As September rolled around I was anticipating the publication of an essay in Meanjin. It’s a reflection on what happens when you don’t tell your story. I write about being diagnosed, in the space of a few years, with an alphabet soup of mental illness: ADHD, bipolar type 2, complex PTSD. I was ‘out’ about living with PTSD and had no issues disclosing the ADHD, but I held back on disclosing the bipolar diagnosis while I worked on recovery and grappled with the stigma. As I describe in the essay, the problem with leaving out key moments that inflect your whole life narrative is that ‘more and more of your story becomes untold and untellable.’
I’ve written a fair bit about living with PTSD. Complex PTSD is not in the DSM-IV, although it is recognised in the ICD-11. (Basically these are dictionaries of recognised disease and disorder.) The prevalent definition of cPTSD comes from Judith Herman, who describes it as particularly acute and ongoing trauma, particularly in childhood; the canonical example is ongoing sexual abuse, which was not recognised as a traumatic stressor in earlier versions of the DSM.
I understand it slightly differently, however. In the original Latin, complex meant interwoven. For me, it’s not just the ongoingness of the trauma that produces cPTSD; it’s that the trauma becomes part of your personhood. The traumatic experience forms you as a person. Thus, treating cPTSD is fundamentally difficult: it involves changing your whole way of being in the world, not just treating symptoms or modifying unhelpful patterns of behaviour.
And this is doubly difficult because of the fact of interbeing — our personhood is constituted in and through webs of relationship with other people, animals, objects, places, structures, and rituals. Changing yourself is hard when these webs of relationship remain in place and unmodified.
In the Meanjin essay, titled ‘White knuckles,’ I wrote a sentence that even as I wrote it struck me as foolhardy: ‘I sometimes say that bipolar is the least exciting part of my life.’ I just knew that was asking for life to prove me wrong. Sure enough, out of the blue I received a message from my mother, crashing through boundaries I’d established at great cost to our relationship. It was late at night and I went to bed shaking with rage and slept through nightmare after nightmare. It was a textbook PTSD activation.
I woke up and reasserted that boundary but the damage was done; I spent the next two weeks fighting unsuccessfully to get my sleep cycle back to normal. Insomnia is like pouring petrol on the bipolar bonfire. I was fighting for my life trying to bring those bipolar symptoms back under control, all while trying to work and stay present on social media for discussion of my piece and a thread about the problems with RUOK Day.
‘But how much harm can it do, being asked RUOK?’ It’s the way people recoil from you when they realise how messy your life situation is, and the way they reverse the blame for making them feel inadequate. I’ve learned that ‘yeah, fine, thanks’ is the only safe answer.
And then, when things weren’t going great, I met someone, we clicked, I caught feelings, and then he ghosted me, ‘leaving me on read’ for days. Dating with ADHD is really fucking hard. ADHD-ers already have the potential to hyperfocus, and when that happens, it can dial the intensity of a crush up to eleven… eleven thousand. Another symptom of ADHD is known as rejection sensitive dysphoria. Dealing with rejection is another key part of the dating game. When this guy — I’ll call him Justin — ghosted me, I was already dysregulated from the PTSD, the insomnia, and the bipolar symptoms. I was not ready for the rejection and the pain felt unbearable.
Ghosting is like an emotional ‘dirty bomb’ — it is detonated with complete disregard for the scale and unpredictability of its emotional and relational impact. For me, the impact was interwoven with the intergenerational trauma that led to my PTSD diagnosis. I started writing another essay and came out with these paragraphs which trace that interweaving:
I find ghosting almost impossible to deal with. As a teenager, when I fought with my mother, she used the silent treatment for weeks. When I came out, she went silent for hours that felt like years. Cutting people off was a common element of her larger family’s interminable conflicts but they ganged up to use that tactic against her in particular. Punishment for a couple of sins: bearing the child she contracted out of wedlock, rather than getting a polite (though potentially lethal) middle-class abortion; and, I suspect, for her insistence on bearing witness to her father having been an abusive alcoholic, preventing her family brushing this too under the rug.
So when I am ghosted in a dating context, my feelings and responses trace a genealogy of pain going back decades. The possibility of ending it all comes to mind, and I make a mental note not to mention this to my counsellor, lest I wind up taking an unplanned grippy sock vacation. Instead, I lie on my side in bed, clutching a pillow under my ribcage, and I keep breathing and let myself feel that pain without fighting it, without arguing with it, without wishing for better.
I posted that snippet up on my Facebook. A friend of mine who knows my mother expressed concern that I was underestimating how much my mother suffered, particularly at the hands of the Catholic church. I don’t underestimate that. It’s the reason I write about my mother. I was raised on those stories as a young child. They are interwoven with my personhood, I still struggle with them today, and that’s what gives me the right to write about them. But my mother was also victimised by the practices she reproduced in our relationship; I can’t write about my own experience without acknowledging its deep intergenerational antecedents.
Writing is also a practice of survival. I started writing the ghosting essay when I was actively suicidal. I posted it because I needed to not be alone with those feelings. Writing gave me some distance on those impossible emotions. I was able to recognise I was ‘frozen’ in a PTSD sense and also ‘stuck’ in a bipolar depressive sense, and that recognition let me start taking some tentative first steps out.
I put Justin on block. I fired my non-responsive therapist and found a new one: I’ll be seeing them for the first time next Monday. I began cleaning my room, which had become an entire ADHD ‘doom box.’ I booked in for a Pilates class (the foetal position is murder on your hip flexors). I cooked some homemade meals and baked some cakes. I picked up my bike from my former housemate and sprint-cycled through Sydney traffic. And I went to Extra Dirty last night and danced my arse off. I feel better for re-establishing those rituals, re-embedding myself in that web of relationships and practices that constitutes me as a person.
- To read my essay ‘White Knuckles’ visit: meanjin.com.au/memoir/white-knuckles/ (digital subscriptions $5/mo)
Mental illness is expensive. I am raising funds for my next round of therapy. If you would like to chip in, donations are very welcome.
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Update – 2nd time lucky.
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