Haven. Sanctuary. Escape. Safety. Calm. Peace.
A handful of emotional wealth is always with me, always accessible, always in my metaphysical pocket.
For most of my life I never thought about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and I never understood my desire to hide, to flee, and to avoid; I never understood that the manifest problems I lived with issued from trauma.
I’d been experiencing symptoms from at least the age of 7. My symptoms tended to erupt at least twice a year and always in school.
Without prior warning, I’d reach a breaking point. It could be in the middle of a lesson, or returning from recess, and suddenly I would start laughing. I laughed for hours. I couldn’t stand, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t talk. It careened from hysterical to a calm chuckling and back again, but each episode was uncontrollable and impossible to stop, for hours. From my mid teens the episodes included crying. I’m certain more than one person thought a good slap to the face would help, and I found that hysterically funny too.
Considering I grew up in a small town and went to school with the same crowd for over ten years, I was treated with great kindness. No one ever harassed me or referred to these episodes. No one accused me of being crazy. Everyone just knew: this is what Adrienne does, it’ll pass.
These outbreaks continued until the end of my school years. I moved out of my parents’ home after graduation and they never happened again. Never again have I felt so utterly out of control.
At university I registered for psych courses but never attended, not once. I wasn’t aware of the choice I was making but at the end of my freshman year, with two incompletes, I absorbed the facts: I never purchased the required textbooks and never looked up where the classes were held. To say I had a mental block is an understatement.
Years later, when I could no longer avoid the course requirements, I took my first psych class and experienced an emotional atomic bomb when the professor introduced and explained PTSD.
I suddenly knew myself. I understood myself.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to pursue treatment right away nor did I know whom to ask for help.
I trudged along for another two years, mostly doing well. On the several nights a week I spent reliving the worst moments of my childhood, I would cry and cry (not hysterically and not without control) and beg G-d to help me. I begged G-d to send me someone to help me heal.
And like many of the things I’ve begged G-d for, G-d in His infinite mercy said, “Yes.”
Even more amazing: I am a rare patient for whom therapy was successful. Yes, my therapy worked, so well, in fact, that I no longer need weekly or monthly or even yearly sessions.
The most difficult aspect of treatment was facing the repeated life threatening moments which most broke me. In order to let go and stop reliving them over and over again, I needed to bring an active vibrant consciousness with me. I needed to face them while remaining fully present in the here-and-now, with the full understanding that no one is threatening me, I’m in no greater danger than any other citizen of a capital city, and that the here-and-now includes a loving husband and a warm and cozy roof over my head.
I’m no longer that abused little girl.
The single greatest tool developed by psychologists to assist people like me in creating a dual awareness is often called a “safe place.”
In my mind I create a unique space, fully under my control, outside of time, and I carry it with me with no need for a physical room.
Imagine birds singing, butterflies floating on gentle breezes, a gurgling stream passing through, the buzz of insects above the water, air fresh and crisp from rain the night before, partially cloudy skies and a perfect warmth cooled by those gentle breezes.
No one is invited into my space without permission. No telephones, kids, husband, siblings, parents, pets, nor demands can enter . . . unless I want them there with me.
I developed a few different escapes but my most favorite is a garden I created in Yemin Moshe. I have pictures, I can almost show you where I go.
With tourists and soldiers and brides taking wedding day photos; with thorny roses and prickly bougainvillea there isn’t actually room for me so I go down, into the earth.
It helps that this is one of the few gardens I designed and created from start to finish. I dug out hundreds of liters of rocky earth and ugly dried up bushes and weeds. I personally carried hundreds of liters of fresh earth from the parking lot and poured it into the cleared area. I mixed in water-absorbing crystals and organic stinky fertilizer, in a manner comparable to kneading challah dough. Then I stepped back to examine my blank canvas.
With a clear vision of brilliant colors and scents, I went to Ginat Tamar and purchased passionate bougainvillea, bare-root roses, a hibiscus topiary, a mini palm tree, fuchsia, hydrangea, snapdragons, irises, daylilies, lobelia, sweet alyssum, large carnations and more.
Today it is alive and flowering, bursting with vibrant hues and life and butterflies and ladybugs and palestinian sunbirds and bees too.
This is the roof of my “safe place,” my actual haven is deeper in the earth I carried and mixed. It’s filled with sun-warmed dirt, the earthworms and roots tickle me. My face is level with the surface, I breathe easily, and no one sees me here. I’m held, contained and safe.
Another gentle breeze rustles the leaves. I see cloudy blue skies passing above the subtly swaying branches. If I’m lonely I allow a neighborhood cat to join me in soaking up sunshine; if not, I keep a barrier between myself and the world.
Sensations, sounds and sights are important. The more vivid they are, the better containment I experience when facing past traumas.
My safe place grounds me; reminds me I’m not H’ (G-d) — I only need do one task at a time; whatever I accomplish today is what I’m supposed to and all of those other things I want to do (those things I wish I did), those carry over to tomorrow’s list.
Worries, wants and needs will wait.
Akin to learning how to walk, I focus on putting one foot in front of the other; if I look too far ahead I’ll trip on steps I don’t see.
Fully immersed, afloat in a sea of my own making, harmonious with the hum of life, with its potential seeping into me, I turn to my least favorite place.
It wants to sweep me away, it wants me to forget I’m forty, a mother of teens; that room wants me to forget I escaped.
So I anchor myself, feet first, in my safe place and feel relief.
Breathing slowly, I return to my childhood bedroom.
My left eye starts twitching.
Back to the present I remember: I’m okay. I’m safely here in the present.
The room is pretty with a huge sliding glass door leading out to a small patio. Another wall has a large window facing east. I can (and do) step right through the window to the roof of the house.
Sometimes that’s the only way I get away from Mom. She’s stuck in the room, calling to me; telling me to come back in, “right now.” And I don’t.
The window and glass doors are decorated with pleasant flowery curtains and my bed is a great big hand-me-down king, with matching floral sheets. My dresser and mirror are quite feminine — surprisingly so in a house filled with heavy solid wood.
Built into the wall above the bed is a heating vent with a mirroring vent to the room next-door, the room my younger siblings share.
I don’t quite know how to explain the worst details of my room.
When Dad manages to escape from Mom in order to visit with my siblings I hear every happy sound in their room. He teaches them geography, reads them stories, asks them about their day. Laughter. Dad clears his throat. Whispers. Giggles. Praise. Teach. Now there’s a manly chuckle.
From beginning to end I hold my breath and catch myself holding it now too. I force myself to take a few deep breaths or the world will start spinning around me.
Back in that bedroom I wait desperately to be invited, acknowledged, wanted; I desperately want permission to be.
Mom is walking up the stairs, calling to Dad. He gives kisses, makes plans for the next lesson and walks across the landing to his room. My anticipation heightens: “Will he think to call ‘Goodnight’ to me?”
The alternate reality that I suffered in that room leans far to the other extreme.
My parents have great loud raging fights. The house and walls shake.
The noise wakes me despite their heavy solid door.
Now I hold my breath in terror, and dread being noticed.
No matter the hour they come for me. They include me in their most intimate scenes for I am their life raft.
When they start blaming me they start calming down.
They begin liking each other again.
All of their frustration and rage is now focused on me. I’m the source of their every fear and pain. Separately, they’ll throw me or strangle me. Together they bombard me, circling like hyenas, with a barrage of verbal assaults. Whoever leaves first must take me so no one leaves. No one wants to be alone with me. They tell me I was the worst mistake ever made, if only they’d never had me; “Don’t ever have children, Adrienne,” they taunt me. If only I was smarter. If only I worked more. At some point I can’t hear them because there’s a soothing buzz in my ears.
Returning to the present I hear the Palestinian sunbirds calling to each other. Always a couple. If you hear one, it’s a certainty its mate is nearby. He’s iridescent black while she’s dull brown. They flit about my garden, conversing constantly.
Chirping birds don’t exist in that other place; none I notice.
Here-and-now does. The warm sun, the cool dew, the ladybugs, the earth worms (I love those guys), the singing birds, the flowers, the earth, the butterflies; they are all mine. Furthermore they call to me, they invite me in, they appreciate the love I offer and give.
And the tourists. And the photographers. And the young brides. And the owners. They all collectively ooh and aah.
I just soak it all up.
PS: it’s very important to share this experience and the life-changing work I managed to do. I want others who are currently trapped in the hell-hole of PTSD to find hope; yet I cannot publish this without adding that today my parents and I have a miraculously warm and loving relationship. We spent years not speaking because the sound of their voices flooded me pain and terror. There’s so much more to write about my ongoing recovery from PTSD and in those future stories I will try to explain how my healing transformed all three of us.