Living with PTSD, Defying Gods and Demons

Hello dear readers! I know its been a long time since my last post, life was pretty dark there for awhile, and I felt pretty directionless after deciding to defer my enrollment in seminary.  There have been a lot of topics I’ve been kicking around in my mind to write about, and a lot of half finished posts that are sitting on my computer after inspiration left me.  However, this post has been on my mind for weeks, and as part of a gift to myself for 2016 I will be finally releasing it.  I am more than a quarter of a century old now, and I want to be able to talk openly and without shame about fact that I have post-traumatic stress disorder.  So I offer this window into my experience and story for my loved ones who want to understand me better, for my own inner peace, and for anyone else who might be similarly suffering to know that you are not alone.  Of course, if depression and self harm are especially triggering topics to you, please practice good self care and skip this post : ) I promise not everything I write about will be this intense. 

Thanks for staying with me dear readers, lets begin.

“Oh you went to George Fox University, what was that like for you?”

I’ve had that same question, with minor variation, asked to me a lot since I graduated in 2013.  Its an innocent and standard question, and I think that it has always been asked with genuine curiosity.  That being said…my heart breaks a little whenever it is asked.

I’ve prepared a couple quick canned answers to the question, enough to satisfy curiosity, and to let me skate past the question as quickly as possible.

“It was really challenging at times, but I met some of the most incredible friends there, and my experience informed a lot of the activism that I do today.”

“It was hard,  LGBTQ students did not have much institutional support, but I worked to try to make it better for LGBTQ students and I am really proud to have been able to do that.”

Those are some examples, and nothing that I say in those sentences is untrue…its just not the whole truth…not anything close to it.

If anyone truly wanted to understand what George Fox University was like for me, I’d have to ask a couple things of them.  First, I’d ask if they are fine having multiple conversations, with me doing most of the talking.  I’d ask if they are able to witness and hold my rage, and if they are comfortable sitting with me while I cry.  If anyone could answer yes to all of those things, then I could begin to offer a complete answer about what college was like for me.

The shortest and most true answer that I could give to “What was going to GFU like for you?” would be this: I have PTSD from my college experience.

That last line was so nerve-wracking to even type dear readers…part of me is afraid of not being taken seriously, or for people to dismiss what I say as overblown and lies.  Believe me, it is no point of pride to say that I have PTSD, that I have been trying to manage and cope for two years with varying degrees of success.

I talk to my LGBTQ peers, and so many of them describe their college experience as this wonderful time of self discovery and support to explore their queer identity.  How can I communicate an experience that was so radically different?!? How can I make sense of having PTSD, you know…the thing that folks who go to war and see their friends blown to bits have…I wish there was a shortcut to explain.  I wish their was a cable I could set up from my mind to another, plug in and they would instantly understand what I am trying to say.  But this is what I am left with, my ability to use the written word.

I know that I can’t be alone, so I must assume that the others who are suffering invisibly may also feel embarrassment and shame.  At the very least dear readers, I’d ask that you please take a moment to thoughtfully consider these people…hold them in your thoughts or prayers. 

Here are some honest insights into what days in the life of having PTSD from college can look like.

It is 2015 and I’m sitting at my desk, working on my computer and enjoying the day, absentmindedly I relax my left arm and it rolls slightly over.  My eyes look down and are met by the railroad lines of scars on my wrist, and I shut my eyes with surprise and disgust, hating myself.  In that moment I wish to hack off my arm rather than look at those marks for the rest of my life.  For nearly every social situation that I am in, whenever I am talking with people, I am always mindful of the angle of my left arm, especially if I do not have long sleeves on.  I fear having to explain those scars to a potential partner in the future too, because it is so hard for me to see them as anything but ugly…

It is 2013 and I am sitting on the floor of the basement bathroom in a campus owned house where I live.  The shower is running but I am not in it…most of my roommates probably think I take a lot of showers.  My wrist is bleeding, and my head is buzzing from nicotine of the dip tobacco in my lip.  This was how I coped with the stress every day, with cutting and nicotine.  That was how I managed to put on a brave face and look like a capable leader in public.  I was running on 3 or 4 hours of sleep most days if I was lucky, late nights trying to comfort students in crisis, long days with of planning and meetings with administrators.  I was giving all that I had to give and more for weeks and months on end, and I hid from everyone how much I was hurting.

I only started to appreciate the extent of my own trauma when I was a few months after graduation when I was living in Atlanta.  I would wake up from nightmares of being back on campus in that same miserable situation.  The flashbacks through…the flashbacks are the worst part of it for me.  They are intrusive, and feel like a ghostly hand of all the past hurt reaching into my chest and seizing me back into my darkest moments.  I start to panic as the vividness of the pasts washes over my present, and its hard at that point to tell where I am at all. Thankfully the flashbacks are infrequent, and the severity of them has varied.  It is nerve-wracking to think that they can be set off at any time, and in public…they have before.

The worst flashback I ever had was in 2014, during the Gay Christian Network conference that was being hosted in Portland.  Safety Net was having our annual board meeting concurrently with that conference, which made a lot of sense as a networking opportunity, but go figure, when GCN is happening in my hometown…I get sick, reeeeaaaal sick.  My body was aching and depleted in every way, but I pressed on because the work was important and meaningful to me.  On one of the last nights of the conference, Safety Net was going to screen the movie “Let Your Light Shine” in a nearby church, which told the story of the founding of OneWheaton, the LGBTQ and allied alumni association of Wheaton College.

I was running on fumes by the time I sat down to watch the movie with everyone.  It was really an incredible story that needed to be told, and I’d very much recommend that people watch it, but in that room at that moment I started to get too far drawn into the movie.  One of the most tragic emotional crescendos of the movie came when it told of a gay Wheaton student who was rejected in the worst ways by his peers, hurt to the point where he stepped in front of an oncoming train.  The suicide and the reasons for it were, predictably, underplayed and erased by the school.  Christian colleges have a habit of doing their best to erase these “embarrassing" moments, and outside of a few scrappy LGBTQ alumni associations and unofficial student clubs, there is no one putting pressure on them to do otherwise.  I starred at the screen stunned…not surprised…just stunned at the magnitude and the horror of it all, and there were no tears.

I shuttled some students who came to the screening back to the main convention center when it was over, and returned to the church to say goodnight to other board members.  When I walked out of the building I was noticing that I was feeling off, beyond the whole being sick with the flu, there was this cold shiver going down my spine, and my heartbeat was slowly starting to increase.  I got into my car with the single mindset to just get home, but the feeling kept getting worse and worse, and I started to get tunnel vision.  I made a left turn onto Grand Avenue, and my car went over some rail lines.

*bump bump* *bump bump*

All hell broke loose.  My eyes immediately filled with tears and I started screaming hysterically in my car.  My heart was beating out of my chest, and all I kept screaming was “NO!” over and over.  No they would not make me go back, I could NOT GO BACK! My body was reacting as if I was going to be going to class tomorrow, and I was vividly thinking that that was what would happen.  Thank God there was no one else near me on Grand Avenue that night…it took every ounce of what little control I still even had to force my eyes open and steer my car off the road into the parking lot of whatever was closest to me.

I was still screaming at the top of my lungs and weeping uncontrollably, my breath came in shallow and impossibly rapid gasps.  My rational mind was only vaguely aware of what was going on and felt far away, but I knew that I needed help.  I forced my shaking hand into my pocket to retrieve my phone.  I had no dexterity, could still hardly see at all through the tears, and was mercifully able to get into recent calls and started pressing.  My body was being wracked and convulsed in absolute agony, and I heard a voice on the other end of the phone pick up, now I just needed to slow down my breath enough to try to talk…easier said than done.

It was another board member who picked up the phone, and it took her a few seconds to make out the words that I was trying to choke out in-between breaths.  “Pulled.*breath* car. *breath* off *road* Grand *breath* Avenue.”  It took less than five minutes for a car with other board members to race up the street to find me.  They both jumped in the car and sat with me as I was still out of control in my flashback.  I don’t remember everything I said, except talking about all the dead people who I was not able to help, and I just tried to keep breathing.  They sat with gentle hands on me for awhile, and I slowly started to return.  My breathing slowed, and my muscles that were all impossibly tense at the same moment all started to relax, and my animal brain that was in mortal terror started to quiet and return to my normal way of thinking.

The ghost hand of the past let me go, and I slumped into my seat, completely, utterly, exhausted.  My fellow board members still sat with me, with understanding, and no judgement. 

I think thats where I will end that story and return us to the present dear reader.  

Sharing that memory in writing is difficult.  Surely anyone who would give me "professional" advice would quickly recommend I take this post down.  Imagine now an employer who is casually searching through applicants and Googles my name, "Ooooh this guy has PTSD. *resume into the recycle bin*" 

I know one of the most vulnerable parts of my story will be out there forever now, but to quickly address the whole idea of appearing perfect online....I have not even the slightest interest in it.  I have no interest at all in ever working at a place that would not hire me because I have PTSD.  I have no interest at all in feeling ashamed for the rest of my life.  

I do have an obligation to truth, and I do need to be able to make decisions that will allow me to sleep at night with my integrity intact.  To quote a line from a favorite movie "our integrity sells for so little, but it is all we really have.  It is the very last inch of us.  But within that inch we are free."   

It is December 18th 2015 and I am sitting at my desk at work in the morning, crying.  These tears are joy filled, and through them I see a letter from 7 United States Senators directed to the Department of Education.  It reads in part:

Dear Secretary Duncan:  
As Senators committed to advancing equality and civil rights in the lives of every American, we are writing to request that the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights immediately take steps to address the discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender non-conforming students by bringing greater transparency to the waiver process under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972.

After years filled with struggle against experts in quashing dissent, the simple truth put forward by LGBTQ and allied alumni of Christian colleges had captured the attention of US Senators.  We unlocked power through telling our stories, through telling the truth.  No amount of coordination, no amount of dollars spent on legal teams, and no cloistered community can ever be sealed tightly enough to overcome the power of truth.  

The response from the Department of Education remains to be seen, but I have no doubt that when the history of this part of the movement is written, that this letter will be marked as a significant turning point.  More than almost anything else, my PTSD can shake my faith somedays, but when I read that letter...I felt that maybe...just maybe...this injury that I can not understand will not have been in vain. 

I am a person living with PTSD, and I know I am not alone.  My scars and my pain are a part of me, and they do not define who I am.  I may never be able to perfectly explain it, but it is true to say that I left college with a heart that is still capable of loving, and that love has kept me going.


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