Before and After: A Survivor’s Tale of PTSD

by Sam Allen

We’ve got something, we both know it. We don’t talk too much about it.

~ Tom Petty, Refugee

Make it clear that I’m in Stockton at this time, at the beginning of the story.

Make it clear when I’m talking about Portland and Stockton.

I’ve told this tale a thousand times.

I have choppy red hair like a boy. It’s slicked down on the front and I’m sporting sideburns. I’m

also wearing a blue gilt scarf, blue jeans, and a black t-shirt reading something sarcastic. I am

a boi. A noble creature not normally found on the busses of medium-sized American towns.

Stockton, California.

I am high on Coyote Grace, a group with Joe Stevens, a transguy who sings beautiful folk

songs about the times before, times when he was forcing himself to live as a girl. He cried,

and he’s a boy now, thanks to T, testosterone, his wife Ingrid, and a lot of soul-searching. My

earbuds are plugged in as Joe sings, “I’m just a ghost boy walkin’ through.”

Outside my head, a guy is pointing at me and waving his arms wildly. “Freak!” “Get off the bus!

“He has dark skin and long hair like an American Indian dude, and the bus driver hasn’t left the

station. She’s trying to make him calm down. Because he, loosely put, doesn’t accept me.

Two girls, one in camo pants and a pink shirt, give him the what for. “If he’s going to be a

boy, then it’s none of your business. Let him be a boy!” I’m not saying anything because this

is normal for me. In fact, my memory of Joe’s voice is more vivid than the interrogation I’m

describing.

The guy finally gets off the bus. “The next time I see you,” he makes the sign of cutting a throat.

I just look.

I know that it’s a sign. I do things to provoke people, like wearing a fagggyboy scarf. It’s in my

nature.

A nature that could be easily cut short if I don’t get out of here.

So I go. I think myself an exile, a refugee. I lug a 70-pound wheel-less black suitcase a long

mile to the Greyhound station, say goodbye to my best friend, and go.

Home. To Portland.

Home of the bois, the boifags, and the queers.

Somewhere where I can look, listen, and feel without being threatened or experiencing pain.

My hometown, soon to be adopted. Or at least I thought it was.

I’m there.

I breathe in air and take lots of pictures. Use the phrase ‘my’ copiously. My room, my door, my

cityscape from my (derlilict and drifter hotel) room.

La Roux belts it out at the gay bar below me. “This time, baby, I’ll be…….bulllllletprooooooof.”

I find it sad that gay men have to live such hard lives, even in the city. Who are they making

themselves bulletproof against?

I would soon find out.

Because I’m omitting something. I have leaky bladder syndrome.

At the shelter I stay at while getting my bearings for the day, someone asks, “Why does it smell

like piss?”

Because I leaked during the night, on the long ride to Oregon. Showers don’t start for another

half an hour.

And those long-ass bus and light rail (MAX) rides through town. I was lucky I was wearing

protective stuff.

But to my chagrin, they didn’t help.

They helped make me who I am today, like it or not. But they didn’t help with my problem.

In fact, they helped so much that they gave me PTSD. Them and my cat. This is the part of my

story that I don’t tell so much.

It’s choppy, like my hair, because that’s how PTSD is. Episodes, memories seared into your

brain, washing over you at different times. The past and the present bleeding into one.

It’s the same with the emotions you experience when you’ve first got it. You try to make the

feelings go away, especially if you’re used to ‘going away’ in your own particular way anyway,

but they stay. And they come back to haunt you, just like the memories you want to forget.

Portland’s still easier to describe in the past tense.

This part of my story takes place after I get back ‘home’ to my town in the Central Valley of

California.

So be prepared for choppiness.

Because this is from After.

                                                                           But now talkin’ to God is Laurel beggin’ Hardy for a gun.

~ Josh Ritter, Girl in the War

What is PTSD to me? It’s something that I’ve had for a long time.

It’s shivering when I hear people fighting. It’s shoving out memories that I’m not ready to

grapple with. It’s hearing voices on BART, the light rail in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s me

not being able to go outside for two years without cleaning myself raw.

I hate PTSD.

I wish I could go to trans* events without every time expecting to be called out as a freak and a

dirty rat. Because there, of all places, I should have been able to feel comfortable. My people

– transgender folk, genderqueers, and others naturally embodying our fabulousness – disowned

me after I showed up there. Hissing. Laughing in the only way Oregonians can.

As IT happened.

A string of events that pushed me into daily survival mode and makes my memories bleed. A

mixture of nostalgia, guilt, and terror that plagues me when I least expect it.

I broke down crying when I saw an episode of The Walking Dead that had a man consigned to die

alone in the Centers for Diseasae Control. Not because it was sad, but because I felt the same

feeling of being trapped had imposed on himself.

Torture makes me cry now.

Violence triggers me, too.

My lips start quivering. My hands shake. I have trouble breathing. I shake out “no, no, no” with

my head and I try as hard as I can to not revisit the past. It’s like the that hell and the present

dissolving into one unbearable moment. A memory that kills me still….that I haven’t been able

to reconcile to myself yet.

I play Sara Bareielles’ song “Brave” when I’m feeling up, and revisit Josh Ritter’s “Girl in the

War” when I read the fable that I wrote about Portland, my apology in the form of a Prince who

mistreats his people, is cast out, and is vindicated by his good deeds.

Sadly, it’s not as simple as that. What I wrote aches of sorry that doesn’t belong to me, an

overwhelming guilt from a stage in recovery that I’m past now. It’s a fable that makes strangers

giggle and one that I’m ashamed to show to my friends, lest they worry.

So I submit articles that I wrote high on Adderall (prescription doses only, but boy did it make

me crazy) to Craigslist for things like this one and wonder if I’ll ever write as well again.

I liked my psychiatrist because he got me to smile.

I thought I belonged there. Portland.

It’s in my blood. The red cobblestone streets and the winding First Street that reminds me of

London with its curved windows on close-knit buildings.

Afterwards, while in Stockton, I yelled “BITCH!” at my 19-year-old niece from my mom’s room

when she saw that I had messed up her space. I heard people talking about me next door

and through the walls…..and still believe that people did talk about me through the walls.

Yelling, “Foul!” and “Nasty!” It was one of the most vivid auditory experiences of my life! How

could I not believe it?

I prepared to kill myself while making hamburgers after hearing people talk about me through

the walls. Add some beer and let it sizzle on the hot pan….mash it into the meat. Binge watch a

fashion show while mom’s at the casino. Block the thought out of my head.

Because what other option did I have?

I had lost my anonymity.

My cat. My fucking HIV-positive cat that pooped where he was supposed to and stank up my

thimble of an apartment. My cat that didn’t give a damn about cross-breezes. The poop whose

smell sank into my fleece jacket and my slicker. My own insistence on being up and happy until

they made me howl in that dank apartment. The cat that ran away two days before I phoned

Dad to come home. The cat that I couldn’t give away because he was my only friend.

One day, there was someone who actually said something nice on Portland’s light rail, the MAX.

“Look, she knows how to dress. All she really needs is a friend. We can be her friends.” That

touched me so deeply, but I was committed to being mute while in public, so my facade came

into play. I wriggled my eyebrows at the girls, grinned weirdly. The one who said it got scared

and walked away towards the exit, and I felt as numb as ever. I probably cried when I got home.

People glared at me everywhere…..because they knew who I was. I was that girl who smelled

like piss and shit on the MAX. I had glared back. Everybody knew me because the kids took

pictures of me and adults denounced me. Even here in Stockton.

Get hit by a train.

Close enough.

Disappear.

I didn’t because my mom found what I was up to by a series of direct and mature

questioning. “Are you planning to kill yourself now?” Like she had read a pamphlet about it. I

realized that I couldn’t do that to her, to my friends, my family.

“Am You Are Able to Donate?” Idiot. Just because I smell bad doesn’t mean that I can’t

talk. I mean, I can talk, but I won’t. I won’t let them see how stupid I am because it would

mean really giving up this time. So I stay stalwart and silent…have limpid inverted doe

eyes………………during the mock gang rape: announce, “there’s a party on the MAX tonight!

” surround me, pretend to hold down her head, go “Oh!” each time someone takes a pump,

follow me as I walk to the lower level. “She’s a partier, huh?!” “Ohhhh!” til I get off and scream

in horror and fury. I will never forget that. During the denunciation, during a guy saying, “I hope

she gets hit by a bus. I hope she gets hit by a bus.” Me saying “Fuck you” (I guess I did say

something) and staggering off the MAX, almost slipping on the icy platform.

I thought that the siege on Mouamar Khadaffi was akin to the siege on me: you know where he

is, eventually you’ll find him, just like you’ll find me.

I wish I could go to trans* events. The awesome trans* woman in our community doesn’t return

my facebook messages because I was kind of abrupt with her not because I didn’t like her but

because I was scared. I daydream about telling her. While peeing. Because pain and pee are

linked with me now. Feeling dirty. Vindicating myself. Dirty. Vindicating. Dirty.

Dirty usually wins out.

Or dissociation. Like playing Castleville on Facebook until the sun rises….and then crashing, so

tired that I can’t remember before I doze off.

Listening to a series of lectures on Persian history (no I’m not Persian but I my professor was)

way up into the night and then, again, crashing, with things to tell people.

If they cared.

Thinking that I could never really be comfortable the boi’s that I’ve always loved because now,

after Kate, maven of transgender queens, this thing would not work at all. It’s weird because I

was so interested in people being turned into symbols during the Prop 8 aftermath, and, now,

I’ve symbolized a whole group of them.

Avoiding queer studies until the bestie’s boyfriend took a course that made me read part of

Brokeback Mountain, which is still lodged in a crack somewhere under my bed.

Volunteering and having my supervisor put his hands on my shoulders for a minute. Him being

awkward and funny afterwards. Knowing it was to reassure me!

Bursting into tears after a trip to Target and watching Eat, Pray, Love with peanut butter cookies

on the couch with bestie………….not being able to sleep in bestie’s bed while she was binge

watching Netflix because the ceiling was too low and people would smell me while I slept.

Horror.

Crying differently now. Every time I cry, I cry out. Especially if no one is listening.

Being on Prozac for 3 years (meh, it’s okay) and Abilify for a year and 5 months. Feeling stable

but lethargic ever since going on Abilify and wondering if I’ll ever feel like running again when

not wild and off my meds, not on purpose, just because I forget to call and refill them. Back on

them, I make the symbol for flatlined when she questions me about my mood.

Being _fucking_weighed. And told to eat well. And to drink water. Something that hasn’t

happened since I was a little kid.

Having even the administrators assent to kicking me out. After a public revolt.

Remembering this when I get ready to Mental Health. “Do you want that to happen again?”

“Hell no.” Wipe wipe wipe.

Wishing that I could just be normal and not worry about smelling, like everyone else I know.

I know that everybody has trouble, but not everyone has to overwipe when they pee. Not

everyone is terrified of people who can hurt them with just a word.

Not trusting my body. My body that betrayed me in so many ways – by leaking, by just being

there while they denounced me and said, “Suck my dick,” with fury in their eyes. Riding my bike

is so hard now because I feel vulnerable. Like someone can just come at me and injure my

stomach. Even though nobody ever punched me there physically, I was assailed emotionally

and my stomach took the bulk of it.

A solid, cold brick in my stomach each time I think of that, exactly in the same spot where I hurt

after Kate called me out, and after the roommates ostracized me.

Making friends after coming home, to Stockton.

And now I cling to what I knew.

I knew exactly what was true, but oh no more.

~ Mumford and Sons, After the Storm

Having my brother give me a plush Cheshire Cat for Christmas and having him tell me, “He has

two different colors. He’s not a girl or a boy, but something in between.” Just_like_me.

Me calling about an anti-bullying program (because god, how I knew), and going with the bestie

and her boyfriend to a queer event that included the lady who won’t talk to me now. Feeling

chipper and making insinuating jokes like only the gays can.

Being elected PRESIDENT of my local support group for friends and families of queerfolk

(pflag.org, if you need it.)

Standing in a long line at DMV. “Hearing” people gossip about me, about how I smell. Having

the dilemma of whether to put in my headphones, and let people gossip all they want, or

keep them out and shut them up. Telling myself that the random conversations are not about

me, when someone says, “It’s warm outside, man,” that it’s not a secret coded message that

means, “that girl in front of me stinks.” Being able to stand there for 25 minutes, do what I need

to get done, but the unwillingness to go back and a need to bring along my mom or a friend next

time to protect me from the scary people.

Binge-listening to Mumford and Sons because they get it. Crying and remembering the pain,

feeling depressed for a day, but not suicidal like I had been before.

I rose and I rose, and I paid less time to your callous mind

and I wished you well as you cut me down.

~ Mumford and Sons, Holland Road

Well, I’m not there yet, but I’m getting better.

I originally called this tale Fuck You, Portland: A love letter, because that’s where I am right now.

I’m still mad at Portland – months ago I would have said “I’m mad at you” instead of “I’m mad at

Portland,” and addressed this to the city because it consumed my identity. That was still in my

fable time. The time when I pretended that everything was okay.

These days, it’s something that I went through. I’ll always have a relationship to the city but

I now realize that not all queer people are bad. I can’t say the same about Portlanders. But I

have met plenty of empathic folks in my hated real hometown of Stockton, California. I’ve also

met some apathetic fiends, but they’re in the minority. I want you to know that things change,

that those people who torment you forget, and that it does get better.

When you’re in the throes of “I’ve gotta kill myself, I’ve gotta kill myself, I’ve gotta kill myself”

reach out to people who care. If you don’t have anyone who cares, call therapists randomly and

tell them that you’re in an abusive relationship, that you’ve come home from a war (which can

take many forms), that you just can’t take it anymore. Cry. Tell them that you don’t have much

money and that you need someone to talk to. Someone will reach back. I did that, before I fled.

I found someone who took it that I was in an abusive relationship. A $20-buck promise to listen.

It took me a year to talk to anyone.

Another year to go outside.

My fable ends, “His heart was whole again, and he was their Prince.”

That’s wishful thinking. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a whole heart again, of if I ever had one in

the first place. What you can expect is that your heart will heal, but there will still be places,

when touched, that’ll make you cry.

I’m gonna close with more Mumford and Sons, because it just makes sense.

                   “There will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears and love will not break your heart, but dismiss

                   your fears. Get over your hill and see what you find there, with grace in your heart and flowers in your

                     hair.”

~ Mumford and Sons, After the Storm

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