PTSD thoughts are like shadows

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PTSD thoughts are like shadows. Graphic Illustration of three identical figures in side profile looking down.

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PTSD thoughts are like shadows

PTSD thoughts are like shadows- a true story of PTSD, suppressed memories of childhood trauma, and learning to cope.

When I told my friends about the time my three or four-year-old sister locked herself in her room, I paint them a picture. Rachel, stubborn and fearful, on one side of the door. My mother, on the other hand, trying to explain that all she has to do is turn the handle. I’m somewhere in the background, the omniscient narrator, not quite two decades later.

It’s a pretty picture, but it isn’t a real one. The truth is that my father was there, too, crouching in the hallway outside Rachel’s room, talking her through the panic that grips a child when their guardian can’t be there to assuage their fears. It’s a benign memory, and still, I couldn’t quite paint the image of my father into the story I tell years after. I wouldn’t even give him a rough sketch.

PTSD thoughts are like shadows. My PTSD is like a particularly violent shadow. Silent until it isn’t. Invisible in the darkness until someone shines a light. I feel that same panic Rachel must have felt behind the closed door in her childhood bedroom. Unsafe in my own skin.

A quick diversion: I didn’t pay for college. Most of my tuition was covered by scholarships, the rest by my father circa his 2006 divorce agreement with my mother, as was the apartment I lived in senior year.

Once, a close friend joked I was renting on Daddy’s dime. We were sitting in my living room in my apartment, laptops open and overheating on our legs, and my coffee table piled with textbooks. When Leah mentioned my father, my blood ran cold. I wasn’t in my overused armchair anymore, but buried in blurred emotions, heart hammering, and blood suddenly cold. I shot her icy stares and bitter words until she left, lashing out with the same rope I felt around my throat, ready to cut off my breathing.

I texted Leah later to apologize, but I didn’t know if I would have been able to forgive myself, had I been her. No one can see how PTSD makes you sick from the inside. It poisons the inside of your thoughts and obscures your connection to reality. I’m lucky she’s more forgiving than I am.

“PTSD is like a particularly violent shadow. Silent until it isn’t. Invisible in the darkness until someone shines a light.”

When my father told me he wanted to see me graduate, my brain short-circuited. When I think of him, I’m nine again, or eight, or seven. I’m not powerful. I’m not grown-up with resources and armed with knowledge I didn’t have before he left. I texted Leah, but this was out of both of our hands. She could only give me her support, and I clung to it like a life raft.

I ambushed two professors with personal trauma they weren’t prepared to handle. They coached me through connecting with public safety. They asked me to call my mom. This was the first time I spoke about my father with such fear. It didn’t end me. I spoke my worst fear out loud and I still stood upright, breathing.

'PTSD thoughts are like shadows. My PTSD is like a particularly violent shadow. Silent until it isn't.'CLICK TO TWEET

My childhood home is a tour of my trauma. Here is where my father held me down and screamed because I wouldn’t look at him, embarrassed that I couldn’t solve a math problem. There is where my father shook my mother when he came to pick up my sister and me, and a few feet away is where the police officers stood when I came home.

My mom moved a year after I graduated college. The house couldn’t hurt me, but it did haunt me. My mother lives in a one-bedroom a town away now, and she told me how she, too, finally feels like she can breathe in her own space.

I’ve driven past the old house a few times since she moved. It’s inhabited by an inexplicably happy family of six. My mother says they’ve gutted the inside. It’s a new start for them, and for me, too.

I still can’t write about my father in detail. The PTSD won’t let me. The brushstrokes I paint are broad and indistinct. The canvas is rough-hewn and hard to hold. But I’m painting him again. I’m uncovering lost art, and that’s the start of something like a masterpiece.

Article by
Nicole Zelniker

Nicole Zelniker is an author of "Mixed," a non-fiction book about race and mixed-race families, and “Last Dance,” a collection of short stories.


No one can see how PTSD makes you sick from the inside. It poisons the inside of your thoughts and obscures your connection to reality.