Hi. I'm Joe. I am the founder and director of Other Lives. I write, I think about public health, and I do things. Thank you for visiting. I'm really glad you're here.
If you haven't read our mission and vision yet, I encourage you to go here to read what we're about.
I have Master's degrees in public health and environmental health. I also have Complex PTSD, and I spend some time navigating that. Over the past few years, I inadvertently became an expert in trauma while I was engaged with my own recovery.
The story below was written in the fall of 2016. Right now, in the spring of 2018, I am hiking the Eastern Continental Trail as a personal healing journey and experimental advocacy campaign. What follows is a hopefully-coherent narrative about things I have done and things that have happened to me up to that point, but it is not my whole story. I know it may seem obvious, but it bears repeating because I often forget it and it seems other survivors often do too: We are not our trauma.
At some point I will update it when I have fresh perspective, but for now I am just walking and writing every day. I hope you still find some value in it.
Ultimately, I have three goals for Other Lives: 1) to create a community for survivors and loved ones so that we will not feel so isolated, 2) to collect and share the resources that some of us so desperately need, and 3) to share the incredible stories of survival and coping that I have heard since I started talking about mine.
"Hope" seems like such a corny term to me sometimes, but I wouldn't have survived without it. Too many of us are encouraged to move on before we've even acknowledged what happened. Too many of us are pushed toward healing without being given the space to grieve. We need to face what happened to us on our own terms, and we need supporters who won't respond with denial or platitudes. Other Lives is for survivors and our witnesses. and it is my great hope that together we can do something special.
I hope sharing my story helps you in some way.
Figuring it out
Looking back, I can see that I've had C-PTSD since I was a kid.
I grew up half in a large southern city and half in a tiny little town about 30 minutes south, bouncing back and forth between my mom and step-father's stability and my dad's brand of chaos.
On the week days, it was school and routine. On the weekends, it was basically summer camp with Pop, which was an unpredictable mix of fun, boredom, and terror, depending on how he was doing at the time.
I have often said that if my childhood had been "worse," I would have recognized this sooner. I was never beaten, I was never sexually abused, we were never homeless, and I never saw anyone die in front of me until I saw my Pop die in a hospital bed in 2011.
But I also suppressed from memory a lot of horrible stuff that I did experience, and I've seen how we tend to minimize even the things that we do remember.
After all, trauma is something that happens to other people, right?
Again, it wasn't all bad, but it took me decades to acknowledge what had happened in any meaningful way. I coped. I shoved it down, but it would come back up when I was drunk or high or when I got dumped or lost a friend or failed at something. I became a perfectionist who self-sabotaged. I grew up and went to a college where I hoped I'd find answers and then I moved about as far away as you can go on the east coast. I became a functional-enough adult who struck some people as wonderful and others as a little bit off. And I just never felt right. I was tired and I secretly wanted to die and the fatigue was killing me.
I discovered in 2010, at the age of 30, that I had severe sleep apnea and that I was having a breathing disturbance 45 times per hour throughout the entire night. I was slim and healthy and in great physical condition otherwise and the horrified doctors said that I "didn't fit the profile." (Much like with other things, “the profile” is wrong.) Feeling fortunate that I finally caught it, I got surgery that effectively eliminated the sleep apnea and changed my life, but the fatigue, while greatly lessened, didn't go away. It wasn't until much, much later, sometime in late 2015, that I realized what Complex PTSD is, what a chronic low-level flashback is, and how exhausting they are and how they can last for weeks at a time. It wasn't until then, at the age of 35, as I was spiraling toward the hospital for the second time, that I finally had a fully workable explanation for why I was still so tired.
But that last part was all later. It took me a year and a half of work to get there, and much of that progress still feels like luck.
The real beginning of what you're seeing here happened the first time I voluntarily admitted to a psych hospital, on March 3rd, 2014. I hadn't been doing well that winter, and a loved one's comment about how I'd dissociated from some hurtful things I'd said kicked off an existential crisis and a two-week long de-evolution into the worst bout of self-injury and suicidal ideation that I'd ever experienced. Deeply flashbacked, on the night of the 2nd I began violently slamming my head against the floor in front of my then-wife, Maggie. She froze, then pounced on my back and got me to stop, and we both suddenly knew how serious it was. The next morning, I asked Maggie if she'd come to my therapy session with me that day, and my therapist began making calls. That night, I went to McLean's Short Term Unit.
The morning after was I admitted, I came to in a medicated fog, having slept in my clothes six feet from a stranger, and having been woken up by a nurse requesting that I meet with my treatment team. Twenty minutes later, I had my diagnosis. Despite the fact that I'd done years of therapy with four different clinicians by that point, this was the first time anyone had straight up told me that I had PTSD.
While in inpatient, I requested medical records from the previous place I'd received therapy and in the notes I saw that I had been diagnosed by a psychiatrist four and a half years earlier. I'm pretty sure my cussing scared one of the staff.
McLean didn't have psychotherapy in inpatient and the two-week partial hospitalization program I did there afterward was about damn useless for me. The most disappointing part was that they clearly did not believe in anything that even looked like cure. It was all about symptom management. I remember walking in to see the psychotherapist I'd been assigned to in the partial program. It was our first or second meeting, and I had Judith Herman's Trauma and Recovery in my arms along with my notebook. He saw the title and asked me if the book was "triggering." I said, "yes, of course it is..." His face didn't move, so I continued, "...but when else am I supposed to be reading it?" His suggestion was that I wait four to six months, at minimum. Confused, I asked what he was so afraid of. He said, "that you'll end up back here." I told him that I wasn't afraid of coming back here; I was afraid of living the rest of my life like I had before and the clock was running on my short term disability. I couldn't believe that nobody in this place got that. I left the partial program depleted and angry, and without any referrals to other resources except a McLean men's PTSD group that stopped running a couple of months later.
I still choke up sometimes when I remember how fragile I was.
For a few weeks after I got out of McLean, I would forget to eat, so Maggie fed me. I started sleeping on the inside of the bed, furthest from the door, contrary to the "protector" role I'd always taken in relationships. I became the little spoon. I made calls. I wrote. I went to therapy. I lifted weights. I broke down sobbing multiple times a day. I spent a lot of time alone. I kept on.
I was on disability and I was still getting 2/3 of my pay. Maggie took over all of the bills and household stuff for a little while, I was on a med that allowed me to sleep for 11 hours a day if I needed to, and recovery was literally my only job. I busted my ass to take advantage of every opportunity I could. I pursued every possible lead that I came across, and I pushed hard. I also began to discover that, at least then, there was no specialized intensive care (outpatient or inpatient) available to me. I was willing to travel to a different state for a program if I needed to, but no one—not the clinicians at McLean, not my therapist, not even anyone at the Victims of Violence program in Cambridge—could point me in the right direction. These were trauma specialists and they were coming up with the same resources I was finding.
I remember thinking how fucked I was. I remember wondering how anyone was able to pull this off. I remember saying that "they" just want us to either suffer and die or to forever remain in their care.
Here are a few things about me: I am white, straight, cisgender, and male. I have Masters degrees in public health and environmental health from a well-regarded school. At the time, I was working a cushy professional job that offered short term disability coverage and a salary that put us solidly in the upper middle class. I was married to one of the most wonderful and supportive people I have ever met in my life, and she also had a job. Every day, I woke up housed, and in a clean and comfortable environment, with sane roommates. I had no addictions other than cigarettes. Most of my friends have degrees and are doing well for themselves. I had a gold star insurance plan that never said no. I was used to advocating for myself.
I list all of that out because I want to demonstrate how incredibly privileged I was, and how finding actual intensive therapy was still a stroke of luck.
As it turns out, one of my friends is a practicing psychologist who did an internship at the National Center for PTSD at the Boston VA, and was aware of a paid study happening there. The study was intended to test the "gold standard" PTSD treatment (Cognitive Processing Therapy, or CPT) against a slight novelization of the therapy that is considered next-best (Prolonged Exposure, or PE). Almost no one does these therapies in private practice because they really require 75 minute sessions and insurance companies won't pay for them. The study was open to non-veterans and it was less than a mile from my apartment. Pardon me while I cuss a lot: The fucking National Center for PTSD was less than a mile from my fucking apartment and I would have had no fucking idea about this study if I hadn't had a fucking friend with a Psy.D. and a trauma specialization.
I'll write more about my experience with CPT in the future. I'm confident in claiming that it saved my life.
COMING OUT, THEN
On July 4th, 2014, four months to the day after I got my diagnosis, I sat down drunk in front of my computer and came out on Facebook about having PTSD.
When I sat down to write, it wasn't my intention to come out, but as I went I realized what was happening and decided not to stop it. (That post is here.)
At the time, I'd just finished CPT and had been told I didn't have PTSD anymore, and—according to the diagnostic sheets I kept filling out—I didn't. Not right then. I still cringe a little at my naivete, but the VA therapist was insistent and I desperately wanted to believe that it was over.
By the time I was done writing, it was 3am. I was trembling and unsure of myself and Maggie was long asleep in our bed, so I called one of my best friends and asked him if he'd come over to read it first. He arrived and sat with me as I spoke it aloud while we smoked outside and, when I finished, he told me that it was perfect. He told me that it needed to happen.
The supportive comments on the thread and the messages I received nearly overwhelmed me with feelings of gratitude and relief. People I'd known for years came out to me privately about their own experiences and expressed their own feelings of gratitude and relief that I had written so honestly. After that, I knew that there was no going back into the closet, even though I was still trying to frame my experience as "past" in ways that became intolerable later.
MOVING FORWARD, THEN
I still didn't know much about Complex PTSD at that point, and, as that summer turned into fall, I tried to integrate back into a life that didn't make sense anymore. I went back to a job that hadn't been a great fit already and tried to make it work, but I just couldn't do it. Then, as the end there was becoming clearer and clearer, Maggie and I began the slow and almost inconceivable process of splitting up too. That December, I parted from my employer and Maggie and I had our last hurrah, driving down to Florida for Christmas to see my family and throwing our last party together at our place before she moved out.
I struggled through Boston's brutal 2015 winter without a partner and without a job to go to and found out that my plan to get into the Navy as an environmental health officer was definitively over because my PTSD was so well-documented at this point that I couldn't hide it. I remember seeing the 43-word letter my recruiter had forwarded me from the Department of the Navy that said "further processing of this applicant IS NOT warranted due to a history of PTSD, depression, suicidal ideation and inpatient psychiatric treatment," then going outside into the snow and lighting a cigarette. I remember feeling all of it well up: I'd spent two years at a "great" job that I'd never be going back to, my six year relationship with Maggie was changing to the point that our marriage was clearly over, things with another woman I'd begun seeing and had fallen in love with were rocky at best, and now my five-year-old plan to get stability and veteran status within the Navy needed to be buried on the spot. I felt the panic well up as I stared into the trash-strewn and snow-piled parking lot that was my back yard, and I embraced the insecurity. By the time I was done with my cigarette, I'd embraced the Navy's decision too.
Feeling awful, but at least freed up, I applied for and got one of my dream jobs. The seasons shifted twice more, and by the middle of the fall, I resigned from that dream job because they were discriminating against me based on their knowledge of my PTSD. To add insult to injury, they then fired me shortly after I submitted my resignation. At the same time, the other rocky relationship ended abruptly and awfully, Maggie had to take a step back from me as I began unraveling again, and I finally began letting go of the idea that I was "cured" and that my symptoms wouldn't come back.
Four days after I was fired, I attended Boston's Transgender Day of Remembrance vigil at St. Paul's Cathedral on the Common and endured the worst flashback of my life. As hundreds of people began reading the names of the murdered one by one, I began dissociating and tears blinded me. I fled upstairs to an unoccupied balcony, silently curled up in a ball on the floor behind a pipe organ, terrified that I would be discovered, and began writing a suicide note that named the people who had discriminated against me. I was going back and forth between texting my brother, Mom, and Maggie, posting cat gifs to Facebook, and writing the note. My brother, 1500 miles away, just kept saying that he was here and that he wasn't going anywhere and that we would get through it together.
Maggie arrived as I was coming down and it was safe to come out. We sat on the ledge, backs against the outside walls, until I could move again. It's hard to explain to the uninitiated how intense flashbacks fry your brain. You become zombie-like for a while. Your reaction time slows. You literally get dumber.
One of the young guys who sleeps on the Common asked for a smoke, then did a double-take as he was about to walk away with it, and then asked if I needed a safe place to sleep that night. I doubt he knew how much I appreciated that through my slack and dazed face and how I would have sobbed in gratitude at his humanity if I'd had anything left to cry with that night.
Maggie got me home and put me to bed, and I awoke the next day into the same nightmare.
One week later, I had a full suicide plan worked out, and a week after that I was driving ten hours to DC to admit myself to a hospital for the second time.
WHAT I'VE LEARNED SO FAR
About a year and a half ago, I started working on a project to create a resource list for people who were going through what I went through, but I was too symptomatic to make much progress. Other Lives grew out of that.
The fact that I had community was extremely helpful, but finding it required me to go public in a way that not everyone can or wants to do. I had the privilege of admitting that I was suicidal and spiraling and, even then, I hid some of it and at times I still suffered greatly for what I did reveal.
In trying to communicate with others, I benefited from being intelligent, educated, white, cis, and male. No one ever questioned, to my face at least, the truth of my experience. The fact that so many of my friends are not allowed their stories is one of the reasons Other Lives exists.
And, yet, so often I was in a position where, for survival's sake, I had to explain what I was going through—as I was going through it—so that others would understand and know how to treat me. I was often working with incomplete information, and my ability to get what I needed depended on me having my shit together at times when I was the least able to do so. I remember the time the woman I'd been dating looked at me skeptically, basically accused me of using my PTSD as an excuse, and said “I think this is more of an attachment disorder thing.” It wasn't until months later that I realized that C-PTSD is fundamentally an attachment disorder and I wanted to call her and say "Yes, yes, yes! The whole thing is an attachment disorder! That's what I was trying to say but didn't have the words for!" but by then it was too late.
I don't blame myself or others for not knowing sooner. But I grieve it. I grieve it every day.
It's silly and it's sad. I thought I'd made up the term "emotional flashback" because I'd never heard it used before.
I learn more and more every day about how lack of access and the intersecting lines of oppression keep some very hard working, but very traumatized people stuck.
For some of us, there is no return. There is no “normal” life to go back to. We've seen too much and changed too much, and the cork will never fit back into the bottle.
I know a lot about how this works now. If, as they say, trauma is relational, then so is recovery from it. While we may never be the same as we were before, this state we are in does not have to be permanent.
MOVING FORWARD, NOW
I am still evolving, but I started the most crucial and difficult piece of recovery the day I came out: building community. I found the beginnings of something special, and it has solidified and grown as I have.
I posted to Facebook from the hospital in DC with updates, and I had visitors nearly every day. People sent care packages, texted, and called. While I was gone, Maggie rallied the troops and I came back home to a freezer full of meals. I allowed myself to simply receive.
Moving forward now is scary for different reasons.
Last November, I wrote a long piece on Facebook that shared the truth about what I had experienced as a child. It was the first time I'd ever shared these details with anyone but my closest friends and my therapists and, less than two weeks later, I was in a hospital.
Then, this April, on the weekend of my grandmother's memorial service, I posted that piece to Medium. It was my first post there, and my first public post anywhere. I remember sitting there on my mom's porch watching the number of "reads" go up and up and up.
I'd already begun building Other Lives in my head (more as a pipe dream than anything else) and had gathered a few folks who wanted to help, but the response I got to that post convinced me that I absolutely had to do this. It was reposted in subreddits about narcissistic abuse. It was reposted on PTSD and C-PTSD Facebook groups. Strangers were saying that what I wrote mattered, that what I wrote looked like them or like their sons, that it was like I was in their head. Strangers were crying in identification and I watched some of it from my laptop at home as I checked the linkbacks on Medium and saw their reposts. I sobbed a lot.
I remembered again the terrifying banality of what we experience as survivors of violence. I remembered again how similar the experience is, despite the differences in what specifically happened to us.
I tend to write my most powerful work when I am in flashbacks, and I am learning how to capture the immediacy and nuance while in other states. The way I used to write was as follows: I'd sit down wherever I was (usually in a flashback), and start typing in Facebook. I'd spend however long it took until it was done, and then I'd click “post.” As comments and likes started coming in, I'd re-read what I'd written and edit it on the fly until I was really happy with it, sometimes coming back several times that day for further editing. Starting in April, I began putting some of those pieces onto Medium. My point, though, is that all of this started in a very safe place. I've only ever written trauma stuff for myself and for my friends.
And then I realized the other day that if you google any version of my name and “PTSD”, the first link is that Medium post.
There is no going back. Respectability politics is dead for me.
So what is forward?
Forward is that we do this.
I've learned to navigate my flashbacks and I've learned some things that work for me. I know that, for now, I can't hold down a regular job working regular hours for someone else. In a way, I am choosing to do this rather than give up.
Over the past two and a half years, I've met a lot of people who are in similar situations and I believe we can do some really cool things together.
I think about my family. I think about the other lives I've intersected with. We are in the middle of great change.
I'm not going anywhere, and whatever I discover, I will share with you.
Welcome to Other Lives.