting go and saying there is no fighting what’s happened. There is only giving it up. Throwing it away. Putting it in a box.
The trick, if you ever want to get anywhere, is to skip the first two and go straight to numbing. Intentional amnesia. Because how can the past repeat itself if you can’t even remember it?
What they’ll tell you over and over again is that these symptoms aren’t just in your head. You’re not crazy.
You remember all this while downing your pills. Two orange, round, film-sealed, fifty-milligram Desyrels.
The pills the doctors give you, they’re for depression. Adapin to Luvox to Zoloft, none of it is unfamiliar territory. These are all the fancy name brands of more generic medicines, but if you’re going to have a mental illness, at least do it with style.
You take twenty-five milligrams of Asendin.
Fifty milligrams of Effexor.
A hundred milligrams of Pamelor.
Everything’s done in metrics.
After they have you all sedated on these drool-pills, they sit you down and tell you real slowly, enunciating every word, the way all non-crazy people talk to one another, that PTSD is a real live illness just like diabetes or arthritis. It is never, ever a sign of personal weakness. That’s why you have to take these. And you can feel free to slow them down if they’re going too fast.
Still, with all the pills in the world, it’s hard not to flash back on a night like this.
Lightning, thunder, and the pouring rain.
And a drip, drip, drip. Where it’s coming from, I don’t know. Probably the ceiling. Just a few drops at first, plinking softly against the shingles, and then the whole roof gives and the ceiling caves in and you die.
Or maybe it’s just the sink.
I breathe in hard and close my eyes. Exhale.
My parents are out of town again, because these days they always are. They’re off at work, at conventions. I’m home doing the whole high school thing. It’s our dynamic. Them, sleeping alone in hotel rooms across the country; me, flopping around on my mattress like a suffocating fish.
Counting sheep gets old, so I rattle off some trivia—all those PTSD fun facts. Like when you wake up from a tormented sleep, screaming or muttering to yourself or crying—this is your limbic system at work. The dreams, the flashbacks, the way you remember every detail perfectly. You can thank your hippocampus for this. It’s all written in these books the doctors have. It’s all there in black and white. In your temporal lobe, where your brain makes memories.
People who get Alzheimer’s disease, their hippocampus becomes damaged and shrinks until they have no short-term memory. The disease spreads to eat away at the rest of their limbic system and eventually their frontal lobe. Sooner or later, they can’t remember anything.
Right about now, that sounds like heaven.
What they tell you is to take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. A little more than 3.5 percent of Americans experience post-traumatic stress disorder in a given year. Be comforted, you’re nothing more than a statistic. There are a million others just like you, and when you die, there will be a million more.
And this wasn’t a big scheme of mine or anything. I never meant to be this fucked up. Really. All I ever want is what everyone else wants. To be happy. To be successful. To be loved. And, at this moment, sitting up here in bed tonight, my major goal in life is to just sleep.