The Movie

This is Part II of my Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder journey.

Read Part I, The River.

* * *

We quickly packed up the kids from the river, and went back to my mom-in-laws home for dinner. That evening I thought I was ok. In fact, I thought I was great. I convinced myself the woman did not die, she was simply unconscious. There. Everything’s fine.

As the evening drew to a close I got into my car to drive home, but everyone insisted my husband drive. I remember being confused about why this was necessary.

I collapsed into bed, utterly exhausted, expecting to fall asleep immediately. Wrong. As my eyes closed, the movie started. In full Technicolor, THX surround sound, with the scents of the river, fresh air and sunscreen pumped in, the movie of the drowning woman played.

Horrified, I opened my eyes. The movie stopped. I calmed myself down, willing my heart-rate to slow. This can’t be real, I thought. Slowly I closed my eyes. There it was, that damn movie! It had started playing right where I left off. It was like I hit the pause button on the DVD player.

All night I fought sleep, terrified to close my eyes. Terrified to relive the horrific last moments of a person, a mom and wife, die. Seeing her body float away. Watching the young man slump with despair. Hearing the cries of the daughter from across the river.

I decided I would just let the movie play. Once it was over, it would be over. Only it wasn’t. As soon as the 911 operator hung up, the movie immediately started again with the daughter floating beside her inner tube. The movie kept looping, and looping, and looping. Eventually I would find a fitful sleep, constantly interrupted by parts of the movie as it played on and on.

This went on for nights and nights. I was completely exhausted, but dreaded the thought of closing my eyes. My daughters needed me, but I was in a fog. I could do rudimentary care, nothing more.

I was going insane, getting more and more desperate. I wanted the movie to stop, the pain and anguish to stop. I was removing myself from the outside world, living only in my head. People would call my name several times, trying to get my attention. I was consumed with the death.

I knew a firefighter from our local town, and told him what was happening. He suggested I speak to the Victim Services counsellors with the City of Calgary. The firefighter shared that the worst part for him was the smell. He could recall the smells from the accidents and fires he had responded to, and all the horror that went with them.

Visualization of how the brain categorizes events.

Visualization of how the brain categorizes events. Image courtesy of extremetech.com.

I met with two psychologists in Calgary, told them about the drowning and the never-ending movie. They explained this was my brain’s way of making sense of this ‘new’ experience. My brain had never seen anything like this before, so it needed to categorize, label, and file it away for future reference. They assured me the movie would eventually stop playing, and to not fight it.

I did stop fighting it, stopped willing the movie to end. It still played on and on, but I was now resigned to it. After a few weeks, the movie stopped playing in its entirely, and instead focused on specific parts of the drowning. The movie would pick one particular part, like the pocketknife being dangled down by shoelaces, to play over and over. For hours and hours I would watch, listen and smell the body float away. I was almost dispassionate about it.

It seemed my brain had finished with the entire sequence of events, and had moved on to categorizing each minute detail. It was slow and painful work, but it was progress.

Weeks passed, and the details were processed. The movie no longer played, but the damage was done. I was a shell. In shock, in over-load, in overwhelm, in out-of-control mode. I was a mess, a stinking, rotting mess.

My relationship with my husband came to a deadened, pitiful halt. I was completely unable to respond to the mental and emotional needs of my children. I could go through the motions of physically caring for them, but was not ‘engaged’ at any level. My mind continuously drifted off, completely unable to bring myself back to the here and now.

When I wasn’t drifting in outer-space, I was in a constant rage of frustration, annoyance and fear. I went from fun-loving and calm, to angry and detached. I was a bomb waiting to explode, and often did. No matter how much I tried to control myself, I would snap at the slightest infraction by my kids or husband. The anger and frustration inside me was an active volcano that erupted at will.

I was a terror. I doubt I will forgive myself for those lost years. Yes, years. Years my kids lost not enjoying an easy childhood with a loving and patient mom. Years I lost not being able to fully enjoy and revel in my kids. It took five long and desperate years to finally find the help I needed.

* * *

Part III – My Recovery,  deals with how I found help for my PTSD, and the stepping-stones along the way.

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Posted in My Journey, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

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