Warning: below is part of my journey of living with PTSD. It is not recommended that you read the blockquote if you are currently struggling with panic attacks, a recent assault, or PTSD – please skip to the bottom where the quote ends.
Flashbacks and Nightmares
“Give me your money,” says the face – if it can be called a face – and the gun in his hand.
I step between the punk kid and my mother.
“Go away,” I shout, cutting off the phone conversation with my boyfriend on our way to our cars after work. “Go away!”
He turns towards me, and I lock my knees, my pulse racing. A kick to his side would probably break his twig body in half, but his two hefty friends would be on me in a second.
It’s a blur in the darkness, a nightmare that never should have happened. Insults fly at my face. The gun at my temple, but I brush it away. He hits my face with it, but I don’t flinch. I can’t back down or else they’ll threaten Mom again. I have to protect her. I’m stronger than she is.
Finally, the nightmare stops as they run away, just a couple of kids trying to get a thrill out of life and some cash on the side. I don’t think it’s funny.
It’s 4am and the cops have witness statements, descriptions, and physical evidence. After working an eight-hour shift, the attempted robbery, and a five-hour ordeal afterwards, I fall asleep quickly.
The days to follow are filled with paranoia, pain, and confusion. Medication stops my back from throbbing from the whiplash, but there’s nothing to keep the depression at bay. Post traumatic stress, they call it. It doesn’t stop me from being too scared to leave my house. Urban caution, my shrink reframes it. He’s a kook.
The summer drags by hour by hour. I can’t work, can’t drive, and have no friends nearby. They’re all on summer vacation or live out of state or just don’t know what to say. We’re all good Christians, so why do I feel so alone?
People at church ask how I’m doing. It’s always the same response: “I fight depression hour by hour.”
Their words of comfort never comfort, their reassuring pats or a hug don’t help. No one really understands what I’m going through and so they stay away.
I never cried at movies or books or songs on the radio. I was strong and impenetrable, hiding behind sarcasm and wit. No one could really hurt me, until now. I cry every night. I force myself to eat, but food has lost taste. My house becomes a prison, keeping me inside because I’m afraid of outside.
The depression isn’t what kills me. Neither is the loneliness, the physical pain, or the spiritual alienation. It’s the flashbacks and the nightmares.
I wrote down one of the nightmares, not long after it happened. I don’t remember it now, not clearly, but it’s all there in the words.
I was sleeping on the couch of a 5-floor walkup apartment, and saw a shadow cross the window on the fire escape outside. I thought it strange since it was the dead of night, and so got up. He crawled through the window by the couch and walked towards me, and his black shirt was pulled up completely over his head. When I tried to scream for help, nothing would come out, and I felt like he was covering my mouth. My arms were pinned, and I could almost feel his arm grabbing my wrist and pinning my arm. When I woke up, I could still feel the pressure on my wrist, but it was my arm over my eyes to block out the sunlight.
Yet sometimes I feel like the whole thing is just a dream. It’s so far in the past that I have to remind myself what the pain really felt like, the utter despair and loneliness that followed me like a rain cloud. My faith was residual at best and my comforts few and far between.
I’ve found the balance between paranoia and caution now, years removed from the situation, the balance that I struggled to discern in the midst of terror and fear. Three therapists, severed friendships, and a faith stronger than earthly events, I’ve found something akin to closure and peace. There was a reason for it all, and it’s on my list of questions to ask God.
I forgave him eventually, I don’t remember when. It’s not my place to judge him – jail and God do that job for me.
The pain is gone, but the scars are still there. They’re my flashbacks to nightmares and my reminders of grace.
I wrote this in 2011, two years after the incident happened. This year will be the five year anniversary, a lifetime ago to the post-college, workaholic I am now. It’s no longer a secret I hold tight but it’s also not a badge.
Those years, the recovery, the many nights are now scars. They’ve healed and I no longer consider myself a victim, but I’ll never be the same.
So now I’ve got a new mission – I’ve moved past survival-mode into a life full of joy and savoring every moment. The depression and anxiety sometimes still move in for awhile before I kick them to the curb. This part of my life still not the first thing I tell people about me – in fact I’m more apt to leave it out in telling my testimony.
It’s still a nightmare when I think about it, but it’s no longer a living nightmare.
I’m focused on helping others now, telling my story so that others know that they are not alone in what they are or have gone through. The nightmares do slink into the night, and the flashbacks will fade too, but you will be stronger for it. You can defeat the monsters, but you don’t have to do it alone.
If you struggle with depression, are plagued by anxiety, or have terrible flashbacks, please reach out. There are hotlines for when you feel alone and desperate, whether you are a veteran or not.
The worst thing you can do is stay silent. Find a therapist, or a friend, or call a hotline, or even me – please do not try to shoulder this alone. I tried that for months and it killed my friendships, eroded my confidence, and caused even more pain by trying to keep it all inside.
If you know someone who is going through a difficult time and you don’t know how to react, I will be posting resources for you too in the near future. Feel free to email me in the meantime.