PTSD Is Like Grieving Your Own Death, Comforting Your Own Ghost
“You should really write fiction again,” Justin says.
I shudder. “Ugh. Why?”
He looks at me curiously. “Because you’ve got a hell of a brain. And your non-fiction is so good. It draws people in. Imagine what you could do with fiction.”
I shake my head. “I’m not creative enough for that,” I say.
“Really?” Justin says. “You’re not creative. Says the award-winning playwright.”
“That was different,” I say.
“You did those things,” Justin says, insistently.
And I feel my eyes fill with tears. I don’t even have the strength to argue, so I do it in my head instead:
No, I didn’t. She died. I have no emotional connection to that person I was before. I am not her; I’m rebuilt of those parts. And the difference is important.
In some ways PTSD is like grieving your own death. Comforting your own ghost.
“Why won’t you let me bury her and move on?” I want to ask him.
Broken Glass in Narnia
I’ve always been drawn to the forbidden. I was the kind of kid that when my parents told me to shield my eyes, I’d find a way to peek out subtly from between my fingers. And as soon as I was unguarded, I’d sneak away. Revisit whatever had been off-limits before.
When I was young, I was bold. Fearless. I was the kid with all the crazy ideas.
I got in trouble for the first time in second grade, for carrying around a shard of broken glass at recess.
“Were you trying to hurt yourself?” my teacher asked.
I shook my head, irritated that my teacher failed to grasp “the obvious.” Sighed impatiently. “No, we were going to find Aslan. I’m the doctor.”
“Like Narnia,” Emma chimed in.
And one by one, each of the four children I’d been leading around the playground chimed in. It may have been a piece of a broken bottle to her, but to us, it was a magnifying glass. Which doubled as a communication conduit.
“No more broken glass,” she said. And didn’t give it back. “And don’t wander so far next time. You were almost to the high school.”
And she later warned my mother that I was a bad influence.
Obsessed But Undisciplined
I read at a developmentally normal age, but I wasn’t passionate about it, like some of my friends. They were brainy, literary. Kids of college professors. Snarfing down Madeline L’Engle in kindergarten. But not me. Instead, I sat on my mom’s orange shag carpet watching game shows while she vacuumed. Classic Concentration was great. And the $100,000 Pyramid.
Reading seemed like an entirely unnatural thing to do. Sure, Dad read technical manuals, taking notes in pencil on quad rule. And Mom consulted Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. Reading was a way to get information that you needed to perform a task. But reading for pleasure? No way.
I didn’t read books much at all until C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and that was mostly because I was tired of not understanding Angela and Emma’s private jokes.
But even with frustration as the impetus, I was quickly hooked. I began to act out scenes from the books I read. Draw pictures. And soon after, I started to write stories of my own.
Since I was a kid, a lot of it was derivative, sure. Recycled plots. Thinly veiled remasterings. But even then, I had an edgy talent. I would think of things other kids didn’t. And I had the courage to say them.
I entered and won a long string of essay contests.
My first publications started in middle school. Sex-obsessed, I wrote erotica at first but later moved into speculative fiction. Soft sci fi. Stories published alongside adults in edgy zines. And glossy literary magazines.
I couldn’t really control my output. I was anything but consistent, but writing would pour out of me with some regularity. In those days I never edited. I hadn’t learned how.
The first month of college, I started writing plays on a lark on nights when I was alone in my dorm room, my much prettier roommate (a friend from high school) out gallivanting with our neighbors. When I had a few plays done, I showed them to another girl in our dorm, who knew someone in the theater department. She introduced me.
And before I knew it, I was casting actors for my first show.
There was something weird and edgy about my work. I didn’t have the first clue what I was doing, but the plays resonated with people.
Much later I worked at Borders with a theater major who had been a few years ahead of me at that time. “I hated you then,” she said. “Flat-out hated you. We’d all been paying our dues. Studying. And you just came in without any experience and put out plays that blew everyone away. It was unfair. Especially when you won the Hamlet Prize for Sins of the Flesh. But Sins was so good that I hated myself for hating you.”
I nodded because I knew what she meant. “I bet you were relieved by what happened to me next,” I said.
“It might sound petty,” she said. “But yes.”
Turning Creativity into Chemical Confidence
I wrote some of my best work during those 6 months. Plays. Poems. I even sat down and wrote a novel in a few weeks.
But I wasn’t well. I was irresponsible. Inconsistent. Haunted.
Some days I spent 20 hours at the keyboard. Skipping classes. Choking down handfuls of diet pills, both to stay awake and in the hopes of getting thinner.
And diet pills turned to harder drugs, as I met suppliers and made more money off the plays than I knew what to do with.
I missed a rehearsal for one of my shows when I was on a locked psych ward for the weekend after an unintentional overdose. My actors visited me. I expected them to be livid, but they were more sad. Outwardly told me jokes and brought gossip. But seemed visibly worried.
In another few months, the entire proceeds for my most successful play would go up my nose.
It was a clumsy transaction, turning creativity into chemical confidence. But for the briefest time, it actually worked.
On the Run
I was on the run from a lot of things:
An authoritarian upbringing so strict that we had to ask permission before getting a glass of water because, after all, someone had to wash it. Where we were required to continually recognize the impact we had on others, that our existence was perpetually an inconvenience to someone else. Punishment was harsh, often physical, and non-negotiable.
A mother who was a mystery to me. Some days she was ebullient and sweet, sewing curtains that would have made Martha Stewart jealous and baking whimsical cakes shaped like things, and other times she was irritable and avoidant, mocking me for every little thing I did and criticizing everyone around her. The rules of the game seemed to change every day as my mother struggled with mental illness that affected her memory and ability to reason about the world that surrounded her. In hindsight I’m amazed that someone didn’t figure out sooner that something was terribly off about my mother, but even after things hit their breaking point and authorities became involved, my family was loath to admit that she’d lost touch with reality.
Bought and Sold, Crash and Reboot
Predictably, drug use wasn’t as sustainable as I needed it to be. I grew financially dependent on the pair of brothers who sold to me. A terrifying level of indebtedness, wherein I likely would have lost my soul and later my life.
But then a chance meeting with my friend’s dealer resulted in his settling that debt. Essentially buying me from them. In some ways, Kurt was an absolute miracle. He locked me in a room for 2 days, wouldn’t let me out, while I came off whatever I’d been on.
But I was soon to find out that he was no knight in shining armor. He wasn’t concerned about my health or trying to get me to sober up because he cared. He wanted control. And he needed a clean slate for that. He quickly flooded in other drugs and dictated every other aspect of my life.
When I did finally leave Kurt (aided by an interference run by a friend of his, who I will never forget), I was up for nearly 10 days without sleep. The stress, sleeplessness, and withdrawal completely blue screened my brain.
A complete psychotic break. I was hospitalized for 2 weeks.
During recovery, I basically regressed to a childlike state of expression. And grew up all over again.
Became the sensible person I am now.
And in that process, the person I had been before died.
You Don’t Get All Three
It seems too much to ask. To be stable, responsible, and creative.
It reminds me of a vaguely sexist joke that young men are sometimes told: When it comes to women, you get to pick two of three: Smart, kind, attractive.
You don’t get all three, buckaroo.
Kintsugi, Gilding the Cracks
But Justin is insistent. He orders me to produce a scene a week. It has to be fiction. And set in the same universe.
“I’m really not happy about it. I don’t know if you know what you’re forcing me to do here,” I say to Justin.
“I do,” he replies.
He nods. “That’s why I’m the bastard.” And adds, “It’s not anything I wouldn’t do to myself.”
“I don’t want to be made whole, you know.”
But I don’t think it’s funny. “I’ve been adamantly resisting. I don’t want to be the person I was.”
“You can’t be,” Justin says.
“You keep pushing me towards her!”
“It’s more like kintsugi,” he explains. The Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with a beautiful gold lacquer. Outlining the cracks. Making the flaws more beautiful. An ostentatious repair.
And it’s all I can do to keep myself from snapping back, “So that’s why you like broken girls!”
But instead, I start writing the first scene.
Update (8/24/2020): I finished that book, and it’s out.
Fiction by Page Turner: