There is a world that surrounds me. I can see it, smell it, taste it and touch it. There are even times where I am part of that world. Living and existing within it. There are however the other times where I am merely a specter walking among the faceless. The ethereal man, unseen by all that surrounds him. I am alive within two worlds at the same time. The constant tug of where I have once been and the demand of my attention in the present. A man who truly is apart from himself.
I mean no hyperbole when I say to you that existence within this place is at times the worst form of agony. I do not wish to die, and yet there are times where I do not feel as though I am even living. Surviving, perhaps. But not living.
I used to be a man that could tolerate a thousand different tasks at any given time. Most notably when working on the sick and wounded. The cries of the patient, the bleeps of the monitor, the call-out for meds, counting of compressions and so on… However, now I am a man who burns dinner should he forget to write a note to himself informing him that he put it in the oven. I forget my wallet at least once a day when leaving the house, lose books, headphones and even forget the occasional appointment or two. A man reduced to a senior in his thirties. My therapist kindly suggests that this is because I have a busy and wounded mind. I would refute and exclaim that it is because I am a fool. A god-damned fool.
I am a man who is afraid of his own shadow. This is an unerring statement, not at all one of amplification. There are times when out for an evening stroll where my shadow will catch me unsuspecting and I will jump as if to prepare to defend… I am literally jumping because of my own shadow.
I have been told that to think this way; to berate myself for these symptoms I so possess, is a cognitive distortion. But as a man who resides within the world of the past and the pull of the present, everything always appears distorted. I hear sirens that are not there, just as I hear the ones that are. I hear cries that are merely introspective echoes of a time since come and gone and sometimes, I even see the dead, walking transposed atop of the living. I see them as clear as I see those pretty eyes from across the barroom, they are just as hypnotizing, but I will say for vastly different reasons. I smell smoke from a fire that is not burning, decay from a body that is not there, and I recall the “rattle” that has since become the remains of a fallen brother. And at night, when I am supposed to rest, recuperate and give my woeful body respite, I am tormented by the lingering shards of lived experience. Just as I suffer from flashbacks when awake, I am crippled by nightmares when asleep. A man of two worlds. One mind tortured twice.
So, it is as I say, agony…
I suffered from a flashback today that reduced me to rubble. I was nestled within the safety of my therapist’s office; she was speaking, and I was listening. This of course was until I was not. As if to revolt in an act of mutiny against sanity, my aching mind twisted the fabric of time and space, thus bringing the events of the past into the realm of the now. I began to smell and taste smoke. I could even feel it brush against my skin with its sinister embrace. It felt as though I was back in that apartment, waiting for the burning man. I could no longer hear Doc. Her office had burned away from view. I began to hear the low baritone of a roaring flame. The snapping, sibilant hiss of all the fire took. I was sitting in the real world all the while burning in the other one. Agony.
I could hear sirens getting closer. They were almost on top of me it was so loud. It was in noticing my distress that Doc began to guide me back. She used her voice like a beam of light, cutting through the dense wall of blackened smoke. She orated my name softly, asked me to tell her what was going on. When hearing the request to answer that question, more of me returned to the chair and the office. The smoke evaporated, retreated to the darkened place of memory. The flames were gone, the sirens were absent, and I was no longer awaiting the burnt corpse of a flame kissed man—I had returned to the now. And as much as that sounds like a good thing, and it was, I was now confronted by another adversary—shame.
I hate feeling so fragile. I was once chiseled into the ivory figure of a stoic soldier. To stand on guard for thee, and I did. I was once asked to respond to the places that no one else wanted to go. I was asked to enter the areas within our city that most pretend don’t exist. I was also asked to go to the darkness that no one knows about—and I did, willingly.
So much of my time is spent trying to recapture some of the bravery, so that I may maneuver through the challenges of my minute to minute, day to day. Another anecdotal: There is a Starbucks by my place—a Starbucks that I can no longer go to. Several weeks ago, I was stood in line within that very place. It was busy. There was a sea of clattering voices, some sharp, some soft, the occasional rumble of a man’s bass and a slow-moving heard of coffee seekers strewn into a gaggle. I too was trapped within that line. There was a woman behind me. I know this because I am always aware of what and whom is around me. She was occasionally reaching into the sandwich bin beside us and sifting through as if to struggle to find what it was that she was looking for. This was all fine and good, I was not really affected by any of these happenings. However, at one point, filled with zeal, she used one arm to push against me, not hard not forceful, but uninvited. She then lurched into view from my periphery. This caused the same startle, fight or flight as my shadow often does. I reacted.
“The fuck are you doing?! Why are you touching me?!!”
Her eyes melted into befuddled gaze. She said nothing. In my mind, a scurrying patter of inquisition and indignation slammed into one another. Anger began to fill my veins. All I wanted was to pay for my tea and go for a walk around the lake. Instead, I felt as though I was under threat. My body reacted as such. Sweat dripped down my back. My palms clenched inward and became bone beaters. She had scared me. Her innocuous act had caused absolute fear to poison my blood.
“Why the fuck are you touching me? WHY ARE YOU TOUCHING ME?? YOU FUCKING BITCH! FUCK!!!”
It was after this unhinged aspersion that all things around me stopped. No more voices. No more busy hands. Just eyes. And all of them stapled to my skin. I could feel them crawling over me. Shame returned and I left, no tea, no peaceful walk around the water.
Events such as these happen with enough repetition that sometimes it feels safer to just hide from the world. Avoidance, I have been told. Not a reasonable tool, apparently. It is exhausting, you know; living within two worlds simultaneously.
I often speak about a thing I call: Waitress Therapy. This is in reference to going to a place, a pub or a bar, and staring at a pretty woman for a while. Though, I think staring for me likely means something completely different than how it’s typically defined. I am not doing so through lustful gape. I am reminding myself that in the present there is still beauty. The soft voice of a calling waitress drowns the sirens, muffles the screams, soothes the ache. The subtle scent of her perfume, it takes away the sting of smoke. It commands that ghostly odor of decay leave me at once. Studying flawless perfection ensures that I remain in the present. Like an anchor to sanity.
Navigation through the waters of a day is something that holds perfidious obstacles for me. At any given time or moment, I can be struck by a bullet of remembrance, shot forth from the weapon of a triggering environment. Thing is, it’s not just a memory, it plays out as though it’s all happening again. This is what I mean when I say I feel like a man who is apart from himself.
The world that surrounds me is both beautiful and terrible. I suppose the only solace I take from that statement is that I am now a man who can see that beauty. The world was once just bleak, black and desolate. I have found a ray of light, off in the distance. It’s the one thing that makes me believe that one day, I will live in one world as one man with one mind.
But until then, I think I’ll take another look at the big, beautiful eyes across the barroom for just a moment longer… Waitress Therapy.