I’m crying in my car. Thankfully, I’m alone and not driving. The car has become a container for my tears. A movable sanctuary of sorts. I’ll put my iPhone on shuffle and a song will play that forcibly draws the tears from my eyes. For a second I will contemplate the meaning of this and then I’ll remember a question I encountered during recent psychometric testing: “Do you ever hear a song and think it has either a hidden meaning or a meaning directed specifically at you?” Then, I will contemplate my level of sanity.
I don’t believe that I am insane. I do believe that my brain has been significantly altered as a result of traumatic events that have occured over the course of my life. This concept is surprisingly one that has only recently fully presented itself to me. But now its like a Magic Eye poster, the image has formed, and I can no longer doubt its reality. It seems rather simple in retrospect. Shit happened and my view of the world changed. But it’s not that easy. This trauma and the effects are like a onion. The minute I peel off one layer, there’s another just waiting.
How often have you said either to yourself or others, “Well, that’s just the way I am.” I tell myself this all the time. I’ve been saying it for so long, that I’ve somehow convinced myself that the Lori that exists today is the same Lori that’s always been here. That this current Lori who has a hypervigilant, anxiety-addled, constant-questioning mind is the true Lori. I just assumed this is how I was, who I was, and placed no correlation on how these attributes have slowly continued to develop and become more prominent as a function of PTSD.
The first time I was diagnosed by a medical professional with PTSD, was in a shitty office on Elysian Fields by a psychiatrist I was seeing for free right after Hurricane Katrina. I honestly can’t remember now if it was a man or a woman but I do remember them asking me about my mental health history and when I got to the part of my mother’s death they replied, “I’m shocked you haven’t just killed yourself.” I was disgusted by the statement. Something in it hit my ego and I left the office to never return. This was the fall of 2005 and everyone returning from displacement was given a bucket by the red cross, snacks by local churches and a diagnosis of PTSD by anyone who held any type of medical certification. Needless to say I didn’t take the diagnosis very seriously.
I also thought I was stronger than these events which at the time encompassed my brother’s suicide, my mother murdering two people and herself and Hurricane Katrina. I had studied psychology at Tulane. I specialized in neuroscience. I believed that I could work through the stages of grief — albeit mine were more like, vodka, xanax, vicodin, nicotine and methamphetamine. Nevertheless, I felt that I was in control of me. That I could figure it out and if I didn’t kill myself, generally more through risk-taking behaviors than through actual suicidal attempts, that I was still winning. I didn’t want to be defined by these tragedies. And even as they kept unfolding in my life, I denied them by refusing to talk about them.
I was raped in 2006 and subsequently had an abortion after the rape left me pregnant. I wrote an essay in 2016 about this incident and some of my best friends from that time were shocked to learn that this had happened. I hid it, as it made me feel weak, ashamed and vulnerable. I have done that repeatedly with these traumatic events. I’ve endured, focused on what needed to happen in the immediate aftermath, then I’ve wrapped them up like a beautiful necklace from Tiffany’s and stored them in what I thought were the recesses of my mind. I’m here to tell you it doesn’t work that way. The boxes have always been leaking. And while the mess appears that it can be wiped up, the true damage is irreparable.
When trauma occurs there are areas of the brain that are significantly affected. The three most impacted places are the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). Traumatic events can cause the amygdala to go into overdrive. This change in my reptilian brain has manifested in my body in the following ways: negative mood alterations, heightened startle response, intrusive traumatic memories, panic attacks (including increased heart rate, perspiration, difficulty breathing), insomnia, avoidance behaviors and hypervigilance (which on its own can elevate the level of stress hormones causing a whole other list of bodily problems.) The hippocampus is responsible for memory. Think of it as a file cabinet for your memories and unfortunately people who suffer from PTSD tend to lose volume in this portion of the brain. “Hippocampus lite”, as I enjoy calling it, causes confusion in trying to discern between past and present experiences. Because of this, I have felt uncontrollable panic, fear and terror in environments that have even slightly resembled those of past traumatic events. Because my brain can’t understand that there is no actual threat, my body remains physiologically in a reactive, hypervigilant mode. Substantial loss of volume also takes place in the vmPFC. This is our emotional control center. With damage to my vmPFC, I have found that over time it has become much harder for me to control my emotional behavior, especially in situations where I am perceiving a threat.
If that sounds like a lot of awful shit is happening, you’re absolutely correct. I feel like my brain is akin to a smart phone and it’s always running at least a half-dozen apps or more. The main app that cannot be force-closed is the one of panic and hypervigilance. Unfortunately, most of my other information is processed through this app. This has dramatically shaped the way I view the world and also the way I react in day-to-day situations. I have tried to hide this from others, which has been incredibly exhausting. I feel that most people understand that I suffer from some level of anxiety, as most of us do, but they are unaware of the severity and the constant feelings of fear and self-doubt that I struggle with. I’ve imagined in horrible detail everyway my child could die. I’ve convinced myself that Andy’s bike rides will end in his demise. I “just know” that if someone stops communicating with me that something terrible has happened to them. I am constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. I also have a hard time feeling true joy. I’ve become very good at faking it. And I know that my life is truly a rather charmed one. I have a beautiful family, a loving partner, a magnificent son, an incredible group of friends, generous lovers — and yet something is still missing. I feel like my brain comes to the stop sign in the road where fear/anxiety/self-doubt are to the left and happiness/joy are to the right. My brain will ALWAYS turn left first. On my own wedding night I struggled with panic and fear after Andy fell asleep. It was nearly unbearable, and so devastating to me that it occured on a night where I had felt so loved. These are not conscious choices, and that is why it has become so defeating. I don’t want to be this way. I just am. This is where avoidance behaviors enter the picture.
Let’s return to the idea of knowing oneself. Of feeling that “this is who I am” security. What if, all of a sudden, you realize that not only your perception of the world but also nearly all your behaviors have been affected by these changes in your brain? Now we’re talking true existential crisis. Which is the authentic me? Which behaviors have been complex avoidance techniques? Some seem straightforward, some not so much: alcohol, drugs, sex, exercise, career-focused drive, competition, writing, love, travel, intimacy, work, photography, yoga, meditation, reading, conflict, seduction, nurturing. It’s as if I’m uncertain about everything at the moment. Have I fully wanted all the things I’ve pursued — family, love, lust — or have I simply been using these things as a way to avoid feeling this pain? Do I really prefer to sleep alone, as I’ve done for over a decade, or is this something I conditioned myself to believe I preferred because persistent intimate touch is hard for me after my rape? Do I have an intolerance for alcohol, or is it simply the “shameover” affect which causes me to nearly always spiral into a pit of self-doubt and fear? Do I have genuine feelings for my lovers, or am I simply fucking them to create an outlet to fulfill my need for self-worth? These conundrums are weighing heavy on my mind. I’d like to believe that I know my intentions, but at this time I can’t be sure.
While my introspection has become severely focused, these problems aren’t new and I’ve tried nearly every legal thing in the book short of electroshock therapy. I’ve been on antidepressants and antianxiety medications. I’ve seen psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and therapists. I’ve seen internist, dieticians, endocrinologists and ayurvedic doctors. I’ve been to physical therapy, seen an acupuncturist, a massage therapist, a rolfer, and even a witch doctor. I’ve taken pills and serums and drank teas and elixirs. I’ve spit into collection vials and offered samples of urine, fecal matter and menstrual blood. I became a certified yoga teacher and went on retreats and practiced meditation til my legs went numb. I even prayed. I’m still fucked up. If I know the problem is my brain, and these methods have been unsuccessful, how do I fix that?
Tomorrow morning I will be driven to the office of two psychiatrists, with the intention of arriving at 9:00 am. We will have a brief discussion in which we will review our expectations for the day. At 10:00 am I will be given my first dose of pharmaceutical grade MDMA. Ninety minutes later I will be offered a second dose. I will then spend 8 hours in their presence, while I go inward with the intention of healing. When they depart sometime after 5:00 pm, I will have a night sitter in an adjacent area in case I need her. On Sunday morning, the doctors will return and we will have a session before I am picked up. This is a portion of the protocol that has been created by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies for their FDA clinical trial for MDMA- Assisted Psychotherapy. I feel honored to be a part of this trial.
I have purposefully limited my exposure to the results of the previous clinical trials as well as other information available on the internet. I am equal parts frightened and hopeful, but my intent is to greet the experience with an open mind. My questioning brain has been tortuous over the past few months of preparation for tomorrow’s events. I have twisted every scenario in my brain like a rubix cube. I have tried to determine all possible outcomes. Will it work? If it does, will I still be “me”? Will I finally be able to remember the parts of my past I simply cannot pull into my mind? Will I finally discover what I’ve been avoiding all these years? Am I strong enough? If I can allow myself to feel that ultimate, overwhelming pain of loss, will I also be able to feel ultimate, overwhelming joy? If I can find some contentment will I become less driven? What will fill the hours that I currently have filled with avoidance behaviors? Will I still be as desirable if I’m no longer faking it? Will I still be loved? What if it doesn’t work? What will I do then?
The few people I’ve confided in have been extremely supportive. A dear friend allowed me a get-away for NYE in which we talked about this experience. He said, “You keep thinking it’s going to be this or that, but I think it’s going to be something you can’t even fathom right now. That’s how much it’s going to change things.” And another helped me keep my sense of humor. I told him that I was scared. He replied, “Of what, rave school?”
It’s going to be near freezing tomorrow night. I’ll be sure to pack my Vicks Vapor Rub.
I’ll see y’all on the other side.