An Unintended Passenger

The table is set perfectly. Mom has taken her best china and silver from the hutch, and used the best paper napkins she could find but only because they have the cutest turkeys printed on them and they’re festive. They match the paper tablecloth, too. Aromas rise from the food, mixing to an orchestral crescendo as each new dish is delivered from the kitchen. Dad’s been priming all day but mom will give him the big carving knife nevertheless and uncle Billy will crack a joke about it that isn’t very funny but everyone will chuckle anyway because they want to keep him off the politics and the second best way to do that is to keep him happy. The first best, of course, is to keep him sober. The turkey is a little dry, but the gravy is good and that makes up for it.

Thanksgiving at the Smiths’.

After the plates have been cleared and they’re about to dig into the Trifle that cousin Sally brought (and brings to everything), a car backfires outside. Young Josh, recently back from the war, screams in terror, dives for the floor, and huddles in a ball with his hands cupped behind his head. His mind is awash with images of combat. The sounds of explosions, artillery fire, and the screams of wounded men fill his ears.

The drama factor is big in a scene like that, which is probably why it’s those like it you see in movies when someone experiences a triggering event that throws them into a flashback secondary to post-traumatic stress disorder. And it’s pretty much all bullshit.

That it’s often depicted as a hallucinatory break from reality is most likely because nobody researched it properly and relied on anecdotes or a generally accepted misunderstanding, or couldn’t be bothered using the screen time to show what it’s really like. It has offered such a huge false impression to so many people that even after I was first diagnosed I kept waiting to have one, when I’d actually been having them all along.

I know a lot of people like me, and I can’t think of a single one who has ever experienced the sort of total immersion in a memory that they’ve had hallucinations and believed they were existing in that moment. The big kahuna behind the oak desk in the penthouse office of the noggin closet, the one who kids himself by believing he’s always in charge, never loses touch with the three things that are often used to judge a person’s lucidity: Who you are, where you are, and when you are. Person, place, and time. However, his doors have been barred, his telephone lines cut, and he’s become an unintended passenger while the amygdala and its cohort take the body for a joy ride.

What happens is that your body and all its myriad, intricate subsystems that control these things so the big guy doesn’t have to micromanage everything reacts as if that memory is real. It’s the same thing that happens when a small event is perceived as a life or death threat because you’ve been rewired to have very few ticks between the one marked perfectly safe and the other labled OH MY GOD WE’RE GOING TO DIE.

You, you the person in the penthouse office, you know the reality of things, that the memory is just a memory, or that the kids screaming upstairs are just enjoying their Sunday afternoon, but you’re not driving anymore, are you?

So, just as those of us with PTSD are not likely to go on murderous rampages despite what the news tells you, neither are we obligated to have psychotic, hallucinatory, breaks from reality because Hollywood told you we are.

But calling it a joy ride was probably a bit of a stretch, granted.

4 thoughts on “An Unintended Passenger

  1. I was in a place called the Gerstein Centre about 15 years ago. People were cooking pancakes, and they started to burn. The smoke alarm started going off.
    A gentleman that was staying there, immediately went into a combat stance…he LOOKED like he was holding a rifle.
    Everyone stopped what they were doing. The staff very carefully surrounded this man, and we’re talking to him very softly.
    After…30 seconds? the man started to relax. After another 30 seconds, the staff backed away from him slowly.
    I wasn’t the only one that witnessed this, everyone saw it.
    I’m now confuses. Are you saying this doesn’t happen?

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    • What I probably should’ve said, and did consider, is that it’s possible but so rare as to be unquantifiable and most likely the result of other issues at work. I don’t believe that PTSD on its own would do that, but I’m not a doctor, I only play one on the internet. 😛

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