A Life In Nightmares

Warning: This is a fairly intense post. The first section was not exactly written but rather dictated to speech recognition software (and corrected as I went to keep it accurate to what was said before I had time to forget and have no idea what the nonsense written on the screen had actually been); it was a new experiment of sorts and one I think was interesting, if difficult. I did this last night (May 29) around 10 – 10:30 pm. I was out of spoons to handle the rest of the writing at the time and thus am only finishing and turning it into a post now, May 30. — and then again on May 31, to publish June 1 after a final night to sleep on it and gather up the nerve to publish something that I fear will change how people see me.

The first section of this post was written while my PTSD was actively messing with my head, and may be troubling or unsettling for others if I captured the experience accurately. It includes fairly graphic and first person descriptions of animal abuse (which did not in reality happen but is part of my mind’s reaction to overwhelming stress and grief and unwarranted guilt). It discusses PTSD. I am relaying a part of my personal experience; it is not the entirety, it is not always the same, and I do not speak for anyone else with or without this diagnosis.  There is also discussion of both someone (four-pawed and furry, but someone I cherished all the same) dying, the end of his life, the painful part, and putting him down.  It also discusses fear and illness and violence. I am not a violent person, but I do seem to be one who takes things personally and feels responsible for things outside my control and my brain melds those qualities and my fears in disturbing ways. I would NOT do the things described here, ever.

This may not be the post for everyone. That is absolutely fine. It’s not the post for me, frankly. It’s okay to feel things and there is no wrong way to think or feel as you cope with your own emotions and processing. 

**Note: I struggled on the decision to publish this or not. Please don’t think of me differently for it. Please don’t judge me for it. Please, please, understand that if I could not be sick, not have my mind conjure up horrible memories and fears and shadows jumping out from behind safe lamp-posts on my own street….I would do a great deal to not be sick. PTSD is not a weakness or a choice. There are a number of things I know about that contributed to mine and I’m not sharing them all right now, just one. I do ask that you respect my privacy on that matter until I decide to open up but welcome other questions or relations of your own experiences! I’m not a therapist, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, etc. but I am willing to be a friend, a set of ears when you need to talk, or just someone to pick up the phone and be there.  All health is complicated. Mental health is no exception.

Below this point is the body of the post.

Please try not to judge me as you read, for being honest about an intensely difficult and disturbing illness. I’m the same person and have been dealing with this perhaps while talking to you even. I have professional help and support of my family and friends. I’m not okay but I’m also doing the very best that I can. Deciding that it is okay to be open about something I fear people may dismiss, trivialize, or stigmatize? — that’s part of my healing, because part of how I am trying to encourage greater acceptance and understanding of invisible illnesses (mental and physical alike) is by being open about my own when I am ready.

Context for below (this is an abbreviated version and still is sad):
Flicka was the name of a cat I adopted on December 29, 2016, after about 3 months falling slowly in love and bonding with him as a shelter volunteer. Flicka was incredible, wise, skittish, fierce, brave, loyal, choosy, enigmatic, wonderful, beautiful…so many words and none of them fully explain him or our bond. He was also terminally ill. He had a heart defect (suspected to be congenital) called a double-chambered right ventricle; his heart problems were at an advanced stage by the time he was brought off the streets to the shelter. I was warned before adopting him (repeatedly) that nobody knew how long he had left and I had to understand that I could lose him in a few minutes or a few hours or a few days or a few months, and if I got very lucky perhaps a few years (that, it turned out, was never going to happen). Flicka had wonderful quality of life with proper care and medication, and was friskier than some kittens. Flicka became my dear friend and companion, a mentor and wonderful big brother to my little cat Tikvah, and a source of joy. His care became a huge part of my daily life, keeping his medication regime and learning to keep track of various signs and symptoms, taking his breathing rate and his pulse and worrying about clotting (yup, he had a clot once, we got lucky, caught it, got him through). I did everything I could for him as did his team of vets.

He died on November 19, 2019, around 9 pm.  After two weeks of deterioration during which I was able to provide palliative hospice-style care for him and keep him comfortable an happy when he was aware, on that day he suddenly became much worse.  When nothing more could be done, he had no quality of life or even ability to recognize people and things he loved, when all that was left was potential hours of suffering and inevitable imminent death, I decided to do my best to be his mom and his advocate one last time: I put him to sleep. He died in my arms. I accidentally felt his last heartbeat and then the stillness I’d been dreading. Flicka was estimated to be about 5.5 years old at the time.

Ready?

Go.

From around 10 pm on Tuesday, May 29, 2018; dictated to voice recognition software on a phone and corrected as I went along because it’s fascinating but imperfect software.


Lately I’ve been having nightmares every day. I don’t mean every night, though I get them then too. I get these nightmares during the day and I don’t know which is worse: being in them or knowing that they will come back when I close my eyes and try to escape into oblivion of sleep.

Right now, I’m killing Flicka. It’s his last day and I’m standing in the kitchen of my apartment, inside look around the space that my mind’s eye has created for me I’m realizing that it is an eerie mix of my apartment then and now, some decorations from each era.  I’m in the kitchen door just inside and to the left. He’s in my arms and even as I’m saying this I can feel my whole body start to recoil, my face clenching up as tears start to come to my eyes and my stomach seeming to roll over and put oil and clench all at once. I know what what comes next. I’ve lived it so many times and it’s happening. I’m crying now and I may not dictate this much longer because I’m not sure the Google recognize my voice or my words for what they are but it’s already gone now, or rather he’s already gone now. I felt it. I felt my arms throw him. It’s not a throw like from gym class, or a frisbee. It’s more of a glorified drop, a throw like you’re dribbling a basketball. I used to have to look at my arms to know that they weren’t actually moving; now I think it’s gotten fainter, or maybe I’m just used to the knowledge of my arm is doing two things at once and feeling them both and knowing which one has to be real, which one has to be fake. I know this because it’s happened so many times. I’ve felt it so many times. It’s such a strong memory for something that never happened. Rather, it has happened. It happens many times some days, though some times I can go even a few weeks without it now. It’s happened dozens of times, maybe more by now, but it never happened to Flicka. Logically, I know this. There are times when I’m not sure I really do but I know how to convince the ruling parties of my brain now. I work best on logic. I need proof, not emotion. It’s not enough proof just to say and to know that I would never have hurt him, when I remember every moment of it. No, what convinced me was knowing a little bit about abuse cases. The memory is still running in the background, and Flicka’s scream is making my heart ache just like it did the first time. The memories real now, all of it from after Flicka hits the ground matching reality. It’s still gruesome. He’s lying on the kitchen floor and a pool of urine is slowly spreading around him. He’s not screaming anymore, or crying or whimpering or making any noise besides a gasping sort of pant. He’s trying to move now, and only seems to be able to make his front legs work. He’s dragging himself along the floor. He gives up after a foot or so, maybe less, and just lays there on his right side, sides heaving and fur slowly soaking in the pee that he doesn’t seem to even notice is there. I can see it all, and smell it, the distinctive scent of cat pee, and the way his fur had started to smell the last few days. Before that, and even almost to the end, it smelled sweet and faintly like hay. I loved the scent. The memory I can’t stop is over, and yet I can’t seem to stop the more normal memory that it has faded into from finishing out. I have to make myself remember the next part. In my mind and in front of me, neither replacing nor melding with the actual sight in front of me, my bedroom wall, but rather existing in an unsettling simultaneous way that I don’t understand, I still see him lying there, I see his eyes and it’s like it’s frozen. They’re wide open and completely still. Just like they were when he died a few hours later. But in the real memory that my mind is playing out rather less graphically. I know that I rushed across the kitchen and skirted his ears by at least a foot because he seemed so scared and like he had no idea what was happening. I grabbed paper towels and I grabbed a soft towel, a microfiber cloth, and wiped him down with warm water. He let me do one leg without seeming to notice and then suddenly when I touched the other I found out where he hurt. It took over a month for the scars from his last while swinging me to fade. I know it’s odd that I would look at them and smile, thinking of his fierce spirit.


Did you make it to here? It’s hard. I re-read everything and I’m cringing, wanting to correct it, but I won’t. It’s not good writing. I don’t know what part of the tense switching and all the issues are from having dictated in the moment with a shaky voice to a cell phone and corrected big mistakes but not stopped too long, so as not to ruin the point of dictating — and what part was how I spoke. I know it’s distracted and rambling and probably confusing. I know it’s disturbing. I know. I left out a few bits as I dictated– that my nightmare forces me to watch myself and feel throwing onto the ground more than once, that my nightmare-image of how he looked in my arms before it seems to be just the memory of how he looked in my arms as he died…I can’t explain it all. The horror, the pain, the desperate panic and wild swings of terror I feel as my mind taunts me and starts to warp a sense of reality the first minutes I wake after the nightmare plays.

I know it didn’t happen the way I remember, but I only remember the facts of the real memory. I remember it from saying it so often rather from being able to call it up, if that even makes sense. I even — and this is a weird “meta” memory sort of moment — remember that I used to remember reality and just experience this as the nightmares. Here’s a sort of guide to the mess above.

First, here’s what actually happened. I was indeed standing and in my apartment, but not quite where the nightmare places me — I was watching from the doorway, actually in the doorway and trying not to crowd him  (as cats, unlike dogs, want to be alone when sick) by making that my invisible barrier all day.  Flicka was not in my arms. I was on the phone with my parents, tearfully watching a beloved companion’s descent and demise. Flicka was across the room by the sink and the kitchen chair. Even for a cat, he had had until recently frighteningly precise and graceful movement, and could land on the back of a kitchen chair without falling every time. However, in his last two weeks as he faded, he was often weak and seemed confused — had to look and smell extra before relaxing with me or his beloved kitten sister Tikvah, and sometimes would not realize he’d lost control of his bladder or bowels, and I was syringe-feeding him and massaging his throat so he’d swallow food and water I placed in his mouth on some days.  He was, in essence, fading. In this moment he was looking at the kitchen chair. He tried to do what in his prime had barely been a real jump — onto the seat of the chair, one he would do while looking like he was doing little more than taking a step to get up there before the end — but he missed, and I don’t know if it was his mind or his body or both that failed him in that moment. He scrambled at the chair seat and crashed in a backwards-side sort of way once he hit hard, into the ground, hitting his right back leg first and screaming like I’ve never heard a cat scream before as he crashed  into the ground. He lost control of his bladder, tried to move dragging himself along with this front legs, etc. all as described before. I was watching in horror from near the doorway; I’d been forcing myself to give him space as he had been weak and not able to walk long but trying to hide, so I pretended his chosen spot in the corner and half under the table was indeed a good hidden corner for a sickly cat to have chosen. It was a weird sort of attempt at respect, restraining my urge to go to him and try to comfort him when he was obeying his instincts and trying to be alone. From this point, the nightmare falls in line with reality, but the impact of

Let’s start with disproving it. There are 3 main ways I do so.

Method 1: Inconsistencies
When I was finally able to look at the nightmare-reality-horror, I was already finding my brain accidentally going down the nightmare’s path instead of the real (and also painful and horrible memory) path sometimes, and would correct it. It was hard and involved me reliving the real event many, many times, which wasn’t particularly fun.  I know both versions very well now.  They are exactly the same once Flicka is screaming and hitting the ground.
–Inconsistency: Flicka in both memories is on the ground with his head towards me but a few feet away. That isn’t possible from where the nightmare has me positioned with him. The orientation is wrong, our relative positions are wrong, his angles are entirely wrong. It’s not physically possible.
–Inconsistency: I had to rush towards and around Flicka to reach the towels. The path does not work with where the nightmare puts me standing; I’d actually already be next to the towels and he would not have been between me and them.
–Inconsistency: I know, and have confirmed in nightmare-spooked dazes many times in the middle of the night, that I was on the phone with my parents as this unfolded (they reminded me of that, helpfully). In the nightmare, there is no phone and I am using both arms and hands holding Flicka. Since I held him many times, my body does have real memories to use for feeling him there, and I have in fact bounced a ball in gym class and at recess as a child, so it also has memories of that motion, which makes it disturbingly realistic feeling, but not actually real. The lack of a phone is a major inconsistency both in arm use/position and in the memories of two people who don’t have PTSD and had not been up every few hours providing Flicka hospice care for about 2 weeks (ie: I was exhausted, in hindsight maybe I’m lucky that I didn’t have too much of my mind playing tricks on me while I was awake until after he died, running on so much stress and so little sleep).
–Inconsistency: I’m not exactly an Olympic athlete, but I do have average-ish arm strength, I believe. Flicka was somewhere around 11 pounds. He was weak, confused, and not fully aware. This is a disturbing point to think about, but frankly if I had thrown him onto the ground he would have been hurt far more badly…which brings us to the next section.

Method 2: The Veterinarian
I brought Flicka to the BluePearl hospital in Waltham. We’d been before for emergency and he was under the care of their absolutely brilliant, patient, caring, involved, empathetic, skilled cardiologist, Dr. Pierce (highly highly highly recommend her and that hospital if you ever need an emergency/specialty place, or a veterinary cardiologist).  I originally made this a very long section, but I’m trying again with a shorter, more digestible version (as I re-read and realized that I had written it more like giving his medical history to a vet than anything else, something I did enough to apparently form something of a habit).  I requested that Flicka have a veterinarian examine him, because even though I had accepted that this was the end and my Flicka was already gone except for a bundle of pain and instincts allowing only glimmers of him through anymore…well, I had to be sure.  The vet tech who did our intake and was with us throughout is someone I realize as I type this that I consider a friend, in the odd context of the veterinary hospital; she’s my favorite tech, she was the best with Flicka and me both, and she had become invested in us and dealt with many late-night phone calls as he fought for time over those months, always taking me seriously and helping us through to the best option for Flicka, trying to keep him home and safe whenever possible. I won’t publish her name as it feels like a bit of an invasion of privacy somehow to do so, but if she ever by some odd coincidence reads this, I hope she knows how much she meant to me that day.  I knew that the ER vet (one of very few I hadn’t met before) was fully up to date on Flicka’s case because not only did I talk him through it, but she had gone over it all with him, records in hand, and made sure that we were as okay as the situation allowed (more another day on my theory of relative scales of okay, as a side note).  The vet himself was wonderful too, going along with my strange and insistent request that we do have an exam but that Flicka not be taken away from me.  Looking back I don’t know if that was for him as I thought at the time or really for me.  Flicka’s legs were working like nothing happened, and the vet found absolutely nothing from the fall. He did find a dying cat, a cat who didn’t match the symptoms of congestive heart failure (the “best case scenario” that night, but one that the entire timeline, symptoms, and reactions to medicine all disproved, to all of our grave disappointment — it was potentially treatable).  He found Flicka dying. He found Flicka confused as he had been the past two weeks and…well, he found him losing a battle that had been rigged from the start.  Vets do know and take steps at signs of abuse. This vet left all decisions in my hands, which he would not have done had I hurt Flicka in any way, and his fall from a chair was consistent with his wobbly, uncertain walking.  The nightmare that followed in the coming nights would make me look back fearfully, but at the time I had a strange sort of calm in knowing, finally, that it was the end; that Flicka, who had been fading before my eyes, needed me to be his mom one last time, save him from more hours of agony gasping for breath in an oxygen-enhanced environment (ie, at the vet overnight) and likely still die, just alone and after a few more hours of misery.  There was no more palliative care. There was no more treatment to give him a little longer. He was gone.  I had a strange peace knowing the decision in the moment, and found myself breaking down rather suddenly the next day while stirring a perfectly innocent pot of barley stew.
But, back to the point: a thorough veterinary exam absolutely would have revealed injuries from such trauma to the frail, sick cat. It didn’t happen, and they correspondingly didn’t see anything, because — and this comforts me — the nightmare isn’t real.  The solid fact of that medical exam is what finally brought me around in a frenzied night of PTSD and exhaustion. Thank you, Dad, for finding me this to hold on to, and for picking up the phone every time — exhausted or working yourself, no matter what — and talking me down, listening to frantic babbling and sobbing and helping me through to the logic you knew I needed to prove to myself what we all knew but what my exhausted brain had muddled.

 

Method 3: Reality Check, & Parents

As I mentioned, I was actually on the phone with my parents when Flicka had his heartbreaking struggle to get somewhere he used to leap past with ease.  This means: I have witnesses! I frankly forgot this some nights until reminded that they had been on the phone with me talking this whole time. That’s lovely and solid, but there’s something else.
I just wouldn’t. I fought tooth and nail to keep Flicka alive; I loved him so fiercely that it hurt. Flicka was exceptional, and it’s not just the bias of someone who loved him. He simply was. He was a creature I know I was lucky to know and to love for even so short a time.   I cherished every second with Flicka. Even in his hospice weeks, we had beautiful moments. Yes, I manually fed him and kept him hydrated as he became too weak and confused to take care of himself, cleaned him when he didn’t realize he’d lost control of his bowels or bladder, watched him stumble uncertainly where he had once prowled. Other times, though, it was sweet. I hogged a dryer in my building to keep him wrapped in his favorite blanket, all freshly heated just how he loved it, and sometimes he’d snuggle into it as I put the soft, warm fleece around him. He purred, once.

I spoiled him rotten. I got him the smelliest wet cat food I could find, the kind that’s probably not very good for them, but as I reasoned — he was already dying, so what exactly was it going to do — kill him? That was already taken. So I heated up smelly gravy food and let him eat “junk food” when I could tempt him; I left little paper cups and real plastic cups of water, with fish oil in it to make it extra tempting, in front of him — as drinking out of my cups was forbidden and therefore a favorite activity, and I wanted to tempt him. I would carry him in my arms onto the window perch he loved, and he would blink slowly and watch the birds and the leaves and the people below as I watched him and saw the flutters of his breathing and the tremors of his heartbeats, a heart so big that the flutters it caused were sometimes visible. Other times, when he was accepting visitors, I would sit near him and talk for hours. It’s how we met, me sitting and chatting softly until he slowly came to trust me back in the shelter; it was an oddly sweet way to come full circle. He would sometimes seem to jerk back into awareness, and he’d look at me, reach his head out, or climb onto my lap, or squirm towards me so I scooped him into my arms. He liked it there, a privilege few if any others I knew had, and I held him as long as I could those last times.  I remember the day I said goodbye. I had finally realized and admitted what everyone (myself included) had already known — that he was dying, this time — and was trying to deal with the flood of painful emotion. I held him that day, sitting on the floor, for a long time. He was so soft and floppy in my arms; his breath was so warm against my face, as always. I told him, trying to keep the tears out of my voice, the story of how we met and how I fell in love with him. I told him how I felt that first time he reached his head out of his hidey-hole and gently nudged my hand for a head rub; how it felt like being granted a gift when he trusted me. I told him about how much I loved him and how much he had changed me.

And then, I lied to Flicka, and I told him it was okay. I told him Tikvah and I were going to be okay, that he could stop taking care of us. I told him that it was okay for him to let go.

I said goodbye.

I know he didn’t understand what I said, but he and I had a strong bond, and he knew when I was talking to him, and when I was emotional, and he did something special. He reached his head and put his nose so close to mine that we were a speck of air away from touching, and had his eyes at a lazily half-closed and then fuffed, as I thought of it, a distinct push of breath as he stayed there, face to face with me. It was something he’d started to do after a few months of bonding every night right before snuggling himself into my arms to sleep. I had come to think of it as his way of saying, I love you.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I loved Flicka and I was his best friend, his advocate, his caretaker, his responsibility (I’m sure he thought so), his playmate, and when it came down to it, his mom. Losing him is not nearly all but certainly a piece of my PTSD and it is a strong, graphic one that my exhausted mind morphed into a hellish nightmare. Even knowing Flicka had no chance I felt like I had failed him sometimes, in the weeks following his death.  I shouldn’t have; I’d managed to catch a potentially fatal blood clot in time for the vet to do something, months before; I’d kept him in a quiet, calm, happy, active environment, advocated fiercely for his needs, given him his medication religiously, and for perhaps the first time in my life been confident that I had done everything right by Flicka. I don’t feel like that often; I’m prone to self-doubt, as we all are. I know I did it right with Flicka.  I think that’s why this nightmare hurts so much. Not only does it warp an already painful memory into a hellish horror, and in the worst moments on the phone having woken up in this hale, make me wonder that I may be a monster and beg my father to take away my cat and dog for fear that the nightmare is real, because the idea of hurting them is so horrific that I would rather anything, even losing them to another home…and we go through the logic, disproving the nightmare, so that I can hug my beautiful Stormlight as I cry and promise over and over that I love her and that I won’t let anything happen to her. She always is there. She’s strong and brave and loyal and so stable. I think she and Flicka would have liked one another; she certainly would have liked him, as an equal-opportunity sort of friendly presence that she is.

 

What triggered it this time? Well, for once, it’s pretty simple. Storm, it turns out, had what was probably just a quick bug, a virus, and it came on a hot day, with a dog on a medicine that makes her pant extra, with a dog who has a well-insulated coat that reminds me she’s part Siberian Husky…well, she ended up having labored, fast breathing, enough so that the vet was concerned, and took x-rays.  Sitting in the same rooms waiting for Storm — having to remind myself it wasn’t waiting for Flicka and an echocardiogram, it was waiting for my generally healthy, strong dog to come back from an x-ray — well, it brought a flood of memories. It didn’t help that the end with Flicka had been signaled by severe respiratory distress, or that the last dog I lost — a family pet named Lady, neadly a decade ago — had died from Cushings, with symptoms devastatingly similar to Storm’s in that moment and yet completely different in context.  Logically I understood that this was completely different from Flicka or Lady.  The thing about being sick? You can’t always reason with illness. PTSD looked at my logic and countered with The Nightmare, one that hadn’t happened for some time.

I’m not a ‘special snowflake’, a ‘delicate flower’. I’m not weak. I’m someone who got hurt enough times that it started leaving a mark.

I’m finishing this post just as we finish out May; it’s almost midnight, so close that I suspect by the time I finish a quick spell-check we will be starting June.

Another version of our poem popped into my head as I finished up, and I think it’ a good way to end what has been a difficult post of all of us.

Wish in May, wish all I might,
Learn to live without the fright

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