Post Traumatic Single Disorder

woman at sunset

As we pursue the deep work of cultivating restoration in our own stories and the stories of others, one thing becomes clear: trauma takes many forms, some of which are unexpected. Here, Abby Wong-Heffter, a member of The Allender Center Teaching Staff, writes about a particular trauma she has experienced in her own life, and what it means to acknowledge grief, heartbreak, and horror so that she can continue moving toward healing and wholeness.

I lay in bed and watch the theatrical shadows dance across the ceiling. My house is empty, besides my new feline companion. Though he sports a grouchy demeanor, this cat is no protector.

My new home is situated in a neighborhood renowned for its crime. Loud popping sounds can be heard throughout the autumnal months, and I have learned the art of discerning the nuance between the sound of celebratory fireworks after a Seahawks win and that of gunshots. Because of the prowess of our football team, both sounds are frequent symphonies.

One night late in the summer, I had turned onto my block and encountered at least 5 cop cars gathered in a chaotic cluster and at least 10 officers on foot with flashlights. They were clearly in pursuit. I debated whether it was wise to enter my darkened home if a criminal was at large in the neighborhood. Exhausted from a long day of work and desperately wanting the comfort of my bed, I went inside anyway. Somehow, despite the activity outside and my solitary existence in this house, I found a way to fall soundly asleep.

But unlike that night, sleep is far out of reach tonight. What keeps me awake is not the fear of gunshots or intruders or shadows or that this cat may be more foe than friend. I lay awake because I am no longer single.

Tonight my husband is out with friends. This is an infrequent occurrence—these days (only 4 months married) we tend to be socially inseparable. I anticipate him home by 9:30, maybe even 10:00. I’m married to an early bird, so I suspect we will still find ourselves falling asleep side-by-side. I wasn’t anticipating that I would be lying in this bed, alone, staring at the ceiling and begging for sleep. I sent him a text 30 minutes ago, at 10:20, wondering if he was en route. He still hasn’t responded. He’s usually fast on the draw with his cell phone. 5 minutes after my text, my mind was already actively imagining him wounded, or worse, on the side of the road. 10 minutes after my text I began wondering who I would need to call to learn which hospital he was being rushed to. 15 minutes had me worrying if his ex-wife would allow me to have any parenting rights to my stepchildren should he perish. Sanity is slipping quickly away. Now, my heart is pounding and my body thrashes about in our bed as I am close to certain that my status in the last year has evolved from single, to engaged, to married, to widow. I glance over at his lonely pillow and wonder if scientists could extract his DNA from a found hair or microscopic skin cells. Could he be cloned? Now, I know I’m going off the deep end.

Here is what is true about PTSD: one does not experience symptoms of the disorder until they have returned to some sort of safety. Example: a soldier will not be diagnosed while still in combat because his faculties are exclusively focused on survival. In some ways, he does not have the “luxury” to feel and be present to all that he is living through. It would be too much. It is not until it is clear that he has indeed survived, that his body, mind, and soul can begin experiencing the deep impacts of what he suffered. Symptoms of PTSD include intrusive, recurrent, and unwanted memories, reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks), and upsetting dreams about the traumatic event. The list goes on and on.

One does not experience symptoms of PTSD until they have returned to some sort of safety.

I survived singledom well into my mid-30s. In all of my previous fantasies, I had only imagined that I would be wed and a mother (biologically) by the time I was in my mid 20s. I was in the state of single far longer than I had imagined. Was it all suffering? No! There was so much beauty, so much goodness, so much adventure and exploration in my singledom. And, the same could be said by the Army veteran when describing his march through the mysterious, lush, vibrant green jungles of Vietnam.

I want to give voice to the trauma of being single. I want to name as trauma the seemingly eternal wanting, the trauma of living alone, the trauma of feeling marginalized in a coupled world, the trauma of being incapacitated with the flu and having no one there to feed or nurse you, the trauma of having to make major life decisions without a partner, the trauma of not having a key witness to your life or an ally who has made a life vow, a covenant to you and you alone. It is traumatic to feel unchosen. At times, it’s even traumatic to attend a friend’s bridal shower, baby shower, wedding, New Year’s Eve party, Valentine’s Day.

The first week of my marriage the nightmares began. Here it needs to be underscored that I am blissfully happy. I have married a man that loves me ferociously and is an astounding and generous partner. I have never been this grateful or aware of my good fortune. So, it was puzzling when only days after our wedding (which was also incredible!) I was startled out of sleep by the terror that I had lost him, or that he couldn’t find me or had ended the relationship. This was the first of many, many nightmares. They were sometimes a nightly occurrence that tortured me and left me without sleep for those 3-plus months. In the night terror, always I am again single. Always I am somehow forced to return to online dating sites. Always I am deeply heartbroken because in the dream I know that he cannot be cloned, there is no other like this man who I waited decades for. For the record, the scariest part of the dream is knowing that I have to return to the life where I attend parties and social engagements alone, and where I am faced with the daunting prospect of starting over in the search for a partner.

Now, I am living the fairytale. But recently, I started thinking about the significant fault in fairytales. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderellawe are told they all lived happily ever after. I wonder if in the midst of blissful happiness they also encountered the haunting memories of a monstrous queen, dragon, or evil stepmother (side note: I’m growing to despise that term). Were they also awakened from their regal, princess sleep with nightmares of all they had endured in their indentured servitude, drug-induced comas, and orphan states?

Like many trauma survivors, I want to dismiss the severity of the experience. As I began to play with the term Post Traumatic Single Disorder, I imagined it would serve as a quippy exposé on my crazy. I could write a tongue-in-cheek essay about singleness. But it was not quirky or funny that my sleeping life was so tortured, so I sobered to the reality that my nightmares were to be attended to with care and curiosity. I was reminded by them that my heart has known deep ache.

My nightmares were to be attended to with care and curiosity.

What I have learned about trauma, my own as well as the many whom I engage in my therapy practice, is that the heartbreak and horror needs to be integrated. PTSD (both varieties) can only be “cured” if that which we had to endure can be given voice, emotion, witness, curiosity, soothing, and care. PTSD remains alive and activated on the eternal merry-go-round when the survivor attempts to bury, ignore, numb, and silence.

So, in the midst of my happily ever after, I am giving space to the grief of what is in my not so distant past. I am beginning to weave my past and present together. Sometimes, often by surprise, a deep sadness surfaces. It is not current sadness, it is past sadness. It is puzzling because it often doesn’t match the moment. But my Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty self is reminding me that there are remnants of pain that need my attention. As I have wept and furied, oddly, the nightmares are becoming less common and their content far less potent. I await the day when sound sleep returns.