5 Weeks (My Journey to Wellness So Far)
The following is a paid guest piece by our beloved community leader, Anthony Negron, aka Darth. Tony is an accomplished poet and has articulated the process of living with and recovering from mental health disorders, especially PTSD. Please note that this piece contains vivid accounts of hypervigilance, fight or flight reactions, descriptions of experiences in war, and so on. I’m honored to share this piece with you. More of Tony’s writing can be enjoyed and supported here. - Coco
My name is Tony and I live with PTSD and major depressive disorder. I am in the middle of a treatment plan that consists mostly of Cognitive Processing Therapy. I wrote a journal about the first five weeks because I wanted to log my personal progress. But I'm sharing my journal with you now because I want to encourage you to trust the process. It took me ten years of avoidance, years of not trusting government health care because of years of bad care at the hands of others, five weeks of CPT, and months of different doctors and other therapies and medications before CPT to see a difference in my mental health. But I am seeing a difference. Keep trying. Find the right doctors. Trust the process and apply what you learn in therapy and you will see a difference too. With that being said, here is my CPT journey so far:
Five weeks ago, I started therapy. Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) is what the psychologists at Veterans Affairs call it. For post-traumatic stress disorder. And “related problems.” My goals are, as they say, to improve my symptoms. And associated symptoms. My anxiety symptoms. My depression symptoms. Guilt. Shame. And I think that therapy is working, except I still cannot get out of bed. I cannot draw the blinds and let the sunlight in. Because maybe I do not deserve it, still. Maybe I do not deserve the greeting warmth on my skin or the health in the sun’s rays. I think that therapy is working, except that I still scream at the birds to shut their beaks when I have not been to sleep. Their songs are so selfish when I have not dreamed. So self-righteous. I hear them whistling their songs of praise to the morning and each other and I want to go to war again.
In week one, I was supposed to fill out a page. I was supposed to describe why I think my traumatic event occurred. And how the traumatic event has affected my beliefs. About others and I and the world around me. What I believe about safety, trust, control, esteem, and intimacy. I did not write a single word. Because I do not believe in any of them anymore. They are all gods I do not pray to. They are all gods that were destroyed. By a sniper round. A roadside bomb. A vest made of fire and faith. And no god that can be destroyed is worth believing in. And now all I want to do is raze the sky and watch gods fall. But I cannot get out of bed. In normal recovery, my emotions are supposed to decrease over time.
In week two, we covered the meaning of the event. I was supposed to make connections between the ongoing events and my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. I tried that week. I wrote about traffic. I wrote about strangers. I even wrote about the worst traumatic event. I did not want to, but I did it anyways. Because that is what therapy is. Sometimes anyways. And I do it every Thursday grinding my teeth, clenching my jaw. All I want to do is flip the table and scream, but I talk about my emotions. All I want to do is grab at the footsteps I hear behind the closed door to the hall and choke the noise till it stops. Because I do not know their face or sound, and they could be after me. An unseen threat is the enemy. A heard threat is the enemy. This is supposed to decrease over time. My chest gets tighter every time I hear a door slam behind closed doors. My leg ticks like a dog getting his belly rubbed every time I hear voices that I do not recognize behind a closed door. Every time a door closes, another opens in my brain and fear takes control. A god I do not believe in.
In week three, we repeated week two. Now I am feeling right at home. Every day is the same. This time I wrote about rooftops and grocery stores and jet noise and blackouts and religion. Each one is an activating event. Each one is a stuck point. Each one has a consequence. Two weeks ago, when the storm hit, the lights went out. I heard the wind outside, the trees rustling like an army of monkeys were jumping from branch to branch. I heard those same branches breaking and those monkeys turned into shadows hunting in the dark. Shadows that knew my loneliness and my weaknesses but not my violence, and that was their only fault. But it was enough to enrage my infected mind, so I struck out at forms I could not define, with memories in my fists. And while my knuckles shattered, so did their bodies. Then I felt my walls breaking and knew powerlessness. This is supposed to decrease over time.
In week four, I worked on challenging my stuck points. My beliefs and what I tell myself. Then I ask myself what the evidence is for and against those beliefs. In week four, I felt a little less angry. In week four, I felt a little less powerless. Because I realized that not everything my trauma conditioned me to think is true. It was not my fault that my convoy was hit with a roadside bomb when I went home on leave for a week. Even though it was my job as a machine gunner in the first gun truck to keep my eyes open for threats, my eyes were at home, my body at home, and my brothers were in the desert, and I wanted to burn the world down with its false safety. But it was not my fault and it was not theirs. Confluence is the nature of war. In week four, I feel more in control. And a little less guilty. This is normal recovery.
In week five, we repeat week four and I feel good. In Iraq, patterns get you killed. If you drive down the same road too many times on patrol, there will be a bomb waiting for you one day. A bomb filled with chaos and intent and all the furious holiness you have come to hate. Patterns are the enemy of life. And when you come home, patterns still feel that way. Patterns have familiar faces and voices and smells, and they are dangerous. Patterns are a 9 to 5 and Facebook and relationships. Patterns are intimacy. So, you plan. You strategize. You avoid patterns at all cost. Because they get you killed. But in week five, patterns start to become comfortable. They still feel unnatural, but they are beginning to feel safe. Patterns can work. One of my therapists said that fear is false evidence appearing real and it made me question all my perceptions. These emotions are decreasing over time.