My dreams are disappointingly unoriginal. I have this recurring one where I need to leave my holiday at the last minute but I don’t have enough time to pack and it won’t all fit in my suitcase. Yes, I get it. I have a lot of baggage that I need to get rid of but my hippocampus really needs to do a creative writing degree.
The main reason for my constant metaphorical suitcase packing is Complex PTSD. I like to think that PTSD is my brain’s way of trying to protect me from the past by panicking at the slightest thing. It’s a personified fire alarm that has run out of battery. It keeps going “BEEEEEEEP! FUCK! EVERYTHING IS ON FIRE AND WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE!” and when you ask it what happened it just shrugs and says, “Dunno, someone was making toast or something”. My poor husband has to be as much ‘on alert’ as I am. If he wakes up in the middle of the night to find me shaking uncontrollably, he’s got to work out pretty quickly whether I’m having a panic attack or a wank. Either way I get a cuddle and some words of encouragement.
Something that you can say about PTSD, is that it would be amazing on Only Connect. The reason you get triggered by a smell, or the way someone picks at their fingernails is because your brain connects it to everything else. Maybe it’s more like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. That smell reminds you of the scent of so and so who once talked about your abuser and called him a really great guy which then leads you to thinking about the guy himself and why he was less of a great guy and more of a cunt.
Being Locked-down in a world where COVID 19 roamed the valleys, terrifying theatre and cinema go-ers but apparently not sports teams, was in itself one massive trigger. It leads to other sensations and memories. So let me take you on a little journey through an example of Six Degrees of Trauma Bacon. If feeling trapped is where we begin (the first degree, if you will), where do we go next?
When I was about eight or nine (unprocessed trauma seriously fucks with your internal timeline) I used to go to a Youth Club in France Lynch, Gloucestershire. If you don’t know the place it’s your basic Cotswold village with the usual lime- stone buildings, fetes, and working class hidden away on a housing estate that can’t be seen from the village green. The France Lynch Youth Club was held in the village hall. I was by no means a popular kid (*cough* lived on council estate *cough*) but to be honest, as long as there was something going on at the craft table, I was happy in my own company.
On one particular night at Youth Club when it was heading for 7.30 and home time, I discovered the doors were closed. One of the ‘helpers’ stood in front of them, arms crossed, looking like the Bible Camp version of a bouncer. We weren’t allowed to leave. I really wanted to leave. I needed to use the toilet and the ones at the village hall housed the kind of spiders that could easily slip on a pair of size 9 Doc Martens.
So began the start of our lockdown. Like with the COVID lockdown, it was rather exciting and novel at the start. The Tuck Shop was giving out free sweets, the ping pong table was brought out and group games were being organised. And I’ll admit, the fizzy sweets getting sticky in my palm and the zing of the sugar rush was enough to curb my curiosity for a while. But, like COVID, the longer the enforced ‘spirit of the Blitz’ and organised games (Harry Potter Zoom-quiz, anyone?), the more I started to wonder what was really happening. I started noticing the grown-ups whispering. The vicar kept going to and from the hallway clutching his mobile phone. In the early 1990’s they were as rare as a bobby on the beat and covered in a thick transparent plastic that made it largely impossible to push the buttons. The vicar had one for emergencies and I had never seen him use it. Until now.
Eventually the sweets began to make me feel nauseous, and I’d quilled about eight box lids with flower patterns. The vicar explained that a gang of “Youths” were blocking the narrow path that led out of the village hall and were threatening to harm anyone who tried to leave. The Police were handling the situation and he was calling our parents to let them know we were safe, but we would have to stay put for the time being. Little eight- or nine-year-old Joy-Amy, always a dramatic soul, had visions of police stand-offs and being interviewed for the news. That feeling of unease, being stood in the doorway between the ‘big hall’ and the ‘small hall’, a fist full of pink and green sweets being squeezed between my fingers like a stress ball, slowly realising that the grown-ups were trying to distract me from something that was very wrong, I have felt that a lot over the past couple of years.
This links me to the third degree of Trauma Bacon. The same village hall, but this time post-Brownies. It was starting to get dark which gave everything a slightly unreal quality. I was expecting Dad to meet me outside. Instead Mum’s old green Land Rover pulled up. It was a time before health and safety went mad and started preventing car-based decapitations, so the rear seats were just metal benches with nothing to hold on to. “We’re going somewhere else tonight. I’ve packed your pyjamas.” But she hadn’t. I looked in the bag and they weren’t my pyjamas. They were Hannah’s. Hannah came to live with us on weekdays after her mum died. We were about the same age and her dad moved to Bristol. He didn’t want her life to be disrupted by taking her to a new school, so she lived with us on the weekdays and went home to him at the weekend. Personally, I think if you don’t want to disrupt your child’s life after their mum has died, maybe don’t make them go and live with someone else. I loved Hannah, but I was also convinced that she was the daughter my mum wished she’d had. Less awkward, pretty, more appreciative, certainly far less whingey even though she had much more to whinge about than I did. But Mum had packed Hannah’s pjs. She didn’t even care enough to know the difference between my clothes and Hannah’s almost identical ones. I was angry and hurt and the kind of selfish that you are when you’re eight or nine and don’t realise that your mum is kidnapping you from Brownies and leaving your dad. I’m still ashamed of that. And it’s the shame that connects the next degree of Kevin.
The fourth degree is being ashamed of not being able to protect my Mum from my stepfather. Listening to them downstairs, afraid when there was silence because that usually meant he’d stopped using his words and started using his fists. A thirteen, fourteen, fifteen-year-old taking full mental responsibility for what was happening even though she had no power to make it stop.
Which leads on to helplessness. The fewer details you have here, the better off you will sleep, but the main objects involved were a naked seventeen-year-old girl, a rack of knives and a Manchester United bedspread. I was one of those objects, I think you can guess which. I concentrated hard on the feel of that bedspread between my clenched fingers. The cheap poly-cotton was a distraction I will ever be grateful for. That is only the fifth degree. I will spare you the sixth.
The route as a whole goes thus –
1st) Trapped > 2nd) Helpless > 3rd) Shame > 4th) More shame > 5th) Helpless > 6th) … It used to be shame again. Shame at putting myself in harm’s way. Shame that I made him do those things. Shame that I was deserving of being treated like that. You’ll be pleased to hear that I don’t feel that sense of responsibility anymore. Therapy has helped me to replace that final shame with anger. Anger that he put me in harm’s way. Anger that he did those things. Anger that I did not deserve to be treated like that.
These connections, these degrees of Trauma Bacon happen in a split second. One trigger and it all comes flooding in at once. And that is just one route of connection in a maze of neurological flares that would make the London Tube Map read like a nursery rhyme.
My dreams are disappointingly unoriginal. Perhaps after following those routes all day, my subconscious just needs a little rest.
 In the medical sense of the word. Not the way that’s been co-opted by memes and QAnon
 A lie.
 A kind, Yeti like man who normally oozed calmness and jollity
 not Youth Club affiliated
 Especially when my fiancé took both sets of house keys with him and accidentally locked me in for the day. I eventually climbed out through a window, much to the confusion of the dog.
Joy-Amy is a writer, actor, and mother who lives in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. As well non-fiction, she is also a published short story and drabble writer, as well as having her first work on a graphic novel published last year. When she is not writing, Joy-Amy is a cast member on the Dungeons and Dragons podcast, Roll the Damn Dice, and regularly can be found on panels at MCM Comic Con and the like. She is currently studying for a Masters Degree in Creative and Critical Writing.