PTSD and Being Alone

When you feel all alone, like the world has turned its back on you… give me a moment please, to tame your wild, wild heart…

Dating myself here, but I remember listening to that Savage Garden song on repeat for many months after an ugly breakup half a lifetime ago.


I’m rarely alone. I have a 2.5-year-old perpetually attached to my hip except for the odd nights he’s with his dad, but I’ve felt very alone. But just as in Golden-Age-of-Hollywood films when a “moving” vehicle was depicted by a car that was very much standing still as the studio backdrop flickered, sometimes it’s hard to determine with the naked eye whether the horizon is in fact receding or you are — whether the world has turned its back on you or you turned your back on the world.

In social settings where I once felt at peace and at home, I often feel — now — like the Little Match Girl looking in — as if a thick pane of glass separates me from the people I love, all of them gathered cozily around the fire as I freeze to death outside on the stoop. My laugh is hollower. My responses are stilted. My voice sounds a thousand miles away. My heart pounds a little bit more. My nagging insecurities reach fever pitch. I am, I feel, an imposter inhabiting someone else’s life, and as with all humbugs, I fear being outed. Pay no attention to the girl behind the curtain.

Trauma, I suppose, has a way of doing that to you, of rendering everyone suspect. Suddenly the world seems a lot colder. Are people being chillier toward you, or is it you who have lost the capacity to feel warmth? Is it in fact reasonable for the hard of hearing to assume the world has ceased to emit sound? For the blind to assume the world has ceased to bloom in glorious living color? And if you no longer speak the language of love and laughter and human connection in the same way you once did — if you are re-learning it as a stroke victim navigates an unfamiliar language with tricky syntax — is it fair to assume these things no longer exist?

PTSD is the enemy. Your friends are not.

They didn’t do this to you, dear heart. 

Somebody else did.

I think the ravages of post-traumatic stress are in some ways hardest on the extrovert. Like the ballerina losing her legs, Julie Andrews losing her voice, or John Nash losing his mind, those who thrive on human interaction cannot help but feel the sharp pangs of phantom limbs when human interaction can no longer be trusted.

You remind yourself that it is they who are at rest and you who have receded into the distance, but to no avail. Tricky camera-work, love.

But it takes a bugler with impressive lung capacity to sound a call you can recognize.

You don’t recognize yourself, sometimes. You stare down the mirror in vain, searching for any clue to your own identity, to unlocking the person you were Before the Thing. Because your friends want you, not a shabby simulacrum of you. And that you can’t help them with — she isn’t coming back. And any version of her reborn from the ashes is someone else altogether.

We talk a lot about PTSD these days. We live in a world of posted notices and trigger warnings and safe spaces, but for all that we fail to understand. The trauma victim is Rowling’s Inferius: a corpse reanimated to gruesome effect. It looks and sounds and feels like her, but it is not her. And for all our talk of the nightmares and the sleeplessness and the panic attacks and the things that go bump in the night, we miss the real bitch of it all: you are consigned to going through the motions of a life that doesn’t feel like your own, one that most times, doesn’t even feel quite real. You are playing a part and you are your own body double. It is an Oscar-worthy performance and you are Meryl goddamn Streep.

The dialectic of trauma gives rise to complicated, sometimes uncanny alterations of consciousness, which George Orwell, one of the committed truth-tellers of our century, called ‘doublethink,’ and which mental health professionals, searching for calm, precise language, call ‘dissociation.’
Judith Lewis Herman, “Trauma and Recovery: the Aftermath of Violence”

At the end of the day, just as C.S. Lewis writes of the lunatic who cannot blot out the sun by scribbling “darkness” on the walls of his cell, you hang your hopes on the fact that perception is not reality; that no one, in fact, has gone anywhere but you; that your loved ones — with all the vast healing powers of a transcontinental Care Bear Stare — are sending all the laughter and light and courage they can muster to restore you to yourself; that in the end, love wins.


Originally published on Donna’s blog, Republished with permission.