Whats it like to live with PTSD?
I was standing about 40 ft away from the man when the mortar bomb hit him.
They don’t travel that fast, and I’d swear to this day I could see it coming, a little dart zipping down, hitting right at his feet. At least, that’s what happens in the dreams. The bomb was small – probably a 60mm round with no more than 2lbs of explosive in it.
I know that because I’m not dead.
That small bomb was still enough to make that man just instantaneously cease to exist as anything recognisably human. The effect was not unlike a jar of strawberry jam being struck with a sledgehammer.
I was knocked to the ground. I scrambled into the slit trench nearby and hid, terrified. As the shelling died down, I felt I had something sticky on my face. I reached up and slowly peeled a rasher of bloody human skin off my cheek. This is hard to write. I’m shaking and breathing quickly from the memory. Thinking about it is like picking at a scab.
I didn’t break down instantly. It was at least a month before I had the first dream where I woke up, safe in my bed, but sheeted in sweat, scared to go back to sleep. After a few months, I was a mess. I was incredibly irritable, and would fly off the handle at the slightest thing. I stopped enjoying reading or watching films, spent whole days doing nothing. Just eating and sleeping. Staying alive.
I loved the oblivion of sleep when I didn’t dream. I didn’t want to talk about it. I knew something was very wrong, but I kept putting off doing something about it. I didn’t want to admit to myself I’d gone mad. I was incredibly embarrassed about the fact I’d often wake up my housemates, screaming. I’m pretty loud.
It was the embarrassment that made me realise I’d become very strange. I reluctantly went to the doctor, and started getting treated. It’s a long process, and I’m much better now, but I’m basically never going to be cured, never going to get a piece of paper saying “Congratulations, you are sane again”. You learn to live with it.
I can’t bear to be touched unexpectedly. This goes from being mildly unpleasant when it’s a pat on the back through clothes, all the way to chills, sweats and burning tension if someone with wet hands touches my bare skin. It makes nightclubs an all but no-go area. Wherever I work, there’s always one touchy-feely person. It’s telly, there’s always a woman who likes to hug you if you don’t get a commission or a man who likes jolly backslaps when things go well. Fairly swiftly I have to have the conversation where I say “Please don’t touch me, I have PTSD.” Cue the odd looks from then on.
When I sleep with someone for the first time, I have to have the conversation where I warn them that if I go to sleep, I might start screaming – literally screaming – about mortars, stumbling out of bed and taking cover behind something in the room. I used to wait until I knew someone quite well before I’d lay that on them, but I had one experience where I didn’t tell the girl, I had one of those dreams, and she was absolutely terrified of me.
The noise of diesel engines turning over upsets me immensely – I took cover from rockets under a tank once. The DUNK-DUNK-DUNK of a diesel just brings bad things back. Buses are a no-go. Oh, and fireworks. I hate fireworks now. If I can see them, it’s OK, but it’s unexpected bangs that really upset me. The week of bonfire night and the week around to New Year I usually spend indoors, with good headphones in.
Those are my most common triggers, but almost anything can set you off. Indeed, after reading this brilliant article about PTSD, I was an emotional mess, and had to take a day off work. Which is pretty ironic as it’s an article that says trigger warnings are bullshit. You live in a world where suddenly you can be pushed into re-experiencing something awful at a moment’s notice.
When I have flashbacks, it’s never a Hollywood hallucination of the sounds of the day, or the sights. I relive what happened emotionally and physically, in moments. The terror, the horror, the emptiness, the dry throat, the tense muscles, all dumped on you in five seconds. A day ruined because some goon lets off a firework.
That said, it’s the dreams that are the most pervasive legacy. A doctor told me to think of them as dreams, not nightmares. I can avoid and mitigate triggers; not the same with dreams. I now probably have them about once every couple of months, but it always ruins the following day. I thrash around in my sleep, live out those moments, over and over. I’ve hurt myself; clawed a couple of nails off on my wall thinking I was buried once.
Of course, I’m much better now than I was. I go to support groups, and often I’m the one leading the discussion. People like that I make jokes in the awkward moments where we break and have tea and biscuits, in between sharing horrors.
PTSD is much more common than you think – the incident I experienced happened when I was on a journalistic assignment, covering a war. And although veterans – represented by brilliant charities like Combat Stress and Help for Heroes – are the most visible face of it, they represent a small minority of sufferers. There’s no shortage of medical care, but support groups are few and far between.
The mix of people in support groups is odd. I’m not sure my experience is representative, but as I say, mine have been split largely between male combat veterans and female rape survivors. While only around 3% of the population are thought to have PTSD, as many as 50% of rape survivors develop it. Rape is by far and away the most common reason for a woman to be there. Everyone bonds over tea; we all share experiences of how we’ve learned to cope, and stories of times when we didn’t.
So that’s what it’s like. Personally, I always come back to a bitter, sarcastic part of a Sassoon poem, called “Does it matter”, which sums up in 30 words what I’ve done in a thousand.
Do they matter? — those dreams from the pit?
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won’t say that you’re mad;
And no one will worry a bit.
– Willard Foxton
What is it like to serve a life sentence in prison?
Serving a life sentence in prison feels like a long and arduous journey towards a freedom that is not guaranteed to be there once you arrive.
In 2001, I went to my sentencing hearing and received a 16 year to life sentence for the crime of second degree murder. This was an extremely harsh reality for someone who had never been to prison before. I had almost no idea of what to expect and would be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little bit nervous. I remember several of the men in the county jail warning me not to take a deal with ‘Life’ on the end of it, because whether it was 7 to Life, 15 to Life, or 25 to Life, the governor was not letting lifers go and ‘Life’ would mean my whole life. In the end, I chose to go against their advice and accepted the district attorney’s plea bargain offer for 16 to Life. This was an excruciating decision, but it came down to the fact that no matter how badly I wanted to avoid prison, I was guilty and knew it. If I had taken it to trial and lost, I might have wound up with 25 to Life or even worse, Life Without the Possibility of Parole. There is no coming back from that one.
My 16 year to life sentence means that I must serve 16 years first, and then I will start going in front of the Board of Prison Terms to try to exhibit my suitability for parole. The board looks at things like psychiatric evaluations, disciplinary records, supervisor reports, vocational training, education certificates, self-help participation,parole plans,and letters of support. They will also ask questions to determine if I have gained insight into the causative factors that led to my crime, what I’ve done to address those issues, and my plans for making sure it never happens again. I learned very early on what an uphill climb lay in front of me from the other lifers who had already received several denials from the board. For the most part, the guys in the county had been right. Only a handful of lifers were being found suitable for release, and even some of them had their dates taken back by a reversal of decision from the governor. There was almost no light at the end of the tunnel, but I made the decision to put my fate in God’s hands and committed myself to doing everything in my power to prepare myself for a hearing that was still 16 years down the road.
For a lifer who is trying to earn his freedom, and not all are, because many are still caught up in their addictions and criminal thinking, the margin for error is razor thin. Any rules violations from a fistfight to a dirty urinalysis test could be grounds for a parole board denial and add several years to your sentence. I’ve even seen guys get written up for things like smoking or other minor things. These infractions are documented in a lifer’s C-file and usually result in them receiving a denial. Currently, the board is looking for a 5 to 10 year span of disciplinary free behavior before finding a lifer suitable for parole. It’s definitely something to think about the next time your craving that cigarette.
When I first came into the system, the parole board was issuing 1 to 5 year denials. If you were close to being found suitable, maybe you’d receive a 1-year denial, which meant you’d go back to the board and try again in a year. If you were still screwing up, see you in 5 years or somewhere in between. Then in 2008, California passed Marsy’s Law, which extended denials to 3, 5, 7, 10, and 15 years… crazy. A 1 year became a 3 year…a 2 became a 5, and so on. Imagine serving a 15 to Life sentence and then going to the board and receiving a 15-year denial that’s equal to your time in. The constitutionality of this law is being challenged in the courts,because it essentially lengthens prison sentences ex post facto. I certainly don’t understand it, but nevertheless, it has become just another hurdle a lifer must overcome.
I think the hardest part about serving a life sentence is not being able to tell your loved ones when you’re coming home. Going in front of the parole board is a highly subjective process and as yet, there is no magic formula for being found suitable. I’ve seen lifers seemingly do everything right and still be denied for things like the nature of their crime. This has also been ruled unconstitutional, because the commitment ofthe crime is the one thing that a lifer doesn’t have the power to change. Technically, the parole board is supposed to base a lifer’s suitability on his time in and his current threat to society. I know lifers with more than 30 years in on their sentences and I often wonder why they’re still here.
I was seven years into my own life sentence, before I saw my first lifer go home. His name was Irish and it happened right here at San Quentin. Honestly, it was like witnessing a miracle, because it made me believe that maybe all my hard work could result in me getting out one day. Since that time, I’ve seen a multitude of lifers who have served their time and done the work go home. I’m still surrounded by darkness, but now I know that if I remain vigilant, there is the light of freedom waiting for me at the end of the the journey.
– Christopher Schuhmacher,
What does it feel like to go from physically unattractive to attractive?
It feels good most of the time, but it can be quite frustrating. Many people assume I’ve always looked the way I do now, and that as a result I must be a snob, or have some sort of sense of entitlement.
My case is extreme in the sense that I went from literally being invisible to men for the majority of my life, to receiving comments daily from men all over the world telling me I’m beautiful. As an adult film performer I am somewhat in the public eye, so I get a lot of attention for and comments about my appearance.
Freshman in high school
^ Sophomore in high school. Theater geek.
I’ve always been friendly and outgoing and I had great friends growing up. I was a tomboy and never looked very feminine. I was always “the weird one” in my group of friends. I was fortunate to not be so far from the mark in attractiveness that I was bullied for the way I looked. Instead, I was simply completely ignored.
I was fortunate to have friends in high school (mostly from theater) who knew me for the person I was, so I wasn’t tortured over it. But I wasn’t happy either. Nobody was yelling in my face, “You’re ugly!” But I felt unattractive and invisible. Nobody ever asked me on a date. Boys I liked wouldn’t even look twice at me. Nobody told me I was cute. Nobody even told me I had potential to be cute. The psychological effect this had on me was pretty much the equivalent of being told I was unattractive. I was sure everyone was thinking it, but instead of saying it out loud, they just ignored me.
I thought I looked okay. Not terrible, but not good. In other words, I didn’t look in the mirror and hate the way I looked. I was just clueless! I literally had no idea how my appearance could translate to other people. I had no concept of caring for and cultivating my appearance and how that might affect the way others perceived me and the opportunities available to me. I thought, naively, that everyone would always notice my personality first.
After high school I had my first serious dating relationship. With a woman. I’d always had crushes on girls, but never did anything about it. Dating a girl for the first time made me realize I was a lesbian, and shortly after I came out to my family and friends. And… I began to look more like a “stereotypical” lesbian. A borderline androgynous/butch look. This was also when I realized for the first time that I wanted to be in adult films. (At the time my ambition was to do lesbian films specifically. Obviously that changed eventually. We’ll get there.)
This look was fine for me. I attracted a number of women with this look. However, after a few years I began to realize that I was still attracted to men, and I did not know what to do about that. I realized that I had adopted the more androgynous look not because I liked it or felt that it suited me well, but because I had no idea how to be confident in my appearance, so it was easier to act like I didn’t care about the way I looked. I still had very little confidence in my appearance. I didn’t think I deserved to be confident.
For me, my outward appearance has been a gauge of my overall comfort in my own skin. When I felt least confident in myself was when I also looked the least conventionally “attractive.” I’m much more confident now, but that’s not a result of my appearance. My appearance is the result of building my own confidence slowly. I’ve made changes to my appearance in small steps over the course of several years, but I decided to make each change because I felt confident enough to “pull it off,” so to speak. In other words, I didn’t go through some 10-hour miracle makeover and look completely different. In fact, I don’t really look that different from my high school self, I’ve just found a more accurate way to express myself.
After an incredible amount of self-discovery and embracing my sexual flexibility, I am now happily married to a man whom I met and fell in love with before I was “a swan,” (who in many instances saw beauty in me before I could see it myself), still identify as bisexual, and I have built a successful career as a popular adult film performer, despite not fitting the adult industry’s mold of what a typical porn star should look like.
This is me now:
Out of necessity, because I often do my own makeup for photo shoots, I’ve also learned how to do makeup really well. I’m totally comfortable wearing little to no makeup, as in the photo above, but I especially enjoy enhancing my features and playing with different looks, as in the photos below.
I’m constantly fed jokes about how I must have gotten tons of attention in high school for my large chest. Most people assume I’ve always been conventionally attractive, that I’ve coasted through life on a steady train of ego inflation. I feel like telling them about how I had absolutely no confidence when I was younger. I feel like telling them about how confused and hurt I was all through my adolescence, because my unpolished shell obscured what I thought must be a reasonably tasty nut hiding inside. (For the record, if I were an actual nut, I’d be an almond.)
I’m happier now than I ever was before. But not because others look at me now and see a swan — and surely, I’m not everyone’s type! Nobody can be a swan to everyone, and why would you want to be? — But because I know what kind of person I am inside, and I feel like my outward expression of myself, physically and otherwise, finally mirrors what’s inside of me.