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StayHomeWriMo, Day 6!!!

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.

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StayHomeWriMo Day 5!!!

Writing Prompt: Go outside (if you safely can). Put on your writer hat (or mittens). Try to notice five things to write about! (**Disclaimer, I’m not really supposed to go outside because it’s not necessary, so a friend told me about her walk and I used that!)

OUTSIDE!!!

THE SMELLS!!!

ZOMG!!!

You plunge snout first down the sidewalk towards the first grass patch, pulling against the annoying black halter that rubs your fur. There’s these dumb masks on the ground, but you ignore them. The plastic gloves too. Why do people throw away so

SMELLS!!!

Mom keeps using the words coronavirus. Pandemic. You’ve never heard these words before, and they don’t really matter to you because all you know is Mom is home and she’s taking you on a

WALK!!!

and that’s the best. Grass patch one fails a pee spot inspection; nothing good to mark. You trot towards grass patch two, nose and tail high, determined to

KITTY!!!

A black and white kitty slips away from you across the abandoned lot and you want to cry because you don’t understand why the kitties won’t be your friend. The kitties always hiss at you when all you want to do is sniff them. You look through the chain link fence and

ANOTHER KITTY!!!

This one is a tabby. Brown and black fur. Your fur is brown! Maybe this one will be your friend, you think, but no. It disappears too, into the same bush. You hope the kitties are friends and at least have each other. You find the next best pee spot. There’s another dumb glove there, but no matter. You pee on it anyway. This makes your mom laugh. Dumb glove. You should pee on all the gloves. You like it when she laughs. It’s like

CHICKEN?!?

You smell it then, off in the distance. Fried, delicious, goodness. Your mom is a vegetarian, so you never never get to smell these things in the house and

ZOMG YOU TASTE THE AIR!!!

But your mom doesn’t want to go that way. She doesn’t understand what you’re asking. You wish she’d speak Dog. Your fur blows in the breeze as you pout about the lost meat, and you lower your nose to look for

BARKING!!!

A dog runs back and forth on the other side of a different fence. It’s big and black and kinda drooly. It’s barking at you. Rude!!! You know better, and you think that dog should also know better. But you’re just better taught. Obviously. You always knew you were the smartest dog to ever

FRIEND?!?

Two men walk down the sidewalk that want to pet you, but Mom won’t let them and she makes you cross the street. She says it’s ’cause of the pandemic. There’s that word again. Ruining all your fun. You watch them walk away and wonder if they had treats. The good treats, the kind with chicken and

TREATS!!!

You finish your potty so that Mom will take you home to where you know treats are. No one gets in the elevator with you, and your mom says she’s glad because, again, pandemic. You’re under “quarantine.” You wish you knew what that meant, but it’s too big for you. You decide it must mean “Mom stays home forever to snuggle,” and after you get your treat, you demand tummy rubs while watching tv. Quarantine is the best.

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StayHomeWriMo Day 4!!!

Writing prompt: Write about a secret you or a character have been keeping.

Sleep is hard, since the quarantine started. In all honesty, she’s never been the best sleeper. But it’s so much worse now. It all starts out fine – some melatonin there, a trazodone there – she’s out like a light within half an hour, but up again at 2am. 4am. The nights stretch on, long, dark. There are haunting images in the dark: hisses and pings from the radiator like a hammer against a metal pole; deep bass music from the neighbor down and diagonal; rolling on the floor above like a child’s Big Wheel, going up and down the hallway, again, again. Again. Alexa’s white noise can’t drown it all out, no matter how hard it tries. And it does try. And it does work, a little. Not enough.

530am she flips to the foot of the bed and turns on a Lifetime movie to fall back asleep, secure and wrapped up in her giant blue body pillow. If it’s not the right Lifetime movie, she won’t fall back asleep. There are criteria. Not too violent. Not too interesting. Preferably one she’s seen before. “The Pregnancy Project” was too good; she had to stay awake to watch it. The Amanda Knox movie was one she’d seen so many times she was out before they found the bodies. The tabby cat loves this routine and jumps right into the body pillow for movie cuddles and tummy rubs; the cat is the least changed by this virus. For the cat, quarantine could go forever.

When Good Morning, America comes on, she puts on ABC. Every morning. And every morning there are new statistics on coronavirus. The total sick, total dead. They call NYC the epicenter now. Thousands and thousands of cases. This is why it doesn’t matter if she sleeps; she doesn’t have a routine to go back to anyway. No job. No real work. She could sleep all day. She watches the age breakdown carefully; it’s in her age group now. People in her age group are being hospitalized. She tells herself it’s because they’re idiots who refuse to stay home, but she’s not sure. She doesn’t leave the house. She follows the rules. She isn’t ready to die yet. She writes, every day. She plays, every day. She thinks about sleep, every day.

 

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StayHomeWriMo Day 3!!!

Writing Prompt: Set your text to white and try free-writing in invisible mode. No inner editors allowed! (Typed according to instructions using word, ps, I suck at free-writing and I hated that I couldn’t see it. My inner editor is very mad about this.)

Quarantine has left me a little lost. I wear pajamas all day, though I hear I’m not the only one. I play a lot of video games. I watch a lot of tv, mostly anime. Surprisingly, I’m not reading much. I grabbed a new book the last day I left the house, which was well over a week ago, but I’m not even halfway through it.

I had a discussion with my therapist about why quarantine is hard. The emotions it triggers in me. Fear, sadness, frustration, boredom, rage, depression, anxiety, loss of control. She told me to write about other times I’d felt those things. It seemed silly at the time. I’ve never been one to rewrite to begin with, but then today’s prompt was DO THE THING so here I am, doing the thing.

I guess I could draw a likeness here to what it feels like to be raped. When you’re raped, you lose all sense of control. Over yourself, your body, the world around you. That’s a bit what quarantine is like for me. I couldn’t control my company shutting down, losing my job, not being able to leave my house for days and days on end. I couldn’t control when I was raped. Two totally different situations but yet also the same, in a way. At least to my head. I could keep throwing comparisons. Being held down, being locked inside my house. Not being able to control the idiot in the bodega who might get me sick with his lack of personal space, not being able to control the man on top of me. Not knowing when my next paycheck will come or if it will come, not knowing if I’ll ever feel sane enough to work again.

My brain doesn’t always recognize when it’s safe. And honestly, quarantine life isn’t that bad, minus the boredom. It’s given me lots of time to paly Animal Crossing, after all. But my brain’s response to these emotions it feels are what makes it bad. These emotions mean things aren’t safe, might never be safe again. This uncertainty feels like I may never get my feet under me again. This lack of income makes me think I’ve been doing my life all wrong. That it will never be back to the way it was. That it’s time to strike out on my own and do my own business for real.

And maybe, in a way, I’m not so lost after all. Maybe the uncertainty of quarantine is what I needed to figure out my path was, once again, wrong.

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StayHomeWriMo Day 2!!!

Writing prompt: Pick five words at random from different blog posts, tweets, or articles and use them all in a scene. Words assigned at random by my Facebook friends because I am incapable of being random myself: amazing, moon, mercy, cacophony, elastic.

**Disclaimer, I’m not a huge fiction writer anymore!

Rebeckah’s heart was a cacophony of emotion as she drove her boot heel into the soft flesh of the stranger’s throat. His last words before she’d pepper sprayed him and knocked him flat, “Why won’t you answer me, pretty lady, do you think you’re better than me?” echoed inside her head as the feeling of his dirty fingers on her arm refused to fade. It had happened so fast–his fingers on her arm one second and then him crying on the ground like a little baby from the pepper spray pain. Her boot made contact before she totally realized what she was doing.

The man coughed and sputtered beneath her as he struggled to take back the air she was stealing, but she wouldn’t let up. Couldn’t. Rebeckah was tired. It wasn’t this one man in particular. He hadn’t done anything worse than anyone else. It was all the men. It was every catcall, every whisper, every side eye, every preposition of a kiss, or something more. She was TIRED. Women were just expected to be elastic, to bounce back, to sit down and shut up and take it and then take it some more. Rebeckah didn’t want to take it. Rebeckah wanted to make a difference; she wanted to change the world.

The man bashed his palm against the ground again and again, a cry for mercy when he had no voice with which to speak. The power she felt as she really threw her weight into him, as she stared down at his pepper spray addled eyes and his dead fish hands, was the most amazing feeling she had ever felt. Her heart calmed, the cacophony silenced, and she knew what she had to do.

Rebeckah lifted her boot just before the man’s eyes closed. She wasn’t like him. She was better, or at least, she hoped to be. This was her difference she sought to make, not so much in the letting him go, but in the making him remember. What he’d done; what she’d done. That she’d had a chance to end him and let him go instead. The moon was high in the sky as she walked away, round and blood red in a way she had never seen before, and Rebeckah hoped he was grateful for this chance to see it.

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StayHomeWriMo Day 1!

Creative Wellbeing Writing Prompt: Think about a character who’s stuck inside. How do they feel about it? Why are they there?

We were the picture of tranquility as we stood in an aisle of our local lawn and garden store the day after our first Christmas as a married couple. I was burrowed inside a black down jacket, a woven red scarf around my neck. His coat stayed in the car; he didn’t like to wear it shopping. Married six months and change, we made the joint decision to buy everything we needed for future holidays on clearance. We got our Christmas fix by going to his parents’ house, conveniently located right around the corner from our apartment. He was physically incapable of separating from them, which meant that I got lots of family Christmas time. It wasn’t the same as having our own tree though, so on December 26th, he finally caved and we found ourselves staring at picked over half off holiday merchandise.

“How ’bout this one?” He pointed to a glossy fake tree that was easily six feet tall.

I leaned my head on his shoulder. “You don’t think it’s too tall for our apartment?”

“You doubt me?” His voice had that slight familiar edge it got when he was angry.

“No, I just—”

“Maybe you’re right,” he cut me off. Pointing at another tree, he asked, “Maybe this one?”

The second choice was full and green and not quite as tall as me. It seemed the perfect size, was only forty dollars, and was one of the few still available in a box. We loaded it into the cart, and then moved on in search of ornaments. I took several glittery reindeer from their hooks and put them in the cart, while he went for blue and silver glass balls and dangling icicles. We paid and took everything outside and put it all inside the trunk of his black Chevy, carefully locking up so we could go see a movie.

It was around eleven when we got back home. We hauled everything into the lobby and then leaned against the wall. I suggested we take it all down to our basement storage area, since Christmas was already over. “I’m tired.” He pulled the keys out of his pocket and unlocked the door to the hallway that led to our apartment. “You do it, if you wanna be the boss.”

“Hey, wait!” I shoved the tree box into the doorway to prop it open as he turned towards our apartment. “It would go faster if we both did it.”

I didn’t need to look at him to feel his eyes boring into me.

“This is heavy. We could probably do it in one trip. If we both went, I mean.”

He shrugged, rolling his eyes. “Fine. Whatever.”

I couldn’t understand why his mood had so suddenly changed, from happy one second to cold and distant the next, but I was grateful for his help. We each looped bags over an arm, took our respective ends of the box, and started down the stairs into the dark basement. Everything fit easily into our storage area. I was on tiptoes putting a plastic tote I’d stuffed with ornaments on an upper shelf when I felt his eyes on my back. I turned around, and he was leaning against the doorway.

“It’s amazing to me,” he said quietly, “how many things you can’t do for yourself.”

I bit my lip and turned away from him so he wouldn’t see me tear up. The evening had been so nice—dinner, a Christmas tree search, a movie—and it had suddenly changed. Had he not liked the movie? Was it something I’d said?

“Did I do something?” I stayed facing away because I couldn’t bear to look at him.

“Oh man,” he laughed. “Are you crying? You can’t even have a simple conversation without being a stupid little baby?”

The idea that I could never make him completely happy because I never knew what he was thinking was a frustrating one. Perhaps it was the frustration that made me cry rather than his actual words—the sudden realization that I was, in fact, never enough and never would be, that I had put myself into a hopeless situation I couldn’t walk away from.

I turned back towards him, blinking furiously to push back the tears, and moved to shove past him. He pushed me back, and I grabbed fistfuls of his jacket in a failed attempt to keep myself from falling. There I was on the ground, my cheek stinging from where his fist had struck it. “Don’t touch me,” he spat, towering above me. “Don’t ever touch me.” He left me there on the floor in tears and shut the door between us. I heard the key click in the lock but made no effort to stop it.

He went upstairs, and I sat on the floor in the storage area, my back against the Christmas tree, and cried. I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong; his words were the only words that were important to me and any thought I had of my own didn’t matter. When he saw me, when he spoke to me, I wasn’t nothing. He was the first person who ever truly loved me.

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