As a young girl, it was a ritual to accompany my mother as she took my siblings to countless psychiatric and therapy appointments. We were dubbed "bad" kids which meant we were unable to sit still in class, got into fights, and talked back to teachers. Behavioral issues aside, I, unlike my brothers and sisters somehow managed good grades in school, so I did not qualify for an evaluation. The root of my issues was left unexplored so long as I excelled academically. So I would mostly sit in the children’s waiting room playing with a beaded roller coaster and a wooden puzzle that was always missing pieces. Sometimes, I sat playing with the beaded roller coaster for hours as children most of whom were primarily Black & Latinx, came and went into offices with opaque glass doors that were always opened and closed by old white men. My name would never be called. No therapist would ask me questions about my feelings. No medication would be prescribed to calm my fears.
Originally titled Of Love & Insanity, I changed the name of my first chapbook to PTSD after my first visit with a mental health provider offered me the diagnosis. It was the summer of 2015 and I was working as a case manager in Harlem helping folks understand and navigate stressful systems that often contributed to, rather than alleviated, existing psychosocial and socio-economic barriers. I had been doing advocacy work since 2006. At twenty-three years old and freshly having received my GED, obtaining a job in social services put me on the other side of systems that had both raised and harmed my family. I was now the caseworker that my mom would wait for to help fill out an application for food stamps or housing. In a nutshell, my job was to provide people with resources, show them how to use them, and hopefully help improve a person's overall well-being and quality of life. I was only good at my job because I knew firsthand what it meant for someone to be bad at it.
I don’t remember what triggered my lunchtime nervous breakdown that day. I do remember standing across the street from the Apollo Theater frantically searching my phone for the number to the Employee Assistance Program. The counselor on the phone asked me the same questions I asked my clients during our intake assessments. The same questions I heard my mother and siblings be asked over and over again at mental health appointments.
How often do you feel sad or afraid or as if something terrible might happen?
Do you find that you have low energy or no interest in things or have any difficulty functioning?
Approximately how long have you been feeling this way?
Questions I had never answered.
One day, I got in trouble for breaking the beaded rollercoaster in the waiting room. I was bored and I needed the toy to have a different purpose. I spent quite a bit of mental and physical energy yanking the wire from its wooden base. It wasn't that difficult. The toys in the waiting room were on their last leg. The path the beads would take was already pre-determined by wires which varied in length. These colorful wires coiled and intersected with other wires and beads without ever touching each other. Magic. Most of the time it was easy to get a bead from one end of the wire to another, which was always the goal, but other times, a wire would have multiple swoops and curves and I would give up trying to get the bead to the other end. Not because it was difficult, with a little effort and dedication the bead could have fulfilled its mission, I was just exhausted at the thought and felt it was too much work for my eyes and fingers just for the end result to be the same.
To alleviate my boredom I would sometimes experiment with the position of the beads on my assigned wire. A solitary bead at the bottom of a wired curve was stagnant. It took no real effort to stay there at the base of the wire. Unmoved by the chaos of the other children zipping and swooping the beads on their wires to their destination. In contrast, a solitary bead balanced at the top of a wired curve was exciting. How long could it stay at the top before it fell? What would be the catalyst for its movement? Would it be a child accidentally bumping their hand into my wire? A sudden gust from an open window? A jumping toddler vibrating the bead to its demise?
Still, the truth was no matter how much I moved or didn’t move the beads they were perpetually stuck on a ride they would never get off of. That day, I broke the toy because I wanted to know what the beads felt like in the palm of my hand versus in between my thumb and index fingers. I wanted to roll the beads across the floor. I wanted to wear the beads as a necklace. I wanted to explore what else the beads were capable of if they were set free from their linear prison.
On the day of my first mental health appointment, I walked through a wooden door into the therapist's office that was unlike the opaque glass doors of my childhood and sat, a fully formed adult in front of an old white man. I wondered about him. Had he ever worked with children? Did I remind him of any of the Puerto-Rican kids he might have treated? Did he ever regret this sounding board of a profession? This revolving door. None of it mattered. I wasn’t here to ask him questions. I was here to answer my own.
I held my shame inside of my palms, my fingers fidgeting, restless on my lap. How did I get here? I thought I had been doing so well. I told myself that if I was going to ugly cry in front of anyone, they should at least be getting paid for it. It was my first time discussing my trauma so publicly and so honestly. It was the first time the trauma had lived outside of my body. After listening to me vacillate between describing my pain and trying to walk myself back to some semblance of normalcy, the doctor explained Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to me. I had previously only related PTSD to war vets. It was wild to think of it in these terms, that my childhood had been a war and that meant I was a survivor.
I am 38 years old and recently diagnosed with Adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). As I begin to explore my recent diagnosis, I have learned that there is a link between ADHD & PTSD. In a recent conversation with a friend who has a similar background, we discussed how difficult it has been as adults to sit in the stillness of presumed safety. Even though my body and mind are no longer in immediate danger, I find myself much more anxious now as an adult than I was as a child. I experience deep and sudden waves of sadness. It is hard to stay motivated and even harder to retain information. As a child, having terrible things happen to me and all around me was the norm. It was the good things that happened to me and around me that were strange, fleeting, and not to be trusted. That doesn’t mean I was numb to the pain, that means that I expected it, diligently prepared for it, and surviving it was not a celebration, it was a temporary stay, a bead at the top of the curve waiting for its eventual fall.
There’s a lot of conversation happening about people of color who write about trauma. Some writers argue that we should lean more towards writing about worlds where we/our characters do not experience pain and suffering, especially at the hands of oppressive systems. This, some argue, is trauma porn. Other writers argue that writing about trauma is a necessary mirror for folks who yet do not have the words, a permission to feel less alone and see possibility. I see the value in both perspectives. In her essay published on Scribd titled Writing Into The Wound, Roxane Gay states:
“To change the world, we need to face what has become of it. To heal from a trauma, we need to understand the extent of it.” - Roxane Gay
When I named my chapbook PTSD I had just only just begun exploring trauma through my writing. I was so proud of my cover. I created it from scratch. I bought miniature furniture from Michael's Art Store. I placed tiny bandaids inside small wooden frames. I purchased a human anatomy kit, plucked the heart and brain out from the skeletal frame and sat them side by side on, my miniature bench. A metaphor of course. I carefully arranged all of these moving parts on a wooden baseboard and took a close shot of my scene with a camera. I recreated the first mental health office I walked into. Looking back, the cover was probably deeperSalesses than any of the poems in it. The writing was more cathartic than it was rooted in craft. It was a careful and shallow attempt at what Gay calls understanding the extent of my trauma but it made me feel good to release some of that. That had to count for something. Right? In an essay that expanded into a book, Body Work: The Radical Power Of Personal Narrative Melissa Febos writes:
“Let’s face it: If you write about your wounds, it is therapy. Of course, the writing done in those fifteen minutes was surely terrible by artistic standards. But it is a logical fallacy to conclude that any writing with therapeutic effect is terrible.” - Melissa Febos
By the time I wrote When We Make It, I knew that writing about trauma for the purpose of making me feel good wasn't enough. Even if it didn't change anything about the world it needed to transform something in me. I wanted to write about the complexities of trauma.
I wanted to examine how we are simultaneously harmed and shaped by them. How our traumas belong to us and don’t. How these stories do not negate our glory. Although I am grateful and realize the significance and power in manifesting stories that write us into worlds where we do not know harm at the hands of oppressive systems or at the hands of people who were supposed to love and nurture us, for me writing trauma is a crucial part to understanding how my reality played a part in blurring that imagination.
In an essay titled My Life Is Not A Stereotype, Melissa Coss Aquino writes:
"I am writing to imagine our triumph, but I cannot do it without first documenting how we were brought to our knees.“
In an interview, Nuyorican Poet Louis Reyes Rivera quotes his mentor and writer John Oliver Killens as teaching him that:
“The responsibility of the writer is not only to tell it like it is but tell it like it oughta be. Not just our desperate state, but as well what we aspire to.” - Louis Reyes Rivera quoting John Oliver Killens
The question I ask myself these days is how is writing about trauma allowing me to imagine new possibilities? If trauma, like that beaded rollercoaster I played with as a young girl, is a predetermined wire path in the brain with curves and loops, will I be the writer endlessly scrolling from one end of the spectrum to the other, a bead in its desperate state? Or am I the bead that gets off the ride when a wire breaks, writing myself into new possibilities?
Am I telling it how it should be?
Some resources on the subject to read and learn from:
Writing The Wound - Roxane Gay
Craft In The Real World - Michael Salessness
Body Work: The Radical Power Of Personal Narrative