PTSD and The Hulk In The Basement
Sometimes you have no choice but to look him in the eye
(TRIGGER WARNING — Discussions of PTSD)
To put this into context, I’m a person with suspected Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) who is impatiently waiting for treatment, and with a “thing” for Marvel movies. When it was suggested that PTSD might be the cause of my issues, that started me off investigating my experiences in a lot more depth (once the meds kicked in and I wasn’t an anxious slug in a dressing gown anymore.)
As tends to be the way of the world, the more I read about the effects of PTSD as a condition, the more I engage in a bit of armchair psychoanalysis, also spotting elements of it in other people and the stories that I enjoy.
Marvel is a real treasure trove for opportunities to do this, as what could be more traumatic than half of the universe arbitrarily being snapped out of existence by a big purple megalomaniac like Thanos, or being caught in an accidental gamma radiation blast, and becoming a giant green rage monster like the Hulk? It is traumatized character central.
The “Hulk in the basement” metaphor, (I may have come up with this myself, but I doubt it) helped me understand how I made the journey from “I’m fine! Mostly!” to “Oh my god, I’m a car crash!”. It’s an honest statement to say that I thought that I “only” had anxiety, but the general awfulness of 2020, combined with several years prior that had sucked like a brand new vacuum cleaner, proved to be the straw that broke this camel’s back.
After all, we started with Australia being on fire, then it all got exponentially worse. Like a lot of others, the pandemic and several other personal factors sent my already higher-than-average baseline anxiety into overdrive, and feelings, rashes, submerged fear-filled memories, and nightmares began to emerge.
It affected my work (a profession that’s built on good executive function) to the extent that I was no longer “driving the bus” and it was a truly awful day when I became aware that what I *was* doing, and what I thought was doing and intended to do, were miles apart — thanks to dissociation. It also came with a substantial side order of emotional flashbacks, actual fully-fledged flashbacks, sleep disturbances, pain, eczema — the whole shebang. I had to take sick leave.
As I love writing and as it’s my favorite tool for working things through, I felt compelled to create a narrative to make sense of the problems that arose for me, which is the Hulk ends up in the basement.
I’m using “you” rather than “I” because I’m attempting to walk through the stages I went through with a degree of detachment.
So, as a brief guide… The House is my mind being slowly (and badly) reshaped by trauma.
The Hulk and associated baggage is my trauma affecting the mental and physical fabric of my being.
Every time I move up a floor, that’s a deepening of dissociation.
Stage 1 — “I’m fine! Mostly!”
Imagine you move into a new house and the house has a basement, a ground floor, a first floor, and an attic. The problem is, that when you move into the house, you bring with you a lot of gnarly baggage in the shape of a big green angry dude and a mysterious trunk that glows and emits gamma radiation. Simply put, this is the fear, horror, and trauma of whatever happened to you and you’ve been quite good (as in “close, but no cigar”) at apparently putting it behind you. As far as anyone else can see.
Because you don’t know what to do with it and want to escape it, you decide that the best thing to do is brick up the Hulk in the cellar with the source of gamma radiation, and work very hard to forget their existence. Sometimes he’s mild-mannered Dr. Bruce Banner and all is quiet. You think you’ve succeeded. You haven’t.
Time passes and the Hulk in your basement is getting bigger and angrier. The gamma radiation is making him stronger. He’s growling, thumping, and throwing things around. Because he’s making so much noise, you can’t really ignore him, but you move onto the first floor anyway to get away from it as it makes you uncomfortable.
You don’t want to think about it and moving upstairs works to make you feel better, but it does make you a little detached from goings-on the ground floor. You talk about the noises from below in an abstract way, even turning them into funny, if somewhat discomforting stories, and tell yourself that you have it all under control.
Stage 2 — “Things that make you go….hmmm…”
You feel a little poorly, but moving from the ground floor provides some temporary relief. You leave a radio on downstairs to drown out the noise and you quickly become accustomed to the omnipresent low background hum — symbolically, the radio is whatever you do to distract yourself from the main problem, be it drink, drugs, workaholism or running, for example. You are still conscious of the thuds and roars, and they are starting to wear on your nerves. You don’t tell anyone that they are getting on your nerves and tell yourself that you’ll get used to it. Things become untidier and you take more shortcuts with your diet.
More time passes. The trunk emitting gamma radiation is making you more ill, but because it’s been gradual, you feel lousy and you don’t know why and either wilfully or unconsciously refuse to make the connection. However, you soldier on, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Right?
Meanwhile, due to the thumping below, you consider moving into the attic. You’re not sleeping properly, so you visit the doctors to get something to help with that. The effects of the medication add an extra layer of unreality to the situation, as you don’t get the right medication if you don’t tell the doctor the root cause of your problems. Your experiences are still bricked up in the basement, and when you ever think about it or recall any feelings regarding this, you shove them into another cupboard in your head and swiftly close the door. You turn up the radio.
The medication makes it easier for you to do this in the short term. You are untroubled by pesky “feelings” for a while. However, suppressing everything is exhausting. Because you don’t live down on the ground floor anymore, you refuse to acknowledge the cracks in the basement wall where Hulk is starting to break his way through. You’ll remember, but it’s the feeling that’s left behind and not the knowledge itself that scares you.
Stage 3 — “Oh my god, I’m a car crash!”
You feel “craptacular”, to quote Bart Simpson. The gamma radiation that’s making the Hulk stronger is progressively making you sicker. You are now living in the attic amongst the spiders and junk. Your personal care is sketchy, be it a ramping up of bad habits or being unable to feed yourself anything more demanding than a sandwich. You are feverishly telling people you are fine, through gritted teeth.
Muscular-Skeletal pain abounds. For some reason, you wake up tired every morning with sore teeth. You aren’t so much suffering from headaches as being a walking list of types of headaches that change on an infinite loop. You cannot get enough sleep, which is hardly surprising as every time you’ve moved up a floor you’ve left a lot of the pleasant things behind as your mind is too crowded to focus on anything.
In addition to this, you are now dealing with the sound of a wall being steadily breached on the ground floor which releases all too familiar feelings of helplessness and fear. You are too scared to come up with an escape route as fear has stymied your problem-solving abilities, which has the unanticipated effect of increasing your feelings of hopelessness, until one day (or over a period of days)…
He’s broken through, dragging all of the baggage with him.
And knackered your kitchen as there is now a giant-angry-green-dude sized hole in your wall.
The basement also has been “extensively remodeled” if you’d handed the work over to a gigantic possessed toddler, hell-bent on destruction.
This is obviously terrible for you because you have been a) denying that the Hulk and all his associated baggage were there in the first place, something you now *have* to accept because there he is, in the wreckage of your kitchen, in all his furious glory, and b) now the Hulk is out of the basement, not only are you dealing with that fear, but you’re also dealing with the fact that everything is apparently broken, and you’ve been brought to a point in awareness, where you either keep running or try and fix it.
I suppose that now I’m kind-of-grateful that he bust his way out. But I’d be lying if I said the process didn’t hurt. Developing a narrative about how I fooled myself into thinking I was ok, when it really blatantly wasn’t, was a way of engaging with that underlying element of shame that comes with reaching breaking point. Plus I’m British, so understatement is something we’re good at.
At least now, most of the time anyway, I feel like I’m getting better at mitigating the impact of the waves when they hit. I did read “Radical Compassion” by Tara Brach and the RAIN technique helped a lot. When you recognize what is happening to you, it’s a lot easier to put it into a perspective and find a way to deal with it if you aren’t solely reacting to stimuli.
Whether it’s those swooping terrible lows where suddenly everything feels hopeless (sleep, weighted blanket, soppy or funny movies, switch off social media and the news), or a flashback or burst of anxiety (the same as above but without the sleep), there’s a way to ride the storm and feel whole again for a while.
No-one needs to keep riding hard over stony ground.