My grandmother-in-law died two weeks ago, and I coped in a completely normal way: I bought a fitness watch. I didn’t expect it to track my PTSD.
Let me explain. I was there when my mother stepped up off a boat and the water lurched down suddenly, placing all of her weight on one knee. She did not cry, I never remember her crying when she injured herself seriously. She was angry all day about it. Twenty years later, a week before my wedding, she had that knee replaced. A month after that, she was dead from a blood clot. Too immobile.
My grandmother-in-law broke her femur when she stood unassisted while her daughter was six feet away in the kitchen. Died two weeks later. Lost bone density. Immobile. Snapped it just by standing.
I have sciatica. It’s a pinched nerve at the base of my spine which radiates 4-8/10 pain from just above my tailbone down to my three leftmost toes. It feels better when I walk, but best when I lie prone.
I’ve been walking a lot.
I got a watch to track my steps and remind me to move. It also tracks heart rate, and automatically logs when I’ve exercised based on my heart rate. The app gives me a little notification asking me to categorize it. I thought, “that’s neat!” and forgot about it.
Within 48 hours, I had a flashback. The watch asked me to categorize it. It guessed “sport.”
At 145 heart beats per minute, it is hard for me to speak. At 177, it’s hard to breathe at all.
I don’t get the stereotypical visual flashbacks, mostly sensory and emotional ones. I am aware of where I am and what is or isn’t happening. Doesn’t matter. My body puts on a full goddamn production without me.
The DSM has, as one of its diagnostic criteria for PTSD, avoidance of triggers. I’m a little atypical in that I don’t avoid talking about a trigger. I mean, not in like, a phobia way. It’s more like avoiding traffic. I have shit to do. I have sleep, work, family commitments. Spending four or five hours a day seated perfectly still doing nothing while my heart tries to hurl itself out of my mouth isn’t a good use of my time.
That explanation feels inadequate. I stick to, “I’m having a bad day.” Well, who doesn’t? What makes my euphemistic “bad days” different than just a bad day?
I’m a numbers person. It’s what I do for my job, numbers and their implications, numbers as a language, as a story. There is something affirming about a graph of a bad day. I can’t quantify what it’s like to be me. I can’t make anyone care if they don’t already know to care, and I’m not really interested in trying. It’s freeing to let people stay wrong. But it is very nice to have this one indirect thing, somehow. It is not just me. Nobody would enjoy a heart rate that high. I don’t have to just say I had a bad day, I can now see the shape of a bad day. M-shaped red peaks at 1 and 3 am, jagged little yellow mountains, no valleys. Three point five hours of sleep, no deep sleep. Heart rate 99% of max. It is a fact outside of me— I had a bad day— and that’s better than if it were just inside.
I’ve continued to log my exercise. I walk, I lift weights, I spin, I do something every day for about an hour per day. I’m more mobile. When I have bad episode and the watch asks me what to call it, I categorize it as “sport.” Why not? I’m a fucking athlete.