Hope's cart is full. She's put this trip to the supermarket off for longer than she should have, and she's managed to come at a time when it's inexplicably busy.
And now the kid two carts ahead of her in line won't stop yelling, screaming, crying. She knows he's not hurt, just spoiled. The other patrons are giving the mom glowering looks that say, 'What kind of parent are you?' But she doesn't join them – she stares at the half-gallon of milk in her cart and tries to block out the sound.
But she can't. And all she can think is Jamie never screamed. Someone – she doesn't even remember who anymore – explained to her that drowning victims usually don't. They don't wave their arms in the air, don't yell for help. Instead, their bodies instinctively send their arms straight out from their sides. They gasp in air rather than expel it calling for help. Jamie never called out. By the time she even knew he was in the pool, and it was too late.
And the kid two carts ahead is still screaming. If she can just bear it a few more minutes, they will be checked out and the screaming will cease.
Jamie ceased. And her traitorous mind brings his image to her mind. His skin is pale and quickly cooling and she can't get him to respond. The smell of chlorine clings to him like the pool is not ready to give back his body yet, even having taken him away.
She blinks, looking at a half-gallon of milk again and not a dead five-year-old boy. The harried mom with the screaming child is almost checked out.
And the kid screams again. Jamie will never scream again. She used to get so frustrated when he would. Not that he did a lot, but he was a kid and kids scream sometimes. But no more. Never again would he scream.
And it was her fault.
And suddenly she can't bear it any longer. Some poor overworked clerk is going to be mad. She wonders for a moment about that half-gallon of milk. Will they return it to the cooler in the back? Will it go home with someone else? Or will they toss it out for having sat in the cart too long?
And finally, finally she is back at her car. It's old – all she can afford – and her fingers fumble trying to fit the key in the hole. At last, she is sitting in the driver's seat, her hands grasping the steering wheel so hard her knuckles are white. She knows if she lets go, her hands will shake, so she doesn't.
She knows what this is. She's seen the commercials for veterans, encouraging them to seek help for their Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD: her life as she survives it now reduced to four simple letters as if they could even begin to capture what she is going through. She knows she's not the only one. She's even read some of the books; she's seen a couple of therapists too. There's lots of help out there for people with PTSD – for victims of abuse, for wartime heroes returning home damaged, for the survivors of terrorist attacks and natural disasters. For those who have come by their PTSD legitimately. Honorably, even.
Not like her.
The movies would suggest that the nightmares are the worst. But they're not, at least not for her. It's the moments like those in the store that get her: waking nightmares where the reality of what she's done overtakes her and the need to escape is so strong and there is no escape because she can't wake up from this.
And she really needed that milk, too.
She tries the breathing exercises. Control the breathing, control the mind. She knows she needs to calm down. She can't drive in this condition. And she – more than anyone – knows about putting others at risk, and she won't do that. But she can't sit here in her car forever either. Breathe. In through the nose. Hold. Out through the mouth.
There's a part of her that rebels though. She doesn't deserve to calm down and go on living. She doesn't deserve to breathe. Jamie couldn't breathe. The water filled his lungs and he couldn't breathe.
And suddenly she is seeing him again. Floating. Moving ever so slightly on the still surface of the water. And he's face down and it's all wrong.
Breathe. In. Hold. Out.
She's read somewhere – or maybe it was something her second therapist said – that one of the fundamental features of PTSD is a shift in how one views oneself, others, or the universe at large: that having PTSD means one's confidence in one or more of those has been shattered. It's stuck with her through all the haze because it rings true for her. She used to consider herself a good person. She used to think her life would be worthwhile. She used to think those things –before one sunny afternoon's events stole it all away from her.
She used to be able to trust others too – back then, before the anger of a tight-knit community was turned on her. She can't blame the Fredrick's. Most days, she thinks they had every right to be angry with her. Without her, their son would still be alive, would be celebrating another birthday. Some days though, she is angry right back at them. Some days she wants to fight back for the eighteen-year-old girl who was left to babysit even though she knew next to nothing about kids. Some days she wants to rail against the town that turned on her. She wants to pummel her fists against a wall when she thinks of being arrested and the headline that called her a "baby-killer." So, yes, her trust in others was shattered too – even before jail where she learned to be suspicious of anyone looking to be her friend. It doesn't matter that her lawyer – whose level of interest in her barely rose above his interest in the take-out food he always brought with him to eat in front of her the few times he visited – eventually got the charges dropped. She can't look at people the same way anymore. And crowded places make her panicky. It's not entirely rational, she knows that, but knowing doesn't change how she feels.
It's not just the way she feels either, it's what she doesn't feel. There's a coldness inside her now that just doesn't care. It's like a part of her died, and no matter what she tries she can't bring that piece of herself back to life. So she avoids people when she can, and grits her teeth to get through it when she can't avoid them altogether.
No, she doesn't trust herself or others anymore. Nor does she trust the universe. It's funny, almost. All the things she endured before that never shook her naïve belief that everything would always work out and that everything happened for a reason: never knowing her father, being abandoned by her mother when she chose drugs over her daughter, the loss of her grandmother who had been the one stable port in her life. Somehow, she had come through all that intact, only to have a five-year-old boy shatter that faith.
No, she can no longer trust that everything is good – not in a universe where five-year-olds drown. She remembers now, it was her therapist that had told her about this part of PTSD. She'd started to think the therapy would help – had perhaps even started to trust her therapist. Unlike her first therapist – a really nice guy, no doubt, but one who didn't understand her – who just wanted her accept herself and stop feeling bad about what she had done. She'd almost given up at that point, but had been convinced by her general practitioner to try again.
It's ironic, she supposes that the person she started to trust and that was helping her understand herself is also responsible for breaking that trust all over again. She knows she shouldn't blame her therapist for moving, for taking that job in another town. But like so many things, this isn't a rational thought, but a gut-deep feeling of abandonment. A betrayal digging deeper the ruts left by her father, her mother, her grandmother, Jamie, and everyone she knows. No one stays, and abandonment is all she's ever left with.
The deep breaths are helping, even if her train of thought isn't. She could probably take her hands from the steering wheel without them shaking now, but she doesn't try it because if they do start shaking, it'll just set her off again.
Two more breaths and she takes one hand from the wheel to turn the key in the ignition.
She doesn't know where she's headed at first, she just drives. It's no real surprise where she ends up though. She's been here before. Ironically, she finds the cemetery comforting. It's a quiet place where not many people come and no one approaches her. Nature seems closer here, even with the manicured nature of the grass and flowers. She puts her car in park and gets out.
There's a tall, cross-shaped monument that casts shade across the grass at its base, and she kneels before it as she has in the past. The names inscribed on its stone face have no meaning to her, but the scripture carved below them does.
"My grace is sufficient for you, my power perfected in weakness" II Cor. 12:9
Tears roll down her cheeks, turning abruptly into sobs that wrench her body. She welcomes this – it's the opposite of the cold, dead feeling. There's a message here that she is able to accept when she pushes all other comfort away. A message that doesn't say, "You're okay" and try to deny or argue against the things she feels, but one that acknowledges that she's broken. She's broken and she's guilty. And still there is Someone greater than all her brokenness.
She tried church once after being released from jail. She couldn't do it. It was worse than the supermarket. Too many painted on smiles trying to make her feel welcome. Too many bodies pressing in on her space and suffocating her. Too many children. Too many parents. She hadn't even been able to make it through the service before fleeing, leaving her dignity in shattered pieces amongst the bewildered and concerned faces that tracked her departure.
So this has become her church. It's not the same, she knows, but it's what she can handle and it's where the message seems clearest and presses back against the darkness in her mind.
She can't trust herself, or other people, or the universe, but if she's willing, she can lay her burdens down here. Not because she's okay, but because there is Someone who covers her weakness. She's been abandoned by everyone in one way or another, but there is Someone who is constant, even if she wanders from time to time. What she's done will never go away, but here in the shade of the cross, she feels forgiveness might be possible.
The sobs subside, and she wipes the tears – and the dripping mess beneath her nose – on her sleeves. She takes a deep, shuddering breath. After a while, she heads back to her battered old car.
She'll try again tomorrow. The store will still have milk, and perhaps it won't be as busy. And life will go on. And she's not as alone as she sometimes feels.
Maybe this isn't what hope sounds like to normal people, but for her, it is. Hope.
Thanks for reading. Please feel free to leave a review.
Please note that this story, while intended to capture some sense of what it is meant to live with PTSD and Panic Disorder, is not representative of all persons who struggle with these disorders. Nor are the POV character's thoughts meant to be wholly representative of the author's.
This story is not intended as a treatment guide. If you struggle with mental health issues, please see a therapist.
And it is my wish that each of you reading this story find... Hope.