If I am not flawed, I am nothing. This is the truest description I have of myself. I am a man who in many ways lives as a shell of his former being. There are ways in which I have improved, sure. But this does not change nor negate the subjective truth that I am a man crippled by aftershock of lived experience. What I once could do, I can no longer. There was a time where I stood tall, brave… almost immovable in the face of uncertainty and peril. Now… now I am barely able to stand.
In a previous version of me, I have walked into burning buildings, stepped over mangled metal and broken glass to reach a wounded man. I have traipsed into the shadowy unknown with steady hand and keen eye. I have met face to face with those who wished to do me harm, and it was my grit that superseded their intent. And at the end of all this, I was able to go home, wash my face, crawl into bed for a few restless hours and then wake up to do it all again with willful heart. But somewhere along the way, that heart of mine was broken. It no longer beat with the ferocity of a lion. Instead, it struggled to survive. I did, though… survive. Survive to become who I am now. A man whose reflection is as repugnant as it is unrecognizable at times.
When I left my apartment last evening, I did so with calm mind and easy gait. A tired sun was receding from the sky towards the other side of the world, leaving behind a pink memory, visible for only a short time. A gentle breeze meandered along the sidewalks, caressing me with a peaceful embrace. There was a small group of kids, zealously running and jumping through thin pillars of water that ascended from a sprinkler on their yard. Their laughter was jovial, carefree and warm. The chorus of innocence and summer. I couldn’t fight the subtle smirk that crawled across my face as I passed by.
In sobriety, I have grown fond of the summer. Especially in the evenings—the sky melts into brilliant watercolor.
The trajectory of my walk was not directionless… I knew where I was going. I also knew that I had plenty of time to get there, so I was in no hurry. But as is the law of the universe: everything is subject to change… my disposition was not exempt.
When I rounded a corner to rejoin main-street, I was frozen by obfuscation. In front of me was a non-typical mass of people. I mean, people everywhere. The sidewalks were literally bleeding bodies into the roadway, causing traffic to crawl like tortoises. This is when my ears became alerted to the sounds that accompanied this ghastly coagulation of man. Unbeknownst to me, a street festival had kicked off with its annual tradition. I was blissfully unaware of this because this time last year, I was in rehab… where it’s quiet and safe.
There was a varied troupe of performers ranging from: solo stilts-men to clowns juggling, through to musicians of all genres. Face paint stations, food trucks and clamoring masses all jockeying for sight-seeing superiority littered the once quiet street. This meant plethoric numbers of careless travelers, their flailing limbs were horridly ubiquitous. I was boiling over with agitation and anxiety. I had gone from serene to overwhelmed within the blink of an eye.
I do not handle crowds well. A lingering side-effect of my time spent in service. When in uniform, nothing good ever happens in a crowd. I have been spit on, kicked, punched, bitten and rushed all in places of mass congregation. I hate it. This is also a hallmark of PTSD: hypervigilance. One of the more vexatious symptoms to be burdened with.
Suddenly, my head began pivoting as if to be on a swivel. Looking this way and that way, assessing anyone and everyone for potential hostility. I was not at a festival; I was in a goddamn fight. A struggle to remain present in the here and now, while reexperiencing the places I had once been. I have said it before: I am constantly alive within two worlds at the same time—the world of now, and the woeful existence of yesterday…
I turned to retreat back along the street that had led me here, and to my dismay, a slow-moving wall of humans had blocked its access. I felt trapped. My breathing began to falter. I could feel beads of sweat trickle down my back. My eyes felt stretched and wide, it was as though they had taken hold of half my face. I attempted another egress… blocked. Another… also blocked. I was drowning in a current of bodies.
My breathing had become so spastic that my hands had started to claw inward—hyperventilation syndrome.
Run, Matty… run. A quiet voice begged of me. But I couldn’t. I could barely move. Not just because of the crowd, but because my body had become poisoned with deoxygenation. I heard myself whimper aloud. The quiet voice castigated me for it. I felt like I was dying. I mean I really feared death was near. What happened next, I am not proud of: I knew the street behind me was my only chance at salvation, and although a wall of man was blocking me, I demanded I go through it. So, I inhaled as deeply as I could, and much like a footballer on the line of scrimmage, I pushed my way through.
I kept walking at accelerated pace while hearing indignant protestations slap the backs of my ears. I did not bother to turn around. This was full on retreat. I was able to make it a ways up the street before collapsing into hunched posture. My breathing was even worse now. It must have been noticeable, as a kind woman and her family decided to approach me and inquire as to what the distress was all about. Unable to answer, and filled with a deflating sense of shame, I refused their attempts. Even swatting with gesticulations of “no” at one point. I tried to orate that I was “fine,” but no words came out. Only tears. I retreated once more.
Eventually, I made it home and closed the blinds to my window. Shutting the world from view. I fell to my bed and sobbed into cupped hands.
How did I go from tall and strong to frantic and crumpled in the same life? I was once brave. Called upon to save others… now I can’t even make it to the grocery store. A flawed man, indeed…
These are my symptoms… some of them, anyway. Innocuous happenings that most traverse without care nor thought have become my Kryptonite. I have lived in Toronto for almost five-years… I have not been to a Jays game… nor a period of the Leafs. I hate busses, malls and concerts. Everything about them feels like impending doom.
Despite these shortcomings, with the stability of a sober mind, I am able to force myself into places of immeasurable un-comfortability. I do grocery shopping during “normal” people hours. I am always drenched in sweat by the end of it, but I do it.
And that’s why this evening, I am going back outside. I am going to walk and bask beneath the pastel sky and watch a setting sun drift away. Why? Because this is who I am now… a man who must be brave in other ways. A man who must face demons that no on else can see nor feel.
I’m the patient now. And I must also be patient. One day at a time. Or, as a previous iteration of me once said: left, right, left… always marching forward. This is the man I have become. What I was once unable to do… I now can… live.