Tuesday, May 08, 2007
I'm in this odd little nether region, past Potsdam and not yet in Paris. I'm leaving in three - THREE - days, so I need to hurry up and process whatever I need to process about the trip northward, because I need all the mental space I can clear before we head eastward.

The trip was good. No qualifiers, no yeah-buts. Willem worked very hard to make sure I was as comfortable and happy as I was going to get, and I appreciate his efforts. Sure, there were awkward moments and of course that's what I'm going to write about here, but the preponderance of evidence points to an enjoyable, solid weekend away. The next time we go, it will be with less advance anxiety.

We spent most of our time with M & J, with whom we're close even apart from the fraternity idiocy, and who are dealing with some challenges that are all too familiar and yet totally unsolvable by anyone else. On the one hand, it was wonderful to see them, fun to hang out - I can't remember the last time I laughed as hard as we did over dinner at The Cantina, and if I tried to explain why it was funny you'd give me an indulgent and raised-eyebrow look and slowly edge away - but, on the other hand, it was difficult to watch them dealing with it all and feeling useless and unable to help. This was all most obvious on Friday, when the four of us went up to Ottawa for the day. Willem and M had planned a very romantic day - wandering through Byward Market and getting a picnic lunch to eat on a boat on the Rideau Canal - and not everyone was able to throw themselves into the moment unguardedly. And that bites.

But we all managed to get through and enjoy ourselves, and there's not a lot more I can say about that without overstepping.

So instead I'll bring up the other, bigger, glaring moment of discomfort that happened on Friday afternoon. I'd just spent the day in Ottawa with my husband, enjoying his company and feeling good about how far our relationship has come since college, and generally being all warm-fuzzy. We had plans to meet a group at The Cantina, and Willem and M wanted to stop out at the fraternity house first to see who was around and wander through. I was willing enough - not my favorite place ever, but I was in a good mood and was happy enough to follow the group wherever it wanted to go.

I stopped being happy the moment we crossed the plane of the front door. The smell hit me, and I was instantly 19 again. It's not a bad smell - sure, a frat house has the capacity to create any number of noxious odors - but this was just a house smell, same as how your grandmother's house and your friend's house and your new car all have a unique and instantly recognizable scent. And it was overwhelming, and suddenly I was insecure and anxious and sad and nauseous and scared all at once. I felt jumpy, scoping out the exits of every room, and I felt endangered in some way, in the total absence of any outward threat.

I followed their little tour through the house, arms crossed and head down. When they came to the dining room, in which there were several dozen photo albums spread out on the table, I stopped. I understand, the intention was to let the alumni flip through old memories, laugh at a certain drunken incident and blush a little at the harmless excesses of the good old days. But I physically could not enter the room. I couldn't cope with the possibility - the likelihood - of seeing photographs of Willem, arm around this girl or kissing that girl, glazed eyes and goofy smile, loving his life and fully aware of just what he was getting away with while I was somewhere else. There are no photographs of me in that room.

It's a physical ache, and a vertigo, and a tightness in the chest. An inability to breathe, coupled with a full-on fight-or-flight impulse. And I always fled.

Because even though I didn't know about his infidelity at the time, I had plenty else to cope with in the moment. I'd been raped, violently, at 12, and told no one until I was 15. And then, got no real treatment for it: two visits to a therapist who bore an uncanny resemblance to ET (and this was a woman) and one unspeakably awkward family therapy session with both of my parents, and then the sense that since I hadn't responded to those efforts, I was on my own. Then, my first full weekend at college, I had a friend up for the weekend and we ended up at a party at Ian's house. Ian was a friend of Willem's at the time, and I think Willem had been at that party early on - but we were two years away from dating, and that night my friend and I stayed late, until only four of us remained. Two guys, two girls, and a lot of rum. I drank a 32-ounce travel mug of it. Straight. And woke up the next day with the unenviable task of navigating through another sexual assault, once again ultimately alone and untreated.

So college was a bad time for me. I had developed this belief that no one would bother standing up for me, helping me, when something bad happened, and this brought all sorts of feelings of hurt and defiance into the picture. I wanted to be cared for, and some of the time I was even able to try to get that in a somewhat healthy way. I had boyfriends, who were respectful and did the best they could with a complicated situation. But how can any 20-year-old boy be expected to deal appropriately with a girlfriend who wakes up in a panic from nightmares every single night? With a consensual partner who dissociated through every sexual interaction? (I still cannot remember having sex in college. I know it happened, and I remember bits and pieces of lead-up and follow-through, but the act itself? Not there.) They cared for me the best they could, and I wasn't able to care enough for myself to make it work.

I had this running fantasy, adjusted on a constant basis to fit the circumstances, that something terrible was about to happen to me. A car accident, a robbery, a fall on the ice; you name it, I envisioned it. It wasn't precisely that I wanted these things to happen; I was never acutely suicidal and I took steps to keep myself safe and healthy. But I imagined them all the time - all the time - and wondered what everyone around me would do. And had expectations about what they wouldn't do.

I lived through it. I had to move to Boston and start over, get into what became a year and a half of weekly therapy and constant mental and emotional work. I was slowly, slowly able to develop an idea of myself that was not so hurt and vulnerable and unimportant. I got better - then worse again - then better, until, at some point, I started sleeping through the night again. At some point, I stopped having these mini-movies of my next tragedy. I just, at some point, got better.

The thing is, I bet if you asked most of the people who knew me in college, they would have no idea of the depth of my messed-up-ed-ness through those years. They may have known something was not quite right; I know I tried to tell people what I was living with, but I also know that I didn't express it well. But I've always had a very self-confident and competent exterior, and I did well enough in classes, and I held down a job and maintained an apartment and laughed at jokes and enjoyed enough of my life that people wouldn't have realized the turmoil and misery just under the surface.

That's what PTSD is, I think. Not always - sometimes it spills over and becomes obvious to random bystanders - but most of the time, it's about living a normal life while tamping down this incredible burgeoning load of anxiety and fear, every day, even long after the dangerous situation has ended. It's what PTSD was for me, anyway.

So I got better. But then, on Friday, in Potsdam, in the fraternity house, I had a sharp and unpleasant reminder that all we can do is deal with our problems and move on with our lives; we don't get a clean slate. Those emotions and hurts are still there, and every once in a while they can jump up and slap you in the face, because, really, why nudge gently when a full frontal assault will do?

But that "I got better" thing? Not just a passing whim; not ephemeral or false. We left the house and I immediately felt able to breathe again. I remained on edge and uncomfortable for the rest of the night, but I didn't run away. I didn't hide in the hotel room, or drive away, or drink too heavily, or a thousand other inappropriate or self-destructive things that I might once have done. I hung in there, and by Saturday morning I was back to myself, now, again. I was even able to go back out and spend most of Saturday afternoon at the house, some of it inside, without a relapse.

I coped. It was a pretty cool thing.

And now I'm back in my regularly scheduled life, having received a wonderful gift from the weekend: a reminder of just how strong my marriage is, how good it feels to hug my kids, and how actually healthy I am now. No more of this fake-it-till-you-make-it stuff; I'm okay now.

And I'm grateful.