I woke up at three A.M. last night because the police were hammering down the door again. I wake up a lot of nights to the police using a battering ram on the door at 1130 Water Street or the Seven Year Squat, or with the cops firing tear gas on the Côte d‘Abraham, or surrounding us in some nameless building or kettling us in the streets. In my dreams rubber bullets ricochet down alleys and narrow laneways and tear gas canisters arc through the air trailing fluffy white trails that sear your lungs out and taste like plastic cinnamon. In my dreams figures in riot armour with empty plexiglass faces hunt me through dark and sweltering streets. In my dreams I crawl in the filth behind dumpsters while lights play on the brick above my head and the cockroaches skitter through my clothes. In my dreams they catch me sometimes and I hear the screaming again, although I’ve learned to wake myself up when the screaming starts.
When I wake up at three or four or five A.M., I’ve learned to lie still and let my heart slow down. I remind myself that there’s no battering ram at the door because if there was the dogs would be going nuts. I tell myself that there’s no tear gas or pepper spray. I stare at the dark for a few minutes, then take off my CPAP mask and get up and go to the bathroom. When I do this I try not to wake my partner, who has to work in the morning. Three A.M. is a convenient time for a pee and a glass of cold tap water before I go back to bed. I try not to wake the dogs, who will want to be let out of their crates and jump up on the bed with us and who would wake my partner when they do, even though I’d very much like them to cuddle me. After a while I go back to sleep and then I sleep until morning. I rarely mention the dreams to my partner, but she knows.
She knows. She’s not stupid and she’s right there.
I woke up at three A.M. last night because the police were hammering down the door again. I wake up most nights like that. Not quite all, but most. In fact, it’s a notable morning when I wake up having slept through the whole night, if not dreamlessly then at least having dreamed of something… normal. I get up in the mornings and let the dogs out of their crates, and since I’m not rushing off to work I go back to bed and they get to cuddle for a while, and then I make coffee and we start our day… which will not include any loud or crowded places if they can possibly be avoided, and if they can’t then we plan very carefully how to minimize my exposure to them so I don’t have an anxiety attack.
Most days I have problems with anxiety. It usually starts exhibiting itself as irritation and snappishness. I have the tendency to make snarky comments in traffic. Actually I have the tendency to make snarky comments at any given time when I’m anxious but I’ve learned not to say them out loud unless I’m in my car where people can’t hear me… and I should knock that off when my partner is in the car because it upsets her. On the average day, with care, I can go out, get groceries, prepare dinner, walk the dogs and so on, as long as I’m careful not to get myself into situations that will set me off. When I get close to that point, I usually announce to her that “I’m done with people” or “I’m peopled out” and that will be that. Occasionally I’ll announce that I’ll meet her outside if we’re in the checkout line at a store or she’s in the middle of something. At that point she’ll drop me at home and then head out on her own to finish whatever it was we were doing when I hit my limit.
This is normal for us.
In the evenings I read a lot if it’s been a comparatively bad day, or play video games if it hasn’t been. I’ll get a stiff drink or two into me and go to bed. And I know I’ll probably be up at three in the morning.
That’s a good day for us. The bad days are worse. Thankfully infrequent, but worse.
The last time I had a major anxiety attack — and by that I mean, a sweating, shaking, want-to-puke and collapse and scream major anxiety attack — I was riding the carousel down at Port Dalhousie with my niece. She was three at the time, and wearing a blue Thomas the Tank Engine t-shirt. I was standing beside her, helping to hold her on a carved white horse with a blue bridle. I was wearing an olive-green shirt and my sunglasses were tucked into my breast pocket.
I can remember these details so clearly because one of my sisters took a picture of me having the attack.
In the photo I’m flushed and sweating and the “smile” on my face is more of a rictus than anything else. At the time I was mostly conscious of the need not to throw up and I was concentrating on my breathing and keeping my niece on the carousel horse, because at three her balance was not great. After the carousel had stopped I sat outside the building and tried not to barf and made small talk with the sister who had taken the picture while my niece rode again and again with her mum and my partner, and I got some video of it which everyone said was adorable. My sister posted the picture on Facebook and everyone agrees it’s a charming photo of my niece and her uncle, and it is charming as long as you don’t know that in that moment I was hearing screaming and sirens and they were coming to drag me away again and there was no way to run.
This is something that happens.
I try not to put myself in situations where it happens – loud and crowded, hot and humid are sure-fire triggers – I know not to go to the mall on weekends or during peak shopping hours, for example. But sometimes it sneaks up on us. People bumping into me unexpectedly or grabbing me from behind in a crowd can trigger it. We don’t go to dance clubs even though my partner really loves to dance because I can’t and she doesn’t want to go alone. It never occurred to me that riding an antique carousel with my niece on a muggy summers’ day would be a problem, and I fiercely resent that intrusion into what should have been an idyllic family picnic.
I know why I have this problem. It’s no surprise to me. There’s no mystery. I spent the bulk of my twenties as a social justice activist in the most direct ways I could think of. I was a street medic. I embraced the black bloc and direct action. I can even pinpoint specific incidents that contributed to specific nightmares. I’m proud of my activism, let me make that absolutely clear. Even today, after more than a decade off the front lines, I still think of myself as an activist first and foremost… and it’s all ramping up again as we head into another struggle for 2019 to oppose the rise of the alt-right and fascism here in Canada.
I’m sure the political scene, both here and abroad, is a contributing factor to my anxiety worsening. I’ve had people tell me that I should get off the internet, to stop reading the news for my own good… but I can’t look away. I can’t turn a blind eye. I don’t have the right to turn away. There’s a fight coming and we need everyone, everyone, to stand up and resist the racism, sexism and homophobia of the alt-right. Whatever it costs.
The thing is, though… it has been getting worse. Time was I could sleep through most nights and have a bad dream every couple-three weeks at most. Now it’s five or six nights out of seven. My daytime anxiety is getting worse. So at the insistence of my partner, a few months ago I was referred to a mental health program by my family doctor. The process of setting it all up is going slowly – as non-emergency things do in the Canadian health care system – but its progressing. Among other measures, I’ll be joining a “cognitive behavioural therapy” support group and a “mindfulness meditation” class. I’m a little fuzzy on what these will entail or how they will help, but we’ll see how it goes.
Even if they don’t help I don’t expect they could make things worse, so I go along.
This is my experience of PTSD and anxiety. Having known a number of people who suffer from the same thing, for a variety of reasons, I know that my experience is generally typical while being unique in the details. I know former soldiers and current paramedics and prison guards and even fellow-activists who struggle with this. Some need prescription medicine. Some self-medicate with too much booze or weed. Too many of them don’t get help.
I’m trying to break that pattern.
I should wrap this up. It’s getting late and I need to go to bed soon.