seeing life in technicolour: treating my PTSD

The first time I felt truly terrified, I was eight years old and hiding under a bed in Samoa while two drunk men tore our house apart. At least, that’s what it sounded like: two bulls splintering the space outside the room where we hid, my mother, my sister and I. All I could hear was screaming and swearing and smashing, and, closer to me, my mother’s breath in my ear.

The two men were my father, and a family friend visiting from the UK. They’d been drinking all afternoon, and then something—everything—went wrong. We hid under the bed in a side room. I didn’t know what would happen. I don’t know if I thought words as clear as, “I might die,” but my body knew to think them. I remember the feeling: the fear in my lungs, the weight of my mother pressed against me, the three of us crammed in a clump between the bed base and the floor.

The family friend split his hand open, punching through a wall. I’m not sure if my father was rampaging with the man or trying to stop him. That part is fuzzy; we don’t talk about it. We had to take the man to hospital. His blood was all over our floor. He spent the rest of his time in our house with a hand thick with bandages, a paw like a bear’s, his eyes blurry.

The end of that story is: we lived. I lived. But it wasn’t an end. It was one dark bead on a long wire. More moments joined that one. Years of intermittent chaos and trauma formed a base from which new fears could grow: fear of flying, fear of the future, fear of death, and a wake-you-in-the-night, sweating fear that doesn’t have a name. All these fears…I know them well. They feel close and cold, and sometimes sound like smashing and screaming. It is hard to breathe inside fears like that. For years, it has been hard to breathe.

The moment in Samoa, under that bed, is one of the memories I have been processing over the last four months, as I have worked intensively with my psychologist on my PTSD. Together we have painstakingly picked through moment after moment of my childhood, moments of acute fear, chaos and ugliness. We have turned my childhood microscopic, into fragments I could try to understand. I have stepped carefully through the shards, looking for the parts that hurt the most. I have walked slowly, talking things through, writing things down. I have turned the memories over in my hands.

And slowly, slowly, I have found these memories growing quieter—no less terrible, but quieter for my looking at them. After the initial panic at having to re-enter the cupboard where I hid all my monsters, I have found—over time, and with incredible guidance and support from my psychologist—that monsters can grow smaller when you look them in the face.

It also turns out that travelling back to the past as an adult means I get to see my childhood self with tremendous tenderness. I get to go to her, that scared, confused girl, and say, “Here, let’s walk through this together. Here are my mama-bird wings. Let me wrap you in them. Let me tell you a story.”

Let me tell you a story of a girl who grew up. The years of chaos did not erase the spark of her, the light and dance and love of her. This girl had adventures. She made mistakes. She was loved by her mother, her father, her sister, her friends. She became the mother of two children. She got to love her own children fiercely, treat them with kindness, give them safety, be their friend. This girl, this girl—she has a family who make her laugh, who love her. She has a sister and mother who have found their own happiness. Her father is gone now, but she has unearthed memories of him that are clean and good, like flying kites at the top of cliffs in Jervis Bay and walking together through a tiny bookstore in Seattle. She has seen the parts of her past where she claimed safety, where she was bold and strong. She has grown. She has become an adult. She is me. I got to live. I am here now, safe, loved, writing all the parts of my story.

On the last day of my PTSD treatment, my psychologist and I summed things up, not necessarily knowing we were summing things up (well, he probably knew—it’s his job to know). He drew a diagram that put the pieces of our work together, in black, blue, red and green marker on the whiteboard. At some point he—we—spoke about life beliefs and how they can guide you.

For example, one pervasive life belief of mine has been unrelentingly bleak. For years, on many difficult days, the high-alert child in me has seen life like this:

“Life is suffering. Those I love will suffer. Life will disappoint me; it will be unjust and cruel and terrifying. And one day I will die.”

On hard days, the scared child in me has heard this and thought, THIS IS TRUE. And I, the adult, have felt demolished, despairing. I have been sucked deep into the void; I have gone blank and foggy. And I have crawled under the covers of my bed and watched Netflix C-grade movies until the sun has set because this ‘truth’ has sometimes hurt so much it’s been difficult to be alive.

But, as my psychologist pointed out, there’s another way of seeing that is just as true. It may, in fact, be a little more true than the grey life belief I have so often carried around me, the filter through which I have so often seen the world.

My psychologist grabbed a pink marker. And above the grey cloud on the board, he wrote the sentence I spoke out loud:

“Life is exciting. Life is wonderful.”

This is how the hopeful, fiercely determined woman in me would speak. The one who carries memories of putting on plays in the living room when she was ten, and singing madly to Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al at sixteen. The person making art every single day, and travelling through the south of Spain smelling the orange trees, and writing hundreds of stories—some silly, some difficult, many tender. The young woman reading quietly with her father in a beach house in Tea Gardens. The one eating grape leaf rolls in Santorini with her mother. And the woman walking around Lake Merrit in Oakland with her sister and her nieces and her husband and her baby son. That girl, that woman, would see her past like this—a technicolour explosion of new life experiences.

And in that moment, watching my pink words unfurl on the whiteboard diagram of my life, I realised the bigger, better sentence was actually this:

LIFE IS AN ADVENTURE.

And it occurred to me: THIS IS THE TRUEST TRUTH THERE IS.

Life is an adventure, with both dark and light inside it. Life is made of determination and grit and survival and love. Life is actively noticing and reaching for joy, and being open to possibility, and weeping when sadness comes, howling even, and walking by the sea, and sleeping beside a cat, and laughing, and feeling yourself heal again. This is it—it is the ‘secret, the root of the root, and the bud of the bud, and the sky of the sky of a tree called life’ (thank you, e e cummings, who always gets it).

As I walked out of my last treatment for PTSD, all I could see was this truth in my mind, written in bold, resplendent pink. I felt electric, hopeful. I felt happy, which hasn’t been the easiest emotion for me to find. I realised every action from here could be held against a pink cloud thought: Does this action move me closer to ‘Life is an adventure’ or further away? Well, damnit, if I’m able, I’ll go for the action that plonks me in my pink cloud. At least, I’ll do my best to try. I’ll walk in that direction. I’ll walk towards my future and see what happens. Who knows what it might bring?

pink cloud

This painting is mine—painted after my psychologist’s meeting. It captures the feeling I carried out of the meeting, of life seeming, quite suddenly, bright and possible and true. I’ve put it into words here, a little bit.

But this painting is how it actually FELT.


One thought on “seeing life in technicolour: treating my PTSD

  1. Dear Helena,
    I just read your deeply moving account. I had no idea what you had been through. I admire your courage in facing your past and moving beyond the traumas to a resolution. I do hope our paths will cross again before long.

    With love from England,
    David

    Like

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