Death · Food · Trauma · Wendy


Self-Preservation by Nicola Toms

For the first time in four years I work from home full-time and, while it’s going well, this time of the year is harder than it has been these past few:

Almost every day for the past weeks I have broken down with a PTSD attack in the middle of any number of daily activities: an email, work, or making my lunch, trying to sleep. Sometimes several times a day.

Having somewhere to be, people who relied on my physical presence for a service I provided, seemed to have kept me from having breakdowns when approaching October 28: the day my friend Wendy was killed eleven years ago.

A PTSD attack goes something like this:

A tightening in my chest like someone threw a basketball at me, the air knocked out of my lungs. Heart pounding so hard. I can’t breathe. The air comes out in a whoosh along with wracking sobs that leave my stomach and back muscles sore the next day, like I overdid exercising.

Images flash through my mind, always different. Sometimes of the event itself. Sometimes of cruel things people have said to me. Like when my father told me he believes I am responsible for Wendy’s death. Or my sister telling me she hoped I would die, after I tried to kill myself. Bad boyfriends. Being trapped in a blizzard on a Prague tram. The Istanbul bus kidnapping incident. Fights. Wendy’s death. Blood.

The shaking begins. I am a human rattle. This will also make my entire body sore the next day, like I had a deep tissue massage (without the great relief). Still crying. Loud. Like a child when she hurts herself. I can’t help it. If I hold it in the shaking gets worse, my heart a hammer that wants out of my body.

I drift out of myself and look down at this pathetic creature. The pathetic creature feels dizzy, gauzy, like she doesn’t really exist. The urge to hurt herself is strong. Something, anything to focus this mind-numbing pain. Sometimes I return to myself, the urge passes. Sometimes the urge, drawing blood from raking my nails across my arms or legs, is the only thing that makes the PTSD attack stop.

Remorse. But now a wound I can see. An injury to address with salves and a bandage. It hurts. But this pain I can handle. The other one is monstrous.

I’m having more of these attacks this year than I’ve had in the last four years put together. My sense of self-preservation doesn’t need to kick in if I work from home. Nobody will see my puffy eyes and face from crying all night or post-PTSD attack. Nobody will misunderstand why my hands are shaking.

The necessary wall I put up each year around this time when going out into the world didn’t happen this year because it didn’t seem necessary. Until now.

Was that wall a good thing? Should I have felt what I needed to feel these last four years for as long as I needed to feel it, even if it meant missing work? Or is this just another step in my healing/dealing process — the ability to experience and get through these attacks on my own?

Are these attacks their own form of self-preservation?

Synchronicitously, I received an email with the link: 10 Things You Should Say to a Depressed Loved One. Replace “depression” with “trauma” and the advice still works.

I asked myself each of the 10 questions. I answered. I burned some sage. Took a hot shower. Visited Stars Hollow. Soothed myself with corn pasta and a thick chili chocolate sauce. No drawn blood. No curling under the covers. No retreating into a bottle of vodka.

I realised that what I had mistaken as self-preservation these last four years was actually escapism. I had been compartmentalizing my trauma, pretending it didn’t exist.

Now, I’ve no choice but to sit with myself and work through this. There is no way around it. There is nowhere to go. There is only here. And me. And this ungodly difficult time of year.

I suppose it’s about damn time I actually learn self-preservation.

©Sezin Koehler, 2011; image via Nicola Toms