After living for 30 years with PTSD, the writer explains how he finally broke free.
By John Hack
I battled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for three decades before making peace. My feelings shifted and evolved. I’d get a grip, and a new symptom would appear. Successful techniques later became dysfunctional. Once overwhelming, PTSD gradually moved to the background, as I pushed years of my life deep into subconsciousness. Yet it lurked, occasionally pulling me down or jacking me up.
The journey started during my college years at MIT. I embraced classes, dorm life, and Boston culture. It’s after I moved off campus my junior year when the trouble began. Two good friends died in unrelated accidents. Mike got hit by a car that ran a red light. A week later, another friend, Steve, was found dead in Zimbabwe. He returned home to help rebuild homes after the local civil war. Their violent deaths initiated what is called Acute Stress Disorder, PTSD’s little cousin. I was shocked and became disconnected and distracted. Grieving with friends, I slowly accepted their deaths. My world returned to its routine of school and work.
My rock through this was my girlfriend, Joy. She brought love, meaning, and adventure into my life. After graduating, we hopped on our heavily laden bicycles and started pedaling to San Francisco. A 1,000 miles into our trip, Joy was killed by a drunken driver on a remote backroad in Illinois. I will never forget the day. It was Thursday, July 12, 1984. Kneeling in gravel, I held her broken and bloodied body as she slipped into unconsciousness. I remember it was twilight, and the setting sun and rising moon seesawed in opposite directions on the flat Midwest horizons. I don’t know how long it took for the EMTs to arrive. I do know they were too late to save her.
Joy’s death sent my world tumbling. After being grilled by local detectives seeking her killer, I dissociated. Psychologists call it “derealization.” The world turned unreal, colors washed out, as through a fog. I was numb amid a swirl of detectives and relatives, news reporters and friends, the district attorney and the coroner. I was grief-stricken and traumatized, wracked by nightmares and insomnia. The police eventually caught the driver. He struck a plea deal for manslaughter; because he had a clean record, he only spent 30 days in jail and paid a $500 fine.
I arrived in Oakland, California, four months after Joy died. It was the middle of the night, and I only had two dollars in my pocket, lying atop a pile of luggage in the back of a pickup driven by Deadheads kind enough to give a stranger a ride. In California, a generous friend offered me a spare room while I pulled my life together. I was memory-tormented. Triggers were impossible to avoid. Bicycles, blueberries, peanuts, kites, penguins – an endless list – conjured Joy in my mind, and then I’d be back on that bloody roadside. Adrenaline would pump, fueling edginess and anxiety, then wear off, leaving me depressed and irritable. Memories turned dreams into nightmares. Insomnia and suicidal ideation were late-night bedfellows. This mental anxiety was now my life: Overwhelmed by grief, trauma, and alienation. I had never heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and never even considered seeing a shrink.
I instinctively avoided anything that triggered intrusive memories. I stayed at home or walked to avoid cars. While walking, I averted my eyes, looking down. I spent a lot of time working in the yard, alone, turning the soil and planting seeds. I also self-medicated on drugs using the adrenaline’s crazy rush as self-medication. Avoidance and numbing allowed me to get out of the house and look for work. My friend Glenn helped me land a two-month contract gig with a local software company. I could lose myself in code – no triggers were hiding in 8086/8088 assembly language. I had to suppress my thoughts, lest they too trigger anguish. Suppression took a concerted effort. I could sense when I was nearing a short-circuit and would force myself to think about anything else. Suppression reduced the disturbing memories of Joy and her death, but I had to stop thinking about my college years, or Joy.
Nearly a year after landing in Oakland, I found a full-time job. I started repaying my debts, gardened, and played in a bridge club. Daily life remained a struggle, but I’d nonetheless turned a corner. There were moments of peace. A conversation about death with a young woman in the bridge club sparked a courtship. I got my drug habits under control. After a few months, M and I start dating. Wracked by guilt, still grief-stricken, and stressed out, I could be irritable and prone to angry outbursts. M was adamant that I treat her decently. She made it clear she was done with me unless I saw a therapist. I valued our relationship and knew that true love combined a touch of magic with dedication. I started seeing a counselor, but the sessions didn’t help. I switched shrinks, to no avail. I was trying, though, and M stuck with me.
Decades later, I discovered another, more insidious side effect of suppression: memory loss. Memories can fade into oblivion if we don’t rehash and relive important memories, ensuring their place in our lives. Instead, the suppression and refusal to think about my memories allowed them to fade to nothing in my mind. My journals recount significant events about which I remember nothing at all, including a trip to New York City, seeing old friends in Cambridge, and a big family reunion in Detroit. Completely lost and gone forever. So when M got into a doctoral program in New York City, I jumped at the chance to get far away. We lived in graduate student housing, and I found a tech job. I ignored my past as much as possible and tried to live in the present. At first, it worked; Manhattan was new and different and exciting. We got married and settled into a routine. We were happy. Still, I became sullen at social events. Evenings when M was out, I often panicked. My mind would spin elaborate nightmares, my imagination foaming with police conversations, hospital waiting rooms, funeral arrangements, lawyers, bereaved friends and relatives, and on and on and on. I would pace, looking out the window, trying to talk myself down: “It’s OK. She’s not dead. It’s OK. She’s not dead. It’s OK…”
When I found out, Glenn, once my best friend, committed suicide, with a gunshot wound to the head, my anxiety returned. I flew to California, where my sputtering memory rendered me unable to deliver the eulogy he deserved. I felt like I failed him. Guilt, shame, grief, fear, and depression overwhelmed me on the flight back to New York.
After returning from Glenn’s funeral, M told me that she was pregnant. A new life was going to depend on me. M and I moved to the suburbs and were soon happy parents. I dedicated myself to family and work, and they gave meaning to my life. I valued time with M and the boys. Having lost almost everything, including the people I loved most in the world, led me to appreciate the people I did have all the more. With M and the boys, I knew what I had, and I cherished it.
The next decade was almost symptom-free. I’d suppressed my past. My subconscious suppressed memories before they could bubble up. I had a couple of drinks every night to help me sleep. Just one problem: I started having unexplained attacks. A racing heart, chest pains, cold hands, short breath, sweating, and faint-headedness convinced EMTs and hospital staff that I had a heart problem. Each time, after ever more elaborate tests, the doctors could find nothing wrong and sent me home. It never occurred to me that it was anything other than a heart problem. A business trip to Cambridge changed that. During breakfast at a hotel near MIT, I felt like I was having a heart attack. An ambulance took me to Cambridge City Hospital. After numerous tests and an overnight stay for observation, the discharging physician looked me straight in the eye and said, “You really ought to seriously consider that your problem is psychological.”
I just looked at him and said nothing. I knew he was right: My problem was psychological. It took months to find someone. I went into therapy for the seventh and last time in 2013. In the second session, my therapist insisted that I start at the very beginning. Skeptical yet hopeful, I agreed.
I breezed through my childhood, talked about my parents and siblings, and described my alienation during high school. When we got into my college years, though, I struggled to piece my story together. I was worried that something was wrong with my memory, but my therapist wanted to know about Joy. “Tell me about her,” she said. As I tried to convey her essence and character, she would slip away. I sat silently, struggling to remember, chasing memories that receded like a rainbow’s end. Embarrassed and ashamed, I went home and started digging through boxes in the attic. I found a cache of memorabilia in a small metal box. A few glances at its contents flooded my mind with memories of Joy, Glenn, and Cambridge, reducing me to tears. I quickly repacked it.
In our next session, my therapist gave me an unexpected yet firm diagnosis of PTSD. She warned me that the final months of my decades-long road to mental health would be a bumpy ride. My brain needed rewiring. It would take time to reconnect the suppressed memories, recover what I could of the lost ones, and neutralize the triggers. First, I had to manage panic attacks. I paid attention to my heart rate. I practiced breathing exercises. I learned to ground myself by tightly gripping the arm of a chair when memories began to sweep me away. My ability to suppress memories would continue to be useful. After some practice, I was ready; it was time to recover.
Alone in my study each evening, I reopened the box of memorabilia. Reading long-forgotten journals and peering at old photos released a flood of emotion. Each memory triggered two another, and each of those yet more; on and on, they cascaded through my mind. I rekindled a lot of pathways, and they couldn’t be turned off.
Long-suppressed triggers suddenly regained their potency: cars, bicycles, the moon. After a couple of weeks, I was as overwhelmed by memories as I had been back in California. I had trouble concentrating and took steady breaths to project a calm demeanor through sheer willpower. I took walks to calm and center myself. It was working. Sometimes, I could lose myself in work for a few hours. But more and more, I was struggling to stay connected to the world. Three months into therapy, I was exhausted, at the edge of madness. I began to doubt that I’d emerge with a good memory. Then, on a Thursday morning, after a long night of memory-tormented insomnia, I awoke into clarity. Colors were more saturated. Everyday objects were more detailed and vivid. Recovery had brought me into a new world. I call it “un-derealization.” I was no longer afraid of what I might see. The triggers and the memories and the present moment were no longer at odds.
Triggered memories washed over me but didn’t anguish me. I could hold the memory, experience it, and put it into place. PTSD had splintered my past, rendering me unable to make sense of it. I understood what happened, and that caring for others had given me strength and hope. Piecing together my lost and disordered memories into a coherent narrative was the cornerstone of recovery.
Therapy had gone as far as it could. There was nothing more to recover and nothing left to do but get on with my life.