It’s Friday afternoon. I have one more class to teach and Kevin* said he’d call me. My head hurts, both eyes are twitching. I’m exhausted, anxious and nauseous, unable to think about anything else. I tried to look at some emails; I didn’t care and my eyes twitched harder. I barely kept it together to teach this morning. I care deeply about serving the people I’m with–it’s just that my body keeps forgetting how to breathe and I periodically gasp for air, clutching my chest and staying away from my students.
I make myself into a ball on my friend’s couch. My nervous system probably needs a nap, but I’m too agitated to sleep. I grab my copy of “Hold Me Tight” and flip through to re-read the most relevant chapters. After a while I text him to see when he plans to talk. He’s on a work call, he’ll call me when he’s done. My nausea spikes and I can hear my eyes twitching. I bury my eyes in my hands and groan.
Eventually my phone rings. Not long ago, a call from Kevin* would make me feel expansive and joyful. My heart would flutter, my face would relax, I’d grin and happily drop everything. Now I look at the phone and wince, catch myself not breathing and then answer, trying to sound kind of normal. I ask him about his day and his work call, rolling my eyes and laughing with him about how his least favorite co-worker is an inconsiderate pain in the ass. His voice is relaxed. I’ve missed him. This simple familiarity feels sweet and calming and I relax a little. I ask him if he’d rather resume our conversation now or continue it when we can talk in person and he leaves it up to me. I’ve been struggling with needing repair from this conflict for ten intensely painful days now, so as much as I long to chat happily with him I sigh and glance at the notes I’ve made to clarify what I still don’t understand and need from him.
He’s told me about his thoughts and reactions but not what he’s felt, so I ask him and listen carefully, asking questions until I think I understand. I stay engaged with him as he then tells me, essentially, that he is incapable of handling a major conflict on the spot without thinking about it first, and that he can’t devote time to that thinking until anything important and urgent is attended to.
I stop breathing. I feel like he’s punched me. As carefully and deliberately as I can, I tell him that really hurts to hear because it sounds like he’s just told me I am not important. He’s defensive, explaining that isn’t what he meant, it’s just that other things have to get done first and those things are urgent. I diffuse his agitation as quickly as possible–out of habit and conditioning as well as distress that I’ve upset him, but also tell him that even though I can accept our differences, I really need my expectations managed because it’s painful and frightening to leave a conflict open-ended. He does not mirror back any understanding of my feelings or needs. There’s silence for some time. I struggle with my hurt and confusion and deep desire to repair the disconnect.
I’ve set a timer to alert me when I need to leave for class, and it is sounding. I am deeply unnerved by his silence, his defensiveness and his persistent inability to attune to me in these conversations. He’s just poured more salt in the wound that’s been caused by his turning away from my needing him and it stings like a motherfucker.
I don’t know what else to do, so I tell him as calmly as I can that I need to drive, I can’t have this conversation while doing so, and I’d like to continue later. “But,” I say, “I need you to understand why this is so painful for me. You have assured me insistently and repeatedly at every opportunity that you would support me and stand by me. I’ve been very open with you from the beginning about my trust issues, my fear of men, my PTSD and my emotional vulnerability. If encountering such a normal, predictable consequence of what I told you was going to be a deal breaker for you, I needed to know that. You’ve told me that I matter to you and that you love me. You’ve given me every assurance that I can rely on you and you aren’t going anywhere, so I have trusted you. I can’t articulate to you strongly enough how very painful and troubling it is or how upset I am that you insisted you would not hurt me but didn’t take care not to.”
He says “I’m sorry” but it sounds hollow and detached. The tone is less committal than what I would offer to someone whose foot I had stepped on. My mouth drops open and I wait, horrified. Nothing.
“Ok then,” I say, “I guess I’ll talk to you…sometime soon.”
I sit, stunned. Do I say goodbye? I can’t believe how disengaged he is. I hear the line disconnect. What happened to the tender man I’ve known and loved?
I absolutely have to leave. I suddenly feel vacant and anesthetized as I stagger to my car. I nearly back into a parked car struggling with my seatbelt, which I failed to fasten. I stop for a moment, press my hands against my face and whimper, then I look at the time. People are relying on me.
I have to teach a workshop tomorrow. I have to print handouts. I meant to edit them. There’s that party tonight I was supposed to go to with Kevin*. There’s another tomorrow night. I can’t do any of this. I trusted him. Why did I trust him? I can never trust anyone again. That’s not true.
My thoughts swirl, piling frenzied into a tangled, massive, overwhelming mountain of impossible pain. I can’t remember anything about my life I want, anything familiar and comforting, anything but how much it hurts right now. Why, when it was so clear that I was fragile and struggling did he insist he would not hurt me, knowing he wasn’t capable of tolerating my inevitable attachment issues? He’s so smart and it’s so obvious and easy to comprehend. I could have explained it to him or he could have figured it out by doing five minutes of reading. Why was he so reckless with me? I’m not only doomed to losing this relationship with someone who is demonstrating that I have very little value to him–I’m doomed to either wall myself off or be hurt over and over again because I can’t tell when someone is safe to trust, like I thought he was. I’ve been working so hard to learn that.
This is way too much pain for one person to be in. The worst thing about PTSD isn’t the flashbacks or the nightmares, the hyper-vigiliance or the fear or all the things I can’t do. It’s learning, over and over again how limited other people are. It’s having the strength to face such an intense struggle every day and the deep, painful wound of both needing to be loved properly and fearing nobody will. Most of all, the pain that cuts the deepest is having the courage and the love inside me to face another person naked and undefended, show him the wounded place where I need help healing and have him push me away when he doesn’t have the courage or the capacity to witness the pain I live with every day of my life.
(To be continued…)
*Name has been changed