The men walked, three and four abreast. They avoided the crates of uncovered bread and small mangoes piled along the curb, but did not yield to my approach. One’s shoulder almost got me in the eye as they plowed past, their progress and foreign jabbering uninterrupted by my presence on the street. Incense burned at the doorway of the shop to my right. The smoke cut through the smell of cumin, car exhaust and body odor in the air. The store and restaurant signs were in the same unfamiliar language spoken by the crowds around me. I looked toward the intersection ahead and at the green sign attached to the light post on the corner. The white letters read Newark Avenue.
Newark Avenue? I knew I was not in the city of Newark. I reached inside my shoulder bag. No map. Shit. I’d left it… home? Likely. And home in relation to Newark Avenue was… somewhere. It couldn’t be far. I hadn’t been outdoors for very long. I had just been walking along, heading…. somewhere. Then realized I did not know where I was, from where I’d come, or to where I was headed.
It always happens without warning. I’m usually prepared: I carry a map or recite in my head the streets I pass so I’ll recognize the names on my return trip. But I hadn’t had an episode in a few weeks. Confidence led to carelessness, which landed me on Newark Avenue without a map or string of street names that could get me back home.
Those moments of getting lost are one of the many frustrations of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. One moment I’m walking along Labert Avenue, wondering what else I need from Rite Aid in addition to antiperspirant; the next, I turn onto Newark Avenue and suddenly I’m wondering where I am, whether I’m in a foreign or home environment, and if a red traffic light means stop or go.
Dr. S assures me that I am not crazy; I am just disassociated from reality at those moments. That sounds like crazy to me, but she’s the professional and I trust her, so I go with it. I call them “episodes” and Dr. S has explained they’re in response to a stressor. Sometimes the trigger is obvious: a hearse parked outside a church reminds me of my baby boy’s funeral, the sound of small children in a park reminds me I’m a barren monster. Other times the episodes come from seemingly out of nowhere. At those time, I feel defeated, like I’ve made no progress in the past six years and I really believe that just being alive is a stressor. Crazy has me firmly in its grip.
I’ve been the “smart one” all my life. My smarts are the one thing I always had going for me. They were my strongest currency that got me out of the projects and into new worlds that were scary and sometimes unwelcoming, but I knew I was smart enough to get anywhere. So who am I now if my mind fails me? There are days that I view my brain as my biggest traitor.
I can’t control my mind. I try to control how I react to my episodes. That was the main inspiration for my “flip it” project that I began in the summer: I turn negatives into positives. I look at the shitty as an opportunity to react in a way that is not frustration, dejection, crumpled defeat or burning rage. This is not an easy task for a glass-always-empty kind of woman like me, but the alternatives are not appealing. I could have cried hysterically that day on Newark Avenue. I certainly was on the verge of tears. I could have stood there, paralyzed by fear, snot running into my mouth as I tried to ask someone for directions to I didn’t know where. Most people might have ignored me. Maybe someone would have tried to be helpful and called a police officer, which would have sent me into full panic mode, likely earned me a trip in a police car or ambulance and landed me in a hospital, the place where I would feel the most panicked and terrorized. Not a good scene.
I thought of Carrie on “Homeland.” She’s broken too; but she’s also brilliant. Her safety systems have failed her. She’s been betrayed by her supports. Carrie ends up in unexpected situations, unfamiliar terrain, but she blends into the scene, puts on a head scarf, navigates the moment by the seat of her pants, relying on her smarts, trusting her intuition and what she knows that she knows.
That day on Newark Avenue, I decided I was on an adventure. My mission was of high importance and classified, a secret even to me. A map would have been a liability if I was detained and questioned. I had to walk all business-as-usual to avoid detection. I wasn’t in the city of Newark or even aware of what city I was in at that moment, but decided it was exotic and foreign. How much more exciting it was to think of myself as a covert operative, and what a let down it was when I turned onto Kennedy Boulevard and the episode ended. I returned to the reality of another day in Jersey City, on my way to Rite Aid to save two dollars on Arm & Hammer antiperspirant.