Inspired by two songs that just seemed to compliment each other. Each telling a different side of the same story.
'Be Still' by The Fray.
'Cripple Me' by Elenowen.
An Open Heart and Tight Embrace
I am feeling anxious and jittery as I sit in the passenger seat of your car. I have been feeling this way all day and you have been giving me worried glances for just as long. I try to tell you that I am fine, that it is nothing, but you do not seem to believe me.
"Maybe going to this party will help you calm down a little," you say.
"Yeah," I say softly, "maybe."
We arrive at the party and I look out the windshield to see that it is taking place at a large house that sits just on the edge of the beach. People are already milling around on the front lawn and movement can be seen inside the house as well. My anxiety level rises and I look at the house with apprehension.
"We don't have to stay very long," you say as you prepare to get out.
"It's fine," I reply. "I just need to calm down and quit being so anxious about everything."
We get out of the car and move towards the house, you slightly in the lead. I follow you and try to tamp down the feeling of nervousness that is inching its way up my spine. Why am I so worried? Why do I feel like I am walking into a lion's den? It makes no sense and I have to take a few deep breaths just to make it through the front door.
We step into what feels like chaos, at least to me. There are so many people, all of them talking and laughing. The inside of the house is practically buzzing with sound and activity and I freeze two steps inside the door. I stare at the mass of people with wide eyes and after a second or two I realize that you are talking to me.
"Are you okay?" you are asking. Your face is tight with worry and you look at me like I am a horse that is ready to bolt. Your hand is held near my shoulder, close but not yet touching. Hovering near me as if uncertain what touch will do. "Do you want to leave?"
I manage to break myself out of the sudden trance and give you a weak smile. "It's alright," I say. "I don't want to be rude. I just didn't realize there were this many people inside. It caught me off guard."
"What's going on?" you say. "You were never worried about big groups before. What is the problem with it today?"
I shake my head and try to ignore the sweat forming on my palms. I can do this. Fear is just an emotion, I can beat it. But where is it coming from?
"I don't know," I say. "I have just been feeling uneasy all day. It's probably just because I haven't been to a party in so long."
"You can't blame me for that one," you say with a smile of your own. Your voice is teasing and it does help me to calm down slightly.
I nod at your words. Over the past several months I had been feeling down and upset and you tried everything in your power to get me out of the house and even more to get me out of my shell. There were at least three other parties that you had invited me to but I had refused each time. I had legitimate excuses each time. None of them preplanned, it just worked out that I was unable to accept any of your invitations. And oddly enough, each time I missed a party, I felt relieved. It was bizarre. This party, however, I have no excuses, I am unable to opt out of the invitation and so the feeling of trepidation remains.
We move around the party, mingling with so many friends and new acquaintances that it is hard to keep track of everyone. I am starting to feel a little calmer, my heartbeat slowing and steadying, and then it happens.
I am standing near the table that is set up in the living room, my back to the open French doors that look out over the sandy beach that leads down to the edge of the ocean. You are beside me and I am talking to someone that I have not seen in years. There is a movement to my right and I am startled by the sound of shattering glass as someone on the other side of the table knocks a glass serving platter to the hardwood floor. The buzz of conversation goes silent and every face in the room turns in our direction.
Then, out of nowhere, the raw panic hits.
The next few moments are a blur. I vaguely recall seeing you reaching for me and your voice calling something to me. Beyond that there is nothing. The next thing I know I am staring out over the ocean, my feet deep in soft sand and sheer terror coursing through me as I find myself cut off midflight. The water blocks my path, keeping me from going any further. I stand there for a moment, unsure what to do, and then I hear a noise behind me and something clicks in my brain. I turn to my left and bolt, tearing across the sand in a blind frenzy.
The sun has gone down already, drifting below the horizon only about ten minutes before, and the landscape is fast fading into darkness. I sprint down the beach, pale sand shooting up in intermittent spouts in my wake.
My pulse is pounding in my ears, my heartbeat thumping wildly to the tune of adrenaline fueled fear. None of this makes sense. I know there is no danger, the logical side of my brain whispering that I can stop and that this would be a very wise choice considering the increasing darkness. But the emotional side of my brain is in chaos. It is swirling with panic and shouting only two words over and over again.
And so I do.
It doesn't matter where I am going. I don't care if I ever stop, all I know is that running is the only option and that the faster I go the better it feels.
I don't think I am ever going to stop.
My current bearing soon dictates otherwise.
The surge of fear is just starting to fade, to loosen its grip, when I suddenly find my pathway cut off. I skid to a halt, my breath ragged and gasping, and I stare up at the mass of rock that juts out into the water like a massive wall in front of me.
No! I need to keep going!
I look to my left, my gaze darting frantically around for another avenue of escape, but there is none. The rocks are tumbled and jagged, too sharp to climb over, and there is nothing but the sight of crashing, foaming waves of saltwater to my right.
There is only one way to go now, I have to turn around and go back the way I came. I swivel around and dart back down the beach, pounding across the footprints I made only moments before. But again I am stopped short. I nearly lose my balance as I slide to a halt. There is a figure in my path.
It is hard to see in the darkness, but I can tell that it is a person and that they are coming towards me. I can hear the sound of their feet on the shifting sand and I am flooded with terror once more. I spin in place and bolt in the opposite direction only to be stopped seconds later by the same rock wall. There is nowhere to go. I am trapped!
I stumble across the smaller rocks to my left and find the best possible place to squeeze between the larger rocks that form a jagged fence alongside the sand. The space that I find is barely big enough for me to cram into, but I am desperate. I have no other options. I tuck my knees up to my chest, wrap my arms around them and drop my head down. I am as small as I can get and I hope that it is enough.
Moments later there is a voice, I can hear it calling something, but I cannot seem to understand it. It makes no sense and the sound of it only makes me try to push deeper into my cubby.
Go away! Go away! Go away!
The voice gets closer, its tone is frantic and loud, but I do not answer. I can understand the words now, they are calling my name, but I keep still and silent. Then the calls stop and I feel a hand wrap around my arm and I flinch violently. A terrified sob erupts as I scramble to get away. I gain no ground in my fight for distance, the rock behind me unyielding, but the hand withdraws and suddenly the only sound is the liquid slosh of the waves.
I do my best to blend in with the rock around me and I tighten my huddle, my back curved forward and my face buried deep in my crossed arms.
Where is this coming from? Why am I so frightened?
Then the voice returns.
"It's just me," it says softly. "It's okay, you can come out now."
I shake my head even though I can recognize the voice now. You have followed me. I should have known it was you. I know that you mean well, that you only seek to understand, but I cannot shake the fear that holds me so tight and so I do not answer beyond the shake of my head.
Silence looms for a few moments and then I hear a sigh. You are worried, I can hear it in the wordless breath, but I still cannot seem to move.
"Something spooked you," you say. "Do you want to talk about it?"
I am shaking all over and I heave a shuddering breath, still no words come.
"This kind of thing doesn't just come out of nowhere," you continue in my silence. "Please, just talk to me and tell me what is wrong."
Your offer is tempting, oh so tempting, and I ache to accept, but I cannot. No, I have to stay here. Here in this tiny hole is where it is safe. It is all my fault. I can't come out because I will be found if I do.
I whimper softly and try to stem the tears that are coming too fast for me to even count. The almost palpable thickening of the air around me tells me that you have heard me and that your worry is deepening by the second. I expect the hand to return to my arm and I tense in anticipation. But it never comes. Instead there is the sound of the sand shifting under you and the rustle of your clothing. You are settling in.
Another sigh and then you begin to talk. I do not understand why you decide on the subject that you do, but you begin talking about how you enjoy the feeling of sand between your toes and the sight of the moon hanging bright in the night sky. You talk about the sound of the ocean and the twinkling of the stars, the calling of seabirds and the smell of saltwater. You tell me of the times that you went swimming in the dark and felt the brush of curious fish against your legs.
You talk of everything and nothing, and I am grateful.
Ever so slowly the tightness in my shoulders and back begins to melt. My breathing calms and evens out. The fear is losing its grip and I am able to fight my way to the surface. Hope twinkles temptingly on the near horizon. The steady hum of your voice helps me to focus and I slowly unfurl. I still cannot turn to face you, but I am not actively trying to become one with the rocks surrounding me anymore. It is a step in the right direction anyway.
Again you sense the change in my mood and you cease your ramblings. Your focus narrows once more and you send a question towards me.
"Why are you so scared?"
I feel the tension begin to return at the simple collection of words. It isn't fair. This should not be happening. I am fine. I am with a friend. I have no reason to be scared.
The trembling returns and I hear a movement beside me. A warm hand settles between my shoulder blades and I twitch in startled reflex but your hand doesn't move. It remains pressed against my back, strong, supporting, and calming. My breathing hitches and I realize that I want to answer your question, I really do, but there is one problem.
"I don't know," I finally manage to murmur. "I don't know where the fear is coming from."
"Then it doesn't matter right now," you say without hesitation. "All that matters is that you know that you are safe, that you do not need to run, and that I will not leave your side until I know that you are okay."
I nod against my crossed arms and try to contain the sobs that are threatening to burst forth. It is a short battle and I fail miserably. I jerk and shudder as they take over and the hand on my back moves to pull me out of the rock shelter. I am too tired to resist. The adrenaline has worn off and it leaves me feeling like a wet wrung-out rag. Exhausted, I am all too glad to fall into your open arms as you pull me close.
When the reality hits me, the realization that I do not need to run, that I am safe, then comes the heart-wrenching agony of pent up emotions. I am helpless as they tumble out of me in the form of tears and quaking sobs. I tuck my forehead into the curve of your neck and you wrap your arms tightly around me, holding me as close as you can. I curl into a ball and let the purge happen, feeling the sweet release of pain and sorrow and fear.
You mumble unintelligible words into my hair and rock me back and forth. I can feel your tears as they fall along with your words into my tangled strands. You are in just as much emotional distress as I am and it hurts me to know it, but it is also an immense comfort. I am not alone. Someone else feels me. They know that I hurt and it is just as painful for them. And the best part is that you still remain. No, not just remain. You stay and you hold me tight and close. You allow yourself to be exposed to the hot tracks of my tears down your collarbone, you allow the feeling of my shaking form as I tremble in your arms, and you allow yourself to hear the sound of my cries of released emotion.
It hurts but you welcome it with an open heart and tight embrace.
And so I do not turn away.
I do not know how long we sit locked in each other's arms. But eventually I go quiet and so do you. No more do I cry and no more do you whisper into my hair, but we still remain curled together, each of us unwilling to be the first to pull away. I still am plagued by the occasional hiccup that comes after a long cry but the emotion has died away leaving a comfortable numbness in its wake.
"It is common in PTSD to experience the emotion before remembering an event," you say into the still blackness. "If you ever want to talk about it when you remember the rest, feel free to come to me."
I do not have the energy to answer and you leave the silence as it is; comfortable and soft.
When we finally tire of our position and our bodies look for a change, we stretch out on the sand, both of us laying on our backs our heads pillowed by the other's shoulder.
We stare up at the stars and just feel the presence of a close friend. It is wonderful to not have to feel anything else and I relax fully into the support of the warm sand beneath me. I sigh in contentment and let my memory come to the surface. I am able to deal with it now.
"I was six," I say. My voice is rough and quiet from the bout of crying but I clear my throat and push ahead. "I was going to a party with my dad."
"Just like tonight."
"Yeah, just like tonight."
You roll your head towards me and you reach up to twiddle with the fringe of my hair that is splayed out across your shoulder and arm.
"The car was low on gas and so we stopped to fill it up." My voice is so flat and it sounds so weird, but I know that the emotion connected with this particular memory has already come and gone. I am safe to bring this out into the open. "It was a fluke really," I continue. "One stupid kid with a gun and dad and I get stuck in the store, waiting to see if he really means any of the threats that he keeps shouting."
I can feel your shoulder tense beneath my neck and I take a deep breath to give you a moment. I know that you do not have the benefit of disconnected emotions. You will feel everything as I tell my story even though I can tell it with complete calm.
"Dad pushed me behind him," I say when I feel you relax slightly. "He told me to just stay calm and to try not to attract any attention to myself. I tried so hard to do as he asked. I really did. But when I backed up to get further out of sight I knocked a jar off of a shelf and it broke on the floor."
"That's why the platter breaking triggered all of this," you say.
I nod. "The kid turned, just as scared as the rest of us and the gun went off. It didn't hit anyone, just made a hole in the wall, but everything went crazy after that and I ran for the nearest hiding place. When the cops came in later to secure the place they just wanted to get everyone out of the danger zone and I was dragged out of my hiding spot. I kicked and screamed the whole way as the cop brought me back to my dad. I was scared and just wanted to be left alone, I didn't know that he was just trying to get me to safety. I don't really remember much after I was handed off to my dad. But I do know that no one had been hurt in the whole thing."
"It's still a hard thing to go through when you're only six years old," you say. "I'm glad no one got hurt though."
"Thank you for sharing," you say.
I breathe in though my nose, long and slow, and then let it out just as slowly through my mouth. "Thank you for feeling me," I say. "It's nice to know that you are willing to go through so much for me."
I feel the moist warmth of a tear soak into my shirt near my shoulder and I know that you are still feeling the aftershocks of my earlier breakdown.
"No one should have to endure that alone," you say with a soft shudder in your voice.
"I am glad you chased me down."
You shake with a poorly stifled laugh. "You are really fast when you want to be."
"Adrenaline mixed with fear is a powerful stimulant," I say. "I do not recommend it however. Kind of wipes you out and makes crazy friends come chasing after you."
Your laugh is uncontained this time and my head bounces with your chuckles. I smile at the joy of it and close my eyes.
"I hope they aren't worried about us back at the party," I say after your laughter has died down.
"No," you reply. "I sent a text to tell them that we are okay and that we would probably not be coming back for the rest of the party. Someone will be bringing my car over later so that we don't have to walk back. They will come this way to drop off the keys and show us where it is."
I hum in approval and then a thought occurs to me. "How in the world did you keep up with me?"
"Fear and adrenaline," you say. "You were right when you said that they give you a boost."
"I don't understand."
"When your friend suddenly disappears out the door with a terrified look on their face it kind of freaks you out," you say. "I was scared you were going to do something stupid."
The impact of the statement is not lost on me. I understand that your fear was for me but I am too emotionally worn out to deal with that for the moment. I put down a mental note to bring it up later and steer the conversation into easier territory.
"I tend to only do stupid things when in your presence," I say. "Don't forget that time with the pool noodle and that stupid muddy dog."
You bust out laughing again and I happily join in. And that is how the person with the keys finally finds us. We are covered in sand, our eyes are red and puffy from crying, and we are laughing because we are alive and we are best friends.
It is true that, in some cases of PTSD, that the memory and the emotion will be remembered at separate times. It has to do with how the brain stores memories and also the systems of defense mechanisms that kick in when dealing with traumatic experiences.