I was sitting uncomfortably within one of the chairs of the hotel lobby. My body, sore and lamenting beneath my skin. I look presentable enough, sure. I demand this of myself most days. I suppose one could argue that my dress and deportment are the lasting vestiges of my time as a soldier. Even when weighted by the sopping blanket of depression, I manage to don a pearl-snap button up from time to time. But depression was not my problem this morning—at least, not the biggest one.
“Hey, there he is. Matt, how are you?” Heather’s kind voice calls out to me from across the seating area of the lobby. Both she and Natalie were exiting the elevator doors and beginning to walk towards me. It was early and we three acknowledged that fact without spoken word. We were at a hotel in downtown Toronto for a conference that we had been invited to speak at. I had arrived at the hotel a night prior so as to avoid any unforeseen complications with commuting to the event.
“Oh, look, he’s got a real drink” Heather remarks on the Venti Starbucks coffee cup held within my hand. I cast a quick glance towards it before hastily and skillfully changing the topic of discussion. I could see that Natalie was stood behind a push cart festooned with the needed gear and appurtenances for our contribution to the day’s festivities— “need a hand?” I inquire with a head-nod towards the cantankerous wheeled apparatus. I’m given permission to assist.
“How did you sleep?” Heather prods politely.
“Aww, that sucks. Sorry” she says, spoken through obvious sincerity. We keep walking. You see, nightmares happen so often for me that they have sort of become mundane conversation initiators. I admit to a having had a nightmare and the person in receipt of said answer acknowledges but knows this to be a common staccato of my nightly slumber, so it is easily glossed over as the conversation evolves. And why wouldn’t it? Thing is, a smile can hide a frown, and a smile that has been rehearsed with enough attention to detail can hide almost anything—and I was smiling.
What Heather did not know, was just how bad the nightmare was and what it was still doing to me while I was awake…
I hate hotels. And as stated, I had arrived the night before the conference. So, this means: a night in a hotel. I have gotten good at packing some things from home that are familiar or comforting. I pack all the usual staples of an overnight stay, of course. But I also leave room for my PTSD pack. What’s a PTSD pack? Well, it’s a small bag filled with scented waxes and tactile objects such as an EMS patch and a rather plush teddy bear that goes by the name of, Ted. Yes, Ted from the movie. And yes, I am a 36-year-old man who packs a stuffed animal when on sleep overs.
I do this because as revealed already, nightmares are such a pervasive thing for me that it is almost a given that I will have one. And the nature of these abhorrent nocturnal mimeographs of the past are so troublesome when at home, it has become necessary to bring tools with me to help navigate my panicked mind back to the present of here and now when in places other than my room. At home, this is a chore. In a strange place with unknown sounds and light sources, it is a momentous challenge. David versus Goliath, if Goliath were unprocessed shards of lived experience.
As we walked and made small talk, I did my best to hide the Starbucks cup from view. Not because I was afraid to be seen with it, but more-so because I was apprehensive about divulging why I had chosen to get a $7-dollar cup of coffee as opposed to the complimentary one offered at the breakfast buffet line. You see, it was early, like I said—but for me, it was just an arbitrary hour of the morning. I had been awake for several hours prior to meeting with the ladies in the lobby. I had time to walk the city and find a relatively nearby coffee shop. A superfluous statement to anyone from Toronto. But the part I did not release to Heather or Natalie was that I had been walking the dampened streets of the city for approximately three-hours because I was afraid to remain in my hotel room…
I had tucked myself into bed at a rather respectable hour of the evening on the night before the conference. I had done-so with the best of intentions; getting a good night’s rest then wake with plenty of time to ready myself for the day and its activities. This of course, was all good in theory—my flagitious mind however, had other animus intentions. My eyes closed and the surroundings of the world proceeded to fade from view. I could hear my breathing, slow and deliberate. I felt the weight of a day lift from my burdened body and the fibers of the bed pulled me into a land of rest. Sleep now, sleep…
In no time at all, images of the world came flooding back. It was not a darkened hotel room that materialized into view though. It was a hallway anathematized by years of exhaled cigarette smoke and a room off to my left that threw a beam of light from it. I neared that beam and that room knowing full well what was waiting for me on the inside—a dead girl suspended by a rope. At least, that’s what dispatch had told me to expect, and they were right to do so.
I enter into the room and see a young girl whose life has been squeezed free by a crude cord tied into a noose. I felt the lifeless chill of her skin pass through my gloves as I checked for signs of life. When I was somberly confident that she was indeed beyond my help, I withdrew myself from her side and went to relay this to the policeman that had been standing behind me. When I spoke, he ignored me. Not an act performed by will nor apathy—he was stricken with a mesmeric consternation. I followed his gaze and turned my head to see what had captivated his attention. It was the girl’s suicide note, written in red lipstick and scrawled atop of the bathroom mirror. Her last hastily written memoir trundled atop of our reflections—a sight I will likely never forget.
At this point in the dream, my body jettisons from the constraints of the comforter. I am awake. I am breathing horribly fast and my body is kissed by sweat like a field coated in an autumn morning dew. I am standing beside the bed, begging for calm to come to me. I feel the best course of action is to go to the bathroom and spritz cold water onto my face. I scamper into the hotel bathroom and proceed to do just that. However, something catches my groggy gaze, something red, something terribly out of place. With the water still running and droplets falling from my face, I ascend my gaze towards the mirror— “I hope you see me forever…” the last line of a dead girls note, written in lipstick across my hotel mirror… stapled to my face.
Panic sets deeper and breathing becomes so fast that it nears absence. I turn to run, frozen. I cannot move. My feet will not budge and my body will not twist an inch. I am cemented in place. “Scream” I think, but nothing happens. I try again, nothing. One more time and to my elation, it works, I am screaming. I am also no longer in the bathroom. Strangely, I have teleported back to the now dampened sheets of a hotel bed. I guess I was not really as awake as I had thought…
I pace the room back and forth for a while. I turn the TV on but merely as background noise. Filler to combat the deafening silence. As enough time passes, I feel the need to use the bathroom. Instinctually, I begin to make my way there, but I am halted by a sudden remembrance of what I had seen. The logical me knew that there was nothing written on the mirror within the hotel bathroom, but snake-bitten me feared oh-so terribly of being wrong and once again seeing the red lettering of a dead girl’s lipstick. As such, I did not move another inch. More illogical fallacies began to plague my thinking space. I thought of that girl as I had found her that day all those years ago, draped atop of the bathtub’s ledge. I combated these inane flashes of thought by willing myself to enter the bathroom and stand in its middle, taking in the blandness with my eyes.
“See, there’s nothing. No dead girl. No letter, you’re fine. Stop being a pussy!”
Despite my upbeat pep-talk, I was unable to fathom the concept of using the shower of the bathtub. So, what I am saying is that as a grown man, I was afraid to shower and truly ready myself for the day. I was also growing increasingly agitated and fearful of the room itself and thus, I threw on some jeans and a button down, and walked out into the bustle of a sleepless city. Kindred spirits, I guess.
So you see, that was why I had a $7-dollar cup of coffee as opposed to a free one. That was why I hid the drink from view—I felt ashamed and embarrassed that I was about to partake in a conference about mental health, all the while un-showered, illogically stricken by nefarious thoughts of ghosts and their letters. I was petrified to explain that I was too afraid to stay in my room. I am a tall man, some may even say, strapping. But that morning I felt no bigger than a granule of sand. But I was smiling, skillfully. And a smile hides a frown, doesn’t it…?
This made answering the question posed by the polite gentleman at check-out all the more burdensome; “How was your stay, Mr. Heneghan? Everything work out alright for ya?”
I smiled… and said yes.
I never told Heather or Natalie any of this. In fact, I only spoke of it today whilst sat within my therapist’s office. And I guess the reason I am writing about it now is because it’s alright to not be okay. It’s okay to be strong and not feel as though you are for a moment. I experienced something horrible and I am feeling its effects. That’s not weakness, that’s humanity. And the strongest thing we can do IS feel. I won’t lie and blow sunshine up your wahoo’s and say that I am not ashamed and embarrassed by these things, I am. But I have hope that in time I will feel less of that and more of the strength that I witnessed at that conference. That if I keep talking, if I keep sharing and working through it, I will eventually find my way to the other side of trauma. I don’t know when. I don’t know how and I don’t know what it looks like, but at least I know it’s possible. And now, so do you.
A smile hides a frown. But it has the power to lift one, too. And I am smiling. Maybe not today, but I am…