The fluorescent lights above blinded her as she squinted upward at a small orange dot on the dropped ceiling panels. She felt as if she were floating. Nothing in the world existed except her and that strange orange dot. She lay on her back wondering about that dot, examining it’s muddy coloration, imagining how it could have come to be. She pictured someone tripping, sending orange juice spewing all over the small cubby of a room and no one thought to check the ceiling when they cleaned.
But the dot was not the pale yellowy orange of juice, no, no, it was closer to what they often lied to you in the television commercials that orange juice should look like. A washed out orange, reddish or coppery color. Coppery. The second she thought the word the taste hit her mouth and the spot before her morphed in her mind’s eye to a reddish black stain. The stain of blood soaked into fibre, long forgotten and caked into it’s own macabre version of paint. She could almost smell it, that coppery fresh scent, like iron rails and cinder, bitter yet sweet on her tongue….coppery, like sucking a penny.
The strange war began again in the recesses of her brain, one side screaming for freedom, the other working to staunch the flow of neuronal energy toward memories that would only cause disruption. It was like an unwitnessed bleed that is stopped up before it could really get going. Another part of her brain took over, the Mother Hen, as she called it, shouting out directions and taking control, “Nope, think of something else! We’re not using this pathway today. We’re not going down that road. Think of puppies. Think of bunny rabbits. Think of something happy. You can do this, just get it together and think of something else.”
Her mind came back to the spot. “There you go. There’s your spot. Focus on it, orange, nothing else, just orange, like the sun.” Like the sun! Yeah, that was it. but more like a sunset. That mellowed out orange, not the striking white of a noon day sun, more the warm, paler hue of a setting sun. She stared at the spot more intently. There was a buzzing sound in her head. She ignored it and brought her full attention back to the spot. It wasn’t a round spot, it was more an ellipse of sorts, elongated on one side, but almost perfectly curved resembling one side of a circle on the other. The color was more intensely orange toward the circular side and less so as it traveled outward into the elliptical shape until it just melded into the bumpy fibres of the ceiling tiles. What could it be?
She squinted harder at it, as if willing it to reveal it’s origin story to her. Now there was an overpowering sound that interrupted her concentration. It was a reverberation through her skull, rhythmic, Vmmm-vmmm-vmmm, Vmmm-vmmm-vmmm. She didn’t recognize the sound but for some strange reason it reminded her of the sound of tires slowly pushing gravel across pavement in a turn. Her mind’s eye showed grey cracked and weathered asphalt. Tires, black, smelling simultaneously of both tar and burning rubber. Small rivulets of water streaming along a curb, snaking their way around stones and specked gravel. A traffic light, yellow against the dim rainy sky.
Her heart began to pound all of it’s own accord. She felt completely the watcher in this with no control whatsoever. Her lungs ceased taking in air. The muscles of her chest froze and some innate signal from some ancient part of her brain told all of the muscles in her body to tighten and freeze.
Looking down at her, you would see her staring at the ceiling. You would never see that her eyes were no longer staring at her curious orange spot, but were frozen in place, seeing something beyond our perception. You would smile down at her. A part of her brain may even register your smile but the rest of it was somewhere else, somewhere far, far away in both space and time.
The traffic light. It’s not right here. It’s just over at the intersection off to the left. It’s swinging slightly in the wind. Vrrrch-vrrch-vrrrrch. The tires scrape the gravel on the unyielding pavement below as hands turn the wheel guiding the vehicle into a turn onto the awaiting street. The siren begins to wail drowning out all other sounds, deafening through the open window.
Heh-heh-heh-heh. She can’t catch her breath. Her lungs are begging for air. Her chest vibrates shallowly, inadequately trying to ventilate the lungs. Her feet start to twitch in her shoes, faster and faster, as if trying to run without purchase. There are tears trailing down her cheeks.
Inside her head, the Mother Hen tries desperately to contain the damage but her directions are imperceptible from the small confined corner of the brain she’s suddenly found herself relegated too. The floodgates have opened. Panic sensors have triggered. There is nothing to do now but watch and wait until the tides ebb and proper flow can be restored. Mother Hen, wrings her hands in helpless desperation waiting to clean up the damage once the tidal wave has rushed past.
Her hands are clutching at her pants, as if trying to tear holes in them. She has to move. She has to move, she can’t lay here anymore, it’s not safe. It’s not safe. Her brain screams in unison, “It’s Not Safe!” She struggles to sit.
There’s a hand on her shoulder. A voice from somewhere above. Another from the right. A man, “Are you okay?” A softer female voice, “Uh-uh, don’t move, don’t move, just give me a second, I can help you sit up. Don’t close your mouth.”
Her eyes blink rapidly. She struggles to see the room. It’s all a bright light, a whitish, orange blinding light. She blinks again and again. The tears dribble over her chin. She can feel herself being sat up, immediately her feet seek the safety of the floor. A stronger hand now. A man’s voice. “Oh, wait, wait, don’t get up, just sit still for a few minutes, collect yourself. You’ll be okay. Don’t bite down, okay?”
A hand begins to rub her shoulder and her upper back. It’s soft and gentle and the accompanying voice says, “We can take a break. It’s okay. You can take a few minutes to catch your breath. You’re doing fine. You’re doing just fine.”
She looks confused at the scene around her. A middle eastern gentleman in a white lab coat stares with concern in his eyes. A tray of dental tools sits at the ready. On her left the hygienist offers reassurance, smiling gently but unable to disguise the concern in her eyes. It’s just the dentist’s office. It’s just a filling being replaced. There is no gravel. No rain spattered pavement. No traffic lights and no sirens. It is just the dentists office.
She turns her face toward the ceiling. There is an odd orange spot between the flourescents on the fibre of the dropped ceiling. She sinks back down into the chair, air rushing into her lungs and relaxing her muscles. Somewhere in her mind, the Mother Hen steps forward again, commanding the scene and doing damage control.
Emergency services personnel are at a greater risk for the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The nature of what can trigger a flashback or panic attack varies greatly and thus seemingly innocuous everyday events can result in the person experiencing extreme distress and emotional upheaval. Remember, we cannot always see what is going on underneath the surface, so if an “eruption” of symptoms occurs in a person who has disclosed to you their PTSD status, do not overreact. Reassure the person that they are safe, they are not alone and that the symptoms will resolve. Only we can help remove the stigma from this injury attained in the most selfless of professions. At the very least, these people deserve that much.
As always, I welcome constructive critique and pointers to help hone my craft. Please feel free to leave a comment.