We Need A Post-Traumanomicon To Talk About PTSD
Content warning: the following writing deals with self harm, trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The old books of magic were written on skin. Virgin leather or unborn parchment harvested from aborted calves was thought to neutralize the powerful words written on it, cleansing any impure intentions held by the author. The old grimoires contained the names of demons, the domains they lorded over, and most importantly, how to dispel them. Hidden words and symbols granted the reader control over Agchonion, the dirty spectral swine spreading mischief in the swaddling clothes of infants, and Autothith, the abhorrent lord of grudges conjuring arguments between friends.
I didn’t know the name of the demons plaguing me the black March evening I sat on a couch in an empty condo, shirtless and drunk on red wine, fiddling with a plastic triple action shaving cartridge. But my plan to document it was similar. I aimed to loosen a piece of sharp metal and mark my naked side with two stars commemorating the gunshot wounds on my father’s chest. Three months had passed since I saw him shot, since I carried him through Costa Rican morning mist to safety, since I survived without a mark and everything turned out fine. Now the ghost of the bullet that pierced him was going to mark me too. Finally I would have corporeal proof that my story didn’t end at survival.
Twisting the shaving cartridge didn’t work. Neither did any attempts to uncap it by digging my fingernails into a seam at the end of the cosmetic tool. I turned to bending it and wiggling it back and forth. I’d never tried to cut myself before. I didn’t know where to get real razor blades. But I needed to make my anguish tangible, if not by naming it then though the sacred geometry of fake entry and exit wounds. I heard a click. The blue and grey plastic flew across the room, landing in a corner near the window. My left thumb burned with the sting of failure. It bled. The pain boiled, evaporating into frustration that filled me with doubt.
I washed and bandaged my thumb, put the unbroken cartridge back in the travel shaving kit under the bathroom sink, and retired to my bedroom. I screamed and cried and writhed that night, wishing I even had the words to describe the terrible thing inside my core that drove me to attempt such a grisly form of self expression. The language remained occulted. My longing to speak hidden names remained.
Talking is supposed to help. That’s the advice, and it’s so ubiquitous I once heard it spoken over the PA system of a black-lit Vancouver bowling alley, eight years into the post-traumatic period of my life. In between 90s pop hits and 70s cosmobowl staples like Disco Inferno, a short recording played. “There are no known cures for post-traumatic stress disorder, but talking about it helps,” said a calm woman, like some kind of radio DJ crisis line operator.
The woman’s voice electrified something inside me. I knew she was right, but it wasn’t so easy. Talking through trauma with my cognitive behavioral therapist gave me the tools to avoid relapses into drunken episodes of attempted skincraft, to better deal with my flashbacks, hypervigilance and avoidance. But talking was a symptom of its own. It felt like a shell-shocked cliche to scream at the ceiling-mounted speaker near the vending machine, “You don’t know how hard that is!” So I bowled in silence and shame.
I can feel the raving impulse days before it blooms. Like all my symptoms, it begins with a memory and a slow building pressure in my diaphragm. But unlike the sensory overload of my PTSD's other manifestations, raving is harder to hide. Tension builds in my arms and chest over the course of hours, maybe days, and I catch myself muttering small bits of personal narrative under my breath. Eventually I inject allusions to my traumatic past into conversations and social media posts. And finally, when the tension reaches its breaking point, I find a person who doesn't know my story and begin to jabber like a madman.
On dates in restaurants, in rehearsal studios with theatre creators, in the managers’ offices of the customer service and telemarketing jobs I worked after I graduated university – my audience always says the same thing: “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
But I do have to.
Locking my eyes to theirs, I try to mask my lack of control. Once the gibbering starts, however, the past overtakes me like a wave. “It all happened in 2006,” I say. “My parents took my brother and I on a caribbean cruise.”
I ramble about the context, detailing minor family conflicts surrounding the vacation, and explaining how cruises work – how they take sweaty hedonists to various ports spiriting them away on day-long tours and adventures. Kayaking, mountain climbing, rum drinking, swimming with dolphins.
“On December 27, we moored in Costa Rica,” I say. “And while my mom and brother went on a ziplining excursion, my dad and I went on our own walking tour of the port town, which ended with us on a wooden pier near the municipal hall, looking out over the ocean. That’s where it happened.”
I stop for a moment. I breathe. I can’t believe I’m doing this again.
“Don’t worry.” I say. “No matter how dire this starts to sound, everything turns out fine.”
“You don’t have to keep going if you don’t want to.”
But I do.
“A man intercepted us as we tried to leave the pier. His eyes were wide and scared. He showed us a gun – a baby blue .38 snub nose. I thought it looked just like a toy. I thought maybe it wasn’t even real. I thought maybe he was bluffing. He asked us for money. We left it all on the ship. He asked again, jabbing the pistol in my direction. Dad snapped. He kicked at the stranger. Twice. Which probably sounds really bizarre, but if you knew him it wouldn’t. Then— POP. It sounded like a small firework. My dad crumpled to ground and the stranger ran off behind the municipal hall.”
Half of my vision is there on the pier when I’m raving. The other half is making aggressive eye contact with my audience. My breath is collarbone shallow. Self conscious about oversharing, I skip details of the walk back: The number of times I dropped my bleeding father; the part where, leaving him in a pile on the street, I run back to the crime scene to retrieve the broken shoe that fell off his foot; the weird tug’o’war I played with paramedics over my unconscious dad’s body, fearful that if they took him away I’d never see him again. I usually just say, “I had to carry him back to the ship. It was a long walk. And then the medical officer fixed him up. We went on a tour of the judicial system. They never found the gunman because in the police lineup I picked the fourth guy and Dad picked another man wearing a camouflage jacket. The whole thing was over before my mom and brother came back from their excursion. The cruise vacation went on like nothing ever happened. Everything turned out fine.”
And then it’s done. My pulse thumps in my ears. I feel humiliated, naked and, worst of all, unsatisfied. No matter how many times I run though my five minutes of cold reportage, I never communicate what I want to. It took me years to realize I was telling the wrong kind of story. I couldn't feel the release of expression because I was speaking the wrong language.
The reason I rave is because I have misframed my personal narrative as a story of trauma— a story of adventure. Narratives of trauma are simply narratives. Stories require conflict for their fuel, and therefore must subject their characters to trauma, be it emotional, physical, spiritual, or otherwise. The traumatic experience, then, is just a story with a strong, tangible conflict. The post-traumatic experience, on the other hand, is fueled by the friction between human and memory. It is a horrific conflict between a body and the phantoms of past experience challenging our natural inclinations for closure, prescriptive morality and justice. The post-traumatic experience is the stuff of horror, and so it requires horrific language.
My obsession with horror sprouted naturally from my post-traumatic existence. After extensive cognitive behavioral therapy got my more violent and depressive ideation under control, I discovered that horror entertainment was cathartic. Scary video games simulated minor hypervigliance symptoms, venting my built up nervous energy. Scary movies gave me something else to have nightmares about. My raving was addressed through scary stories.
In the pages of H.P. Lovecraft I found protagonists who survived existential terror only to end up mentally maimed. The narrators in Lovecraft’s Dagon and The Festival are survivors of adventure, but the shadow of their experience still haunts them — whether it’s in the form of a slimy hand at the window or in the terrible memory of a hedonistic subterranean tentacle party. The Lovecraftian protagonist, like me, lives in an epilogue in which everything turned out fine, but nothing feels right, so they are compelled to obsess over their past trauma in a dark present tense.
I consumed cosmic horror like an optimist gobbles up self-help books. It brought me to starting this website, and gave me the eldritch linguistic knowledge to reframe my neurodivergent personal history from traumatic to post-traumatic; from adventure to horror. And that’s when I wrote my chapter of the Post-Traumanomicon.
The Book of Post-Traumatic Names
I needed a final catharsis. I needed an exorcism. I named my demons and the planes they inhabited. I gave them context. And when I was done I’d made my contribution to the book of post-traumatic names. It’s not written on flesh, unborn or otherwise. It’s a PDF.
Using the tools and language of horror I shaped my afflictions into monsters and abominations. And for what I couldn’t describe, well, horror had me covered there too. Was something unspeakable? Unthinkable? Untypable? If it worked for the likes of the unknowable Great Old Ones then it worked for the spectral image of the gunman who echoed through time, the fear in his eyes on the pier replaced with a seething contempt. I called him Number 4 and he became a manifestation of my own personal Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos. My collapsing nausea and compulsion to writhe on the ground in mental agony, those were the effects of a terrible bleeding red nucleus that pulsed in my core with a sick gravity. The bone white cruise ship that loomed over my bad dreams, it was a great idiot god of perverted ceremony, reveling in the constant demented tune of Jimmy Buffett, its mad piper.
I was haunted. I saw that now. And I finally had the capacity to share my heretofore unspeakable story.
I finished my volume of the Post-Traumanomicon in Halifax, where in the summer I can hear the deep horns of cruise ships in the harbour. My demons locked in a one-point-five megabyte prison of data, I sent the book to my family. My mother, my father and my brother knew about the events that I raved about, the trauma. They didn't know the horror.
Mom gave me updates via email as she read, using the page number as a subject line. When she reached page 245, the part about the razor cartridge and my hunger for scars, she wrote:
While I knew that you were going through very troubling times and you did make reference to them often, you would not go deeper and I did not know how to help except encouraging counselling. All I can recall from the time was that when I said that I was there to listen, you really were not able to talk about it. I think it was too raw and that you feared that you might vaporize if you let it out to your mom.
That confirmation healed me. All those years of madness and gibberish and screaming alone in dark rooms, of telling and retelling the wrong story to bewildered allies and acquaintances, they were behind me. I named the dark things that haunted me from beyond the wall of sleep so now I didn't have to suffer in the space between words.
But I can’t be the only post-traumatic gospelite.
While the monsters in my chapter of the Post-Traumanomicon are unique to my experience, the need for post-traumatic names is not. It can’t be. Others suffer as I sleep. Trauma is not bound by rules or logic, and its unspeakable long term effects are blind to context. So we must come together as a community, compile our unholy text of survival, and replace the raving accounts of conflicts past with the homily of our present horrific experience. When we are done, and we gather for mass, we can do so with relief in the knowledge that there is no place left for out monsters to hide now that we know their names.