Disclaimer: Some readers may find this article troubling, discretion is advised. I am not a doctor, and this article is not presented as medical advice.
I do my best to open about the mental issues I deal with personally, both because it makes me feel better, and also because I’m far too lazy for dishonesty. One of my role models in this arena is Stephen Fry; his openness about his struggles with depression and bi-polar disorder is evocative and moving (his documentaries about “The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive” are truly masterful.) I’ve always had a soft spot for Stephen, and long wanted to emulate his candor in some shape or form. Writing about my experiences is beneficial for me and, ideally, beneficial for my audience. It also underscores the sort of disjointed relationship we all have with vanity and appeals for attention.
“Ha, ha, ha! You will be finding enjoyment in toothache next,” you cry, with a laugh.”Well, even in toothache there is enjoyment,” I answer. I had toothache for a whole month and I know there is. In that case, of course, people are not spiteful in silence, but moan; but they are not candid moans, they are malignant moans, and the malignancy is the whole point. The enjoyment of the sufferer finds expression in those moans; if he did not feel enjoyment in them he would not moan. It is a good example, gentlemen, and I will develop it. Those moans express in the first place all the aimlessness of your pain, which is so humiliating to your consciousness; the whole legal system of nature on which you spit disdainfully, of course, but from which you suffer all the same while she does not.
We cry out from a toothache because it hurts, but we also cry out so that others can hear that we’re in pain. I’ve never been able to forget this passage from Dostoevsky’s Notes From the Underground. This impulse, especially for me (and, in all likelihood, other men like me who grew up with notions of masculinity that forbade vulnerability) is troublesome. When a good friend of mine recently passed, I wrote that I hated bringing my pain to the attention of other people. It felt selfish. It felt needy. It attracted all of the attention that I, instinctively, wanted to avoid.
Recently, I’ve been seeing a therapist for my struggles with some mild Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that arose from a gunpoint mugging nearly a decade ago. I am irritated by this affliction for so many reasons. First, because no one died during my incident, no shots were fired, and it seems unfair to give whatever I have the same name as paramedics, police officers, soldiers, doctors, and nurses who deal with far worse on a far more frequent basis. I always preface the word “PTSD” with the word “mild.” I resent myself for having this, and I can’t shake the feeling of shame and embarrassment that comes along with it all. Having two pistols shoved in your face isn’t great, sure, but it’s no where near as bad as what others have to endure. It becomes far too easy to compare myself to others, and downplaying my own suffering only serves to make it worse.
Secondly, I also loathe the stamp of my gender’s lowly origin, and the negative self-talk that seems to come pre-installed. You’re being a wimp. Man up. This isn’t that bad. You’re fine. Don’t be so weak. This is the manly, pseudo-tough-guy soundtrack that drones on and on in my head, and, crucially, is hardest to ignore during the moments where you most need to ask for help. Our cultural image of how a man should act, how he should behave, and how he should speak is, and has been, for some time, hopelessly broken. The phrase “toxic masculinity” leaps suddenly to mind; the only person being poisoned by my own emotional bravado is me.
But my symptoms, over time, became more difficult to manage or conceal. The incident took place at night, and ever since, walking from the car to the apartment, or from a restaurant to a bar, became an exercise in controlling overwhelming bouts of irritability and paranoia. The sight of panhandling homeless or innocuous conversations with drunks outside a bar at night would send me into a fight-or-flight response in an instant. The symptom that became the most intrusive was the routine flashback-nightmares, and they occasionally came coupled with the terror of sleep paralysis during the most frightening dreams. In some desperation, I reached out to a therapist, explained my issues, and she recommended I find an EMDR specialist.
“Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy treatment that was originally designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories (Shapiro, 1989a, 1989b). Shapiro’s (2001) Adaptive Information Processing model posits that EMDR therapy facilitates the accessing and processing of traumatic memories and other adverse life experience to bring these to an adaptive resolution. After successful treatment with EMDR therapy, affective distress is relieved, negative beliefs are reformulated, and physiological arousal is reduced. During EMDR therapy the client attends to emotionally disturbing material in brief sequential doses while simultaneously focusing on an external stimulus. Therapist directed lateral eye movements are the most commonly used external stimulus but a variety of other stimuli including hand-tapping and audio stimulation are often used (Shapiro, 1991). Shapiro (1995, 2001) hypothesizes that EMDR therapy facilitates the accessing of the traumatic memory network, so that information processing is enhanced, with new associations forged between the traumatic memory and more adaptive memories or information.” [EMDR.com]
The treatment ends up looking something like this:
I wear the title “Skeptic” with some manner of pride and affection, so after some light Googling, I scheduled a cautionary appointment with my eyes very much open. The doctor went to great lengths to explain the soundness of the science behind EMDR (she lamented with some weariness that this technique is often confused with hypnosis) and after a few diagnostic visits, we began “processing” the incident.
The first appointment didn’t bother me all that much; I expected much worse after being cautioned by the therapist that patients can occasionally “have a bad reaction” to the treatment or can be haunted in the days and weeks between visits by newly rediscovered memories of the trauma. I escaped the first session without much fuss, and didn’t feel anything more biting than a slight unease that lingered for a few hours. The only forgotten detail that the treatment managed to shake loose was the color of the sidewalk where I got held up.
The second appointment was infinitely more painful. I fought off tears throughout the entire session, and it seemed to last forever. My eyeballs move left, and suddenly, there’s the color of the eggshell white hotel door. My eyeballs move right, and the vivid, deep-navy-blue hue of one the attacker’s sweatshirt comes into focus. The memories start rushing back in a torrent, bit by bit, image by image, piece by miserable piece. I don’t want to think about any of this, I mumble to myself. The nausea washes over me in waves, and the muscles in my neck and shoulders tighten. The treatment, mercifully, comes to an end, and I stumble out of the office and waddle to the car and start driving, choking back tears while trying to change gears. Why the fuck did I buy a stick-shift, again?
I’m not a neurologist or a psychiatrist, (plainly evidenced by the alarming fact that I could not spell either word without the assistance of auto-correct) but it seems clear to me that our brains go to great lengths to grind the sharpest corners off of our most jagged memories. The mind buries these treasures for us to dig up later. I’m flabbergasted that any memory, however traumatic, can reduce me to a sniffling mess a full decade after the fact. This goes to illustrate just how powerful our memories can be, and how they can rule over us if we let them go unchecked. I can’t help but be struck by the fact that most of us carry invisible burdens just like mine; and each of us do our damnedest to hide them from the people we love. Therein lies the needless and counterproductive discipline most of us choose to keep; the stiff upper lip, the silent suffering, the quiet agony. We don’t want to bother anyone. We don’t want to cause a fuss. We don’t want to impose.
And once the levees finally burst, and we break down and tell someone close to us about our pain, to our infinite surprise and alarm we discover there are people in this world who genuinely give a shit about us, and want us to be healthy. So bother your loved ones. Cause a fuss. Impose on them. Bother and impose on me. Everyone’s got pain, and life is far too short to pretend otherwise. The truth is, like many of you, I don’t have it figured out, and most days, I’m sinking more than I’m swimming. The past isn’t ever very far away, and trauma you thought was dormant can rise up and sting you during the moments where you least expect it. Don’t be ashamed of your past; instead, make the choice to let your past enrich your character. We’re all so afraid that once we tell others about our trauma and finally let that cat out of the bag that the whole world will look at us differently. No one ever does, (and even if they did, do you really want that kind of a person in your life, anyway?) and the scars you have don’t need to be hidden. They’re benchmarks of how far you’ve come and how strong you really are.