Writing prompt: Write a ghost story.
When the F train to Brooklyn pulls up after a long day of dog walking, I wait by the last car where I am most likely to get a seat. I slip inside and drop onto the middle of a bench, take my bag off my shoulder, and rest it in my lap. At the very last second before the doors slip shut, a man so tall his head almost hits the top of the door opening, forces his way inside. His dreads drape in a long, knotted mess against his stained white shirt and low hanging jeans. He leans against the doors on the opposite side of the car, and as we start moving he starts muttering. I can’t make out a lot of the words, but as he gradually increases his volume to scream territory, phrases like white privilege and bloody racists come through. Another day in Manhattan, another person going crazy on the train; whatever good or valid points he may have made are lost in his screams. I reach into my bag to pull out my headphones without looking at him, and plug them into my cell phone before popping the buds into my ears.
When I look up again, the man is flying across the train car. He grabs my wrist and yanks my phone out of my hand so abruptly that the headphone cord comes out of the jack. My phone goes flying into the window on the opposite side of the car, right between two bystanders’ heads. The crazy is screaming at me, calling me a racist bitch, and then the man next to me stands up and punches him in the face so hard that the crazy goes spinning back into the pole in the middle of the aisle and crumples to the floor.
Someone hands me my poor cracked phone as the train pulls into the next station. I pull the earbuds out of my ears and shove them into my purse as I explode out the door the instant it opens. I am not afraid of the crazy; I see crazies every day, though not usually to this extent. I am afraid of what the crazy reminds me of, of the path my brain will take.
That’s what PTSD is. The human brain is made up of tons of different neural networks. We strengthen the connections between neurons when we learn to do something. When a person is learning how to ride a bike, a neural pathway forms that strengthens every time a person correctly completes the action of bicycling. If the person never has the desire to ride a bike, that neural pathway is not formed because the neurons never receive direction to connect. And if a person who rode a bike as a child doesn’t ride a bike for many years, the neural pathway they made when riding will slowly fade away. But neural pathways don’t form just for happy things like childhood bike riding. They also form from unhappy things. A psychologist named Martin Seligman coined the term “learned helplessness” after his experimentation on dogs. He locked dogs in kennels with no way out and shocked them again and again. The dogs would try to escape, throwing themselves against the sides of the kennel and biting at the metal. But once they figured out there was no escape, the dogs would simply lie down and take the shocks. Even after Seligman opened the kennel so they could walk out, the dogs continued to take the shocks. The neural pathways formed by the repeated electrocution taught the dogs there was no way out. There are chemicals formed inside the neurons during adverse experiences that aren’t formed during happy ones; these chemicals are what make the negative memories last longer. The neural pathways formed by negative memories are stronger and harder to break.
Post traumatic stress disorder is a name for the formation of a negative neural pathway (or pathways) caused by exposure to something from the past. For instance, there are certain things that trigger the feeling like someone or something is squeezing the inside of the chest. My chest. It’s difficult for me to explain PTSD to people outside of it. Really, it’s my brain being scared. My neural pathways sending me into fight or flight that generally transports me to somewhere other than where the “fight” occurred. I think of my brain as a bit of a firecracker. There is only so long that my fuse can burn before it blows up. Over time, I have grown good at recognizing the signs of an impending blow-up in enough time to escape the situation.
As a result, I have a lot of good days.
On this day in Brooklyn, however, the bench is cold. I’m wearing blue jeans, and my work hoodie, and my pink sneakers, and my hair is red. These are the things I know, but there is a lot I don’t know. For instance, how long I’ve been here, on the bench. I don’t know that. My arms are covered in goosebumps, and I’m shivering, my teeth clattering and my hands shaking. I am not sitting in the sun. I don’t know why.
The wind makes my tears sting. I’m crying. When did I start crying? It’s cold. My brain hurts, and I’m scared I’m losing my mind. It doesn’t hurt that I’m scared; it hurts more that I’m not sure why, that I can’t pinpoint whether I am just afraid or if I will always be that way or if it is because there was a man on the F train that I thought might kill me.
Today is not a good day.
There are two men throwing a frisbee in the park across the street from where I sit. Brooklyn Bridge Park. I’m in DUMBO. When B and I first got married, we played disc golf together back in Wisconsin. I drove my car; his was at the mechanic. We parked and played through the course, only to come back and find I’d left the lights on in the car. I got in so much trouble for that one.
I’m not afraid today in Brooklyn because of the crazy man on the F train. I’m afraid because of what he represents, because of the things he made me remember, because of the time that I lost walking away from the train. I tell myself not to be scared.
There is something to be said about surviving. About recovery. It’s never easy. When you’ve told everyone that you’re okay but you still wear your heart on your sleeve, it crushes way too easily under the crazies on the subway. When you think things are going well, when you get to that point where there is a year worth of okay days, the one that is not okay is devastating. I want to be the strong woman, the one that is okay, the one people are proud of. The one that isn’t a disappointment.
I cry. I cry because I am done with all of this. I am finished with being hurt and I am finished with being scared and I am finished with all of it. I can never get back what was taken from me and I will never again be who I was. But I am in New York City. I am on a bench that is cold, wearing blue jeans and my work sweatshirt and my sadly hopeful pink sneakers and my hair is red.
And tomorrow is another day.