Growing Pains with a PTSD Diagnosis
by Jayne Rutter
I host a monologue in my head all day long, as I assume most people do; I run through my to-do lists, organize my tasks at hand, and guide myself through my own emotional reactions. These are the types of things going through my head at 7:10 in the morning when I’m standing behind the cafe counter, sorting through twenties and fives, making sure they add up to four hundred. The first customer of the day strolls in somewhere around this point, she wants a latte and asks about the monkey bread and I see the same disappointed look in her eye every time I have to tell her, “no, not today.” If only people gave as much of a shit about human tragedies transpiring in front of their own eyes on a regular basis as they did their breakfast pastries. I hand her the latte, wish her a good day and resume my counting. I get so lost in the proper technique of sifting through bills that I almost don’t hear the door open.
It’s now 7:15am. The sun has just barely risen, I’m the only person in the cafe to help him. My inner-monologue changes pace as I see his hands flop on the counter in front of me. Should I protect myself? I wonder if these hands are weapons. “Coffee,” he mutters in a deep, raspy voice at me. It sounded like he had smoked at least two packs of cigarettes every day since he was a teenager. He smells like sweat. I say nothing, pour him a drip and hand it off. He throws a credit card down on the counter to pay for his $2.70 beverage. I run it and explain that he’ll need to sign the iPad screen. He looks up at me, picks up his coffee and leaves without finishing the transaction properly or saying another word. My inner monologue begins again. My heart is racing, but nothing even happened. Did I say something wrong? Why am I shaking? Why do I feel like I’m a frightened child again? Was that him?
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It’s 11am on the first warm day of spring. It’s the first time I can go outside in 2016 with a pair of cut-off sweatpant shorts and an old, oversized t-shirt. It’s a late start to my first day off of work in over a week. I made a full French press that I intended to finish entirely alone with the comfort of my own thoughts out on my stoop. I love people watching. My thoughts are content to analyze my observations. A young daughter dragged by her impatient mother, rushing to get her in the car. A businessman wiping spilt coffee from his collar with a torn napkin. I take another sip of my now lukewarm java and when I look up, a greasy, overweight man in a white tank top looks down at me and says through his overgrown mustache, “you would be prettier if you smiled and grew out your hair.” I say nothing, stand up with my French press in one hand, mug in the other, shaking, and make my way back inside of my house to my bedroom.There, I close the door and lock it as though he were right behind me. My thoughts race. How dare someone invade my morning with their ideals? This was my morning to enjoy– my pleasant thoughts bouncing around my brain and now I’m left with the echo of one man’s ignorance for the rest of my day. My inner voice is outraged. It’s a year later and I can still see the words being formed from his mouth.
It’s 1995; it’s summer, a relentlessly hot day. I take my parent’s friend who has come over to visit to the backyard so he’ll push me on the swing set and watch me do cartwheels in the moist grass. I want to show off for someone who has never seen my tricks before. “Wanna see something cool?!” I ask him. “Go for it,” he encourages me. I use all my strength to jump up in the air and spin in a full circle. I land perfectly and he claps. “Okay, my turn,” he smiles, “Wanna do something else that’s cool?” I nod my head yes, eagerly awaiting my new friend’s awesome trick. He bends down and kisses me on my mouth. My young mind suddenly shifts away from what toy I am going to pick up next and when I can play basketball with my friends. It begins to wonder why a big person would kiss me. Why hasn’t this happened before? Why me? I experience a new feeling: the thought of “why?” without an understandable answer. I saw my mom and dad kiss. I’ve kissed my brother on the forehead before. But until this moment, I have never seen an adult kiss a child on the mouth. I feel the stubble of his beard against my soft baby-fat cheeks. His eyes are closed. I can feel his large hands grab my waist. It feels like he could pick me up because he’s squeezing me so tightly. I feel embarrassed. I didn’t want him to do that again. “Was it cool or what?” he asks. I wipe my mouth and tell him he should try a better trick. Maybe one with a jump or a spin move in it.
It’s 2017. My best friend calls me at 1:15am. She’s screaming. She’s grasping for words that she cannot find because maybe they don’t exist. “I’m so scared…they won’t believe me…I have a history of mental illness…I’ll never be seen at this hospital…he raped me.”
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not easy to navigate. A memory, a word, a smell, an instance can take one back to the exact moment the trauma first spoke to them. To the moment your bones broke in every weak spot you have. Your monologue quickly becomes your worst nightmare. Over. And over. And over again. Until you can’t breath. Like when you’re trying so hard not to think about something, but your brain is playing tricks on you and all you can think of is that one thing. Then you dissociate. There’s no sense of this loss of reality. It’s like being in a sensory deprivation tank. There is no up, no down and no ability to tell where you end and the environment around you begins. It’s real all over again. You drop to your knees and your body is trembling. You look up and there he is and there you are. You’re 6 years old. You don’t understand that you cannot trust certain people. You don’t know why he’s walking you to the corner of the old abandoned brick garage in the woods behind your house; the house where your parents are supposed to keep you safe because you’re a child. You don’t understand why your clothes aren’t on anymore and it’s getting dark and it hurts and you want to go home and watch an uncomplicated cartoon and hold your Barbies because you’re a 6 year old little girl and that’s what you should be doing right now. Not smelling cigarettes and beer on his clothes, on his neck, from his mouth. Not having all of your senses stained by his potency for the rest of your life. Not this.
People mistreat service industry workers all of the time. I am used to this. Of course he didn’t say, “good morning.” Of course he didn’t hand me his credit card and wait politely for me to hand it back. Of course he left without acknowledging me as a fellow human being. My fears were prompted by the way he forced the interaction to take place. He made me question my personal safety, which lead me to see the similarities between his actions and those of my rapist’s. Has he stood over a woman before and demanded sex the same way he demanded coffee? Has he thrown her underwear back at her the way he threw his credit card to me? Did he refuse to acknowledge her as a human being while sharing a one on one moment with her? These are wild assumptions. These are some of my most common questions about every man. Was this the man that had my friend screaming on the phone last night? Not every man is bad and perhaps this man was just having a rough morning. But that’s the thing. When your best friend calls you screaming for help the way one would scream underwater for air as their last breath escapes them, it’s hard to not question every man you see. “Jayne! Are you there? I need you. I need someone. I need anyone that knows what this is like.” Her words on repeat in my head as I continue to prepare the cafe for the day. My heart is pounding. My mind is racing between my past trauma, her current trauma and my reality at hand.
I don’t believe I am my trauma. I believe that I am like healed bone. My orthopedic surgeon told me when I was four years old that my right leg would be my strongest leg for the rest of my life because when bones heal from a break, they fuse back together stronger than before the break. I was broken and I have seen many people in my life break. But the strength I have been able to observe in myself and those beautiful souls in my life is inspiring. It takes breaking to strengthen sometimes. I wish it never happened. I wish my friends never had to endure their own traumas. But I know I am strong. So when my best friend calls me at 1am to beg for anything that will help, I know I am the person that she can go to. Her break is an echo that has not stopped sounding in my life since I was 6 years old. I will keep listening. I will always be strong.