Tonight We’re Going To PTSD Like It’s 1999
By Lea Grover
Don’t worry, I won’t hurt U, I just want to have some fun.
With three and a half hours remaining in 1998, there was only one song to play, and we played it. Prince’s “1999” boomed from the stereo speakers, not on a loop, but intermittently, mixed with Spice Girls and Eminem — the sounds of the era. At 14, it was my first real party. There were no parents. There was a keg, a house full of upperclassmen from my high school, the smells of cigarette and marijuana smoke, and Prince.
I knew the boy who lived there, vaguely. We’d met a few times, as my theater class shared a room with his jazz band rehearsals. A mutual friend of ours had planned to attend the party, and begged me to go with her. As a sophomore, she was afraid she wouldn’t know anyone there. As a freshman I didn’t, and my friend was a no-show. Sitting in the basement, I tried to make myself inconspicuous, humming along with “1999” every time it played again. I was dreaming when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray.
Prince wasn’t new to me. My entrance into the world predated the release of “Purple Rain” by a few months; I had grown up in a world where his presence was ubiquitous. As a kid I’d internalized his soundtrack to the Batman movie. At 12, “When Doves Cry” became my favorite track from the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack. The next summer I stared at my television in awe when VH1 aired already old Prince concert footage. The only thing I could think to compare him to, writhing with his guitar, was footage of Jimi Hendrix from Woodstock. Prince was the only familiar thing in a strange house, in the middle of winter, where I tried to make myself invisible as the new year loomed.
Invisibility is not a power I possess, and a junior from one of my classes spotted me, alone and vulnerable. Over the next few hours, he force fed me more alcohol than I’d ever contemplated drinking, trapping me in the basement, far from the sound of Prince on the speakers. But when I woke up this morning could’ve sworn it was judgment day. In the final hours of 1998, he raped me in a closet. Feet away, a group of his friends freestyled over the familiar beat and tapped another keg. I could hear Prince in the distance, hear the laughter of drunken boys and the muted throng of intoxicated teenagers. C’mon, take my body baby. When he was done, he handed me off to a friend of his who drove me home and left me in the snow on my front lawn.
Over the next week or so, the radio kept playing 1999. I tried to wrap my head around what had been done, who I was, what I was, but it seemed every few hours there was that song. But life is just a party, and parties weren’t meant 2 last. Barely two weeks into 1999, I tried to kill myself.
I never blamed Prince for what happened to me. He had been a fact of my life long before my rape, I expected him to be a part of my environment forever. But after my assault, he wasn’t the background voice of Batman, he wasn’t the spellbinding musician from my television — he was the soundtrack to my trauma. Hearing his voice made my skin clammy, made my flesh crawl, set my heart racing and blurred my vision. I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the sound of Prince’s voice was the strongest trigger in my life.
Part of recovering from trauma is confronting these triggers, learning to either judiciously avoid or incorporate the things that send you into episodes of panic or paralysis. I chose avoidance for dark, crowded places full of drunk men. But eliminating Prince from my life was harder.
It took tremendous effort, but over nearly two decades I learned to enjoy listening to a few Prince tracks without feeling nauseated or anxious. “When Doves Cry” became a karaoke staple. Each time I sing it, images from that night still flash through my mind, but now I am able to layer new thoughts on top of the frightening old ones. An Ani Difranco cover, sing-alongs in my car with my husband in the middle of the night, my own laughter in my ears. I try always to listen to Prince songs I’ve never heard as though they were by any other artist, trying to disrupt the pathways in my brain that conflate his genius with misery.
My husband is from the Twin Cities, and makes references in a cultural way unique to residents of Minneapolis and St. Paul, where Prince reigned supreme. I learned to breathe through these stories, to think of the positive things in my life when conversation turned to His Royal Badness and the happenings at Paisley Park. But hearing Prince’s voice on the radio, hearing his name in conversation or in the media, it still sets me on edge. If I hear “1999” on the radio, it’s not enough to merely change the station — I have to turn the radio off. Every muscle in my body recoils from any sound, and my brain threatens to close in on itself. My mind says prepare 2 fight, so if I gotta die I’m gonna listen 2 my body tonight.
And now, Prince is gone.
While I mourn the passing of a true maestro and a cultural icon, I also find myself feeling desperate relief — and terror that seeps from my gut into my bones. Terror, because for who knows how long, it is the beginning days of 1999 all over again. Every time I turn on the radio, he’s there. Every time I log onto Facebook, the tributes are rolling in. Everything is purple and smooth and sexy and makes me want to scream and hide. We could all die any day, I don’t wanna die, I’d rather dance my life away. But relief, because the strongest trigger to my PTSD is disappearing. This is where casual references to what Prince is doing now, what TV show he’s making a guest appearance on or what city he’s touring through, these intrusions of Prince into my life are going to recede. And with them, I hope, the continuing agony of reliving a soundtrack of trauma.
But not yet. Not with the world mourning and reliving their greatest Prince memories. I’m reading every tribute, rabidly, as if part of me is desperate to prove how normal I can be. Or to understand everything I can about this human being who has never been what happened to me, and has never been responsible for what happened to me. Despite my Prince-induced episodes of PTSD, I am part of our collective grief. Everybody, everybody say party. But I am still doing the work of disentangling the damage from the musician, finding a way to understand why I grieve his passing in the same breaths that shudder with relief at his absence.
Everybody’s got a bomb. We could all die any day.
Rest in peace, Prince. Maybe now that you’ve left this world, I can be more at peace in it.
Lead image: flickr/Felix & Tibo