Sometimes I wonder if it’s possible to get PTSD from an experience like this.
I’m not being facetious, and I’m not trying to minimize PTSD. I honestly wonder, because over and over I have the experience of something happening — something small, something benign — and my reaction being anything but small or benign, when in another context it would be totally, completely, fine.
I was thinking about this because yesterday, during lunch, Catharine brought up a conversation she’d had that morning with a representative of a religious institution. There’s a long backstory here, but suffice it to say she’s been more or less disconnected from the institution for the last two years, since she’s been building up her own business and recovering from some health crises. But there’s a decision she needs to make, one that will likely bring her back into regular relationship with the institution on several levels.
Friends, I kind of lost it.
I was okay at first, but I got more and more upset as the conversation went on, to the point where I couldn’t really think clearly, I couldn’t not cry, and my overwhelming internal sensation was something that adds up to “no no no no no” coupled with a flat “whatever, just leave me alone.” It took me two hours of diaphragmatic breathing and an acupuncture session to get to the point where I could talk about it, and even then the tears kept leaking out.
All of this about something that, other than maybe $100/year, has absolutely nothing to do with me.
But the thing is — and this is what we were finally able to talk about, many hours later — historically, Catharine getting involved with institutions has had everything to do with me.
It would go like this. She got involved with some organization — a religious community, a school, a congregation, or some combination of all three. She’s all in. She’s excited. Someone asked her to do something. She said yes, because it would be interesting, or it would be useful for some goal she had, or she really wanted to make someone happy, or she had gotten caught in a pattern of feeling valuable only if she’s useful.
We all do this to some extent. The problem is that it happened over and over again, and each request, each thing, was like its own separate world, as if none of the other things were happening. It’s only and purely about this one thing in front of her.
Before we knew it, she had 70 hours a week of commitments and travel time, not including studying. And what invariably happened is that she was absent from our household, she was absent from our marriage, and she was taking absolute shit care of herself, which then, because hi, she has significant mental illness, ended up with her falling apart and me having to spend a lot of time and energy putting her back together. It often meant her taking over household resources (the one car, money, dishtowels, vacation time) with blithe disregard for me or the future, because all she could see were the commitments and how important they were. It even sometimes meant her quitting or avoiding things that would pay her money (when we really needed the money) because someone was counting on her. (Spoiler! I was never the someone.)
And worst of all, in some ways, when I called her on these things, she argued. She denied. She told me, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, that I was wrong, that my priorities were wrong, that my expectations were wrong, that my perceptions were wrong. And because I have a deeply ingrained habit of believing other people, I actually considered whether maybe she was right.
I ended up alone, often literally stranded without groceries and with mounting library fines, responsible for running all of the household and bringing in all of the money, having to do intensive caretaking at unpredictable intervals, and questioning my expectations and priorities.
So my overreaction makes a kind of sense. I mean, we’ve only just recently gotten to a point where her anxiety is well-controlled, where she feels and values a sense of responsibility to me and to the household, and she values the centered wellness that comes from excellent self-care. We are, slowly, moving towards the kind of relationship I can gladly stay in, the kind of relationship that feels mutual. The last thing I want is for all of that to get blown up.
But now is not then. She was able to hear and affirm that the way things went before was deeply wrong. (Or, at least, she was once I was able to jog her memory about what actually happened.) We were able to talk about why things happened the way they did. I was able to express that it’s not the decision I have any real objection to, it’s the pattern we’ve lived through before and I refuse to live through again.
There are tiny versions of this pattern that we’ve been shifting. I work from 7-2, and she doesn’t have a driver’s license these days, and about once a month, I take time out of my work day to drive her to the psychiatrist’s office, because he doesn’t have any hours outside of my working hours. There have been a few times when she’s assumed that I would take time out to drive her to the coffee shop to meet with someone or take her to a doctor’s appointment that otherwise could happen in the late afternoon, and I’ve given her a flat no, because even something “short” disrupts my day in unhelpful ways and I have a responsibility to the work that keeps us in kibble and roofs — and she’s gotten it. That’s the different part. Maybe someday she won’t even ask, but now there’s no reality distortion.
It’s a step. And we’ll see if she can get involved with this institution again and not reenact the old pattern. But I didn’t promise not to have outsized reactions when she trips over the old ways. Because that’s not a promise I can keep.
If this isn’t PTSD, it’s something adjacent.