The Highway from Hell

I accidentally wrote an autobiography in 2010.

It was intended to be a brief life synopsis. A memory blog, if you will, that gave a rundown of major life events leading up to my 30th birthday. Instead, it became a sprawling 128 page monstrosity. It was actually a very unique experience, as I was able to remember events and people that I hadn’t really thought about in years. The plan is that I’ll go back and add to it when I turn 40, 50 etc and summarize events in 10-year chunks, if I’m lucky enough to make it that far. It’s far from polished- not really proof-read or otherwise cleaned up for the consumption of other people. Only one other person has ever read it other than me, and I hadn’t looked at it in a long time myself, until just recently. I went back and examined a few particulars, because we’re reaching a milestone for me that only I really knew about until just very recently when I talked to my friend Brian about it.

I hate to talk about it in certain ways and even to write it down, because in my own mind it sounds so melodramatic and I don’t see myself as such. But it’s also fair to say that I can be unreasonably hard on myself, and my main reason for not discussing a lot of things is the desire to not bring pain or negativity into someone else’s life. That’s why I write this now- it’s an outlet without an ear. A safe space without a judgment. A place where I can express hurt without causing it.

I’m still dancing around the issue as I type, and I’m going as stream-of-conscious as I can. The fact is that from 1993 to 2004, I suffered from very severe post-traumatic stress, punctuated by brutally vivid flashbacks (Christ, I hate that term) that would suddenly pop up unexpectedly anywhere at any time. The last one that I recall having was around this time of year in 2004, meaning that I’ve been free of them for ten years. Considering that they played such a massive, private role in my life for eleven years, crossing the 10-year mark without them is a big deal to me. More on that in a moment. (I have no idea how long this post’ll be.)

It started with a single moment in time that ended up burning itself in my memory and just wouldn’t let go. Then the flashback moments expanded to other moments in history, including the one I had entirely forgotten about (blocked?) where my back got forever damaged when I was about six or so. The original incident that really started the PTS symptoms was in ’93. Rather than rewrite everything, I’ll go back into the “Recollection” piece (the biography from my 30th birthday) and paste the description here:

“I was walking to the gym locker room after school to get some stuff from my locker. A kid I didn't recognize and who I believe was from one of the other schools came out and said something to me that I didn't understand but he then sprayed me in the face with one of those breath spray canisters. They have a high alcohol content and a lot of kids would bring them to school and chug the shit at lunch time. (I saw students my age drinking bottles of Scope for the same reason.) It went into my eyes and blinded me temporarily and I was choking on it as it went in my mouth and up my nose. I don't think this was pre-planned. He saw me coming and did it on a whim. What happened next was also just a case of opportunity but that was not any comfort. I staggered back and had my hands to my eyes and was coughing violently when another kid came out of the locker room and saw this. He asked what had happened and I just said I couldn't see. He told me to look up and an alarm went off in my head and I tried to circle around him and he uppercutted me right into the sternum. I dropped like a ton of bricks and tried to breathe but a squeaking noise came out and that was it. My coat had flipped up over the back of my head as I hit the ground and I remember the two of them laughing and then taking turns stomping and kicking at my head through the coat. A third set of shoes came out from the locker room and joined in. My whole body had gone numb and I couldn't feel anything. Just sense the impacts and hear the thudding sound of them but other than that, nothing registered.

One of the greatest regrets of my life was that I didn't get off at least one shot at one of them during that ordeal before I hit the ground. I'm sure I would have paid a steeper price for it and may have even been badly injured, but I think I would have accepted it. The fact that I failed in that instant when I had the training and knowledge to act was inexcusable to me and as I laid there trying to breathe and the thuds ricocheted off my skull, I was wishing they'd kill me.

Numerous footsteps walked by as I laid there for I don't know how long. Some were students and others were parents. I'd be surprised if any were teachers as that would be tough to look past even as lackadaisical as most of them were. Several pairs of shoes both big and small stopped for a second and then took a big step over my body and kept walking. One lady, a parent, kneeled down and tried to check on me and I begged her to just leave me alone and that I was fine. She finally gave up and left. I finally pulled myself up, cleaned myself up in the bathroom, and then called home since I'd missed my bus.

I told the gym teacher or whomever it was about this a few days later. He said I should have reported it right after it happened then and there was nothing he could do about it. He sounded annoyed that I was talking to him.

Shortly thereafter, I started experiencing what I could only describe as flashbacks. Initially, they focused on the locker room assault and gradually spread to cover other incidents as well. It was like a TV in my head would play those episodes over and over and over in high-def and surround sound and I'd relive all the physical sensations of it repeatedly until it finally stopped out of exhaustion and then it would happen again a few days later. Research would later show this to be a form of post-traumatic stress but at the time, I thought I was brain damaged since I didn't know what else to think. I was getting migraines regularly and the flashbacks would really haunt me for probably the next ten years and the migraines persist even today.”

That’s the scoop on that. After that, a certain sound or smell, a flash of light etc would send my emotions into a tailspin. I had external control, ie I wouldn’t break down in public or behave erratically or anything. I’d just find a place to be alone for as long as I needed to, close my eyes and wait for the visons and sensations to stop. It could take five minutes or an hour. It was always exhausting though, and I placed a lot of hate, blame and shame on myself for them. The locker room thing wasn’t an isolated incident. It was actually just one example of my entire school experience from kindergarten through the end of the 9th grade, whether it be physical damage or mental and emotional attacks. (For example, anonymous notes trying to prompt me (unsuccessfully, obviously) to commit suicide. On Valentines Day at one point, which I thought was a classy touch.) But the locker room thing served as the straw that broke the camel’s back I guess as far as nightmares and all the other stuff.

It’s an accomplishment to have turned that off for a decade. Instead of feeling proud of that fact, I feel a sense of melancholy, because I largely closed myself off from everyone during that period where they were at their worst, not wanting to bring anyone else into a dark world. Brian knew what was going because I’d known him long enough that he’s seen everything. He’s seen me have these flash episodes and tried to talk me through them. He saw me have to fight when we were freshman in high school and a group came calling looking to do damage. He was at my house multiple times when my Mom was at her worst and incomprehensible due to alcohol. It’s all kind of old-hat to him by now, LOL.

I never knew what finally caused the symptoms to stop. Or at least, I didn’t think I did. I believe I do now, and here’s where the accomplishment truly lies, as hard as it is to acknowledge because the origins stem from painful places. I can’t say for certain, but I now believe that the flashbacks and other symptoms finally stopped because I finally, genuinely learned to stop hating myself for them. When that sense of self-blame finally faded and I gained a healthier perspective on everything, I regained control over my mind and emotions in that vein. I mourn the years that I lost as far as how isolated I felt and kept myself from people because of that internal struggle. I was never a bad person, and I never wanted to hurt anyone. I learned how to fight because I had to, and I dedicated myself so wholly to it because I truly feel I’d be dead if I hadn’t. It also, over time, gave me a sense of self-confidence during a period when I had none. Then I felt guilty that my only self-confidence was the result of essentially violence against bad people, but I look at that now as extremely unfair. That perspective, I believe, is why the visions finally stopped.

I have moments of bad memories now, and moments of insecurity where I feel behind where I should be as a person in some way, but I recognize those moments for what they are and I think some of that is simply being human. I’m proud of who I’ve become, and realized that who I was wasn’t actually bad either. Just a kid who didn’t know who to talk to and didn’t know what to do.

And that’s okay.

I still internalize some things that may not be fair, but they are what they are. People I cared about were hurt by people trying to get to me back in the day, and while I probably shouldn’t feel guilt over that, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. But I can’t change that, and I can’t change the years where I felt swallowed by what had been. The last major flashback I recall having was over 4th of July weekend in 2004. I may have had one or two more later that year, but I don’t remember specifically. As such, the weekend of the 4th stands out as I hit the 10 year mark. The symbolism of that falling on “Independence Day” is not lost on me.

So that’s been on my mind a lot.

Here’s to Independence. Here’s to 10 years free…

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