I have a three hundred pound monster lurking in the back of my mind, lying anxiously in wait to pummel me mercilessly the second I open my mouth to speak, at precisely the moment I make eye contact with you, as soon as I say something I haven’t been told to say. I have a three hundred pound monster thumping around, pacing anxiously as he raps and bangs against the white, porous surface of my skull each and every time you walk up to me to start a conversation. He is a shadow, a phantom of my past, but he might as well be Goliath standing before me ready to strike at the formation of a word upon my lips. At a coincidental glance. At speaking out of turn.
Grin and bear it and move on already? I’ve tried that, and I continue to relentlessly pursue this every day of my life: at home with family, with friends, with co-workers, with members of my congregation, with cashiers and waiters and waitresses and customer service reps, with doctors and children and strangers and everyone in between. I force myself to look you in the eye. I make myself stand tall, head up, and face you when you approach me. I will the strength up somehow to speak to you without approval. Even if you can’t tell I’m fighting a war inside my head. Even though you can’t see me squirm in discomfort and fear as I smile at you and laugh when I feel like I should be looking around for a fist coming wantonly, furiously, angrily at the back of my head. Even if you look and see only me standing there. I promise you, he is there hovering over me, hanging on every word, searching for an object of contempt, a candidate for disapproval, an excuse to beat me into submission.
When I was trapped with him, this fear of those punishments for failure to comply, for not fighting a human need to interact with others, for not being rude and instead choosing to acknowledge and respond to someone who only acknowledged me out of respect was a rollercoaster of confusion. I never knew if it was worse to try to fight against it and risk injury or to give in and only postpone an imminent punishment waiting to be unleashed on me. For the longest time, I walked a tightrope, precariously dangling over the edge with no net below to catch me. In the beginning, controlled responses worked. Instead of looking away like I didn’t hear you greet me, I would smile if you were a woman or just nod off in another direction without making eye contact or smiling if you were a man. If you were someone I knew, I may be noticeably excited to see you but I would refrain from hugging you. If I knew you and you were a man, you would neither be hugged nor greeted with an enthusiastic response. Just enough to not be rude, but not enough where he could find fault.
But eventually, he did. As the violence worsened, he began isolating me and cutting me off from people I knew. He would insert himself into every conversation with new acquaintances to keep me from communicating with them. If I dared push against this invisible wall in an attempt to crack it wide open and bust it down, he pushed back. With his fists. With a metal bar. With a board. Eventually, the punishments broke me of the desire to speak to and acknowledge others. It became too dangerous. I learned my silence and insecurity and lack of motivation to speak as a direct result of the fear he beat into me to keep me silent. It’s not a simple case of the “nerves” as so many insist on telling me.
I can’t swallow the fear of the invisible three hundred pound monster and not have a panic attack while trying to do so. I have, however, learned to hide the panic attacks as best as I can. Not because I fear or worry about your criticism. Not because I don’t want you to judge me. Not because I even truly care what you think about the damage I have to navigate through to function in a reasonably normal manner every day. I do it because your refusal to be silent and listen is tedious to me. I do it because you think you know everything about something you have never endured. I do it because I don’t like feeling crazy.
I can’t change my explanation of why I struggle with this so much. You have asked me a million and one times, and I am telling you a million and two. I won’t be silent about what I have experienced or how it has impacted me. I won’t fade away into some corner like a wallflower and let you talk over me. I won’t let you tell my story for me. You are not me. If you want so badly to create or influence a story, you have the power and approval only to write your own. Mine’s already taken.
If you or someone you know if struggling with the effects of PTSD and are looking for additional information, please visit the websites below. If someone is minimizing what you are going through emotionally because of this, please try to start a conversation with them by sharing this information. Let them know it isn’t just a simple case of “nerves.”