Sometimes I feel terrified.
I used to panic when I felt like this but I’ve managed to pull myself out of it enough times to know better now. The panicky helplessness that used to accompany such terror has given way to a new gritted-teeth determination, calm reflection and acceptance. I know now that I won’t always feel terrified.
You know when it’s raining and you are wearing trainers that are not really designed to withstand the rain and as luck would have it you manage to step into a really deep puddle as you are running to catch the bus?
For a second you think, ‘Oh maybe it’s not so bad.’ Your feet don’t really feel wet. You carry on running, and then you slowly start to notice. Your socks are definitely wet now. Your feet feel colder. You glance down at your trainers and the white material is darker, soggy, and brown from the dirty puddle. Of course you wore white trainers on a day when it would rain, you stupid girl. They’re ruined.
Then, you hear it. With every step:
Squelch. Squelch. Squelch.
With every squelching step you feel the water pushed from the fabric in your socks and insoles up, around your feet, and back down again. It’s a constant pulsating flow of dirty puddle water, flowing over your skin, in between your toes and up under your toenails. It’s making you feel disgusting.
You miss the bus. And of course, that was the last bus.
‘It’s fine.’ you tell yourself. It’s only a 20 minute walk home anyway. You think about home. You think of what you will do when you take your trainers off. Maybe you will take a nice hot shower and then get dry and put on your most comfortable pyjamas, big cosy socks, and enjoy a steaming cup of tea. It’s dry at home.
Your thoughts are interrupted by the squelching noises. You think about how disgusting it sounds and therefore how disgusting you are. Cars pass you on your walk home. ‘They must all be looking at me and thinking about how disgusting I am’ you tell yourself.
You think of all the times in your life where you had wet feet, every time your body got dirty, every time you had to endure the rain. You think that other people wouldn’t let this happen to them. You are so embarrassed that it happened to you.
5 minutes away from home. You are soaking wet.
‘Can you put trainers in the washing machine?’
‘Maybe they need to be thrown away?’
‘I’m such an idiot.’
‘I should have worn rubber boots.’
‘I should have made more time to catch the bus.’
‘I should have just taken a taxi.’
‘I think I will just put them in the washing machine’ you say out loud to nobody.
You get home. Nick is sat on the sofa watching Tv. ‘Don’t look at me, I’m disgusting’ you say. Nick doesn’t say anything, he gets up and puts the kettle on to make you a cup of tea. He knows when you need your space.
You take off your trainers and your wet clothes letting them fall into a big soggy pile in the hallway. You stand there naked and shivering. Your toes are pink and clammy, your hair is all over the place, and you don’t dare to even look at your face so you just look down at the floor instead.
A puddle starts to form around your pile of wet clothes, bleeding into and enveloping the wet footprints around it. You see dust too and little stains on the skirting board you hadn’t noticed before. Looking up from the floor you see the smudge on the mirror and coffee ring on the table. The hallway is a disgusting mess, you begin to panic again.
You get to work. You put your trainers in the washing machine and turn it on. You notice that the sink in the bathroom needs a clean so you reach for the spray and the cloth. Might as well clean the toilet whilst you are here, and then the inside of the bathroom cabinet, and the shower door, and just bleach the floor and the drains. If you are going to do the drains in the bathroom then you should do the drains in the kitchen too. Empty all the bins. Clean all the surfaces, polish the mirrors.
The floor is still wet. You were saving that cleaning job for last. Nick made you a cup of tea but it went cold a while ago. He sits there with a worried look on his face as you move around him, naked, crying, and lurching back and forth with a vacuum.
‘Can I help?’ he asks you. You stop for a second, and notice how worried he looks. ‘Sorry, …yeah could you maybe take out the trash?’. You feel so bad that this is affecting him, but if he can help then it will be over faster.
He leaves you in the room. You finish vacuuming and start mopping. You notice that the neighbours can see your naked cleaning breakdown through the window but you are beyond caring. In the shower, you cleanse, scrub, brush and wash yourself inside and out until your skin is pink and your gums are bleeding. You wrap yourself in a fresh towel. Now, everything is clean.
You lie on Nick’s lap wearing your comfiest pyjamas and big cosy socks. He strokes your hair, and you watch Tv together.
‘I’m sorry for earlier’.
‘It’s ok, do you feel better now?’
‘Yes, I’m just really tired. Tomorrow will be a better day.’
Lying in bed, thoughts of frustration, shame, and disgust swim around your mind until you finally fall asleep. You wake up in the middle of the night and something feels wrong. You sit up in bed and realise to your horror that you are wearing your trainers.
They are soaking wet. You are ruining the bed. You scramble out of bed and go to take them off but you can’t do it. They’re stuck on your feet. You start to cry. You are making a complete mess of the bedroom. How could you do this? There is mud and water everywhere. You run into the kitchen. There is that noise again: squelch, squelch, squelch.
You go to cut the laces with scissors but the trainers somehow become tighter around your feet. It feels as though they are filling with more water. ‘My feet!’ you cry out in panic. Nick is there now. ‘Breathe in slowly’ he says. ‘and now breathe out again ok?’ you follow his instructions. ‘Touch your feet’ he says calmly. You do. Your fingers grasp at dry toes, you squeeze your feet as hard as you can.
You realise that you don’t have the trainers on. You sit at the edge of the bed and cry and Nick holds you in his arms.
The next night you dream again. But this time your sleep is disturbed by a noise. You sit up in bed as you hear a drip, drip, drip. Then you see it, a puddle in the corner of the room. ‘Have I spilled something?’ you wonder.
You sit up in bed to get a closer look. It’s seems to be even bigger now, and there’s two more. You go to touch it to check if it’s real. Your fingers feel wet and dirty. You walk out of the bedroom into the hallway. You see water running down the walls, puddles are starting to appear everywhere. You feel unable to move, frozen in the hallway in horror. You look around you. The whole bathroom has become one big puddle.
Brown water gushes down the walls soaking the furniture and all of your belongings. It flows out of the toilet, the sinks, and up through the drains. Books, socks, pens and dishcloths start to float and then sink into the murky swamp that was your home. You shout for Nick but he isn’t there. You’re alone in this mess. You wade into the living room and see your neighbours at their windows, pointing and shouting at you, taking photos of the disaster unfolding. A crowd starts to gather in the street. You pull at the windows trying to open them to escape. They’re sealed shut. You helplessly tread water in front of the living room window, unable to feel the floor, deafened by the sound of crashing water, and blinded by camera flashes. You feel your head go under and brown dirty water fills your mouth. Your body goes limp.
You wake up. You’re in bed with Nick. Everything is dry. Everything seems normal. There are no puddles in the room. You run your fingers over the sheets, pillows and bedside table to reassure yourself. Nothing is wet. It’s quiet in the room apart from the sound of Nick breathing. You roll over in bed and look out of the window. It’s raining. You lie awake in bed watching the rain, too terrified to go back to sleep.
The next day you don’t want to go to work. You want to avoid the rain. You want to stay at home where it’s dry and clean. You feel safe there. You avoid going outside for a few days. You clean the whole apartment every day. You are able to sleep at night. You avoid everything that makes you feel disgusting, ashamed or unsafe.
Days turn into weeks. You find ways to live your life in which you can avoid most puddles. Weeks turn into months, and your list of avoidances starts to grow. You cancel plans with friends if there is a chance that something unexpected may happen. You don’t attend work events in fear that something may trigger you into a panic, and sadly you start to push Nick away with your ever growing list of rules and needs.
One not so special day, you lie on the sofa and a familiar song plays on the radio:
‘I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world’
Tears roll down your face. This song used to make you smile but now it just reminds you of how terrified you have become. To you, the world isn’t wonderful, it’s an overwhelmingly dangerous place, and it’s becoming scarier. You think back over the terrifying moments you have experienced in your life and you relive them over and over, as Louis Armstrong’s voice fades out.
For many years avoidance has been my main coping strategy for dealing with my negative thoughts. They actually started a long time ago when I was a child. I grew up in a violent home, and spent a lot of my childhood experiencing one traumatic event after the next. The worst one though was being raped when I was 6 years old. I was too afraid and ashamed to tell anyone about it so I kept it a secret. I pushed the memory away, and tried to forget about it. I wanted to move on and do well to prove to myself that it didn’t break me. I wanted to have a normal life so I avoided confronting it.
This is what has led to me having post traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. I didn’t know I had PTSD or even that I was avoiding things in an unhealthy way until I started to go to therapy.
Years later I am starting to talk about the complex trauma I experienced as a young child. Cognitive behavioural therapy has helped me to piece together the fragmented traumatic memories that are the root of my anxieties. I’m learning how to challenge my negative thoughts and that helps minimize the power that triggers have over me. Now, I love making time for myself and my mental health. Every day I find some sort of way to tell myself that the world isn’t such a dangerous place, that I’m not disgusting and that I don’t have to be afraid or ashamed of who I am.
I’m not completely over my PTSD, and I haven’t quite conquered my triggers yet, but I don’t feel like I’m drowning in murky water anymore. I know that I won’t always feel terrified.