The Otherworlds of PTSD

Content warning; this entry contains themes of mental instability, PTSD and other mental illness symptoms, trauma, mentions of rape, sexual assault, bullying, and domestic abuse (only mentioned, not described), mentions of a child groomer, and mentions of suicidal ideation/attempts and self-harm (again, these are just mentioned with minimal detail if any).

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I’m in that state of mind again, and while I’m hasty to reach for social media, I figured it was best to start journaling instead. And while I had decided to use a hand-written private journal at one point, being able to type out and share these things — often to the void — is better not only for my hand that grips a pen so tightly it hurts, but to also share a bit of what it’s like. And those with these kinds of mental illnesses know that feeling all too well.

You just want someone, somewhere, to understand. To just get it. You don’t know why, really. It isn’t for attention. It isn’t for sympathy or anything other than to connect with another human being who has lived in this dark space too. And you repeat yourself. You say the same things in different ways because words are too hard to find for something like this.

As I went on a spontaneous walk today beneath a nearing storm, I searched my mind for the right words to use — to describe whatever this new reality is. A specific horror game came to mind, and I realized that it was the perfect analogy to this waking nightmare, as well as my actual nightmares. Silent Hill.

The otherworld. The dark, decaying, frightening otherworld. And I experience my own version of it here in reality, although there is no endgame. There are no corporeal monsters lurking in the dark here. It’s all shadow figures, large haunting eyes, dark memories, and otherworldly beings who come to visit for a little while. It’s like slipping into my own Silent Hill.

For days. A week. Weeks. Who knows.

I’d written about this in an article on my main blog, but not while I was absent from reality like I am now. I’ve never shown anything more than my drawings inspired by this otherworld, which involve human-like figures. What my greatest desire entails is to show what this otherworld feels like itself — the atmosphere, look, and feel of it. Ultimately, to understand it and where it came from.

There’s a strange comfort in it that underlines the fear. It feels like I’ve come home. Just like that little kid who dreaded stepping in the front door because their father would be angry again, or act weird. I was the kid who found comfort in my room and staying up late past midnight, the only light in my room a small tube TV on my nightstand playing black and white reruns of I Love Lucy, The Munsters, or Space Ghost. I was at home in that darkness while safe in my room beneath the bedsheets. It was quiet in the dark. Nothing was expected of me. And although there were monsters surely lurking in that darkness that I feared, the dark meant I didn’t have to see the horrors of the day.

School. Being bullied again. Getting beaten up. Seeing dad fight with one of my brothers or engage in an argument with mom. Getting reprimanded by dad for not being able to go to school again because I was terrified of people — of the bullies and the outside. I couldn’t leave my front door without trembling like a leaf and breaking out into tears.

My home was equally as scary as it was safe. And my early thoughts of suicidal ideation, before I knew what it was, and my early depression was comforting. It allowed me to be in bed. Away from the chaos and the real monsters in the world outside. At home, I didn’t have to worry about having a panic attack so severe I’d vomit or faint on the spot, although it didn’t stop that entirely.

Even as a child, I slipped into this otherworld in a small way that wasn’t as detailed as it is now. I remember checking out at random times, all emotions gone flat. I’d look at my toys and think of everything around me, and I felt nothing. I’d slipped into something — rather it was another state of mind or existence altogether. I didn’t like it, though. It brought on thoughts that are better left to my memories. Long story short, therapy saved me and I didn’t become a headline.

Through the years I won’t rehash, the abuse and sexual assault that piled on from others, as well as the horrible things with my dad, I had the first of my head family, my spirit guides and alters, with me to check out of reality. But our world wasn’t quite so dark and grungy or horrific. It was like a home away from home — literally. Two stories with a basement and attic, enough rooms for most of us as more came around, and we’d often spend nights in our headspace home playing party games, singing karaoke, fucking around — literally — while playing truth or dare. We’d venture outside, sometimes into the cemetery in our inner world to allow Blue, an alter I haven’t seen in some time, who is a witch, to practice her magick.

When did it become so dark? So frightening and gut-wrenchingly insane that I feel insane when I’m here? This world is from something else, and I think it bears a closer resemblance to that strange emotionless void I’d tiptoed into as a child.

From the moment I ended up in the psychiatric ward as an adult back in 2014, I finally began to realize just how messed up my life was. I’d always kept a lot to myself, making excuses for those who hurt me. I defended my parents and I had this defeating mentality of, ‘they’ll change some day. If I’m super nice and I just do what they ask they’ll be fine. If I can succeed and accomplish the goals they made for me, it’ll be fine.’ But it never was, which surprises no one.

Every goal was set to move higher and higher. I’d accomplish the first step, and it would go higher. I’d accomplish that, but yet, even more was required. Promises were made, and when I reached the point of the reward, it was ripped away with snide words that I couldn’t expect things to be handed to me. After they’d offered. I tried to work to please them. I took in their advice that if I just got a job my life would have meaning, I’d have money, and I’d feel better. And when I worked, I was treated with kindness and respect.

When I lost a job due to a mental breakdown or suicide attempt that landed me in the psych ward, I was mocked, disowned, and a failure. I was too old to be struggling with mental illness. I needed to get over the side effects of my medications and just toughen up. I wasn’t allowed to stop to heal because I needed to work and be worth something.

I drove myself into the ground. I had several breakdowns that gave me a glimpse of this world I now see. At first, it was a voice in the back of my head. Sometimes already babbling upon waking from a deep sleep, it reminded me of every single thing that had happened to me in life that fucked me up. The abuse. The sexual assaults. The rape. The bullying. Dad. Everything.

There was only one way to shut it up. Writing didn’t quell it as I’d hoped, and I have at least one piece written about it. Cigarettes didn’t dull its effect. Alcohol just made me cry and sink into a depression when the drunkenness wore off. It was when I finally reached for the razor in my bedside drawer.

Then, it would quit. And in the days to come, my mental health would decline and carry me to that strange otherworld. Only by then, it resembled what it does now. I’d walk outside beneath a stormy sky and snap photographs, editing them to look like what my mind saw. A lot of black spots. Some things were grimy, some colors too bright. It made me feel nauseous.

Aside from struggling with pictures in a boring countryside, I loved the desolate winters. There was nothing around for miles, save for a few farm houses. I remembered going out one night into the snow, and it was a totally different world besides the one I’d found in my waking nightmares. I didn’t have anywhere to go at the time other than my parents’ small house, or wander around the country back roads with broken-down houses and corn fields. I found a connection with a different world in my headspace. This time, it was snow. Just the snow. And it was quiet, lonely, and peaceful. I don’t remember my head family being there with me in that space. They could come into the grungy otherworld, the home in our inner world we created, and in my waking life, but they were oddly absent in this wintry one.

From a journal entry, January 2015:

It’s interesting what a change of weather and day to night can do.

I don’t go outside often just to enjoy being outside. Tonight, I got that opportunity after helping my friend get out of the ice rink that my driveway had become.

As I bent over to pick up the shovel, I realized something. Although it was cold, there was no wind. In the middle of nowhere, out here in the country, that can sometimes cause an unnerving level of silence. I had never really paid attention to that aspect before, but at 11:30 PM, out here in the country on a night when it had both snowed and rained very heavily, I realized how amazing it was just to be outside at that moment.

Ignoring the chill enveloping me and my breath as it came out in a fog, I stepped past the safety of the garage light and around to the back of the house where it was dark. The sky was overcast and without stars, and the only lights visible were from distant neighbors.

With only the crunching of my leather boots upon the snow to guide me, I stood in the shadow of the night behind my house and looked out across the snowy expanse.

I felt so many things at once. I wanted to cry because of the frustration that my life had become, and I wanted to just stand there at the same time, not breaking the awe-inspiring silence of this calm winter night. A smile crossed my face as I felt the sting in my lungs from breathing in the chilled air.

I felt alive.

In all of my twenty-six years, I have seen many winter nights, but none struck me such as this one at only a half-hour to midnight. It was surreal — staring out across a dark winter wonderland through foggy glasses. It was as if I were on an adventure and I didn’t want to return. I didn’t want to go back inside, and an invisible force within kept me there for some time longer.

It was beautiful. Amazing, even. With as little as I do get out of the house, this seemed like a new journey all its own of the mind and, of course, visually. Everything looked so different covered in snow and ice in the middle of the night, out there in the pitch black of country. No cars were on the roads, and not a soul was awake for miles.

Yet there I was, and the realization of how alone I was in that moment did not scare me.

This surprised me. I only found this newly discovered sensation to be more intriguing than anything else. It was comfort. I was away from my angry, verbally abusive father and the chosen confines of my room, and away from reality, as it were. I was somewhere different at last, and my growing sense of the idea that I must return inside gripped my heart. I didn’t want to leave this silent, yet beautiful, world I’d stumbled upon.

I am inside now, and I left that amazing bit of peace outside in the cold. Tomorrow I will venture back out there, I think, if not for just a few moments that will bring me inner quiet and thoughts that stir my imagination.

I never truly dealt with my diagnoses, the long string of them I had. I didn’t have full support at home and I still kept a lot of information from my doctors. Eventually, I would go through a year of a dialectical behavioral therapy group, and it opened my eyes to many things, but that equally opened the doors to the final state my otherworld would take.

When you spend your entire life swallowing down your trauma with alcohol and benzodiazepines, and you refuse to confront what is actually eating away at you deep down, it’s a recipe for disaster. I hadn’t used the word rape before for my abuser. I hadn’t thought much of the sexual assault — twice — at the bar my mom, grandma, and friends went to because they told me the guy was cute and I really did want it, and they wanted me to give him a chance before he forced me to kiss him, in a way that nearly bruised my face, after sticking a hand up my skirt and forcing me into his lap. It was nothing.

The bullying. Well, I never fought back, so it was my fault it continued.

My parents. Well, I was just lazy and I was pathetic and a failure because I couldn’t seem to hold down a job like everyone else. Because I couldn’t just ignore the panic attacks that came on when I tried.

My first abuser. I’d agreed to be his partner, so he couldn’t have raped me. Couples fought all the time. Mom and dad did.

The pedophile who groomed me on the internet, the one my friend introduced me to when I was thirteen, who begged me to do naughty things on the phone, later telling me he loved me. He never actually hurt me. I couldn’t be traumatized by that. I didn’t know better.

My stalker was just really fond of me, and I was told I was lying when I said I didn’t like it. Dad said I liked it and he knew I did. Maybe I was being rude about someone liking me so much.

It was a vicious cycle of lies. Excuses for others. Excuses others gave me that I believed.

All of these ghosts gathered in my otherworld, and they took the forms of shadows, haunting figures with eyes that later identified themselves as beings from the land of the dead, and words and sounds and memories that existed in between shadows. In PTSD dreams. Sometimes, I’d roll over in bed and a shadow figure would be leaning over me, watching me.

All of this, I’ve explained before. The sad reality is that I never had anyone explain what PTSD was, what it did, and how it was affecting me. I lived in utter fear for so long, thinking I was going crazy because the only thing I’d ever known about PTSD was flashbacks, anxiety, maybe dreams, and that was it. Only people who went to war had severe PTSD, right?

No. I was dead wrong.

This otherworld is a realm all its own for PTSD haunts to live. The shadow people, vivid hallucinations of my abuser, vivid auditory hallucinations of him and my father, and other entities that watch me from the dark. They infer that I wasn’t supposed to survive. I nearly died at birth with the umbilical cord around my neck, and I dodged some messy suicide attempts. Hades, the land of the dead, whatever you want to call it, exists here in this otherworld with the PTSD ghosts, and when they’re around, I know they’re just curious. They’re curious that I escaped so much bullshit.

And now that I know the origin and the evolution of this otherworld, as it sits beside the cold winter world and me and the head family’s inner world of good things, I can begin to find a way to keep it from bleeding into my reality. Right?

It seems no amount of dissecting and understanding myself and my past trauma, or my mental illnesses, will close this otherworld off. I suspect the cold winter world is a branch of it, as is evident in this entry from this blog.

So what all do I have but to relent and explore this otherworld? I can’t keep it from me, nor can I erase its existence. It’s here to stay, just waiting to be triggered by a bad day. An autistic overload. A manic meltdown. A BPD spiral.

So I write about it in the open. I share this reality and this story of mine that I wish I could be without, but it is something that lives in my subconscious, and it comes to the front when it feels like it. To fight it is to make it come on stronger. To fight it is useless. But I can raise awareness with it, and help shed light on a side of PTSD and trauma that not many do.

I’ve yet to truly delve into drawing scenery, but I am always making photo edits and taking pictures when I feel the moment is right. I’ve been obsessed, frustrated, with portraying what my trauma mind does on film. Edited photographs have only done so much. As an artist, I’m left throwing the phone to the side at the end of the day, still unable to truly capture this otherworld for others to see. I end up settling on the closest vibe I can find; evening. Night.

If you have access to an otherworld like this, I see you and hear you. If you feel comfort in this otherworld despite its melancholy horrors, I feel you. After all, our minds are all we have when it’s silent, and within them are doorways to places many could not bear to traverse. We are the warriors of these otherworlds.

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More images taken during PTSD and mixed bipolar episodes (mania and depression at the same time). There’s mostly a theme of capturing the feeling of evening, night, or sadness. These weren’t meant to be anything other than quick snaps to capture a mood:

©2021 Shane Blackheart
First two red pictures are edits from photos by Yener Ozturk & Nathan Wright via UnSplash. All other photos are mine.


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