A day in the life, a night on the road

I’m asked what I do with my time when I go in to therapy for my PTSD. My answers are barely helpful to my clinicians at times, and even worse for communicating to people who aren’t mental health professionals.

I go to work. I go home. I go to the outpatient clinic. I go to therapy. Individual days feel meaningless. Time moves forward, but I don’t really notice it. I’m mostly on autopilot. The rest of the time is divided up into wrenching sadness, feeling so out of it you can barely speak or move or think, being terrified of some unseen danger, and in some rare blissful moments, being able to laugh and feeling okay, even for just a second. Unfortunately, those divisions are listed in decreasing order of frequency and intensity.

This cursory explanation is very basic and really not particularly well suited to describe my lived reality. It’s difficult to take that experience and turn it into something directly externally, to be processed and even remotely understood by others. To try and achieve that I turned to abstraction. My writing might be a little clunky, but try to follow with your mind’s eye from here.

Imagine you’re the front seat passenger in a car with some friends, driving somewhere far away on unlit country road in the middle of the night. Your eyes fall on the lines separating the two lanes. Mesmerised, time passes, the scenery lit up in the headlights changes, but to you it’s all the same. There are conversations happening in the car, but they seem far away. Although you think you want to speak from time to time, you just can’t seem to find the timing to join the conversation, and with the lines on the road stealing away your attention, you can’t seem to find the motivation to anyway. You might be sitting in the car, but you’re not in the car. You’re far away, in a nowhere land made up of the lit up road and the ever present lines.

As you drift on into the night, you lose your sense of time. It might have been hours, it might have been minutes since you started staring. You don’t really care. Suddenly, some kind of small animal, you never did see what, jumps in front of the car from behind some boxes lying on the side of the road. You experience a sudden, terrible fright as its body bursts open against the impact on the front fender and smashes against the glass in front of you.

Nobody else in the car seems to have a strong reaction to it, or even to really pay it much mind. You want to mention that your heart is still pounding, but the moment has passed and the conversation and atmosphere in the car is back to how it was before, and you’re still not really a part of it. You say a few words, they’re awkward and don’t feel right. You back out of the conversation again, and you think about what just happened.

The blood and viscera, etched into the cracks of the windscreen, are just a part of the journey now. You spend what feels like an eternity, frantically looking around for signs of animals on the side of the road, coming to scare the shit out of you again. You tire eventually, eyes drifting back to the lines on the road where your sense of time is again lost. An unknown period of time passes again.

Out of the corner of your eyes, you spot more boxes on the side of the road. You panic, throwing your hands up in front of your face. This time, however, nothing is there. What the hell was that? You were so sure. The panic is real, the exhaustion of being suddenly, terribly afraid is real, and the smears of blood you see on windscreen feel like they’re still in your field of view when you close your eyes for a moment. You tell yourself nothing was there, that you’re safe.

You don’t feel safe. It’s awkward to ask everyone else if they feel safe, since they seem happy, and content, so the answer is probably yes. So you feel unsafe as you sit, waiting until the lull of the lines on the road take you away again.

Eventually you pull up to a late night fuel station. Everyone gets out of the car. The crisp night air hits you, and suddenly your lurching body and segregated awareness snap back into focus. You’re a part of the conversation now, you laugh, you smile, everything is normal. You grab something to eat, drink, and everyone takes a minute to stretch their legs and snack at the roadside.

Minutes later, back on the road, you’d be hard pressed to imagine that person on the roadside was you. You’re back in that vacant space you somehow inhabit, the lines on the road and the streaks of blood still caking the windshield are all that holds your attention, and the world is out of focus yet again. You can’t even feel your body against the seat. Periodically, the terror of the unknown strikes you even though there weren’t any boxes this time, and you weren’t thinking of the animal whose remains exist in your periphery.

Eventually, you get where you’re going. Everyone else is upbeat. You slump out of the car in a daze, ready to collapse into sleep the minute you can find somewhere that feels safe again, while the people you came with talk about how the trip was pretty good. You make an excuse to have some time alone to lay down. After a while, when your heart finally stops pounding for no reason, sleep takes you while the rest of your group is off living their lives.

This is my life. The car and that journey, an analogy. Everyone else is along for the ride, but we are having very, very different journeys. The lines are just the hours of the day.

I’ve seen and lived things that, like the blood smeared in the cracks of that fictional windscreen, are to me still there when I see, hear and smell certain things. I get lost and trapped outside of the bubble of comfortable human interaction sometimes, with no way I can find to get back inside. Every now and then, everything snaps into place and I’m okay. But those times are few and far between.

The rest of the time, I’m just drifting like the fictional you on the road into a night that never quite ends.

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