If you are an avid JOY listener, you know that around 2007 I suffered from PTSD accompanied by of all things, hallucinations. Ooof. It’s not what you think and certainly not what I even thought it would be. Hallucinations don't feel the way you think they do. It’s not a trip gone sideways or like walking through a dream. Hallucinations do not have to be debilitating. Mine were not. They can be odd and sometimes subtle. And also, sometimes not scary at all. (I should mention here that if you are curious to learn more about my experience with PTSD and treatment, you can listen to JOY episode 75 here).
My diagnosis came on the heels of time spent working at a locked adolescent psychiatric unit. I describe my work there as being both the best and the worst. The best, in that I loved every single minute spent with those kids. The clinical work and study I completed there continue to inform my work today. The worst, in that I had no idea that my time there would leave me with a traumatic stress response so dramatic, that I would hallucinate for the better part of a year. Still, I am of the opinion that experience working with acute populations is crucial to becoming a skilled clinician. If you want to be able to sniff out the spark of a developing fire, it helps to learn how to effectively respond to a five-alarm blaze.
I do not regret my experience, but I will say I have lived with the results for a long time. While my hallucinations lasted only a few months and I successfully recovered within a year, up until very recently even all these years later, I carried the trauma in very subtle ways. Things that I once enjoyed are off-limits. I used to love psychological thrillers. The really dark ones that track a serial killer. Halloween used to be my favorite movie. And then it wasn’t. My response to movies and books that feature psychosis or psychiatric hospitals went from interest and enjoyment to an unpleasant physical response. My body would give me a gentle reminder via my gut that this was not for me anymore. And I lived that way for a very long time. And that was okay. In some way, I had made friends with my trauma. I recognized the subtle cues and learned to take care of myself when they presented themselves. But at the same time, it meant abandoning certain things I really liked. Breaking Bad took a really long time to get through. I stopped watching it many times only to discover I needed to take it in in smaller doses. Stranger Things was abandoned in the second season for similar reasons. And the list goes on and on.
I had assumed that this strange friendship I formed with my trauma would go on forever. Not in a frustrating way, or with regret, but really just acceptance. Like an old injury you might feel when it gets damp outside. It took me by complete surprise a few months ago when my friend without warning disappeared.
While watching Ozark a scene quickly shifted to Laura Linney’s character Wendy checking into a psychiatric facility. Watching the scene unfold I waited for my body to gently whisper in the way it does that I need to skip this part. My husband even hit pause, turned to me, and said, “You okay with this?” To my surprise my answer was immediate. “Yeah, I’m okay.” He pressed play, we watched the rest of the episode, and went to bed. I didn’t think about it again.
A few months later, we were deep into Moon Knight when the storyline found the main character in a psychiatric facility. Again, I waited for the subtle cue from my old friend. My husband hit pause and asked the same question he has been asking for years. I sat with myself for a minute, waiting for the cue. But nothing came. It’s like I was supposed to meet up with my friend and they didn’t show. I felt nothing. I signaled to the dude, he hit play. We watched the rest of the episode and went to bed.
It was a few days before I circled back to what had happened. This absence, it was new. And really unexpected. To be honest my immediate response was one of sadness. In some way I had come to rely on these cues. Perhaps even some part of me enjoyed that they surfaced. In the absence of these feelings I had come to expect and even welcome, I felt a surprising emptiness. Suddenly I missed them.
I want to be clear that this missing is not a desire for them to return. But in this gain of wellness, I felt a loss. And this really caught me by surprise. I’m still unpacking this birth/death and I imagine I will continue to for some time. But I have decided for now to honor the relationship I had with this visitor. Am I glad they are gone? Yeah. But also, I miss them. And that’s allowed.
I’ll end with the last verse of the song Old Friends by Simon and Garfunkel. Somehow this song always reminded me of the relationship I had created with my trauma and right now it feels very fitting.
the same years
Silently sharing the