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It’s funny, isn’t it, how people can openly grieve with us when we’ve lost a loved one, or suffered a broken bone. They can fill out sympathy cards, sign their names with happy faces and hearts on the cast, come to visit with frozen casseroles and hugs that last just a little too long. When we are openly hurting, it is no trouble to make visits, to say just the right thing or with the right nod of the head in solidarity. And yet, when we’ve been subjected to a trauma outside of these invisible lines, the words fly out of people’s heads, their sense of compassion momentarily stalled by the inability to cough up the right words. We are greeted with silence, sometimes coldness and often ignored altogether.
It was September, 2017, for me when my world, which had been quietly falling apart, piece by piece, completely crumbled before my eyes. Sure, a number of events had transpired – conspired, even, against me? – to chip away at my well-being, but it was September when I hit rock bottom, as they say; the time when it all came to a crashing halt.
Nobody knew of my struggles, and I wouldn’t have wanted them to. After all, I didn’t want to be a “downer” to anyone, and I’d march through each day, my head held high, my stance proud, as though a slouch would illustrate the pain I was suffering, and the world would give me one last push into my grave. I covered my pain, my bruises, my suicidal thoughts and continued on, until one moment at work I gave in and sat at my desk and cried, the tears unrelenting and hopeless under the glaring fluorescent lights, my little nook the only hiding place I had, surrounded by the clicking of keyboards and office chatter around me.
My supervisors approached me and asked for a “little chat” outside, under the sun, just the three of us. A little chat, they’d said, after witnessing my apparent nervous breakdown in a moment of vulnerability.
“You can’t just cry at your desk,” said Boss 1. “It’s just not right. I mean, something is obviously wrong, and you can’t just cry at your desk.”
Boss 2 nodded in agreement, “You just keep making poor decisions. I mean, when is this roller coaster going to stop?”
They examined me closely as I choked back tears, nodding along with them, accepting what they said to be truth. I must have been overreacting, right? Surely I was. Surely the trauma I’d suffered as recently as two nights before was just one of my roller-coaster poor decisions. Of course all the other things that had come into play in the months and even years prior to that were, quite simply, “poor decisions.”
I agreed to take time off and reconsider my life, my values, practise meditation, be a calmer person, make better choices and live on an even wavelength. I agreed I must have been at fault for it all – silly me – and took it upon myself to change my fate.
It’s been almost a year and a half now since I’ve been to work. Almost a year and a half since that “little chat” under the sun, those benign faces examining mine, searching for reasons as to why, oh why, someone like me – such promise! such talent! – could be so foolish as to allow her life to fall apart at the seams.
The insurance-company case manager calls me every few months and asks how I’m doing. Surely, she sees cases such as mine all the time, classic PTSD, and she talks easily, asks her checklist of questions and clicks the phone down, another case filed for the day.
I get called in to visit a “rehabilitation consultant” with the insurance company, in a cold boardroom with cameras on the wall and a table left blank with the exception of a conference phone and a box of tissues. I wait for what seems an inordinate amount of time, attempting to ignore the cameras, and in he walks with laptop in hand, a firm handshake and a brief intake of breath before he goes on. “What I’d like to know,” he begins, leaning forward, his eyes on mine, his intent to learn my story on his otherwise blank face, “is who is Anna, you know, as a person. I’m not here to force you back to work … I’m here to help.” This conspiratorial gaze makes me uneasy, untrusting and defensive.
“Oh, I know a lot about PTSD,” he goes on, “Yes, I work with paramedics all the time. PTSD is soooooo common…” But he doesn’t know. He isn’t aware of my life, of my story, of who I was before, or what drove me to become who I am today, as I sit before him, expressionless.
We end our session – another “little chat,” as they call it – and he promises to be in touch with an “action plan” to get me back on my feet.
Nobody truly understands, and nobody really appears to try to. I encounter colleagues from time to time who give sideways hugs, as though afraid to make full contact with me, or who smile awkwardly with half-waves. Some ask, “How are you, um, holding up?” and look away, their words hanging in the air, stupidly. Some ignore me altogether, old cohorts who no longer know how to address me and inasmuch opt against it, fully. Friends are the same, really. I don’t share my stories with them, only offering crumbs of the whole, enough to satisfy curiosity but not enough to delve into my darkest days and thoughts. As I quietly distance myself from them, only a few remain, searching for me in the darkness, bringing a light to maybe navigate a way out, together.
To see me, nobody would imagine the stories I hold. They see exhaustion, perhaps, or a hint of sadness my eyes might occasionally offer a glimpse of, but little else. You see, I’ve learned to hold it in, with the exception of my husband and my therapist, the only two who truly see me for who I am. Nobody would know the nights of tears, of terror, the thoughts that go through my mind as though a train on a course to destruction with no help, too late to stop it. And as such, nobody knows precisely how to address me any more, how to talk to me.
I continue on, and improve with a loving relationship and a wonderful therapist who I see weekly. Over time, perhaps I’ll come to realize that PTSD is not, in fact, a reflection of poor decisions or a self-made roller coaster through life, but rather a condition in which I’ve struggled and continue to struggle to overcome. People who know me enough may not know how to speak to me, but to them I say only this: Compassion is everything, and it begins with ourselves.
Anna Wilson lives in Ontario.