You can’t run from trouble…

It’s a quiet Sunday morning, and I’m alone with my thoughts. I’m up earlier than I might have chosen, thanks to one hungry little piggy. After a Friday night of interrupted sleep and a Saturday full of tennis, errands, swimming laps and a late dinner with a favorite cousin, I may well have stayed in bed a while. However, savoring a slumbering house amidst hte sunlight pouring in through the trees and hearing the sweet sound of birdsong while sipping a cup of strong coffee is better than sleeping in.

Plus it gives me time to read my book, Shantaram, which I’ve been dying to dive into but haven’t found the time. It’s been likened to Cutting for Stone, one of my all-time most favorite books ever. If it’s half as good as CFS, I’ll be one happy reader.

Quick synopsis of Shantaram: Mr Lindsay, our protagonist, has escaped from an Australian prison and fled to Bombay. There he meets Prabaker, a native of the slums who renames Lindsay “Lin” and becomes his always-smiling, eternally joyful guide to the big city. Lin falls for Karla, a mysterious woman with sea-green eyes, and pursues her amidst the backdrop of a lively bar called Leopold’s. Lin is “a magnet for trouble, a soldier of fortune, and a picaresque hero” who delves into the black-market world of false documents. I’m not very far into the 944 pages of adventure, but am intrigued.

As I settled in to read this fine morning, I came across an especially well-written passage, which brought me up short. Lin is talking to his new friend Didier in the bar about some of the more unsavory patrons among them. In an effort to avoid being overheard by the bad guys, Didier was “speaking out of the corner of his mouth, like a prisoner under the eyes of the wardens.”

A nice metaphor, for sure, but it gets better:

“In Australian prisons, that whispering technique is known as side-valving. The expression spoke itself clearly in my mind and, together with Didier’s mannerism, the words put me back in a prison cell. I could smell the cheap disinfectant, hear the metal hiss of the keys, and feel the sweating stone under my fingertips. Flashbacks are common to ex-prisoners, cops, soldiers, ambulance drivers, fire fighters, and others who see and experience trauma. Sometimes the flashback is so sudden, and so inappropriate to the surrounding circumstance, that the only sane reaction is foolish, uncontrollable laughter.”

I had a flashback myself last week, and while it didn’t lead me to foolish, uncontrollable laughter, it almost set off a full-blown PTSD attack. I was rushing out the door to get one kid to school and head to the gym, my usual weekday routine. I’m a stickler for taking my own cup to the gym instead of using the styrofoam ones provided. As if our bulging landfills need another cup tossed on the heap. In my haste to get out the door, I grabbed a straw for my cup and scooted out into the garage and into the car. It wasn’t until I was into my workout and gulping water like a crazy person that I realized the new batch of straws I’d bought were bendy straws.

Big deal, right? Bendy straws can be useful, especially if one is reclining while drinking. Or if, say, one is hospitalized for countless days after a post-mastectomy infection. Yessiree, folks, a simple, innocent bendy straw sent me straight from my normal routine of a morning workout directly to the days of being captive in a hospital bed, held hostage by a nasty mycobacterium. Just as Lin was instantly transported from a bar in Bombay to the hated Australian prison cell, I was back in the hospital bed, raging with fever and sick, sick, sick while a nasty bug set up shop under my newly implanted tissue expander. A one-way ticket to Crazy Town in hand, I took the express train down (bad) memory lane.

I wasn’t even thinking about infections, hospitals, antibiotics, or breast cancer when the flashback struck, but I suppose that’s the nature of flashbacks. Triggered by sights, smells, or sounds or, in my case, straws, flashbacks take over and not only interrupt our present business but also disrupt the rest of the day with their nasty after-effects. Interesting how bad memories are just as powerful as good ones. Unlike the good memories, which fill us with warmth and comfort, bad memories suffuse our souls with fear, anxiety, and panic.

The bendy straw that triggered this particular flashback went straight into the trash, and I tried my best to go about my day like a normal person. Finish the workout, chit-chat with my fellow gym rats, reserve a tennis court on the way out, get in the car, drive to the grocery store, fill my cart, unload the loot, take a shower, pick up kids, supervise homework, prepare dinner, clean the kitchen. From the outside, I looked like a normal person doing everyday tasks, but inside I was anything but normal and was once again a cancer patient, fighting my way through uncertainty, confusion, and balls-out fear. In that moment, cancer made me its bitch, and there wasn’t a single thing I could do about it. The only thing keeping me from a total meltdown was knowing that this flashback would pass, that the terror brought on by a simple bendy straw was fleeting.

But as I talked myself off the ledge with soothing reminders that this too shall pass, I know just as certainly that while the terror will pass, it will also return. Again and again, this flashback will haunt me. Perhaps each time it becomes less rapacious, less capable of felling me in one swift motion, but it will return.

“You can’t run away from trouble.  There ain’t no place that far.” ~Uncle Remus

22 Comments on “You can’t run from trouble…”

  1. Eddie says:

    It makes me wonder if the flashback, cancer for you various traumas for others, is reality and the supposed normal life of pain-free daily activity is the delusion. Our minds are tricky things and the power of forgetting is amazing but a double-edged blade: freeing us from agony of the unpleasant past but possibly robbing us of the memory of past joys whose absence pains us. Perhaps I’m imagining things.

  2. Lauren says:

    You can’t run away from bendy straws, ain’t no where that far. Nicely done girlfriend..I think part of overcoming ptsd is doing just what you did, recognize it, dissect it, and throw it out to the briar patch

  3. Flashbacks so suck. I fall into a trap of thinking they will never happen again. Wrong. Glad you made peace with the bendy straw…this time. Big hug.

  4. You remind us all that we never know what’s really going on with the person next to us on the treadmill or in line at the grocery store. It’s so easy for us to think we’re the only ones who’s facing problems or reliving those we thought we’d put behind us. Most of us are good at masking emotions that are just below the surface.

    What if you throw the bendy straws away? Yes, you will encounter another straw, but these won’t “suck” you in, again.


    • Brenda, you’re so right — we never know what plagues someone else, and most people are carrying a burden of some sort. Perspective is a good thing! LOL at the idea of not letting the bendy straws suck me in! Thanks for the chuckle.

  5. I figure my PTSD will hit me right in the face at just about the time I go back to work…..for now, I’m still in survival mode.
    BTW, enjoyed reading about your latest novel….I once had a French boyfriend named Didier….(how cool is that?). God Bless.

    • Hey Flo, stay in survival mode as long as you need to. You may not want to read Shantaram — the Didier in the book is quite unattractive; I’d hate for that image to ruin your memories of the other Didier!

  6. Jan Baird says:

    How terrible, Nancy! I’ve had dreams like that, triggered by something that happened during the day, something inconsequential. The terrors circle back like a boomerang, the anxiety ever evident. I agree with Brenda: you should throw those bendy straws away. xx

  7. PinkHeart says:

    Thanks for sharing that PTSD can also be medical/healthcare-induced. Some folks think that only military personnel suffer from PTSD. They don’t get it, I don’t expect them to get it, and I pray they don’t ever get it (PTSD).

  8. Vivid description of a flashback. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Excellent post about that lurking fear and those impressed memories. Bendy straws should be banned! Though, of course, you never really know what will flash you back, so I’ve learned. Thank you for sharing this story. It sounds like you had a hard day, and no wonder. But good on you for making it through.


  10. mmr says:

    Thanks, Nancy! Was visiting flashback city as I waited for recon surgery again last week, so your post was very timely for me. The anesthesiologist was nice enough to have the knock me out stuff wait until I got into the surgical room, because I wanted to see that room and put some of my fears to rest. Once in there, I remembered those big round lights from before and I was glad when the knock out came quickly thereafter because the bad memories had hit. Recovery in the hospital room later is always the same nightmare though (always seems to involve me throwing up, but at least I didn’t pass out this time). And I couldn’t get out of there fast enough, terrified of any possible infection I might pick up. Am on double antibiotics, though, and making my way back to the real world again this week. Feeling like Frankenstein, but having learned that it will look better again someday makes it easier this time. I didn’t even cry in the shower. Thanks for the warning to stay away from bendy straws. 😉

    • Marcie — how did your recon go? Been thinking about you and wondering. Hope all is well. Heal quickly, girl.

      • mmr says:

        Thanks for the thoughts! I thought of you too while I was in that presurgery room– so nice just to know someone else who has faced that same scene a few times. Surgery was a little more extensive than I was expecting, but Dr. S says it might be the last big thing (“might” being the operative word of course, and as you’ve pointed out that may mean “this is as good as it can get”, which can be a hard blow in itself). And I doubt it can be the last forever, since I just have implants now. But hey, new medical miracles might happen, or maybe falling foobs will be the least of my problems in the future anyway.The antibiotics have upset my stomach and seem to make me lightheaded and tired– did that happen to you? (But oh gosh, the side effects are better than that sucky vacuum machine you had, or watching your own skin die, as we both have). I’m wearing compression garments and my AC went out upstairs– hope the repair guys get to it today. Houston, we have a problem–it’s hot! 😉

      • Marcie– did you get the probiotics? Hope you’re feeling better.

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