Okay, I give up. Who is the layer with the fish scales and trident supposed to represent?! And also, no way does Batman trump Spiderman. Sorry. Image credit.
I can kill a mouse with just the sound of my voice.
I believe everyone has a super power inside them – something they are uniquely, and sometimes weirdly, good at – and I’m lucky enough to have discovered mine very early in life. While some super powers like great beauty or charisma or being able to do a spot-on Nicki Minaj impersonation while still in Pull-Ups, are immediately obvious, many lay dormant until the moment of need arises. It was this way for me, just 12 years old, sleeping soundly one night. I don’t remember what exactly woke me (A noise? A smell? The feel of a tiny fetid nose trying to project disease inches away from my own nose?) but the second I realized there was a rodent sitting on my chest, I did what came naturally: screamed like a girl until my daddy came running down the stairs. There was a moment between when I stopped screaming and before he pounced that we both realized something was awry. The hapless mouse was laying on its side, eyes already starting to glaze over. “Wow, Charlotte,” my dad muttered. “It’s dead. I think you screamed so loud you gave it a heart attack.” And a star was born.
Actually there’s not a great need for shrieking mouse-killers (Ellen, call me) and so over the years I’ve been left searching for a real super power. This past week I think I found it. And thankfully it has nothing whatsoever to do with rodents.
PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is a particularly evil type of torture. For those of you who have never experienced it (which I hope is most of you), the only way I can describe it is that it’s like reliving your worst nightmare in real-time. While your brain knows that the traumatic memory isn’t really happening your body is flipping your brain the bird because as far as it’s concerned you are experiencing everything exactly like you did when it happened. The worst part is that you are no more able to change the outcome now, even though you’re safe, than you did then, when you weren’t. One incidence of PTSD is enough to make me shaky for a couple of days but an avalanche like these past few weeks? Not even a mouse-caliber scream could save me.
This was disappointing to me on several levels. First, it took me by complete surprise as I thought my PTSD days were all in the past. Thanks to a twisted and abusive relationship when I was 18 which culminated in a sexual assault and then an equal-but-differently traumatic court case to prosecute him five years later, I have a deep well of traumatic experiences from which to draw from. Upside: Never the same movie! Downside: They all suck! But other than the occasional flashback, I haven’t had any incidences of import in a good five years. So to be knocked down by a tsunami of horrible feelings that have nothing to do with my present life felt like a failure. Plus, my timing was stellar: all the kids were home for winter break so I got the double whammy of mom-guilt for being a basket case during Christmas.
Here’s what happened: something in real life “triggered” me, as they say in mental health parlance, which set off the memories like dominoes. But there was something new and particularly heart-breaking in this round. At first I couldn’t put my finger on it and berated myself for being melodramatic but then about a week ago, tired of the PTSD memories coming in bits and pieces, I decided to rip the band-aid off and go back and read my original journals that I kept during the relationship. I mean, if we’re going to do this then let’s do this and get it over with, right?
Turns out it wasn’t a scratch that band-aid was covering, it was a gangrene-infected pus-oozing wound.
See, that girl thought she was dying. You may recall that about halfway though the relationship – about the time my ex made a list of 100 ways to kill me and then made me listen as he read it (and then ate it so he’d “always have it inside him”… yeah) – that I made a Box of Evidence. A small green Rubbermaid box with instructions to only be opened on the occasion I was found dead or missing. It was in that box I put my journal in which I wrote in great detail about the abuse because I was so certain that the only way this could end would be if he killed me or killed himself. Fortunately and miraculously that didn’t happen but that girl then, she didn’t know that.
It broke my heart reading those journals. And then I came across what had been eluding me: a terrible and deeply painful experience that was directly related to the thing that had triggered me a few weeks ago. (How’s that for vague? Honestly you guys the details are ugly and I don’t see any good in spreading the muck around. I think I’ve posted enough on this topic that you can understand the scope, if not the specifics, of what I’m talking about. Plus I don’t want to trigger anyone else.) The strangest part was that I had completely forgotten it. I know that sounds insane but I’m told it’s quite common for trauma victims. I hadn’t forgotten forgotten it – as soon as I read about it in my journal, every detail was immediately present in my mind – but I’d managed to so conscientiously not think about it for so long that it was as good as gone. Until.
I became completely unhinged. The thing about PTSD is you can’t fight it, not in that moment. You just have to ride it out and keep reminding yourself that it will end. I’m used to always trying to “fix” myself but this time I was forced to realize that all I could do was endure it. There wasn’t anything I could do to fix this because – and this is huge – I’m not broken. In fact, I’m amazing. Laying there (literally, on the floor of my closet) in the grip of one of the worst experiences of my life, I was able to watch it from a different perspective. Not only was I not as dumb as I’d always hated myself for being but I did some very courageous and difficult things, both in that moment and later on.
And then I told my therapist about it. Saying it out loud was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I shook for hours afterward. But it was worth it. He helped me understand that it took going through it again for me to see that what I thought was weakness was probably the best thing I could have done in the situation. I was finally able to forgive that girl who really was still a teenager and be grateful that she did what she had to do, as messy as it was, to get out alive and relatively unscathed. At long last, I could see the good in her.
And that’s my super power: my ability to see the good in people. I’ve long been delighted by my ability to find the beauty in others but seeing it in myself has been harder. See? Huge. I’ve been greatly blessed over the past few weeks to be use my super power. There is nothing like a good ol’ fashioned breakdown to bring out the best (and the worst, but we won’t talk about that now) in people and it was a gift to be able to watch them at their finest. I have one friend who is so gentle that just being in her presence is better than Xanax. I have another who is so brave that she wasn’t afraid to just sit with me while I hurt. And another who is so compassionate that she took the time out of her holiday season, not just once but several times, to check up on me. And yet another who shared with me her own PTSD experiences and gave me permission to stop pretending to be okay.
So what does this all have to do with fitness? Nothing. My brain has been 90% consumed by this (the remaining 10% I had to save for my kids which apparently was not enough since #3 hit #2 with a plastic garbage can necessitating a trip to the ER for stitches* thereby keeping the Andersen family motto of “It’s not a vacation unless someone goes to Instacare!” alive and well). But what started out as a nightmare of the worst sort has turned into something amazing. I’m profoundly grateful. Thanks for your patience with me (and for many of you, your kind support of me!) as I have worked through this.
Now I want to know – and I’m serious, don’t be modest! – what is your super power? What are you uniquely good at and when was the last time you got to use it? Anyone else end up in the hospital during the holidays??
Coming soon (not sure which day exactly since they sent it media mail – argghhh!) January’s Great Fitness Experiment! It’s going to be epic. (Mostly because Gym Buddy Krista is going on a cruise in a month and threatened a boycott if this workout wasn’t spectacular.)
*Wanna see it?? All this from an EMPTY, TINY, PLASTIC GARBAGE can. And a 5-year-old with a temper.