PTSD is an absolute crap hole and it tosses copperheads and bisons and rolled ankles and injuries all over your mental health trail without warning or reason. (For better understanding of this analogy, please read part 1 of this post.)
I was reminded of this last week with my first panic attack in three years. As I said before, I was 89.963% sure I was past this nugget of mental health issues. I had learned how my last one was triggered by smell and the science behind why that happens. It had been so long without even the trigger of a panic attack.
I realize I need to stop thinking of it like an addiction. This isn’t AA. I don’t have to start my count of days since a panic attack all over. It’s not something to avoid, it’s something to manage and understand. I didn’t lose my panic attack chip, it doesn’t exist. This is part of how my brain operates because of experienced trauma. It’s not broken. It just…is.
I’ve always been one to journal and take notes. In art school I had an art journal and a written calendar. Through years in my career, my calendar went mostly digital but I always had an art journal and another note book I kept notes or to do lists in. This is how my brain operates best and I learned to lean into it.
Problem is, fire and paper, they ain’t friends. For the few that didn’t burn, they were smoke and water damaged, most beyond salvation. Most of my journals, art and otherwise, were lost in the fire. This was a portion of loss that was hard for me to digest. It took longer to know all the art, thoughts, writing, sketches, doodles were all gone.
For weeks after the fire we pillaged the remains of our own home, digging through rubble to see what we could salvage; a photo, a coffee mug, a box of lego. For weeks the remains of our life littered our front lawn as we tried to dry and clean anything we could. We’d send some things off to professional cleaners. Other things we got really good at cleaning. Blue Dawn dish detergent is just pure magic.
Before the fire I was a professional photographer (as well as graphic designer, writer and marketing consultant, as I am now). I was classically trained in a black and white dark room in high school and continued my study through college. My love of photography started young as I was known to always have a (film) camera on me, anywhere and everywhere. Much of my my life in my teens and 20s was lived through the eye of a lens.
Someone dug through the rubble in my office and found stacks of photos, all burned on the edges, soaked and smoke stained. I sat in the spring sun on our driveway, painstakingly peeling them apart, one by one, and laying them on the ground or cars or tables to dry.
All of this had to be done quickly as water and warmth are great friends and mold grows quickly in Houston humidity.
I did all this in the only pair of pants, shoes and shirt I owned at the time. I did this without underwear or socks, because I didn’t own any. I did all of this with people, family and friends, by my side, but it was done in a state of fogginess; a culmination of sadness, exhaustion and anxiety.
We couldn’t be apart because separation anxiety was very real and could easily trigger a panic attack in either of us. At the same time Bill couldn’t enter the house again that almost took his life, so he often sat out side, waiting to see what remained.
This was our lives. For days, for weeks. On top of finding a place to live, trying to help an almost 4 year old understand, feeding ourselves, and hearing that Bill’s FMLA would run out and he would lose his position.
In short, it was a lot.
Post fire, my journals merged into one bullet journal, calendar, hybrid, thing. It’s my place for weekly and monthly calendars, to do lists, client meeting notes, brainstorming, sketching and basically all the things, all in one place.
I think part of me liked the idea of everything in one place because it was less to lose. When you experience trauma, part of you is always waiting for the other shoe to drop, always waiting for it to happen again, and you know it can, because it already did once.
Fast forward to last week. We’re at a barbecue cook-off, competing against 100 other teams. I was tasked with beans and chili entries. I’d labored over recipe details and wrote the final recipes, step by step in my journal. I'd read through my book. I’d done the cooks, I’d turned in to the judges, the stress and build up had finally come to an end and I could relax.
The next day, in a fit of desperation, I went into the camper to fill the tub with cold ice water. It was late September and had been over 95 degrees for three days. I was hot, stinky, sweaty and done. The moment I sat in the tub, it started raining. We’ve been in a drought for a month so rain was music to my ears and I sat relaxed and cool for the first time in three days, listening the rain pitter on the roof of the camper.
When I was done I went outside to survey the area. We had pop up tents and it looked like most everything was moved under them in time. I piddled in the light rain, moving things around. I noticed that the rain was running off the edge of one of the pop up tents in sheets, filling a white wash tub that sat just at the edge of the tent. I pulled out a bag of trail mix and under it, floating in the nearly full tub was my journal.
Anger. Frustration. Sadness. Immediately hit my brain.
I yelled, ran into the camper, yelled some more while frantically trying to dry it.
My efforts were futile, it was soaked — I needed fans.
I went back outside to grab all the battery powered fans. It was still raining. Someone asked if I was ok. I just responded with a curt, “No. I’m not.”
I got the fans set up in the camper. The water based inks had bled through about half of my journal. Where words and drawings once danced on the pages, only ombre ink remained. Permanent ink pens had held and I knew there was at least a little to be saved.
I tried to fan out the pages, but they were still too wet, stuck together. I started to try to peel the pages apart, one by one, and that’s the moment it hit me. I was back there, on the driveway, days after the fire, peeling the remains of my life apart, piece by pieces.
The rest of the panic attack went just as they all do (which I wrote about here). I need someone to help pull me out, to repeat the mantra to me. Bill was outside and couldn’t hear me through the rain. I knew I didn’t have it in me to exit the camper and ask for his help. I did the best I could. I sat on the closed toilet in the camper, the rain pattering on the vent, and called my mom.
She immediately knew what to do. She knew the mantra. She did all the right things.
Through panicked breathing I whispered, “I should have just brought it inside.” And then, surprisingly, “I should have just blown out the candle.”
Our brains are wild and amazing spaces. They do wonderful and terrifying things. Like I said, I was right back there, just days after the fire, experiencing it all again as if it was for the very first time.
Eventually Bill entered the camper. He was giving me space because he thought I was just mad. As soon as he saw me crumpled in the camper bathroom he knew what was happening and went right into helping me pull out of it.
Trauma is something.
At first I hated that it happened, that my three year panic attack chip was stollen from me at a cook-off, because of rain. However, it reminded me that mental health is not a destination, it’s a journey. The panic attack showed me I have more things to look at, that I’m not “fixed”. Grace for myself lets me know all of that is totally ok. I’m allowed to feel these things, to have reactions, there is space in our lives for this. My brain has realigned to the concept that it was probably not my last panic attack and I think for the first time, I'm ok with that.
Cheers to your mental health journey friends. It’s a wild one, but it is worth every elevation and hazard along the way.