One of the ways in which I navigate the cacaphony of competing discourses about disability, mental health, and just about everything else is to remind myself that we humans are always storytelling and that these discourses are just a series of stories. Along with eating, sleeping, and breathing, storytelling is what we do. Certainly, some things — like the sheer physicality of our bodies — aren’t just stories, and yet, we interpret even these things with stories about them.
I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately — about the stories I tell about myself, about the stories I tell about other people, about the stories people have told about me, about the stories the media tells about everyone. I don’t fault people for telling stories. It’s what we do in order to makes sense out of our existence. As Arthur Frank writes, we are beings who, in order to make life habitable, must tell stories from the narrative resources available to us:
“To say that humans live in a storied world means not only that we incessantly tell stories. Stories are presences that surround us, call for our attention, offer themselves for our adaptation, and have a symbiotic existence with us. Stories need humans in order to be told, and humans need stories in order to represent experiences that remain inchoate until they can be given narrative form… We humans are able to express ourselves only because so many stories already exist for us to adapt, and these stories shape whatever sense we have of ourselves… ” (Frank 2012, 36)
One of the things that comforts me in this life, especially when I feel barricaded in by the absurdities of the things that people say, is to remember that we can rewrite these stories. If we are all inveterate storytellers — incorporating pieces of different narratives and creating new narratives from what exists — then we can always reinterpret and rewrite our stories. We are always free to engage that process. The problem is that stories often masquerade as fact, and we feel cut off from rewriting them at all.
To say that a story isn’t fact doesn’t mean that it’s entirely fiction. The stories that people tell always have truths in them somewhere. But they are not necessarily truths about the purported subjects of the story. A story about me might contain no truths about me at all. It might contain truths about the storyteller’s fears. It might contain truths about the storyteller’s trauma. It might contain truths about the storyteller’s desire for power.
There are two sets of stories that plague me. One set consists of the negative stories that people have told about me or about people like me. These stories tend to be pathologizing. Sometimes, they are so ubiquitous that it is difficult to have the strength to analyze, reinterpret, rewrite, and rethink them. But I’m coming to see that it’s the stories that I tell myself about myself that are the most troubling. Some of these stories incorporate the larger narratives, sometimes by design and sometimes unintentionally. Others are a rebellion against the larger narratives. It would be impossible to avoid responding to these narratives in some way.
These days, there is one story of mine whose validity I’ve been calling into serious question. It has to do with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
I’ve been dealing with PTSD for nearly my whole life. It began over 50 years ago, when I was four years old. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was in my thirties, and that diagnosis was like the heavens opening up and the angels singing. I know that it sounds like a strange thing to say about a PTSD diagnosis, but how else can I describe the way in which the PTSD markers — the core narrative elements of the PTSD story — mirrored my own story so well? Suddenly, someone was narrating my story in a way that I recognized.
Over time, I learned to navigate and handle PTSD triggers. I learned to distinguish between a trigger and actual danger. I learned how to detach and breathe and not react when the catastrophic thinking started. I got very good at it.
And it worked for a long time — until a whole new level of protracted trauma came along, triggered the old trauma, and gave me a whole new set of things to heal from. It took me a long time to recognize the new trauma as trauma, even though it went on for 11 years. My husband and I moved to California this year, just to get away from it.
In order to cope all these years, I’ve told myself a story about how well my old adaptive patterns were working. And so, in true PTSD fashion, I went back to the story that had served my survival as a child — the story in which I was always the person who has it together, who figures it out, who doesn’t show weakness, who helps other people, who never asks for help, who is always on top of things, and who is somehow beyond regular, garden-variety human needs. In other words, I have spent the past decade or more dealing with PTSD by telling myself a story that am not traumatized. Not really. Maybe I used to be. But surely, not anymore.
These days, that story is showing itself to be largely fiction. It began a few days ago, when my husband left for a visit to the east coast. I felt tremendous sadness. I looked at the sadness and thought, “What is that doing there?” I started to ask the sadness what it was trying to show me. And within three days, I got the message: my body is absolutely racked by trauma. For the first time in my life, I am fully inside my body and it is incredibly painful. The level of stress, of sheer physical tension, of never feeling at ease, of never feeling safe is constant. I look at some of the things I do, and I see how hypervigilant I am.
For instance, there is the way I sit on the sofa and use the computer. Here is a picture of my sofa:
[The photo shows a picture of a futon with a blue spread in a mandala design. There are four white pillows along the back and some beige carpeting is visible in front. A small wooden end table is visible to the right.]
It’s a futon that doubles as a guest bed. It looks very beautiful and comfortable, doesn’t it? But do I sit on this futon comfortably, leaning against the pillows, relaxing? No, I don’t. I sit on the edge, next to the table, with one foot on the ground, looking like I’m ready to fight an intruder who is about to mercilessly fuck with me.
You can see why my story about not being traumatized isn’t exactly working.
One of the things I have noticed recently about my attempt to fend off PTSD is that I have bifurcated the telling of my stories into public and private. In my public writing, I will talk about disability quite openly. But privately, I rarely talk about it at all. For instance, I wrote to my regular doctor today about whether she could help with a letter of medical necessity for a service dog for PTSD, and her response was along the lines of “We’ve never talked about your PTSD. We really should.”
It’s true. We never have. I wrote her back and basically said, “We’ve never talked about most of my disabilities. We really should.”
I’ve been seeing this doctor since May. She knows about my auditory processing disorder. She knows about the problem with my hip. But she does not know about my Asperger’s diagnosis. She does not know about my recent diagnosis of mixed receptive-expressive speech disorder. She does not know about my dypraxia. She does not know about my severe vestibular issues. She does not know about my sensory processing disorder. She only learned about my PTSD today, and I’ve been dealing with that since I was four.
Why hadn’t I talked to her? Partly, it’s that I’m so wounded by many of the assumptions that people make about my disabilities that I almost can’t bear it anymore. I have had so many bad experiences. And of course, the PTSD gets in the mix there, because the PTSD says, “Right. Don’t talk about it. Don’t show any vulnerability. Act like you’re fine.”
I told her why I hadn’t raised the issue. And her response was, “I understand your hesitation.”
So it looks like we’ll be having that conversation after all. I will also be seeing someone for EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy. And I’m making tracks about getting a service dog. I can’t continue to talk about disability publicly and pretend privately like everything is fine.
I sometimes wonder whether passing as nondisabled isn’t sometimes an expression of PTSD. I mean, who wants to deal with all of the crap that gets thrown at us around disability if they can help it? Over the past couple of years, I’ve done everything I can to avoid as much of it as possible. But now I’m tired and my body hurts. It’s time to start telling the people I know in my daily life, not just in my writing.
Perhaps it’s safer to talk with all of you about it. If you’re reading this piece, it’s because you have some connection to the world of disability. But most people do not. And they’re the ones I have to start addressing, even when I feel like one more refusal, one more ignorant response, one more uncaring word is going to break my heart.
Frank, Arthur. W. “Practicing Dialogical Narrative Analysis.” In Varieties of Narrative Analysis, edited by James A. Holstein and Jaber F. Gubrium, 33-52. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2012.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg