This short story about a train trip shows how the many symptoms of PTSD combine to have a devastating impact to one’s Sense of Self.
Losing a large percent of memory of one’s past is the equivalent of losing a large percent of one’s Sense of Self, identity, personality, etc. Losing Boundaries in relationships and perceptions of reality, merging with reality, and being isolated and disconnected constitute other kinds of losses of the Sense of Self. Always being on alert for danger puts attention always outwards, leading to not feeling inside ones body, which can also impact Sense of Self.
Summary: In this blog post, after a short story about riding the train to a therapy appointment and afterwards, the Discussion covers: (1) Merging with the Environment / Unity Consciousness coupled paradoxically with a sense of Disconnection and Alienation from other people and the process of healing Boundaries and Relationships, (2) The Wiped Memory / Amnesia of one’s past prior to the traumatic events and how it gradually comes back, (3) A Heightened Sense Of The Danger and unpredictability of reality, (4) Sensory Hypersensitivity, and (5) Therapist Search – the challenges related to trying to ind a trauma therapist.
I am creating a series of posts called “Living on the Edge – Snapshots of Life with PTSD” in which I share some of the journal entries I created over the course of having PTSD. After each Snapshot, I will provide some explanations about how PTSD shows up in the Snapshot in the Discussion section.
April 2009 – I had Severe PTSD. I wrote the journal entry for this Snapshot in April, 2009. Although the accidents that gave me PTSD occurred in 2007, in April, 2009, I was still generally pretty sick. I was not able to leave the house that often and I had spent 2 years in physical pain a certain percent of the time. This is the earliest somewhat coherent journal entry I can find that I wrote after the traumas as I was too ill and in too much chaos to write anything down for a couple years.
I kept trying and discarding therapists. The therapists I tried at the time I found to be ineffective and sometimes damaging.
In this journal entry, I am on my way to try an EMDR therapist.
Living on the Edge – Snapshots of Life with PTSD: The Wondrous Yellow Roses
I am taking BART from Ashby BART to Castro Valley BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit train). The day is clear, warm. There is a couple going to the Oakland airport to my left, black and purple suitcases. They are arguing.
The BART train speeds up, jostling and screeching. It feels of lightweight plastic. I wonder if it’s going to fall apart; it doesn’t sound healthy to me. I am surprised by the horrible metal-on-metal sounds it’s producing – truly the train must be nearing its end as I have never heard such varied sounds and never so extremely loud.
I worry and frown and then turn to gaze out the window at all the fascinating objects flying by. I feel like a child, peering out into the endless strange colorful shapes coming and going so fast.
There is the gas station on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Children’s Hospital, the hardware store.
As we shoot out of Berkeley, a concrete labyrinth of shadowed overpass undersides swiftly passes by, curving up into the air like huge snakes. I feel caught up in the shapes and dramatic shadows; I am inside the strange wild forms; they take my breath away.
Fruitvale, High Street… parts of Oakland from a past life… another person’s time. A time that is faded, erased now.
We are now flying along above an expanse of small walled-in back yards. Huge numbers of cars all piled together. Oddly named faded brick buildings stand bereft, dusty, tattered, alone and totally still. My eyes rest on one for a moment. It is nothing now, stripped of its former identity, lost in time. Like me.
As the train reduces speed in its approach to the Bayfair stop, we slowly pass the parking lot of the Bayfair Mall. The parking lot is filled with trees with seriously big green leaves. The leaves seem strangely vibrant and impressive. I never saw them this way before; my body is riveted to their life-filled presence. I am puzzled by them. Why are they like that? They are stunning. I can feel them through my eyes, feel the life pulsing. They seem almost to talk to me.
I look around. A man sits with a stern look on his face. He has wavy gray brown hair. He is oblivious to the leaves? They are all oblivious to the leaves.
Exiting the train, I step out onto the whitish concrete of the Castro Valley BART station. I am up high above the world. The sky is huge and all the hills beyond the houses go on forever. Buffeted by the wind, I feel like I am floating in space, like this is a space station on another planet. I can see the train tracks snake back for a long ways; I imagine I can see all the way up to where I came from and past that to Walnut Creek where my boyfriend is.
I descend one of the long, long escalators. It’s like a Dr. Seuss place; the escalators are going up and down in random places. The moving stairways seem both whimsical and stern.
I push through the the turnstile, cool smooth metal. Everything feels and looks as if I’m seeing it for the first time. I feel a little wobbly but don’t pay it any mind. The soft black rubbery floor slants down; it’s like a chute pouring people willy nilly into the parking lot. Today it’s only me and two others. They scurry out into the sun, clearly with important destinations. I am in the huge parking lot and all the blazing sunlight.
After making it across the BART parking lot with all the shining cars, I encounter a long, low wrought iron fence with yellow miniature roses growing on it. I stop to smell them. Such beautiful roses! Such a surprise to find them here. And they continue for a long time. The fence even goes along the sidewalk. I look up and around but to my amazement, nobody else sees them. It’s strange, to find such wonder, like I am in a video game and I have found a special tree maybe one with gemstones growing on it, but nobody else is playing the same game. Was I like that too, before? I don’t know.
I emerge into the main street, walk through the bright sun, cars and vans and SUVs moving fast around me, halted against their wills at lights. Walking through crosswalks, I watch them closely for any signs of danger, as if they will suddenly lurch forward out of control. As if the laws of physics that govern things may at any time simply vanish and we would enter a new, topsy turvy world of ungoverned, angry SUVs that refuse to wait at the light for one second longer. But it never happened.
This Snapshot is about a time when I had acute PTSD. In 2009, I experienced terror and immobility constantly and had no ability to self-regulate. It’s clear to me from reading this that I had serious brain impairments, most notably, I had a massively overactive reptilian brain that dominated brain processes, and higher regions of the brain that were completely offline, brain adaptations characteristic of PTSD. It was like having an invisible electrical storm in and around the brain stem that kept the focus on the fight-flight system and did not allow any access to the neocortex which held all of, what I referred to at the time as, “normal life ideas.”
One issue is the changes to the brain are not visible and you can’t feel them; you can’t really tell they are going on even though they are having numerous effects. Now that I’m not in such a high degree of hyperarousal, I can observe myself more easily. One test to check how dominant the reptilian brain is is to relax and ask yourself, “Would my brain and body change if they knew they were completely safe?” Then just sense the difference. The default setting is going all the time, and with PTSD the default is that the brain and body feel like they are currently in danger. So now you create in your imagination this other brain setting – a “safe setting” – that may feel different to some degree to the default setting. If you feel a difference, then it could be that your reptilian brain is hyper-aroused all the time, but you can’t feel it and don’t know it’s happening.
Now in 2019, I am way better than I was in 2009, but there is still a big distance to go between my low-grade hyperaroused brain and a “safe” brain. To me, it feels like the reptilian brain areas are very densely packed (abnormally), are always turned “on,” are alert, tense, stressed, tired, and kind of negative, like there’s a negative viewpoint, a seeking of the bad things, cynical and a little dark I would say – which is due to tuning to danger all the time on an imperceptible level (which is a natural response during trauma that gets left in the “on” position). Before, it was a storm – the high-grade hyperaroused brain is like an electrical storm. Now, there is no storm anymore. I have gone 70% of the way to a fully “safe” brain, I would say. But that means there is still a ways to go yet – 30%.
In 2009, I had not found Somatic Experiencing yet. ln fact, I had not found a therapist who I trusted and didn’t feel was harmful. So I had no help.
Here is a photo I took of myself around that time.
the blank sadness of PTSD – the self is erased
When I look at photos of myself from that time, I can see in my face the following:
blankness – vacancy of facial expression, blankness in the eyes, the vacant stare
feeling of floating, being dissociated
a feeling of timelessness, of being suspended in one moment in the flow of time
grief, deep sorrow from unacknowledged and unremembered losses
I don’t see this in the photo but I know I was always prone to uncontrollable terror
Actually, when I look at photos of my face at the time, it strikes me just how much of who a person is is lost to PTSD. It is not all that surprising that people with PTSD end up taking their own lives, since there is only a very small bit of the person left. It feels as if the rest has already died, so the sense is – why does it matter? Why should I keep holding on if most of me is already gone? In my case, I felt like I had died, so I felt “closer” to death than to life.
Also, after huge accidents or disasters that cause injuries such that a person can’t function to work, the economic foundation of a person’s life is destroyed – so it can feel as if there is no way to keep living anyway. That time period in 2009 and 2010 was when I came the closest to committing suicide (although, the second closest I came was one year ago in 2018 because of more trauma at that time so the recovery process has not been altogether linear). I think that just putting one foot in front of the other, taking it day by day, one step at a time, brought me finally, one year later to find a SE therapist. It pays to just keep going.
It strikes me just how much of who a person is is lost to PTSD.
This Train Trip Before PTSD vs After PTSD: Prior to PTSD, this trip from Berkeley to Castro Valley BART would have been pretty basic and routine. At the time I originally wrote this, I did not remember having taken this trip before, but I know now in 2019 that I definitely already had done this trip before getting amnesia from PTSD in 2007 because I know I went to the Bayfair Mall before this a number of times just to go to the mall or other businesses around there. I am certain that on those previous trips with normal physiology, brain and nervous system, I was not shocked and thrown off by the sounds of the train, to the point of feeling fear, dismay and real confusion. The train sounds did not sound so extremely loud to me because I didn’t have any sensory hypersensitivity. I would not have been in awe of the leaves; I actually never noticed the leaves. I would not have felt like all the other people on the train were aliens and that I had just arrived on a new planet, completely disconnected from others’ reality. I would have felt more stable and at ease walking though the BART system. The BART system, before PTSD, did not feel dangerous and precarious. The cars on the street did not seem so dangerous, and would have been part of the background rather than merged with and invading my senses. And I probably would have enjoyed the roses but likely would not have been totally in awe of the roses.
In this piece, 5 things really stand out:
Merging with the Environment; the complete loss of “filters” between self and world (coupled paradoxically with a sense of Disconnection from other people.)
The Wiped Memory / Amnesia of one’s past prior to the traumatic events
A Heightened Sense Of The Danger and unpredictability of reality.
Therapist Search. This piece also illustrates just how challenging it is to find a trauma therapist
1. Merged with Reality / Lack of Filters
Filters are the mind’s ability to parse out information that does not pertain to it and is of no use to it at the moment. Filters can determine that certain parts of reality are the “background,” and therefore are not important to focus on, and a few things are the “foreground” and are therefore important to focus on. As in a painting, the painter makes it clear what the subject matter is by making it brighter and more detailed, while the background can be more faded, blurred or muted, so your eyes know where to look.
The lack of filters I have experienced since I got PTSD seems to cover two domains – perception and interpersonal relationships.
Perception. In 2009, my perceptions were completely different than normal. I felt as if everything was bright and impactful, as if it reached inside me. I also “felt” into things around me in a completely new way. At that time, I had never done drugs (or even smoked a cigarette – it’s strange but true), but I think this kind of removal of the separation between oneself and the environment may also happen with some mind-altering substances. Whatever psychological boundary that had always been between myself and the outside world was no longer present. There was no more comfortable separation or buffer zone between me and everything else.
Relationships. With regards to other people, it was weird. I felt as if we should be experiencing the same things, and I became confused when we were not. I think the lack of filters means I didn’t see other peoples’ lives as separate from mine, because there were no filters to separate me from them anymore. Then, when they, predictably, did not see themselves as living in a unified way with me and with our shared reality, I became shocked, and felt completely alien to them. It’s almost as if I thought we were both parts of a larger organism, and anytime they acted as if they were not aware of this organism, I went into some degree of shock. I could not understand them. So, paradoxically, the lack of filters that merged me with reality alienated me from other people.
Overall Effects. Overall, losing my filters means that since getting PTSD, I have been very sensitive and easily overwhelmed, and it has not been positive, it’s been extremely disorienting and very painful. Due to the lack of filters, I have been much much more dramatically impacted than I was before by the environment and by other people. And layered on top of this hypersensitivity is the experience of being triggered constantly by numerous reminders of the past traumas.
In other words, hypersensitivity and triggers are two different things that happen simultaneously and compound eachother. The way I understand it at the moment (and it could change if I learn more) is that hypersensitivity is having no filters anymore between self and world and self and people which opens to being flooded with stimuli that is not relevant to what you are trying to focus on. All of these stimuli are related to things happening now in present time. Being triggered is different – being triggered is the nervous system going into hyperarousal (terror, anxiety) after encountering a reminder (smell, person, place, sound) because it is now back in time and reliving the trauma and all the emotions and sensations that were going on at the time.
Hypersensitivity and triggers are two different influences on a person with PTSD. Hypersensitivity and triggers compound each other; when they happen simultaneously it creates an overwhelming amount of stimuli and internal reactions to try to deal with.
Escape. I think this compounding effect – when hypersensitivity and triggers make each other worse – is one reason for numbness, dissociation, addicitons and exhaustion. Numbing is the only way to cope with all of these overwhelming stimuli from the outside world and the way the body is reacting to them.
Unity is Healthy. Even with all this struggle and pain, I actually think that this awareness of our interconnectedness, our unity, as humans, and the capacity to feel the life force in nature and in others within myself, have the potential to be healthy once PTSD is healed. I think it’s true that we are all connected. When I had severe PTSD, because my filters were destroyed, I had temporarily entered a world where I could perceive this inter-connectivity and perceive into things, like leaves and roses, much more deeply than before. Also, my psychic awareness was much greater than it had been. People are conditioned by society not to feel or notice any of this. So, I was very impaired and damaged, but I had a brief window into different healthy perceptions of the world.
Actually, that window has closed, now, in 2019, 12 years later. I do not perceive any of those things anymore.
But I think it may be possible to retain some of the wonder about the world, the awe at seeing the life force in living things, the perceptions of our unity, even as we heal all the damage.
The Recovery Process. I think that, during recovery, the following things should be done:
Rebuild Filters. During Recovery, our filters need to be restored by practicing concentration and focus and regulating the nervous system many times a day – grounding, sensing the body, sensing where the body’s edges are, where “I end and others begin”. Things like self-holding and self-hug.
Engage Higher Brain to Understand People Better. During recovery, we need to..