My last night in Baltimore, I swung through to pick up some medications, see the kids (we now think of them as The Kids, and I think that’s about to become a Style Feature, sorry about that), have dinner with J, grab the last few remaining things at the house. I’d originally planned on grabbing a hotel, but we hadn’t turned off the utilities or sent junk men through the house yet; Kiddo’s old mattress was still there, the heat and power were still on, so I dragged her mattress into our old bedroom and slept, squatter- style, on the floor. It was strange: bittersweet and good, too— I had this time to just go through our home on my own terms, in my own time, to carefully say goodbye to each and every corner.
It was unexpected; we’d hoped to transfer all our medical business in time, but refills are never co- ordinated and it was my most important med that had come up- Gilenya. I’m not even going to get into the details of what a cock- up it was just to get this medication filled at a pharmacy instead of having it hand- delivered to a home (the no- shit automatic assumption being that anyone with my diagnosis is housebound) but there wasn’t any way to have it diverted to our new location on short notice because BUREAUCRACY, a word which I always need spell- check to complete and which never means life is going to be easier for anyone except, well, bureaucrats.
I didn’t really mind. We couldn’t do holidays with The Kids due to the move, so I had an excuse to drop off Kiddo’s present from an uncle, which was accidentally sent to us, to visit and give hugs all around, and to pet Barrett, who lives with them now, too. J and I had dinner at The Brewer’s Art that evening, and he hadn’t been there before; a chance at the winter menu and oh god, that’s right, they were serving the elk. (If you have a chance, get over there and try the elk. It is so, so good. I waited a year, hoping it would come back so I could try it; it was worth it.) J lives in Howard county so I know he won’t be getting out Mt. Vernon on the regular, but I’m glad to have shown him one of my favorite places in the city before I left. Missing him like wildfire, though; I keep thinking of stupid things I want to show him here. The absolute idiocy of geography, friends.
What I’m avoiding talking about- working my way up to talking about?- is what happened right before I left. It’s funny, because I’d been texting Sam the night before about feeling a little like an old crusty about the entire situation, just- well, it felt like squatting, reminded me of my old, teenage self. There was a small risk to what I was doing and I knew it; the house had stood empty for a few weeks and hey, it’s a city. We’d been making very obvious preparations to move for weeks. People watch. They notice. It’s a good neighborhood, but we aren’t far from less- good neighborhoods because- well, you know. Any city is a patchwork. So.
I woke up at 9 to my alarm, stretched, started moving a little- just packing up the things around my bed, that sort of thing, like you’d do in a hotel. I thought I heard something at the front downstairs, but when I peeked out the window, nothing doing. I sat back on the mattress, picked up my phone, started reading the news, but after a few moments, something just felt wrong. I don’t know precisely how to explain this, but some of my people will understand; it’s that sensation in your stomach when someone is watching you and you can’t see them, or that moment just before something is about to explode. This isn’t any strange psychic thing, it’s a sensory one; de Becker writes about this pretty brilliantly in The Gift Of Fear. (Highly recommended if you haven’t read it, btw.) Your senses have picked up on indicators that something dangerous is happening, somewhere, but they aren’t so obvious that your mind has grabbed on to a clear “oh hey wait what’s this let’s freak out” moment yet, so you just go into hypervigilance mode. I suspect this is something that’s easier to trigger in folks like me- PTSD/ C-PTSD types, people who’ve experienced trauma/ multiple types of trauma and/ or violence, because we have more experiences to draw from. (I also think that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.)
So that’s me, sitting on my mattress, vigilant. At first, there was just nothing: the sound of the giant oak tree creaking in my yard, cars passing, wind. My neighborhood. Safety. I felt completely irrational, crouched on my kid’s mattress, in my own house, holding a cell phone in one hand and a metal water bottle in the other- some goddamned vet in pajamas having an episode, straight out of a bad sitcom. Well, I always knew this would happen, I remember thinking, and flashed on a friend making an awkward Vietnam vet joke almost a decade ago.
Then I heard the sound of fabric brushing against itself. I wasn’t sure at first- it was coming from out in the stairwell, and sounded so very similar to the sound of the wind, because it was very, very slow. Cloth, though, as a person moves- it has its own noise, and it was getting closer as this person was moving up the stairs.
I look at this incident now and realize that I should have- and could have- taken so many different approaches. In the moment, I was just so shocked, angry, and I think also- possibly, probably crushed, too?- that someone had just walked into our home, I didn’t think to be afraid, although I definitely was. There in the room, I knew I couldn’t let this person find me- that I needed the element of surprise on my side, not theirs- but other than that, I didn’t have time for any plan, other than to type “91” into my phone and to grab the heaviest thing close to hand (my water bottle) before I started to move. I didn’t want to go out the window (and wasn’t sure I had that time) so confrontation was the option I felt I had left.
I’m 5’4″, y’all. The last physical altercation I had was with some drunk jerk who was beating the piss out of his girlfriend in the streets while she was holding her baby— and I was with my husband at the time. That was years ago, a team effort, Sam got the worst of it, and that guy was HAMMERED. Like, maybe- booze- wasn’t- all- that- was- in- the- mix levels of hammered. Old boy got one good shot in and a couple of really sloppy pushes. Buddhist. Non- violence is my game. Also survival, though. That, too. So.
I was in the room, thinking and looking and trying to come up with any sort of plan when the person hit the landing and I knew I needed to do something, anything, really. I hit this frustration point; tossed the door open and there he was, about ten feet from me in the hall, maybe early thirties, canvas jacket, stocking cap, 100% average guy, and he looked terrified. We were both so shocked to be looking at each other, there was just this weird moment where we simply stared at one another, me in my PJs and cowlick, him in his work clothes and wide eyes, before I said, “What the fuck are you doing here?” This tiny “whoashit” escaped him and then it was as though he vanished, he ran out of the house so quickly; if he hadn’t left such deep footprints in my yard on his way out- and left the door standing open- I might have suspected it was all a dream.
It’s funny/ not- funny- at- all, the way this comes right back, the way this is both mental illness and life skill; I felt that same absolute calm afterward, that “well, let’s do things proper now” that comes with any vaguely awful thing. I felt so very much like my father’s daughter in this moment: collected, pragmatic, and very, very slightly amused. A thing had just occurred: unusual, exceedingly unpleasant, but also decidedly over, without overt negative affect. I closed the front door, made rounds of the house: inside, top to bottom, rooms/ windows/ doors, then the outside perimeter. I packed up everything I needed, locked up, went to the gas station for a much- forbidden pack of smokes, and then, once I knew everything was 100% good, then I threw up and had a bit of a freak- out. You know. Like you do.
Afterward, I desperately wanted to be in the company of someone who would understand the reactions I was having; I wanted to be around ex- military friends Higgins or Jason, but I didn’t have time for that in this moment. In practice, though, simply knowing that there were people who would understand how strange and out- of- sync I was feeling was a comfort. (It’s okay to be not- normal when you know that you can be not- normal with other not- normal individuals who help to normalize you?) I didn’t want to investigate my emotions or hash it out, I didn’t want to talk or get hugs or have someone pat my hand, I just wanted to be in the same space with someone who would get it and not feel like a weirdo for about half an hour.
I settled for surrounding myself with people I love, and drove to the county to see The Kids like we’d planned. I didn’t mention anything about the morning, I couldn’t see the point; I’d come for hugs and to drop off gifts. I left feeling soothed. Calmer. By the time I’d put 100 miles or so between me and Baltimore, I found myself strangely grateful for the experience- not the hurty, ugly thought of someone intruding on what was our home, that’s quite painful and I’m still struggling with that- but while that was a frightening and upsetting encounter, I also appreciate the reminder. Walls, windows and doors aren’t as solid and significant as we enjoy thinking they are (I remember our fire). They’re more symbols than anything else. (I secretly feel like this might have also been: have another lesson about attachment, jerk.)
I left Baltimore that day as though I couldn’t get out fast enough; not because the incident left a bad taste, but because I was just so done being sad, so done with grief and looking back, so over attachment, so ready to take on something new. I’ll talk about what comes next soon. Mostly it’s more knitting, a bit of teaching, some painting, lots of editing, and even a little dyeing (yeah, I said it).
- PS: If you’re dealing with PTSD, C-PTSD, or coping with a delayed response to any trauma, there are so many places out there where you can find help and information. Resources can be found at PTSD United, Veterans can find specialized help at MakeTheConnection.net, and the National Center for PTSD can be found online. I know it sounds cheesy and this phrase, it’s all over the place, but it really can get better. Scouts’ honor. And if you want to talk to a real live person about it, you can always reach out.