Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Dr. Schwartz's Cure for PTSD

In his dreams, looking out of a window, Michael would see the man watching him through a pair of binoculars like a voyeur. That was in the beginning - right after it had happened - when Michael was still young. But as time had gone by and Michael had grown into adulthood, the binoculars had disappeared and been replaced by a rifle.

"Post Traumatic Stress Disorder," his therapist had told him the first time Michael had visited his clinic. And he had proceeded to read Michael the definition of the disorder from his Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. "You're more traumatized by this event than you realize, Michael," Dr. Schwartz had said. "And you can't keep living in denial by not allowing yourself to talk or think about it. You need to face your ghosts if you want to eventually lead a normal life."

Michael knew all of this was true. But he also knew that he had allowed it to continue. First off, he had not resisted, had not tried to fight it. Secondly, he had kept it a secret. And the binoculars that had changed to a rifle in his dreams were his way of telling himself that he was just as guilty for what had happened as the man was guilty. The rifle was Michael's way of coming to terms with his own guilt. In his new dreams, standing at his window, with the rifle aimed at his chest and his violator's eye visible through the scope, Michael felt like a condemned man before a firing squad.

We like to see the events in our lives as plot lines that allow us to understand those events. When we're in a bind, we deliberately remind ourselves of a challenging incident that has happened to us in the past, and we methodically add just the right blend of memories to make it traumatic enough. Suddenly, everything falls into place for us. Suddenly, everything makes sense. Oh, that's why this is happening to me, now - it's because of what happened five years ago. I can't take the blame for something that happened to me...

Everything happens to us. We're all victims. That's how the system works. If we can all be victims, we can all be guilt-free. Even the most preying predator was probably victimized as a child, so the system says that that "likely contributed" to his victimizing someone else. We say we "condemn these acts," but in our hearts we secretly absolve the act and the actor by finding a justification for the behavior. We don't approve, oh no, but who are we to sit in judgment? A Happy Ending, right?

The first time Michael was raped he was fifteen. It felt like an impossible trauma for him to bear. He didn't know how he was going to go on living with the shame, the guilt, the anguish of having been physically and emotionally violated. The fact that he decided to keep it a secret added to the pain. Then, slowly, over time, he accepted the reality - he didn't come to terms with it, but accepted it. But even today, there are moments when life seems overwhelming: work, friends, family - and especially his father.

"You should speak with your father. Tell him the truth," Dr. Schwartz suggests. But Michael tells Dr. Schwartz that speaking with his father would be like talking to a brick wall; his father and the man (Michael still can't bear to speak his name after all this time) continue to be friends. "You should speak with your father," Dr. Schwartz insists.

Weeks pass before Michael gathers enough courage to tell his father about what had happened so many years ago. Michael is afraid of his father's reaction, afraid that it will widen the rift that already exists between them. His father takes a long puff on his Dunhill cigarette, exhales slowly, and says, "What do you want me to do?" Michael is not surprised, but he is hurt. His father has never wanted to take responsibility for anything, not even by just caring. Even if he isn't going to do anything, Michael tells himself, he could at least pretend he cares.

One evening, Dr. Schwartz proposes a new strategy. "For our next session," he says to Michael, "I want you to write about what happened with as much detail as you can remember. It doesn't matter how many pages you write, as long as you probe every crease of your memory." Dr. Schwartz looks deeply into Michael's eyes. "And allow yourself to cry, Michael. If you can't cry, you can't cleanse your soul of this. Crying is the catharsis you need." Soul? Catharsis? Since when were such words included in a therapist's vocabulary? But Dr. Schwartz is a therapist of a different variety. Although he is a relatively unattractive man with big thyroid-ravaged eyes that look like small golf balls, his hands are the hands of angels, the elegant praying hands of marble saints, with long fingers and manicured fingernails, all buffed to a glossy sheen. Maybe Dr. Schwartz is Michael's supplicant mediator? But Michael can't help but wonder if Dr. Schwartz has ever used those hands to hurt someone. Are his therapist's hands stained with the Macbethian blood of his victims?

As Michael writes his narrative, this narrative of past events written in the present to alleviate future suffering, he feels like he's redefining his life with every detail that he includes. Michael has been plagued by images of the rapes over the course of his life, and because those images made him flinch and tremble, he has always suppressed them. But today, replaying the memories in his head and filling in the gaps with details empowers him. And so do his tears, which he does not try to stop. For the first time in a long time, Michael allows himself to succumb to the pain - all of it. He allows the grief to envelop him, and the tears to cleanse him. Dr. Schwartz had once told him that we should never deny ourselves the feeling of grief - it is a necessary process in maintaining our sanity. For the most part, Dr. Schwartz has been right. And his strategy seems to work. I'm coming face-to-face with my ghosts, and coming to the realization that those ghosts no longer have any power over me. I feel like I am finally in control.


I like to watch my wife sleep. Tonight, she sleeps so peacefully, so silently, I'm afraid she will stop breathing. As I watch her, I feel myself slip into a deep slumber. In my dreams, my wife and I are at the opera. She is watching the actors on stage with great passion through a pair of binoculars. But I have no binoculars. I watch the actors on stage through the scope of my rifle. I don't wish to fire at the actors for any crime that they have committed. I only wish to see them through a lens that allows me to feel like a courageous warrior rather than a cowardly voyeur.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Not Your Usual Social Call

“Come. Let me show you around our new house.” Suzi and I had once known one another casually but had never turned our relationship into a friendship; our personalities hadn’t exactly clicked. She had always struck me as a superficial and fake person with no real interest in others. She had also seemed like a woman whose heart wouldn’t miss a beat over hurting someone. I’m having these thoughts as Suzi and I are sitting on her king size bed, chatting, oddly, about old times, as if we’d been the best of friends. We haven’t seen each another in years, and Suzi seems to think I have more than an active interest in what’s happened with her life since we’d last spoken. My head is getting heavy with her empty chatter, and I’m feeling troubled and claustrophobic. Although I haven’t seen the rest of the interior yet, and my dream didn’t begin with my arriving at Suzi’s house and seeing it from outside, I already know the house is enormous. As I follow Suzi out of her bedroom of satin, silk, and lace, I begin to feel more and more uneasy. Why am I here? Why are we sitting in her bedroom and not in the living room? What’s the purpose of this show-and-tell? “We had to make a lot of changes to open it up, you know,” Suzi says, and I wonder who the other person in the “we” is. Did she get married to a loaded moneybags, after all? I ask myself, and I turn my attention away from her face to look at a room she’s supposed to be showing me. But directly in front of me is a closed door. And behind me is another closed door. The long hallway, so long I can’t see the end of it, has closed doors on either side. “Isn’t it beautiful?” Suzi says, and it's obvious she isn't expecting an answer. “I just can’t believe how open everything is, now. You should’ve seen it before we tore down all the walls and doors. It was a disaster.” Before you tore down all the walls and doors? I must be losing it. “Come on. Let me show you the rest.” I follow. As we’re going down the hall, I realize Suzi is oblivious to the doors, and even to the hall itself. She’s walking down the hall as if she’s going from one open room to another. Maybe I’m imagining things? But I know I’m not. Suzi stops in front of a door. “I like that all the guest rooms are in separate wings,” she says. “That way our guests can have some privacy,” she adds with a wink. She pauses, her hand clutching the doorknob. “You know, Nevine, you really should think about coming down and spending a week or two with us.” But her voice is distant and insincere. And I wonder why she didn’t mention my husband in the invitation. Suzi opens the door and we walk into a room filled with other doors. I go to a door and walk out into another room with more doors. “Can we see the next room, please?” I say, eager for the tour to be over. But Suzi has her back to me, and she doesn’t seem to have heard me. “Suzi?” “Oh, yes, of course,” she says. “It’s right over this way.” But the next room is across the hall. Weren’t we just in this room? And I start to correct Suzi, to remind her that we’ve already been in this room, but she opens the door and it’s another empty room with more doors. I’m dizzy, both physically and mentally. What a strange existence this woman leads, I say to myself. To be surrounded by a horrific maze of empty rooms and not to even realize it! Her home must mirror the vicious meaninglessness of her life. “Are we almost done with the house tour?” I ask Suzi, but I turn around to find that she's no longer there. I feel a cold chill as goose bumps break out on my arms and legs. “I have to get out of here,” I tell myself out loud, hoping my voice will provide the security I need to keep my sanity intact. But a deep fear seizes me as I realize that I no longer remember which of the doors is my key to freedom. And I know, now, that I will either have to open every door, or else meet an unknown doom in this purgatory. Instinctively, I look down at my ring finger and see that my solitaire setting has disappeared, and that only my diamond is there, suspended just above my finger, as if it’s floating by the power of a gravity that’s holding it up rather than pulling it down. Suzi has reappeared in front of me and is smiling wickedly. I still have time, I tell myself. But I feel helpless. The adrenaline rush has left me weak, and I close my eyes, needing a moment to recover. When I open my eyes again, I’m standing outside, looking at an old, run-down building rather than a new house, feeling like I’ve been banished, and asking myself dozens of questions in fewer seconds. The building reeks of mold, and is surrounded by pipes that wrap around it like barbed wire, obstructing the ability of anyone inside to open a window or door. A child, who appears to have come from inside the building, walks toward me, and smiles darkly. She comes closer and takes my left hand, looks at my ring finger, and says, “Suzi heard everything you were thinking about her. She says you can go to hell.”
The dream ends.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Open Thoughts to a Closed Mind

You don't recognize this man anymore, do you? Your high school sweetheart? Prom King and Queen? Remember? Father of the two apples of your eye? You're unhappy. Don't even try to deny it. The last time you did anything for yourself was... maybe two months ago? When you and your girlfriends went to the nail salon, that was it! Is this how indifferent you've become? Forget about the fact that you're a great soccer mom and all that crap. It isn't worth a hoot and you know it. Your life is a mess, girl.

Remember that game you used to play with Tom when you first got married? When you were always asking each other if you felt married? And you both always said, "No, we're still madly in love." That made you as happy as chocolate sprinkles on vanilla cake. Well, lately, he's been thinking before he speaks, hasn't he? And then, he has the gall to say yes. "Is it me, or is it the job?" you ask him. And then he thinks some more (maybe even a little longer than some more, so long you can almost see question marks floating around his head) before he tells you he thinks it might be the job. But you know it's you. He just won't tell you that because he doesn't have the guts.

He doesn't spend time with you. He doesn't even spend time with the kids. Whenever he's home, which is rare, he's always busy with something. It's either the lawn, or the barbecue grill, or the deck, or oh... the garage - let's not forget about the loads of crap he's always busy banging on in that garage. Like he's building a house or something! And what about that computer that he's almost attached to with a chain? When he says he's going to sit at the computer, you know you might as well forget about seeing him for the rest of the day. Take for example this morning - he was at the computer for two hours. Doing what? It's the weekend! Doesn't he spend enough time sitting at a computer during the week at work? But that wasn't all! 'Cause right after he got off the computer, he needed to run to the store real quick and grab something for that "project" he's working on in the garage. So, just to try and keep the family together on the weekend, you say, "Well, why don't we all go out? Wyatt and Natalie, go put some shoes on." But you don't look at him because you know he's probably rolling his eyes like a kid. You're so in denial! So you go out. And everything is peachy until you're on your way home - he starts an argument. And you're sitting there with your jaw in your lap, like, What on earth? Where did this come from? But you know he's only doing it so he has an excuse to avoid you once you're home. And avoid you he does, the jerk! And because you're a woman and you're all sensitive about others' feelings and all that, you leave him alone and you go surf the web - you're allowed to use the computer, too, dammit! But the hunger pangs eventually get a hold of him. Either that or it's just his clever plan to get you off the computer so he can get back on it, 'cause that's exactly what he does while you're busy doing your kitchen duty of fixing lunch for him and the kids. You eat, and just as you're finishing, he announces that he's going to go check the weather - online. So, he's at the computer for three hours, and he's still not done checking the weather. Did you know it took so long to check the weather? It takes you about two minutes!

Be careful! You're becoming sarcastic. You're so bitter about this whole thing, but there's really nothing you can do, is there? In fact, you don't even know if you would change anything if you could. What you do know is that his idea is to keep you around so you can keep him organized, and keep him company at his convenience. And most of the time, your company is not at all a convenience, because he's perfectly happy working on that mystery "project" in the garage. So what are you going to do? You know you'll eventually have to do something about this because you can't live like this for the rest of your life.

You dread the coming few days. It's the Holidays (yahoo! aren't you over the moon?) and he's off until January 2, by which point, if this trend continues, you'll either be out of your mind or out of your mind. You should've seen the signs and heard the hints - as far back as high school. Shoulda, coulda, woulda, as he'd say. You can only blame yourself. You're the one who let it happen. Christmas is the day after tomorrow and you are not excited. If truth be told, you just want for it all to be over. What's there to celebrate? The fact that you're tied down until January 2 while he's in the garage playing Leonardo da Vinci?

Oh, and, by the way, he just finished his "session" at the computer. Isn't that what you call them to yourself? "Sessions?" And you just watch - he's going to come downstairs and put on a movie. He'll push the "Play" button on that damned remote that he's addicted to like a teething baby is to a pacifier, and then he'll sit back in his leather recliner and spread his legs as wide as they'll go. And if you decide to join him, he'll fall asleep. But if you decide not to join him, he'll watch the movie all the way to the end, and then he'll go back to the "Scenes" menu with his handy dandy remote and watch his favorite parts again. So... you figure you'll just let him enjoy his time alone. He's working so damn hard at ignoring you, you don't want to overly complicate things for him. He's got enough complications with the Vitruvian Man. And anyway, he can go ahead and have himself a good time by himself. Maybe one day it'll be permanent!

So, babe, are you done ranting? Good. Now go make yourself some Tazo Calm.