PTSD is a Sneaky Bastard

Content warning: fire, PTSD, anxiety, trauma

 

I almost died in an apartment fire in July 1997. The building burned overnight, the night between July 7th and July 8th. Most likely, teenagers caused the fire (accidentally) by setting off fireworks in the illegally-placed dumpster–the dumpster sitting under the apartment buildings, next to parked cars. The dumpster caught fire and then the spray-foam insulation on the ceiling–the foam that was also against fire code and acted as an accelerant–caught fire. Then the gas tanks of nearby parked cars exploded.

My apartment was right above the parking area, right above where the gas tanks exploded, right above the dumpster.

It was a four alarm fire. Firefighters from four stations rushed to the scene. When the first firefighters arrived, they estimated the fire was burning at a temperature of 2700° and spreading at a rate of 10 feet per second.

I woke up when my windows exploded from the heat to find my apartment surrounded by fire, front and back.

I don’t need to go minute-by-minute through the rest of it. I was trapped. I was convinced in every atom of my being that I was about to die. I didn’t die. I managed to get out. Firefighters are fucking heroes, man, and if it weren’t for their quick response to the scene, I would not be here.

I have PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I was diagnosed six to eight months after the fire by a thoughtful, humane, person-centered doctor of internal medicine who realized my physical symptoms of stomach upset, heartburn, and throat constriction were the somatic symptoms of PTSD. If she hadn’t asked all the right questions–not just questions about my body, but questions about if I felt safe in my life, how I was sleeping, if I was experiencing anger or threats–if she hadn’t probed, I don’t know how much longer it would have taken me to get help. I am thankful for her.

have gotten help. Over the past 21 years, I’ve seen several therapists and done intense work around the fire. I’ve done EMDR therapy which was, for me, very beneficial. I’ve healed and grown tremendously.

But you know what? PTSD doesn’t ever actually disappear. I can usually manage my PTSD very well–I’m seldom triggered. I no longer think about the fire every minute, every hour, every day, every week, or maybe not even every month. That’s a huge change from the years immediately post-fire. I can light candles! I now cook on a gas stove! Our new house has a fire pit and we made a fire the other day and I didn’t freak out! I watched fireworks over Memorial Day without tears streaming down my face, without my body shaking! (I even enjoyed them!) I recognize, notice, and label my PTSD when it pops its head out of the depths of my psyche.

And yet.

This is the time of year, folks. These last two weeks of June, when my animal brain recognizes the scents on the breeze, the slant of the sun, the feel of the air.

Something’s wrong, my amygdala whispers. Danger is coming.

Danger is coming, my body echoes.

I feel jittery all the time, like I’ve had a whole pot of coffee. I feel restless and I struggle to focus. I’m hypervigilant. I can’t relax. My muscles tense. My stomach clenches. I feel sick, but also hungry, but also sick. I feel like a constant lump is stuck in my throat. I feel like the other shoe will fall. Will another shoe fall? Am I okay? Is everyone I love okay? Who’s not okay? What’s not okay? Something is not okay.

Breathe, Sarah. Breathe.

It’s okay to feel like it’s not okay, I remind myself. This is PTSD. This is your old friend, your old enemy, your old familiar haunting sneaking back into the forefront to recognize this anniversary.

But what if I always feel this bad? What if this time is different? What if I’m losing my mind? I ask myself, hating the frantic tone in my voice.

Today is June 15th, I answer. Every year. Every year you feel this way. Every end of June is hard. Every Fourth of July is significantly awful, as the fireworks explode everywhere. And every year it goes away again. Every year it recedes after you move through it. Every year it clears again as you survive.

Twenty-one years, this July.

Thank all the gods I’ve been alive these last twenty-one years. Thanks to the firefighters. Thanks to the doctor who first said, “PTSD.” Thanks to the four therapists who’ve given me strategies to cope. Thanks to the friends and family who empathize, who listen, who seek to understand, who stay calm and remind me that my calm will return.

And it will. I will be okay.

But these next few weeks are hard for me, folks. They are hard. I will treat myself with care. I will remind myself to breathe. If you see me in the next weeks, please be extra gentle with me.

Sparrow on human hands

 

 

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Lessons from the Weary Mover

We recently moved. Just across town, so you’d THINK that would be easier than some of the cross-country moves I’ve made in the past.

You’d be wrong.

Here are some of the Hard Won Lessons I’ve learned in the last month. I’m passing them on to you in case you’re thinking about moving, too.

1. Don’t. cd4

JK. NK.

But really, most of us move for really good reasons. Maybe you got a new job. Maybe you have a growing family and need more room. Maybe you have Nazis as neighbors. Maybe you’re tired of the basement portal to R’lyeh that keeps leaking non-Euclidean geometry into your house.

If you’re moving for a good reason like that, carry on.

If you’re moving for some absurd reason, though. Maybe…just don’t. Cuz this shit’s exhausting.

2. You own MUCH MORE STUFF than you think you do.

You own approximately 5.12 tons of stuff. Yes, you. You, right over there.

Wait, you have kids? I take it back. You now own 5.12 tons of stuff plus 13.7 tons of stuff per child. No joke. That’s an actual, scientifically-calculated number.

3. Most of all of that stuff is nothing you need.

If you move without it, you’ll literally never miss it. Give it away now. Or trash it, if it’s something no one would ever want.

If you haven’t used it in the last year, GET RID OF IT.

4. YMMV on this one, but I find the hardest things to sort through are books and things your kids used to love/play with/wear when they were little.

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At one point while sorting through our basement, I literally sat and cried over the plastic food my kids used to play with. I remember when they handed me that hot dog and I pretended to eat it! HOW CAN I GET RID OF THIS?

I’m not even talking about the nice, wooden, chop-this-velcroed-fruit fake food. I’m talking about the cheapest, flimsiest bunch of junk food.

Actual tears.

Don’t get me started on the books. Trixie Beldon, man! Yeah, yeah…no one in my house will probably ever read them again. Yeah, you’re right, my kids refused to read them when they were the appropriate ages. No, um, I’m probably not going to read them. But. But. But. But…I LOVED THEM. They had lasting and deep significance in my life! I…I…I………

Okay. Take pictures of those things. Keep the stuff someone might actually play with again or actually read again. If not? Then just keep the picture.

YOU CAN DO THIS.

5. At some point, you’ll look around, pat yourself on the back, and feel like you’ve made great headway packing up your whole house! BUT DON’T FALL INTO THAT TRAP.

The final 10% of the crap that you own takes 90% of the time to pack. And you’re going to keep discovering more and more and more and more stuff hidden in random places. Plus, you’re going to end up with a bunch of boxes at the end labeled “Misc,” “Odds & Ends,” and “What Even Is This, No One Knows.”

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6. Unpacking might be worse than packing. It will take approximately 1,268 days for you to actually settle into the new house without stumbling across yet another box or something that needs to be organized. I haven’t hit that point yet. I’ll let you know when I do.

 

Um. So good luck with your move.

What Fresh Hell is This?

One of my friends at work subscribes to Snack Crate, which sends a monthly box of snacks from around the world. She hates licorice and I love it, so she handed me a bag of Djungelvral, from Sweden.

Here’s a reenactment of my thoughts during this traumatic event:

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Don’t they look adorable? Aw, they’re little monkeys. Little licorice monkeys. Covered in some sort of…powder. Hmm. Let’s take a closer look.

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Oh, yes, they are ADORABLE!

And I love licorice! And, hey, monkeys.

And I am very adventurous in my eating and I LOVE eating treats from other cultures!

Oh, wow, this is going to be awesome.

:Pops monkey in my mouth:

OMG FOISNK&4*#&GKJS:LHE*&^(*&G:LJSDF*&^(*^*&*&$&^%#$LJLHGL??!!!!!!!

Folks? I literally jumped in my seat and grimaced and did a mouth-centered double-take and head shake and shudder.

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Apparently, the Swedes enjoy coating their licorice in ammonium chloride, which tastes kind of like and also totally unlike sodium chloride (the salt we are used to). The candy has this crazy ammonia/salt zap which makes your mouth react ALMOST as if you popped in a super sour Toxic Waste candy COMBINED with that choking/cloying/nostril-burning feeling you get when you’re swimming in the ocean and accidentally gulp down a ton of water. And it makes your eyes water.

The licorice inside all that Fresh Hell was kind of good, but it took my mouth like ten minutes to recover.

Tasting this candy and realizing that it is POPULAR in Sweden? Makes me wonder:

  • Are the Swedes generally crazy?
  • What other insane combinations of foods do they eat?
  • Is it possible that Swedes HATE this stuff and pretend to like it and therefore export it with secret glee at the torment they impose on the rest of us?

Part of me wants to try another one, just to see if it is really as bad as it seemed the first time.

Part of me wants to hand one to an unsuspecting fellow licorice-lover just to watch them eat it.

Most of me wants to throw it all away.

But…if any of you are in Evansville and want to try one, let me know!

Have any of you actually tried Djungelvral and enjoyed it?

 

Who Says Feminists Aren’t Funny?

I’m intense. I hold strong opinions. I have a hard time “enjoying” media without critiquing the hell out of its problematic messages. I am amused by nothing that contains sexism/racism/classism/able-ism/homophobia/any-other-isms. I care about “too many” social issues (for other people’s comfort). I may even be “too much” for some people.

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But I’m funny.

WANNA KNOW HOW I KNOW???!

McSweeney’s Internet Tendency just accepted a piece I wrote.

And if McSweeney’s isn’t funny, NOTHING is funny. Like. Because McSweeney’s IS funny, get it? Most of the pieces on McSweeney’s are absolutely hilarious and amusing and MY PIECE WILL LIVE WITH THEM.

I’m not claiming I’m up to par with “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers” or “FAQ: The ‘Snake Fight’ Portion of Your Thesis Defense” or “An Update on the Problem of Maria.” 

My piece might be the sad, neglected neighbor-child to those pieces. BUT WE WILL BE NEIGHBORS!

BECAUSE I’M FUNNY.

(And, yes, I will absolutely, definitely, without-a-doubt post the link here when it’s published, which should be in the next few weeks.)

The Ten Stages of Getting Critique on Your Novel Draft

Well, lookee here! I’ve written a novel! I have an entire draft. Now it’s time to share it with my beta slideshow_1readers and get some critique.

  1. All right, this is awesome. I’m going to send this novel to a few people and I can’t wait to hear what they have to say. They’re going to love it as much as I do.
  2. OMG. What have I done? What. Have. I. Done? This novel’s not ready to be read. Did I already send it? Can I retract it?  Should I tell them to delete it? What was I possibly thinking? Maybe I should change my email address. And unfriend the beta readers on all social media. And dodge them in real life. I never have to speak to them again.
  3. Deep breaths. This will be okay. I do want their feedback. They’re going to have useful things to say. I need to calm down.
  4. OMG. Why is it taking so long for them to give me their feedback? Have they started reading it yet? Don’t they know I AM WAITING? :refresh: :refresh: :refresh:
  5. My first feedback! I can’t wait to read it.
  6. What the fuck do they know? Fucking beta readers. Do they even know how to read? Are they too stupid to understand my novel? What gives them the right to criticize me? Jerks. I hate them. Fucking beta readers.
  7. The beta readers are right. I’m hopeless. My writing is hopeless. Why did I think anyone would like this? There’s nothing worth saving. It’s all trash. This is the worst possible thing anyone could ever have written. I should delete it and never write again.
  8. Deep breaths. Okay, wait. The betas said they liked some things. And, well, maybe they have a point about that thing. And this thing. And maybe that other thing could be improved. Maybe they had some valuable comments. Maybe this writing is worth saving. Huh. And maybe I can make it even better.
  9. I did it! I’ve done revisions. I listened to other people’s comments and made changes without freaking out. This novel is stronger now than it was. I will send out the new version and see what the betas think.
  10. OMG. What have I done? What. Have. I. Done? This novel’s not ready to be read. Did I already send it? Can I retract it? Should I tell them to delete it? What was I possibly thinking?

 

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image: pain-in-rainbows.jpg    https://monochromejunkie.com/tag/collage/

From Dolphins to WHAT…?!

My prompts for the second round of the Short Story Challenge were action/adventure, animal rights, and delivery driver.

My brain spun round and round through cosmetic and medical testing, carriage horses, owl cafes, and landed on dolphins. After researching quite a bit about Taiji cove, I wrote a pretty serious short story about three characters (Kiyomi, Naoki, and Tom) sneaking into the cove to cut nets and free a dolphin pod. The story illustrated the horror of the Taiji dolphin slaughters and captures. It’s a cause I care a lot about. It was a kind of intense little story.

shutterstock_366792137-1024x683Okay, I thought. This has some promise.

I sent it off to some folks for beta reading. They mostly liked it.

Until one of my beta readers–okay, it was Gary, my husband–said: “You haven’t made this story your own” and “I love when you take these prompts and find some completely crazy and unexpected direction for the story. Dolphins seem kind of…obvious. A bunch of people might write about dolphins.” [Disclaimer: he said none of this verbatim, but this is what I heard. Actually, when I was paraphrasing him before, I said that he said, “Everyone will write about dolphins and there’s nothing interesting or original here and this story sucks.” He claims he didn’t say that. I guess I believe him.]

I started thinking about what I do best, which is fantasy and science fiction. Action/adventure can be SFF…. Maybe I needed to shake things up a bit. Gary said, “You have time to write something new.”

Start from scratch? When I already wrote one story for a 72 hour challenge?

Right about then, my friend John (also a writer) left me a voicemail and said, “Write to your skill set. You can blend genres and make your story SFF if you’re not feeling what you already wrote.” [Again, that’s probably not exactly what he said. I could listen to the voicemail again and quote him, but I’m too lazy.] emoji_update_2017_11_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bqqvzuuqpflyliwib6ntmjwfsvwez_ven7c6bhu2jjnt8

I moped around. I sulked. I sighed in frustration. I moped some more. I was really, really, really grumpy. I had like seven million ill-formed ideas and wrote some random sentences.

Then, I just started having fun. A story basically poured out of my brain onto the page and made me giggle quite a bit of the time. I wrote the whole thing in less than three hours.

It’s a ridiculously frothy, funny story that plays with action/adventure conventions in a SF setting. We’re talking high school ninja-girls and animals worn as jewelry and a high speed spaceship chase. Yes, it touches on animal rights, but with the lightest of light hands.

I’m submitting the second story. I have no idea how the judges will feel about such a zany, genre-blurring story.

But I can guarantee they won’t read another story like it. I probably won’t post the whole thing here, because it may have quasi-publishable legs, this wacky little story. I’m happy to share it with individuals, though. If you want to read it, just let me know! 🙂

It’ll be about five weeks before I hear if I make it to round three, so stay tuned.

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