by Carly Smith
It is 11:04 a.m. The cursor blinks on my computer screen, an aberration against the pure white of my word document. It flashes on and then off, black and then blank, I have watched it do so for too long. The cursor almost replicates my thinking process; my thoughts blinking quietly, appearing and then dissolving into a blank space, before I can even grasp at them. I cannot elaborate on anything that enters my mind, or turn the thoughts into sentences that could sit, malleable yet solid, on a computer screen.
I have been awake for two hours, since I somehow managed to pull myself out of my bed and into my computer chair. I have a bad habit of spending too much time tucked between my sheets, whether my eyes are open or not. Waking is difficult, my muscles soften too much in my sleep and my head weighs me down. Usually, I feel as though I am holding the heaviness of an unwounded sergeant who has lost a thousand troops in war. I am getting better at resisting the urge to roll over and pull the blankets over my head, although it becomes grueling sometimes. The sooner I can get out of bed, the sooner I can start writing, I tell myself. However, when I do manage to leave the sheets, I mostly just sit in front of a blank screen for hours at a time, my mind not allowing me the ability to think at all. It’s not that I don’t want to do anything, it’s that I can’t do anything. There are projects to finish, drafts to begin, and research to obtain, but my brain simply won’t let me get started.
Every time I attempt to think, my thoughts just bounce back, as though there’s a brick wall in my mind which wishes to repel everything. There is a mug next to me which I have drained of coffee, and a spent sheet of multivitamins which were supposed to increase my level of focus and performance. Nothing has pushed my brain past the languid stage of morning and into a highway of productivity. Even when I tried to read a book in order to increase my thinking process, I found my eyes reaching the ends of the pages without having actually read any of the words.
I am slouched, my left foot sits on the chair, and my right foot rests on the floor. One hand is poised on my keyboard, and the other I run through my hair, scratching at my scalp out of frustration. I am feeling panicked about wasting my time but too sad about my inability to think to be able to do something else.
I know why I cannot concentrate, but I am reluctant to think about it because I know that doing so will simply make me bitter, so I continue to stare at the screen, still scratching at my scalp as though I am digging for gold.
Mental illness has clouded my life for some time now, presenting itself in the form of various conditions. Today, it is my post-traumatic stress disorder which is affecting me the most. I developed post-traumatic stress disorder after a particularly tumultuous childhood, during which my parents were mentally ill and were not in any capacity to protect me from my physically and emotionally abusive brother. Post-traumatic stress disorder, while limiting my memory and my reflexes, also affects my concentration levels and thinking capacity. When I have been triggered, it is difficult to focus on anything, and I cannot complete even the simplest tasks, no matter how hard I try.
These kind of mental blanks used to occur when I had recently come into contact with my family, but since I have relocated from Brisbane to Melbourne, and removed myself from whatever physical triggers were present in my home city, I thought that I would never have to deal with a mental block again. But I was foolish. I forgot that whenever I write about my trauma, I trigger myself, instead of performing an act of catharsis.
I have tried on many occasions to write an account of the experiences that led me to trauma. For the past two years, I have been working on an extended memoir where I discuss the trauma I experienced in my childhood, and how it has effected the remainder of my life. While the act of writing about the trauma is purgatory, it is not until later that day, or even the next day, that I begin to feel the mental blockades that occur after I have been subconsciously triggered.
And my mental blocks aren’t the only things limiting me from writing my memoir. I have a large portion of memories which are missing, gaps in my life which I am trying to restructure so that I can actually write about my life and not just the scatterings of memories that I have of it.
There are only some portions of my childhood that I remember – scratches on my face, bites on my arm, bruises from being hit with a cricket bat. All of them add up to a scathed mind which cannot match memories to times, dates, or even places. It is all a nonsensical landscape where I imagine mismatched collections of events floating around suspended in space, with no gravity to send them to a common ground.
Every now and again one will return to me, often when I have not even attempted to retrieve it. I will be in a mundane and otherwise unremarkable location – the reception area of a psychiatrist clinic, on the train to work in the morning, the kitchen of a friend’s house.
When I do remember an event, though, it’s as though the memory never left me. The memory will flash through my mind and I will think of it as though it never went missing at all, as though it was just an old favourite shirt that got lost in the bottom of my closet.
One morning, when I was sitting in front of a new psychiatrist, she asked me if I had ever been injured so badly that I had to seek medical advice. I had been to psychiatrists before, had been asked this question many times. But for some reason, on this occasion, the memory popped straight into my mind.
One morning, Tyler had been chasing me around the house. He often chased me around the house. It would normally start in the kitchen and he would chase me up the stairs and down the stairs and into the bathroom and down the hallway and up the stairs and down the stairs and into the kitchen and into the family room and into the dining room until we ended up in the lounge room, me standing on the armrest of the couch in the left corner, back pressed against the wall. Sometimes he had a knife in his hand, sometimes his hands were empty. One morning he had a video game case in his hand. It was a Tom & Jerry Playstation game that came in a VHS case from Video Ezy, the way that you used to borrow them out back in the early 2000s. This VHS case had a chipped corner, and the edges were jagged. Tyler cornered me in the back of the lounge room, and I had my hands over my face. The jagged edge of the case came down on my head like a farmer trying to decapitate a chicken. I felt it sear my consciousness with pain, a continuous concrete throb. Once I managed to compose myself, I chased him around the house, trying to get him back in some way. I caught up to him for the first time, and I pulled on his hair with one hand, and placed my hand on my head with the other. I realised my hand was wet, and wiped the moisture away, thinking it was sweat. I removed my hand and noticed that my fingers were dripping with blood. I ran outside to Father, who had been sitting, staring at the trees outside while all of this was happening. He looked at me and walked to the cupboard upstairs. He came back with an old towel, one I hadn’t seen before, for me to put on my head. He walked to the garage and started the car, and drove me to the doctor. Tyler buckled in next to me in the back seat, mouth closed. We sat in the waiting room, not saying anything, until we were called to the first doctor available. The doctor had a white-toothed smile and he stood in front of a wall full of drawings his children had made. He put a bandage on my head and sent me home, joking with Father about “kids causing trouble on the school holidays.”
“What can you do?” Father half-asked, half-joked. He laughed, the polite awkward laugh he uses when he isn’t sure if something is funny or not. He paid the medical bill at the front desk and drove us home, like he was just picking us up from the cinema. When Father pulled the car into the garage, Mother was closing her car door. I was clutching my head with my left hand and holding the bloodied towel with the other.
“Not again,” the look on her face said.
I stared at the psychiatrist, stunned and unable to speak. Now this memory reappears often, as though it was always there.
I don’t know how many more memories I have waiting to come back to me. But I feel as though my life will be a continuum of childhood experiences reappearing in my brain, and the malleable nature of my past makes it particularly challenging to write a coherent piece of work.
I think about my post-traumatic stress disorder all of the time, probably more than anything else. I think of the ways it has limited me and I think of who I would be without it. Someone a lot more capable, but with less of a story to tell. I am determined to speak about my illness. Maybe one day I will be able to do so without the negative mental repercussions that accompany it.
Carly Smith is a Melbourne-based writer with a keen interest in the writing, publishing, and editing fields. Smith recently graduated from a Fine Arts: Creative and Professional Writing degree at the Queensland University of Technology, and is looking forward to expanding her experience in the literary industry. She has volunteered at the SLQ Brisbane Writer’s Festival and completed work experience at ACP Magazines. Smith has also achieved publication in Cow, Hide Journal, and was long-listed in the 2015 Scribe Non-fiction Prize.