Author’s Note: Working through complex PTSD and DID isn’t a linear process, so chronicling it isn’t likely to be either. Here’s a synopsis of the beginning of my battle with dissociation. Other blog posts will give more detail about specific time periods. Others will circle back around or leap ahead to present day. If you wish to continue with me on this journey, I hope you find it enlightening.
Really, I just did a lot of Tegretol, but that crap has a plethora of horrible side effects for people who aren’t psychotic and/or epileptic.
Recently, my time-traveling brain visited a time before the use of Tegretol. A time when parents and teachers had already grown concerned over my dizzy spells and my propensity for passing out at a number of inopportune moments. But during the same time I was also discovering, nurturing and being discovered for my talents in drama and puppetry.
As it turns out, there was a brief time when, as a teenager, I had friends. And not just the ordinary companions that youngsters gather around themselves in order to survive puberty. These were friends who sought me out and pulled me into their circles–older friends who didn’t think twice about driving a 13-year-old to plays and the state fair and a number of other “cool kid” activities. When buddies from church were staring in Once Upon a Mattress or Where’s Charlie?, we purchased tickets and formed our own fan club. They even invited me to spend Friday nights at Dairy Queen on Main where the really cool kids talked about subtexts in popular musicals while the ne’er-do-well wannabes settled for dragging Main. (We always had a better time.)
Then Dad got a new job. We switched churches (again). I was sent to a different private school. The doctors who had been accusing me of faking my dizzy spells and passing out on purpose finally, in an act of desperation when no tests came back positive, put me on Tegretol.
The result: I seldom saw my older friends anymore. I spent two years in high school reviewing everything I learned in junior high, and as an adult, I have a complete void in my brain concerning everything that happened outside of school (as well as much that happened at school) during that time. I remember attending a youth congress in D.C. in 1987, attending a few afternoon football games my freshman year in high school and then suddenly being a junior performing and serving at Dinner on Broadway to earn money for a puppet team tour the next summer.
Given this background, it won’t surprise you that when the dizzy spells returned, I told no one. I hid seizures by excusing myself as they came on. I went to college and dealt with debilitating pain while continuing to take full class loads, work up to three jobs and travel every weekend with my mime troupe. One might call that success except for the toll it took on me. I was still dissociating, hiding a seizure disorder, barely getting by. And by then, desperately suicidal. Unconsciously, I was testing the limits of the stress any human can handle. By my senior year, I was averaging three and a half hours of sleep a night, still maintaining an A average in my classes and having full-on panic attacks at an
I graduated. Met with true grownup tragedy when my first romantic relationship shipwrecked unexpectedly. By 1998, close encounters on the highway led to losing my driver’s license, an experiment with Depacote followed by extensive bioenergetic treatments. And despite all this, I barreled along, ignoring the warning signs, working 60 to 80 hours a week if I could get up and work at all. Avoidance became a way of life. As for coping mechanisms, passing out was the only one that worked until I started to self-harm.
I’m relaxing at home. Sleep in. Move the recent yard-sale find (matching table and chairs) into the kitchen and the much-used folding chairs out of the way. Feeling drained, I toast a bagel for a late brunch, garnish my cream-cheese schmeer with redbud blossoms. The cats are playing on the balcony, so I join them until the fine mist falling around us becomes rain. Warming up inside, I congratulate myself on recovering so well from yesterday’s series of unfortunate events. I begin reading posts in a Facebook group to which I belong.
Of course, I knew about the Planned Parenthood vote schedule for this day. No, I am not surprised at the result. Of course, I post my opinion in a group of mostly like-minded people from around the globe. But then . . . someone has the gall to disagree. And not just disagree (Even my casual acquaintances know I’m cool with differences of opinion.) but to quote false news and make up their own facts. Of course, I take the bait, but unlike the professional, kind person I can be in most circumstances, I resort to unnecessarily saying that I really think (i.e., if you can’t be bothered to read the facts from original sources, keep your ignorant opinions to yourselves). Certainly not the kindest or most professional manner of communication. I don’t know the dissenters in person, but to my credit I’m not burning bridges–yet. Then suddenly, I want to burn bridges. I take a deep breath and walk away.
I’m hungry. Indian food leftovers lie waiting in the fridge. I warm them up, mix an orange blossom soda for myself, sit down to a gastronomically pleasing supper. After a few delicious bites, my hand begins to twitch. Then both hands. I’m shivering, shaking. “Take a clonapine, E. Just breath and go to the medicine cabinet and take one.” Still shaking, I do this.
What on earth happened there? Indian food is the most calming of all vegetarian culinary delights. What . . . ? I remember why I walked into the kitchen in the first place–the Planned Parenthood debate, my frustration over people who absolutely will not believe the facts. People on any side of any issue who insist on believing the worst about everything–whether or not the facts back up those beliefs.
Sure, this is annoying to me, but who on earth has a panic attack over it? Someone living with complex PTSD. The good news–this time I didn’t pass out or fully dissociate. This time I was aware of my mental and physical response to the situation. This time I recognized the trigger. My rational brain even acknowledged the lack of immediate danger. And so I journey onward, hoping to someday rewire my brain to avoid this type of panic altogether. It can happen. It just takes so very many baby steps.
Have you ever awakened to find yourself in unfamiliar surroundings? It takes a few moments for you to get your bearings. Perhaps you are staying in a hotel while on a business trip or spending a long weekend with relatives. The few seconds it takes to reorient yourself are terrifying. But shortly, you recall the events of the past 24 hours and remember where you are.
Now imagine those few minutes expanding into an hour or three, perhaps even an entire day. Imagine finding yourself in an office and not knowing how you got there or why. Imagine waking up in a strange bed beside someone you recognize but don’t know. Imagine thinking you are still 13 and then looking in the mirror to see a 40-something reflection. Imagine finding yourself in a car driving down the street and suddenly not remembering how to drive or believing that you haven’t yet taken your driver’s exam.
This happened to me this past week, but this isn’t just my story. It’s the story of many people with Dissociative Identity Disorder. Since I am a rare individual who can remember what happens during my dissociative episodes, I’d like to share some of this experience with you. Please keep in mind that this is a narrative about my own experience, and everyone’s experience in life is unique. Psychologists, psychiatrists and other professionals put labels on our issues in order to better treat the problems and assist us in coping and recovering. So if my experience doesn’t match yours, don’t panic. Everyone’s individual experience is real and should be given due respect. This is my story:
On a Wednesday morning, I awake in my own bedroom next to my wife—but I don’t know where I am or who I’m lying next to. I’m frightened. Amid the shock of waking up in new surroundings, I can’t retrieve any memory of last night—or what I might remember as last night–but I know I am awaking in the wrong place. When I went to bed (as far as I could recall on that day) I was a 13-year-old eighth grader living in a small town in Kansas. I attended a small private school and had just begun (with my family) attending a new church with a fun, inclusive, dynamic youth group. Had all that changed overnight?
After grappling with the initial fright, I began to pelt my wife with a barrage of questions. “Why am I here?” “Who are you?” Why aren’t my parents here?” “Where do I live?”
(Kudos to my amazing wife—everyone with the type of struggles I face should be blessed with a person as wise and caring as she.)
My wife isn’t a morning person, but she doesn’t miss a beat—answers every question carefully and honestly. Then she responds with questions of her own. “Who are you?”
“I am Ellie. I live in Haven. I go to First United Methodist. I sometimes get dizzy and pass out. Is that why I’m here? Am I going to a doctor?”
“Yes. Time to go to the doctor.”
My wife realizes I am not able to drive myself to my counseling appointment. She arranges to go into work late. We pile into the car, stop at the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, pull onto the highway and head toward my counselor’s office. I talk non-stop.
In my mind I am a junior higher with almost all the annoying traits one attributes to young teens. I’m smart. I’m popular at my new church (a new experience for 13-year-old me, but one my alt is embracing fully). I amuse my wife with stories. (This is a consistency among all my various parts—we love to tell stories, especially to people who want to listen.) I relive sitting on the floor of the gymnasium at our church with a group of other teens—mostly older than I—singing “just the 12 of us. We can make it if we try, just the 12 of us—you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and I.”
We arrive at Eddy’s office and enter a small, dark waiting room strikingly unrepresentative of the 1980s. Cognitive dissonance for me—Ellie thinks it is still 1986, 1987 at the latest. She does not recognize smart phones as anything but props from Star Trek. She cannot comprehend the lack of a reception desk at the office. Pictures of modern New York without the Twin Towers puzzle and frighten her. This day just got a lot worse.
I (presenting still as Ellie) do not recognize Eddy (although every other part of me—even the two-year-old—always has). I agree to go into his office alone, although I am reluctant to leave my wife (Ellie knows her as “auntie”) in the waiting room.
Eddy invites me to sit anywhere I like. I choose the divan, slip off my “cool shoes,” as Ellie describes them, and sit down cross legged.
Ellie is a jabber jaw. I talk enthusiastically and incessantly for about 30 minutes, and then . . .
I pause. My chin dips toward my chest. My brain chases an elusive thought. I’ve stopped mid-sentence and can’t recall what was so important. I take a deep breath and look up. My voice changes. It’s deeper, more grownup—my voice at age 43. The primary has reemerged. I smile. “Eddy! Why are you sitting there?” He’s watching me from the chair where I usually sit during our sessions. “You usurped me.” I’m joking, trying to make light of what feels like an awkward situation to me. Eddy, who works primarily with trauma survivors, is unphased.
We spend some time processing the emergence of Ellie. The session ends. I meet my wife in the waiting room. I smile and nod when she asks if I’m okay to drive. The day must proceed as scheduled. We both have promises to keep.
A little context: I attend (or attempt to attend, when I can manage to stop having panic attacks and dissociating long enough) a Jesuit parish. One of our prayer techniques involves imaginative prayer in which one reads a Gospel passage and then imagines being there in person. For me, the experience is always vivid and often intense.
Last night at our Soup and Spirituality, the passage was Mark’s narrative of the healing of blind Bartimaeus, a desperate man–and, oh, do I ever know desperation. So after I watched Jesus heal this man, I pushed through the crowd and began to scream. “Where have you been all my life, Jesus? Where were you when I was born a cripple? Where were you when the doctor broke my body and my spirit? Where? Did you look on, helpless? Were you too busy? WHERE WERE YOU!” He did not answer.
The meeting ended. I left as quickly as graciously possible. Where was He? Where had He been all my life? No more time to seek. I had a wife to pick up from work, a car to fill up with gas, life to live whether or not Jesus cares.
Bedtime came and restful sleep. The sun still slept beneath the horizon when I woke and padded into the kitchen for a glass of water. I took my vitamins, settled onto the sofa with a book. Glanced at the Bible on the coffee table.
A fleeting thought of Jesus brushed against my mind and with it the reality of the crucifixion. Crucifixion. Not in place of me. No–suffering still exists. My suffering still takes place. But for me. An example. Grace. A gift nearly impossible to unwrap but still given. And given. All at once and over and over again through the years. Given as a promise. Given as an example. Given. Because, in His words, “Lo, I am with you always.” And that is enough–even on all those days, through all the blackest nights when it doesn’t make it better. It is still enough.
Yesterday, I came across an article from Psychology Today that gave a great laypersons’. This is something my psychiatrist and I have been discussing at length while considering treatment options, but explaining it can be tricky with all the medical lingo that one finds in research published on the topic.
Basically, researchers have discovered that trauma faced by PTSD sufferers causes a lack of communication between the rational mind (prefrontal cortex) and the emotional center of the brain (specific portions of the limbic system). It also magnifies the fear reaction in the brain. The result for people like myself: Something startles us, and we have an immediate fear reaction, whether or not the situation calls for it. So instead of being able to rationalize–that thing I thought was a snake is just a stick–we go full-on Don Quixote and wage war against the stick.
The good news: I have a fantastic set of care providers working to help me rewire my brain. I also have a fantastic set of patient, loyal friends who haven’t abandoned me. And on the most frightening days of all, there are small pleasures to ground me in the present. (My favorite–Loose Park.)
Sometimes the most important thing for a trauma survivor is being treated as an equal. Today, after the historic World Series victory for the Chicago Cubs, I’d like to share with you some thoughts about my favorite Cubs fan, a woman who is my friend and mentor and far more accomplished than I may ever be. But Dr. Judy Whitis* also treats me as an equal, and that’s why our late-night text conversation following Game 7 filled me with so much joy.
I first met Dr. Whitis in the fall of 1991 after signing up to take her English comp class at Olivet Nazarene University. A typical, misguided freshman, I had no idea that my plans to study engineering would shortly evolve into the, for me, much wiser plan to study English and psychology.
Unlike most English comp students, I thoroughly enjoyed the class. Fortunately (and this is a “fact” that Judy herself is welcome to rebut in comments later), I quickly surmised that I had become a favorite of Dr. Whitis—which meant that she consistently set the bar higher for me than for other students. In English comp, this mattered little. Most important, I learned. As a student paying her own way through an expensive private college, I valued learning greatly.
Clock tower, Olivet Nazarene University, Copyright 2015, used by permission.
Smoke stack, Olivet Nazarene University, Copyright 2015, used by permission.
By the second semester of my senior year, I was working as a teaching assistant in the ONU English department. When I first took the job, I felt a mixture of delight and terror in being assigned to Dr. Whitis. I had great relationships with the majority of the professors in the department, and I admired them all in various ways. But to 21-year-old me, Dr. Whitis walked on water, and I would rather have disappointed my parents or the dean or even the university president than to disappoint her. Besides, I knew she liked me, and by this point in my college career, our mentor-mentee relationship had developed my character and shaped my intellect more than any other relationship or encounter in my college career. And there exists any number of ways that a busy college senior can let down a department chair.
Fortunately, Dr. Whitis is as kind as she is tough, and all went well. Apparently, I even managed to impress the rest of the department, and in May, I received the first-ever William G. Foote Award for Excellence in Literary Criticism. I graduated happy, full of energy and ready to take on the world.
After receiving my bachelor’s degree, I decided to pursue employment in publishing rather than forge ahead with continuing education. When I landed my first job in a new city, Judy and the rest of the English department sent me a beautiful philodendron as a housewarming gift.
As time went on, I communicated occasionally with Judy. Every interaction boosted my confidence even as I struggled to make ends meet or find a place in the world for my particular skills. Eventually, we fell out of touch. Still, the respect and dignity with which she always treated me remained a bright, guiding light.
At one point, I hoped to attend graduate school, and I requested recommendations from a handful of my former professors. A few took this task as some sort of ego trip on their part. One even contacted me later to say I should be careful not to upset them because they were the only individual willing to open doors for me in academia. Not so with Judy! She provided the requested letters along with firm, gentle words of caution and encouragement.
Life moves ever onward. By 2015, Judy had retired, and I hadn’t visited ONU or the Chicagoland in a decade. Through the miracle of the internet, we had renewed our friendship, and my thoughts and prayers surrounded her as she experienced the sudden and tragic loss of her spouse.
That October, I planned a trip to the Chicagoland, including an extended visit to Olivet for homecoming and my 20-year reunion. Before visiting campus or connecting with any other blasts from the past, I met Judy for a quiet dinner. I nearly shed tears on seeing her face once again. Later, as we spoke of recent losses and precious memories, we both shed tears—a rare evening of tender vulnerability for each of us.
As we spoke that evening, Judy spoke to me as an equal, and it dawned on me that for more than two decades no one in my world had been a greater cheerleader in my corner, seeing me for who I am intellectually and before God, than this no-nonsense woman. The woman I always have wanted to be just like when I “grow up.”
Then I learned about her relationship with Ben Zobrist, who at that time was playing with the Kansas City Royals. During his time at Olivet, Ben had been a student of Judy’s. “A good student. B’s mostly,” she said. “He wrote me a note when he left saying it wasn’t my fault. Well, I knew it wasn’t my fault. He had a better chance of getting drafted elsewhere.” (Who wouldn’t adore a woman who speaks like this?)
We spoke more of baseball and the Cubs and a bit more about Olivet and opportunities for middle-aged writers like myself. Too soon our evening together ended, but our friendship and baseball are forever.
Many miles apart, two longtime Cubs fans, Judy and myself, watched the Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland ball club in the 10th inning of Game 7. Earlier in the evening, I posted on social media my desire for Ben Zobrist, “the Swiss Army knife of baseball,” to win MVP. When the announcement was made after midnight Central, I immediately sent a text to Judy. “How proud are you of Ben Zobrist right now?” The answer came back promptly: “Really proud.”
Dr. Judy Whitis cares. She cared deeply about me as a student at ONU. She cared deeply about Ben as a student and ball player at ONU. (Seriously, what department chair finds time to attend all the baseball games on campus?) But the thing that mattered most then and will matter most all my life is the way in which Dr. Judy Whitis did her job in educating me and then proceeded to treat me, intelligent hot mess that I so often am, as an equal.
None of us is perfect. I have my flaws, and Judy has hers as well. But when it comes down to what really matters, Judy has always been, for me, an example of true love and respect—an outgrowth of her faith as well as her personality. What greater gift could ever be given to anyone—especially a trauma survivor—than to be treated as an equal? In my opinion, none.
*Due to the sensitive nature of this blog, most names have been changed. However, in this case, I have used Dr. Judy Whitis’ real name.
You can’t click past the homepage on Google, flip on the news or go to your own Facebook wall these days without being interrupted by politics these days. And I’m angry—like everyone else. I’d like to think that I have original or at least uniquely personal reasons for being angry, and because I often work through my emotions logically, I’d like to share some thoughts on abortion, rape culture and politics.
Rape and Sexual Assault
The first time, I was four or five and the perpetrator was my pastor and our neighbor. The last time, I was 19, working in a nursing home, when an Alzheimer patient tried to rape me. Afterward, I learned self-defense, and I have had to put several guys two or three times my size on the ground. I’m not afraid to do it. It’s my right to defend myself. At the same time, I’m not going to kill a guy for any reason, as long as he isn’t sticking his dick in a child (if he does that, all bets are off).
I feel a little funny using the term “rape culture” as it seems more like a buzz word than anything else—sort of like the word “diversity” was in 1996. But in truth, we have a problem in our society, and “rape culture” describes it better than anything else I can come up with. Although we can verify that violent crimes are on the decline today, we can also verify that the number of sexual assaults in our communities continues to be under reported. You can learn more about hard statistics from RAINN. Keep in mind that these are only reported crimes, which means that none of my personal experiences are included in these statistics and the same goes for many of the women I know.
Businessmen, Politicians and “Locker Room Talk”
Recent news surrounding the 2016 political campaign involves some stomach-turning footage of a presidential candidate bragging about sexually assaulting women. Bragging about it! I don’t care that the footage is from 11 years ago. I don’t care what word he uses for a woman’s private parts. I care that he ever bragged, with cameras rolling, that he could get away with it. Other women have openly discussed the traumas this ruckus has caused them to relive. You can read more about it at NPR.org.
For me, the biggest trigger is people of faith who continue to stand on their virtual soapboxes all across the interwebs and shout about how the only Christlike thing to do this November is vote for the candidate who openly supports pussy-grabbing (and a variety of other forms of sexual harassment aimed at women). Their reasoning: Hillary Clinton makes it legal to kill babies that could survive outside the womb. Their argument concerning Donald Trump’s abhorrent comments about women: Bill Clinton is a philanderer. Seriously? So was Martin Luther King, Jr., but trust me, that doesn’t make him less of a hero. It makes him human not a rapist (or a champion of rape culture).
Here’s the truly hot-button topic. People shy away from voting for Donald Trump but then put themselves through paroxysms of guilt over even considering a vote for a pro-choice candidate. I’d like to propose that the language itself is our primary problem here. In fact, linguistics could be to blame for much of the reason that the abortion issue has become such a hot-button topic.
Personally, I am fully prolife. In other words, I believe that every living human and many living creatures, including those often considered pests, are important members of our society and the earth’s eco system. As such, I don’t believe in taking a life—not the life of an unborn child, not the life of a pregnant mother, not the life of an innocent child, not the life of an intruder breaking into my home, not the life of a criminal on death row.
Now my beliefs get tricky because life is messy. Sometimes you can’t save every life. Sometimes a trained sniper has to take out a criminal in order to save the life of several hostages. Sometimes a pregnant mother has no chance of carrying a baby to term without dying and leaving all her children (not just the unborn child) as orphans. (I will continue here by adding the caveat that statistics also show that a home intruder isn’t likely to jump up and try to kill the lady who just landed him on the floor with her elbow in his back—so you can stop short of snapping the poor sap’s neck. Rest assured, you’ve just scared the shit out of him, and he isn’t likely to repeat the crime ever again. But that’s a topic for later.)
So back to abortion and right-to-life and linguistics and such: I’ve never met a woman who had an abortion and was happy about having to make that kind of choice. Few people I know are pro-abortion. The ridiculous meme running around Facebook these days claiming that Hillary Clinton says Christians must change their beliefs about abortion is flat-out false. The woman is herself a Christian, and my one degree of separation from her happens to be her spiritual director, Billy Graham. In case you didn’t catch that the first time: Hillary Clinton is a Christian. Like me, however, she also understands that sometimes a woman’s life is threatened by a dangerous pregnancy. And at that point, a woman must make the hardest and worst decision a woman ever has to make: her life or her child’s. And that, my friends, is not a decision my government has the right to make for me or any woman. If the government once again begins to make that decision for women (it was regularly done prior to 1972, and many woman lost their lives as a result), I intend to refer to the unnecessary death of pregnant women as “government assisted suicide.” Call me a radical if you wish. There’s more.
Lives Lost to Abortion
In 1972, the year before abortion was legalized across the entire country, one million abortions were performed. According to projections this year (2016) and despite increases in the number of pregnancies since 1972, only about one million abortions will be performed. At best, this means that the legalization of abortion has had no effect on the number of babies lost to abortion. Although the numbers for this year aren’t currently available, you can get details from the most recent CDC statistics. Then let’s look more closely at those numbers.
In 1972, many abortions that were performed were illegal. This resulted in unsanitary conditions and the loss of life for many women. Do I agree that all of these abortions were necessary? Personally, no. However, the even more unnecessary loss was that of the lives of many otherwise healthy women who bled out or died of infection. In short, by 1972 (and probably for many years prior), it had become clear that any attempt to force women to carry a baby to term was nothing more than a failed attempt at legislating morality. You simply cannot legislate morality. If we could, would this entire world not be a much more moral place?
The Clinton Stance on Abortion
Hillary Clinton has said, “Abortion should be safe, legal and rare.” She has also been endorsed by Planned Parenthood. She has also commented that religion (not “Christianity”) needs to change in order for women’s healthcare to be taken seriously. During the 2016 campaign she has taken flack from conservatives for not being more vocal about the need for abortion to be rare. Okay. This issue hasn’t exactly been at the heart of the current campaign. A lot of other issues are at stake here. But the issue did make it to this blog post, so let’s dive in:
Remember, it’s impossible to legislate morality. As soon as a “mother’s life in danger” clause becomes law, women who have necessary abortions or even who have late-term miscarriages can be held as criminals. Do you want that?
Some people will think, harshly, that desperate women seeking illegal termination of a pregnancy shouldn’t have access to safe healthcare. Think about that for a moment. Do you think you personally deserve life endangerment when you make an ethically questionable decision? Regardless of what religious views you hold, do you really believe that an unwanted pregnancy is unforgivable? And let’s take it a step farther: What about pregnancies as a result of rape? While rare, it happens. And usually, it is an extraordinarily unhealthy situation for the mother because most incidences of pregnancy due to rape are instances of prolonged incest or captivity. Again, a woman’s health is at risk.
Planning Beyond Abortion
It would be remiss of me to fail to point out that Planned Parenthood provides many more services beyond abortion. In fact, only 3 percent of their services are tied-up in pregnancy termination. One of my sisters-in-law required their services in order to get birth control and a female exam as a sexually active teenager. Women in my community get free breast exams from Planned Parenthood. For several years, Planned Parenthood was the only place where my uninsured wife and I could get well-woman exams. We could even get help from them while we were homeless! Don’t believe me? You can learn more here.
Do I agree with voluntary termination of a pregnancy? No. Do I appreciate the help I can and have received from Planned Parenthood? Yes.
So here we are in October 2016. Before us on the stage of politics in the United States of America plays a show in which the stars are a longtime female politician and a businessman with a reputation for lying, cheating and taking advantage of others. For me as a voter, the choice is obvious. I am prolife, yes. But I believe life should be worth living for everyone—not just the preborn. And I also believe that something as small as a hot-button issue centered around linguistics shouldn’t be the driving force behind a decision we all have to live with for the next four years.