I’m in a dream. There was a beginning, but now I’m rapidly pacing through the private school I attended so many years ago, turning the corner at the landing like it was yesterday. But this portion of the hallway isn’t quite right—there are doors, doors, doors, on one side, and I’m throwing them open as I go, getting flashes of what’s in the room. I know I’m looking for something, but I’m not sure what. Each room seems to get me closer. They become more and more disorderly, and more and more frequently feature a bed. Then a few things happen almost all at once:
I realize I’m dreaming.
I realize what’s behind the last door.
I throw open the last door before I can stop myself anyway.
Dad, of course, dead for ten days, of course, in the dream and filling my vision as I bolt upright, gasping, a scream diffusing in my throat.
And, I’m pretty sure lastly, my morning alarm goes off.
So, morning. I sleepily breeze through my morning checklists. Wash up, same clothes as always. One mile walk. Wave to the same group of retirees and dogs as usual. An hour of notebook drafting, my writing ritual right now. My daily housewife routine. Brunch, toast as almost always, at 9:30. Create stability where you can, y’know. And my autism loves routine.
Still, my mind finds time to come back to the dream, writing about it, pondering sources—a visit at my mom’s house yesterday, rife with family pictures of those long gone, or maybe a recent pre Halloween Goosebumps story rewatch that featured decay—and putting on one of my favorite songs for one of those days, and generally wallowing.
Nothing dramatic, but feeling, over two years later, still desperate to shake the one image I can’t get rid of, nightmare, flashback, hallucination, or otherwise. One of my characters said in a recent chapter, of her own trauma, “Of course I have to do it again. I do it again when I close my eyes. (…) I do it again when I zone out too hard. Don’t you get that?”
I get that.
I knew when I found my father that I wasn’t going to be able to shake that image. It’s not really one of those visuals that you process in the moment. It’s one of those… we’ll need to keep coming back to this, do it again, and again, to process.
I felt very calm in the moment in a way (returning to the car where my now-wife was waiting, she thought all was well based on my body language)—and very determined that no one else see that image who didn’t have to, swearing to myself as I walked back down my father’s stairs, professionals only, and very aware that I’d decided to get here before my mother’s planned check in later—perhaps dissociated, but despite my day to day anxiety, I’ve always been strangely good in an emergency—and also very aware that it was all going to hit me later.
I just kind of figured, I’ll have PTSD now. That was a trauma angle I hadn’t really thought of before, researching and writing it in fiction: the awareness at the point of the trauma of the future effects. I still don’t think I processed it fully for some time.
Now, I’m working on a backstory companion piece in which someone asks the same character mentioned above, very shortly post trauma, what it is she’s feeling.
She responds that while she’s not sure, it feels like grief (though no one has died), and when asked for what, she says, For before.
I know I felt grief both for my father’s actual death and for before. Before the trauma, before the PTSD, before the nightmares, the extra hypervigilance, the flashbacks, the ones that became hallucinations. For before that image. I grieved my father, but also something I had never defined enough to know I could lose.
It wasn’t any traditional loss of innocence grief story, and I don’t really think of it that way—I was still an adult with an awareness of the world at the time, though I think I aged a lot in the months after, not only trauma but adulting logistics (probate court and beyond), the independence to pursue my own projects, whatnot—but some people certainly might see it that way.
Maybe it’s masochistic, but in a way—simply as a longtime writer of trauma and PTSD and images characters can’t shake, and as a person who questioned my own resilience—I’m almost grateful for the experience.
Maybe that’s screwed up, but it’s at least a better emotion than only sitting around going woe is me, and I certainly wouldn’t wish the experience on my mother or anyone else who might, in some parallel universe, have walked into the house that day, or, I guess, in the ten days before it. The house was up for sale. I’m not sure if the realtor had access to the house without being in touch with my father—we were, strangely, ultimately not in contact long—but some home buyers to be may have seriously dodged a bullet. And if my father had to die, then I can only suppose it was all the same post mortem to him, and it appeared he passed in his sleep, at home, which many people would consider—if you must die one way or another—basically ideal.
I always wanted to do research via experience where I could, or utilize past experiences as research for fiction. I made trips to the archery range to try it out back when I was writing Hunger Games fan fiction; more recently, I responded to a reader’s comment of appreciation on a requested companion to one of my original fiction series:
Someone should, I bought a damn shock collar to research this scene and yes it was set to 99. Thank you! (To be amply clear, this was an alternative sexuality erotica piece and the product was safely tested on myself in that context, not an animal.)
And I’ve thought about doing more out there things in the name of research—if there’s value in recreating my characters’ specific traumas/if it could be safely done myself. Things like that.
So sometimes I feel like I’m experiencing my real trauma through the lens of writing, research. There are novelty tees and mugs out there with a message like, Warning: I’m a writer. Anything you say or do may be used in a story. And that goes for me, too. A distressing symptom can still have me running for a pen.
Or a blog post.