Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Excerpt From My Next Project

“Fireworks. I can’t be around fireworks. I get jumpy and nervous and start sweating. Doc says it’s a panic attack. It’s possible. I don’t know. I just know it sounds like gunshots and all I can think of is finding somewhere to hide. Sounds cowardly, I know but I just want to get away from the sound.”

Staff Sergeant Andrews drones on about his PTSD triggers. This is the third time he’s shared something in group that sets him off. Two weeks ago it was balloons popping. Last week it was slamming doors. This week it’s fireworks. I bet he never imagined when he signed up for the military that he’d come home scared of fireworks. While he continued to moan about his PTSD triggers, I thought about my own issues with fireworks.

I remember the fireworks; the ones shooting up in the sky above the lights and sirens of emergency vehicles parking haphazardly on the street. I remember hearing voices and footsteps making their way towards me. I can still smell the death of congealing blood. The thick, wet, coppery taste is still stuck in the back of my throat any time I think about what happened. The memory of lying in that dark red pool always made my hands feel sticky. It was almost like sticking your hands in the corn syrupy Halloween store blood. It didn’t seem real. Only it was. And it wasn’t my blood. The fireworks continued to burst into giant flowery designs with its embers cascading down on my paralyzed body. I watched the show lying on my back on the sidewalk with EMTs and police officers milling around me. I could hear them talking to me but I couldn’t respond. Everything was in slow motion and fast forward all at once. Doctor Ballard says I was in shock. I’m not sure shock is the proper description. Free. I felt free. Lying on that sidewalk, motionless, as the world continued to spin around me I felt like if I laid there long enough I would float away. The pain and guilt and shame that I had been carrying around in my heart had disappeared. One minute it was there and then suddenly it was gone. And then there were fireworks. Fireworks had become part of the memorial for that moment in my life where I felt like nothing and no one could touch me. Fireworks had become part of the celebration for the day I killed my rapist.

“And what about you, Daisy? Do you have anything to share with us this week?”

Mrs. Peters, the group counselor, was tapping her yellow number two pencil with the pink cone-shaped eraser against her yellow legal pad. Her legs crossed at the ankle instead of at the knee because her legs were too fat. The fabric of her black dress pants seemed to be stretched to their limit perhaps waiting for her next breath before they burst at the seams. Her unfortunate choice of dressing the multiple fat rolls from chin to hip with a purple silky top gave her the appearance of a bunch of grapes. She looked like she might be auditioning for a part of the Fruit of the Loom group. Her red lipstick always managed to make its way to her front teeth, which she insisted sucking on whenever she was waiting for someone to answer her.

“Nothing really.”
“Nothing at all?
“Daisy, you do understand that I cannot release you from group until you share with us, right? Not being released from group means not being released from your in-patient treatment.”
“What do you want me to say, Mrs. Peters? Fireworks get me excited. I’m not allowed to wear shoes with shoestrings and I cannot use anything sharp or anything that has metal in it that could later be turned into a weapon. I desperately need my hair cut, I miss wearing make up, my legs are so hairy I could probably braid the hair, and I wish I could remember what it is like to get a good night’s sleep without having to hear some other crazy person screaming in the middle of the night about aliens trying to gain access to her brain via her nose. Are you expecting me to talk about what happened? Why I’m even in this group? I don’t think so. Especially here. In this group.”
“What’s wrong with this group?”

A face I don’t recognize appears beside me. The face has chiseled Fabio cheekbones, heavy-lidded gray eyes with thick baby doll eyelashes, and pouty lips. Shaggy sandy blond hair grazes thick, dark brown eyebrows that are knitted together in a frown. The rest of the body comes into view as muscular and stout. He’s not tall but he’s not short either. He’s what could be described as average if average were something similar to the men on the covers of romance novels. I’ve never seen this man before. He’s new to the group. An intruder. Every time someone new comes along I often wonder think of that scene in Fight Club where Edward Norton’s character discusses the support groups he attends even though he has no reason to be attending. Why is he here?

“There’s nothing wrong with this group. In fact, it’s the last group that would take me so I guess I should be grateful. This is my only chance of going home. I just don’t think that — it’s just that the majority of the people here in this group are veterans who have seen the terrors of war. I don’t think me sharing my story is going to help their recovery process.”
“Isn’t that what group is for? To help each other heal? Who is supposed to help you heal if you don’t share with the rest of us?”
“That’s a great question, — Sean — I mean, Master Sergeant Phillips. Who is supposed to help you, Daisy, if you won’t open up to us?”

I ignored Magilla Gorilla’s question and studied Master Sergeant Phillips. Sean Phillips. Unlike the rest of the military that came to group, he was not wearing a uniform. His white tennis shoes were scuffed around the sides, his faded blue jeans were missing a right knee, and the red and blue plaid button down he was wearing made me wonder if he was practicing to be a lumberjack. His mouth was curved into the frame of a smile but it never reached his eyes. They were dark and distant. I immediately recognized them as being similar to my own. No matter how much someone tried to mask their emotions, their eyes would give them away every time. Just like his. Behind his eyes he was a wounded animal just like everyone else in this room.

“I appreciate your concern, Master Sergeant — “
“You can call me Sean.”
“Fine. I appreciate your concern, Sean, but I am only here per court order. As soon as I have fulfilled my assigned number of attendances, no one in this group will ever see me again. Why share what isn’t important?”

And with that I grabbed my worn, brown leather backpack and headed for the door. Before I could turn the handle that would open up to my escape I felt a warm hand with large, calloused fingers wrap around my wrist. I knew who the hand belonged to before I ever turned around. I could already sense his presence behind me like a bad omen. Almost like a spook in one of those overpriced haunted houses. I spun around quickly and he threw his hands up in a gesture I guess he meant as no harm.

“I didn’t mean to upset you. You don’t have to leave.”
“Look, this is the first time I’ve seen you in group so I understand that you are trying to fit in but I don’t share. Ever. I’m here because I have to be. And as soon as I can get my required number of visits done, I will be out of here.”
“But aren’t you here for PTSD? Surely you’ve got something you want to get off your chest. This seems like a place of no judgment.”

I heard chairs scraping the linoleum floor of the meeting room. The Purple People Eater had called for a coffee and smoke break and was already standing at the snack table filling up a plate full of donuts. Several other group members got up and stretched or gathered around the coffee pot talking about their plans for the rest of the day. No one in group ever asked me what my plans for the day were. No one in group ever asked me anything. Something that I’d become quite comfortable with and now he was messing that up.

“Sure. It’s a place of no judgment. When Mrs. Peters is finished stuffing her face, you go share your story and your problems.”
“Where were you stationed?”
“Excuse me?”
“Where were you stationed? I just got back from Fallujah about six months ago.”
“Oh.” I pulled open the right side of my green jacket so that he could see the stamped number over the right side of my white scrubs. “I’m not a veteran. I’m patient number four-one-four-two-six-five at The Rolling Hills Mental Health Institute. I’ve been there for the past year. Before that I spent five years as inmate number two-nine-six-zero-three-zero-seven at Sandoval Correctional Institute.”
He blinked and took a step back. “I’m sorry. I just assumed since you were in this group that you were a veteran.”
“Not everyone here is a veteran. Majority are because we are so close to the Army base. These guys don’t like going to the VA clinic so they come here. Sue Ellen, the older lady with the over-processed highlights in her hair? She’s here because someone broke into her house last year, stole a bunch of her stuff, and then beat her and her husband nearly to death with a metal pipe. Mr. Muhammad was shot last year as he was closing up his restaurant. Some punk he fired got pissed and tried to kill him. The Nichols? They don’t have PTSD. Their daughter does. She was kidnapped by an abusive boyfriend late last year and she is having some problems. She refuses to come to group so they come in order to get an understanding of what she’s going through. Only they silently sit and judge everyone. You can tell by the looks on their faces when other people are talking. Everyone else here, including Mrs. Peters, is a veteran.”
“Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make an assumption. I guess I’m just digging myself a hole. Don’t leave because of me.”
“I can’t leave anyway. I was just going to sit outside. I’m not allowed to leave until group is over. My guard, Mr. Clean out there, will not leave a second earlier than we are supposed to.”
“I really feel like an ass. If you can’t tell I’m a little awkward so I just try to dive in with people so that they don’t notice how awkward I am.”
“I think you need a new approach.”
“Probably so.”

We stood there for what seemed like forever while he stared at me. I suddenly became very aware of my stringy, frizzy ponytail, my unibrow, and my acne riddled face. In prison, I still had access to my hair products, tweezers, and face wash. In the hospital I’m not allowed to have anything but a bar of dollar store soap. No shampoo. No conditioner. Hello hideous. I started fidgeting with the button holes on my jacket. I wasn’t even allowed a jacket with a zipper. They treated me like I was going to snap at anytime. I was going to go psycho and slit someone’s throat with a zipper. Yep.

“So, will you come and sit back down? You don’t even have to sit by me.”
“No. Nothing against you but I really just want to go wait outside. I hate being here so much.”
“I can’t share my story with a room full of men and women who have spent years of their lives away from their families, gunning people down while they’re wondering if they’ll ever make it back home. I’ve heard some of the stuff they’ve been through. It’s terrible. My story is bad but I honestly do not feel like it even compares to theirs and I do not want to sit in this room and say ‘Oh, woe is me’ about my problems and things I can and cannot do because of some disorder while other people who have legitimate issues sit and listen to me whine. But unfortunately for me, this is the only group left that I can attend. I don’t have a choice if I ever want to get out of this damn hospital.”
“You do realize you don’t have to deal with whatever you’re dealing with by yourself, right?”
“You mean you’re going to help me through it? Heard that one before.”
“I can. Most people do feel better when they have someone to talk to.”
“I’ll keep that in mind for next time, Master Sergeant Phillips.” I saluted him and walked out of the door into the hallway of the Tuscaloosa Psychiatric Center. I had the unfortunate luck of being stuck in a mental health facility that couldn’t even afford to run their own support groups so I am bussed here along with several other patients every Thursday for group therapy. The large white utility van that they piled us into smelled like a mixture of urine and wintergreen chewing gum. The heating and air did not work so you either froze to death or sweat fifteen pounds off before you got around the block.

I pushed my way through the double glass doors and breathed in the fresh Alabama air. It was mid-January so the air was cold and crisp on my skin. The wind bit through my thin green jacket and I pulled it tight around me as I made my way to the van. Mr. Clean, Rick, was already sitting in the driver seat. As a transporter he only got paid for the time he was transporting patients which is why he refused to leave even a second before it was time to deliver us back to Rolling Hills. Rick and I sat in the van in silence for the next thirty minutes until the other patients and group attendees started filing out the door. Sean Phillips walked out of the door with Mrs. Peters. She had a smile on her face so big that I thought her face might actually break. They said their goodbyes on the steps and she headed towards her car while he pulled out a cigarette and lit it, staring off in the opposite direction. Everyone going back to Rolling Hills was piling into the van while I was salivating at the thought of a cigarette. I could almost feel the smoke crawling down into my lungs and back out through my nose. I was lost in the longing of a cigarette when the van hit the speed bump in front of the door and jostled me out of my day dream. When I looked up and out the window, my eyes met his. He smiled and waved his calloused hand with the cigarette stuck between two of his fingers. I’m sure Master Sergeant Phillips was used to women lusting after him. I just lusted after the nicotine.

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