It is 8 pm. I duck under the bar and emerge on the other side, separated from the rest of the club. I grab my cash bag and transfer its contents to my register. When that is done, along with cleaning and organizing, I turn to the crowd and take a deep breath. I follow this ritual at the beginning of every shift before the order taking and drink making starts. It is a ritual that is as second nature as a dancer’s muscle memory, but tonight, something is different. My eyelids feel heavy even though I had coffee at home an hour ago. I go over my day and cannot find a reason why I would be this tired. I look around at the people working on their drinks around the bar. Nothing out of the ordinary except that for some reason they look blurry, not blurry like when I’m not wearing my glasses and the world loses all its shapes and becomes a smudge of colors. This is not that blurry, but the sharp edge between a resting arm and the counter under it is lost. People seem to float. Yes! That is what this looks like, like we all are surrounded by a heavy fog, a fog that makes everything move slowly, as if we are floating with it. Why am I this tired? Why am I not here?
David, a regular that is always good game, the type that is nice without being annoying or creepy, was already in the bar when I arrived. I poured him a fresh drink and said, “David, I’m feeling kind of weird, like my body is here but my mind is somewhere else, can you buy me a drink so I can settle?” He said, “Sure girl, I know what you mean. Get yourself a drink and put it on my tab.”
I wake up at home at around 10 am which is painfully early for someone who gets home from work at 5 in the morning. The same way alcohol caused me to pass out as soon as I made it to my bed, it wakes me up against my will. I can hear my rapid heartbeat slamming my chest and sending intoxicated blood to my temples. My mouth is dry. My lips are sand. I feel like shit. I don’t know how many drinks I had. I know I had Jameson and club soda, also a few shots. I was sober enough to get through my shift and then home. I was drunk enough to not remember closing the bar, and then getting home. Did I pick up my money from the tip jar? Was my register right? Did I take a yellow cab or Uber? I am exhausted and sleepy, but my heartbeat is too loud for me to fall back asleep or even stay in bed. I get out of bed worried that I did something stupid at work and feeling guilty for drinking so much for no reason.
After community college I transferred to a 4-year university. In the second week in my new school a messy collage of fatality was breaking havoc in my mind and making reading impossible (A real problem for a Writing major). This anxiety wasn’t caused by the new environment, at least not exclusively. Also, in one of my classes a professor asked every student to meet her for five minutes in-office hours. I scheduled my meeting and showed up on time. From the moment I entered the book-filled office, I was planning my scape. It’s not that I didn’t find my professor interesting or that she was menacing. I wanted to run out of her office because I felt I was bothering her. I could not bear the thought of occupying someone else’s precious time, especially a figure of authority, so I spoke fast and ran out of her office as soon as I could. When I checked my watch, I realized I spoke with her for less than three minutes. My anxiety made think it had been much longer. It was frustrating because I knew this happened with every new person I met, and it was not good. People don’t know what goes on in my mind. I probably looked terrified or dismissive, not a good first impression either way. In those situations my mind feels like the last moments Alice spent in Wonderland before waking up, when a mob of delusional creatures was chasing her down. All thoughts, feelings, and actions happening at the same time without purpose or intension, my body wanting to get away from it all.
I had gone through waves of anxiety and depression since I was a teenager. I saw a few therapists then, but not for more than two sessions. All through my early twenties I knew I had to go back and talk to someone, but I was too busy working, studying, dating, partying, becoming independent, crashing, burning, and rising back up (you know… adulting). Also, I did not have health insurance or means to pay for therapy. Thankfully, my new school came with health insurance. After the speed visit with my professor and inability to tackle a stack of unread papers, I decided I shouldn’t live like that anymore; and since I finally had access to therapy, I could fix myself. That same week I made a phone appointment with the school department of Counseling and Psychological Services.
The interviewer was a woman with a Hispanic accent, which probably helped me feel more comfortable when answering her very personal questions: Why do you want to speak with a counselor? Do you use drugs or alcohol? How often? Have you seen a therapist before? Have you been a victim of physical abuse? Emotional abuse? Sexual abuse? Except for downplaying the frequency of my drinking my responses were honest.
Then she said, “From what you’re telling me I believe you could benefit from long term therapy. I can refer you to someone outside the university who accepts our insurance. Would you be interested in that?”
I said, “Yes, sure. Send me the info.”
Three weeks later I was sitting across a redheaded woman with a kind and straightforward demeanor. A year and a half later I continue to see this therapist once a week.
In the first and part of the second session I answered a bunch of questions about my family, my upbringing, my education, my habits, and finally my therapeutic goals. I told my therapist I wanted to lower my anxiety, increase my self-esteem, smoke less marijuana, and stop feeling like my presence was an inconvenience for people. When we hit the one-year mark she read my goals back to me from her notes. The last sentence was: “I just want to feel better.”
In the process there have been many moments of profound and sometimes unsettling discoveries. With the expert guidance of my therapist, I have found the origin of many of my issues and I have learned of others I never noticed before, although they were undoubtedly always there. I cannot say what has been the biggest breakthrough, but, up in the scale of mind-blowing findings is the fact that I have PTSD.
A few months into weekly sessions I was seating in front of my therapist on a Wednesday instead of the usual Monday morning. Up until then I did not know the benefits of Monday meetings as opposed to any other day. On Monday I still had two full days of being busy at school to process whatever we spoke in a session without the risk of me going to my new—but equally alcohol-filled—work environment. Monday was a school night, so if I was emotionally distressed, I had to deal with it from the safety of campus and then home. I do not remember why that week we had to reschedule for Wednesday, but there I was, at 9 am.
In that session, we spoke about my heaviest source of trauma. I gave her details of what happened and answered her open-ended questions with some difficulty evident in the long pauses between Q and A. When answering those questions my brain stops working, as if someone inside me pressed a PAUSE button. Then, when I am ready to give my answers, the connection between my brain and my tongue is disrupted. Eventually, after one or two deep breaths, the words come to out and I answer as best as I can.
I think that day there were no tears. Other parts of my childhood make me cry but not that one. At the end of the session she asked how I was feeling, and I said, “I’m good.”
She asked, “Are you sure you’re feeling fine?”
I said, “Yes, absolutely,” and gave her a reassuring smile. I was not lying. At that moment I was feeling fine.
The conscious processing of my sessions starts in the elevator ride from my therapist’s office. By processing, I mean recapping the highlights of my session. The conscious recapping usually ends five minutes later, as I’m stepping in the train to school or home. Everything else happens in the background, somewhere in my subconscious, where the old feelings and memories recently stirred start settling back again in the context of my present life, and with new information like: “It wasn’t your fault. You were a child; you couldn’t have known what was happening.”
That day I went to a Modern Literature class. Then I went home, took a short nap, and got ready to go to work.
I’m not bartending anymore. Now I’m a stripper and I’m still getting used to it. By getting used to it I mean I’m learning what is the right number of drinks I have to take in order to suppress my shyness, stoicism and lack of interest for lonely men in nightclubs. I need to drink deliberately but moderately. I need to find that sweet spot between feeling desirable and harassed, fun and appropriate, interested and angry. The more I drink, the flirtier and funnier I get, the more money I make. It was like that at least at the beginning. Later, I wasn’t getting fun drunk anymore but tired/sleepy drunk. Also, my body wouldn’t let me forget it was being damaged in the process. I was constantly waking up dehydrated, and I was always tired. I started limiting the number of drinks per night: from unknown number to 3 or 4, from straight bourbon to vodka or tequila mixed with club soda. Stick to one type of liquor. Never do shots. Towards the end of my yearlong stripping career I managed to go a few shifts without drinking.
On the Wednesday my therapy session and work shift overlapped I had been working on limiting my alcohol use for a while. I was still leaving tipsy most of the time, but I was conscious enough to take the train back home.
It’s 8:30 pm and I just left the dressing room where I did my makeup and changed into my work outfit: cocktail dress and high heels. I sit at one of the high tables by the bar and wait for costumers to arrive.
The club is dark except for red neon lights and ornamental chandeliers that along with red carpet, plush couches, and large drapes make you feel you’re in a vampire’s lair. It’s elegant in an old fashioned and tacky way that I can’t help myself from loving. Tonight, however, I can’t see any of this the way it usually is because I am looking at it through a familiar but unwelcomed haze. The groups of people talking on the couches or walking around as usual look like shadows. They are like ghosts that you can see but know don’t exist in the same realm as you do. They move slowly in their blurry, sometimes dark, sometimes colorful, silhouettes. It doesn’t help that the red lights move around in a loop.
The carpet and the chandeliers look two dimensional, far and close at the same time. My friends Tameka and Jolie, both whom I met when I was bartending, approach me and we start talking. I don’t know what they are saying. I don’t know if I am part of the conversation. I can’t comprehend anything in its fullness when they are in a different place than I am. I don’t think, “my body is here but my mind is somewhere else,” as I did a year before in my previous job, yet the line of thought is similar: “What the fuck is going on? Why do I feel so weird?” “Am I tired? I’m not tired but why are my eyelids so heavy? I’ll just have a drink to settle down.”
New costumers start creeping in and I start drinking.
The next morning, I wake up with a piece of cloth covering my face as usual. Before opening my eyes, I think: “How did I get home? A cab? Yes, of course, I took a yellow cab. Thank God I’m home.” I remove the shirt from my face and realize I’m NOT in my apartment. After a microsecond of panic, I realize I’m in Tameka’s. I take a deep breath both relieved that I’m safe and mortified because I went to bed too drunk to be aware of my surroundings in the morning. I was alone in Tameka’s bed. She was next to me sleeping on the couch.
Memories of that night are spotty. I remember drinking everything from bourbon to champagne, to shots of tequila. I remember doing a dance with Jolie and being mesmerized by her body. I remember telling Jolie I had a crush on her and that I wanted to have sex with her. I remember she smiled kindly and said, “You’re drunk, baby.” I remember Tameka telling me I was going home with her. I remember Tameka reacting the same way Jolie did when I told her I wanted to have sex with her. I remember her demanding firmly that I removed my make up before going to sleep.
The hangover lasted two days.
That next Monday I was back at my therapist’s office. I was embarrassed whenever I had to tell her I drank too much or saw the same toxic guy again, but I told her anyway: the heavy drinking, the sexual propositions to my friends, the waking up unaware of my surroundings. She encouraged me to recall that entire day, and after I did, she asked me to recall the feelings I was experiencing before I started drinking. I said I didn’t remember. She pressed on.
It’s a lot easier to speak of facts than feelings. I don’t know if it’s because of my upbringing or society in general, but speaking about feelings beyond happy, sad, angry, or nervous, is a challenge. I’m a little better at it now, but feelings talk was like learning a new language. One I get to practice once a week during session. Feelings is a language I experience but I am still learning to articulate. It’s the same thing with sensations. Try explaining, with as much details as you can, what happens in your body when you put a warm marshmallow in your mouth. For some people it might be easy, but for me, words come after a good while of “hmm?” and “Eeehm…” The challenge is even bigger when feelings and sensations are strange. How do I explain that night at work reminded me of a story I read, where ghostly shadows walk around people? How do I explain shapes in the room looked like they were going to float away?
Explaining strange feelings in a foreign language is hard work. Uncomfortable hard work. So I was a little annoyed when my therapist insisted I did just that. Thankfully, at that point I trusted her, so I took a deep breath and brought my mind back to the moments before the drinking started. After a few seconds I said, “I was feeling foggy.” She pressed on that fogginess. With difficulty and inner reluctance, I described everything I could remember: the blurry outlines, the voices that felt distant when they were very close, the two-dimensional space… Then my therapist pointed out that day we had talked about my trauma. Then she said what I experienced was called dissociation.
“Dissociation is a psychological experience in which people feel disconnected from their sensory experience, sense of self, or personal history. It is usually experienced as a feeling of intense alienation or unreality, in which the person suddenly loses their sense of where they are, who they are, of what they are doing.
Dissociation often occurs in response to trauma and seems to have a protective aspect in that it allows people to feel disconnected from traumatic events. This is sometimes described as an “out-of-body” experience. However, dissociation can be distressing when it continues to occur, even when people are engaged in everyday activities.”
Turns out I wasn’t tired. Turns out that when you are going through unbearable experiences your mind takes you somewhere else. If the experience lasts for a while your mind does this whenever there is a trigger—a memory, a sight, a word, a person, a smell… That was the moment I learned I have PTSD.
Before learning about my diagnosis and its symptoms I was convinced there was something inherently wrong with me. It is not that I think whoever gets drunk occasionally is insane. But I was losing control of my drinking in inappropriate times at inappropriate places. I was not an alcoholic, I could go days or weeks before thinking about drinking, I could go to a dinner and have a glass of wine, but I knew my relationship with alcohol was neither normal or healthy. Also, why did I feel so weird sometimes? Why did my mind randomly show me a distorted version of the world without warning?
Naming the fog and the reason why I sometimes drink until I collapse freed me from the idea that I was born wrong or that I was weak. In exchange for that freedom, I had to face the many fucked up stuff that happened to me when I was a child.
I’m still working on reconciling that those who loved me and cared for me also hurt me and broke me. The work is necessary because now I know that my entire life since then has been influenced by the hurt and the breaking. It is heartbreaking because sometimes I think of the version of me that could have been but is not: the one that was never hurt. It is terrifying because I’m still learning what my triggers are, and when the fog comes, I have to face it and push it away with grounding techniques, instead of drowning it away with alcohol. It is also terrifying because I learned fogginess is but one version or a myriad of ways the body shows the mind’s struggle to get out.
While writing this essay I feel pulses of uncomfortable pressure in my chest. As if the organs that fill my thoracic cavity shifted uneasily, waiting for the best moment to get up and leave. One time I was triggered my stomach got painfully bloated. I could not understand why. When it happened again after a similar situation, I understood.
Most recently, in addition to one-on-one therapy I’m doing group therapy. With my therapist and my group, I’m learning to recognize my emotions and deal with them. Now I can recognize when I’m dissociating, and I have skills to deal with it in a healthy way.
I slip sometimes. The heavy drinking does not happen only because of dissociation. It also happens when I am feeling too many emotions all at once. The last time it happened my therapist said, “Before drinking check on your mind and body. Ask yourself, am I drinking because I’m happy and I want to celebrate with my friends, or am I drinking because I’m sad, anxious, scared, somewhere else…?”
As cliché as it sounds, mind and body are one, I learned that the hard way. We are taught to push through distress. In other words, we are taught to ignore our discomfort and avoid unpleasant feelings. But ignoring something, specially something that is altering your mental state, does not make it disappear. That something, that fear, anger, shame, confusion, fear, fear, abandonment, fear, stays inside you. Even when you do not feel it, it is still inside you, and your body knows it. In some point that something makes your body act out. Your senses get so distorted that your perception of reality is altered. Your chest contracts. Your stomach hurts. You could see that reaction as an alarm, your mind screaming through your body that something is wrong, saying “pay attention! Work on this!” You could see it as the hurt slipping through the cracks of the box where you hid it. You could see it like a vile line running through you day in and day out and making your body act out when a trigger emboldens it. I like the alarm take. I like to think of my body and mind acting together to take care of me even when I try my best to pretend everything is okay.
Sometimes I wonder how long would have taken me to find the trigger-drinking patter without the safe and non-judgmental space of a therapist’s office. How many more unintentional blackouts and the bad choices that often come with them? How long would it be until I ran out of luck and my safety was compromised? If it happened at all, it would have taken years. The thought makes me shudder, and that is why the heartbreak, the fear, and the hard-hard work, are absolutely worth it.
Since now I know that I was not born wrong, but I was made wrong, I don’t feel so wrong. I don’t think I will ever be unbroken, but I know deep inside me there is a version of myself that feels a lot better. If I keep going to therapy, if I keep working hard, if I practice self-compassion, I will experience that version of myself more and more.
All this is to say, if your body is acting out and you don’t know why, talk to a therapist. If you drink, or eat, or run, or smoke pot, or work more than you feel is healthy, talk to a therapist. If something fucked up happened to you, even if it doesn’t feel like a big deal but you keep thinking about it, talk to a therapist. If you feel like you should talk to a therapist and you don’t know why, talk to a therapist.