It begins with airplanes, nineteen years before a therapist ever whispers a word. In the dark of a cabin over the Pacific, somewhere between Sydney and Los Angeles, a roll of turbulence shakes you awake and keeps shaking and it is here where you once believed this began.
Flight anxiety. Nothing more. It stays through your twenties, knuckling armrests and scrutinizing flight attendants' faces and booking window seats to watch for storms. It lingers through your thirties and through graduate school, flights for job interviews, once eight flights in a single week, your brain a corkscrew of splayed wires. But when you move for one of those jobs and stop flying, a period of time you remember as calm despite a slew of doctor's appointments you often forget, you also overlook the onset of hand tremors, of night terrors, of x-rays and a cardiogram, that one MRI with piped-in jazz. Less than two years in, that era explodes with your institution's closure in a frenzy of new flights, new white-knuckling, new vomiting at the end of one day-long interview, and one last video interview while still recovering from an unexpected surgery, your face gaunt in the reflected screen.
You move from the high desert to a place where snow swathes the ground for seven straight months, grey encasing the sky like a dome. You don't know why, sometimes for weeks, your brain short-circuits out. You buy a light box. You tell your partner, I just can't get out from under it. When the sun comes out, your brain sparks back on until the grey tides in again.
It isn't until five years later, your child nearly three, that your therapist asks across a Zoom screen: what season was it when you were raped?
All those flights behind you, some stability despite the interminable sleet and snow: you told your partner you might be ready to have a child.
Except for taking prenatal vitamins and then, in a rush, throwing them all away. Except for trying and then, inexplicably, taking a Plan B pill. And then another. And then another.
What you told no one, after two years of even imagining going through with it: that pregnancy felt like gripping an armrest inside the metal tube of an airplane. That you learned to breathe. Meditate. That you made your doctor promise to cut you open. There was no other way. Your baby was born by elective C-section, another thing you told no one, an exit most pregnant people avoid.
Did it ever begin with airplanes? What about movie theaters? All those times in high school when the lights dimmed and black dots swarmed in and you stumbled to the bathroom and clutched your head between your knees?
It began long before airplanes, in the dark of your bedroom where a boy pinned you down, what you didn't realize until you had a child was the root, what back then went completely unnamed.
When your child is six months old, the world shuts down.
You take no flights at all. Your baby grows. Into a one-year-old and then an eighteen-month-old and then a two-year-old, snow piling higher against the windowpanes.
You tell your therapist: winter. It happened in winter.
Beyond the Zoom screen, the sky an endless lead.
Your therapist finally whispers the word, PTSD, all the bulbs in your brain blinking together.
Airplanes. Jobs. Job loss. Winter. Pregnancy. Pandemic. The same house for nearly three years, no one coming in, icicles stabbing down the eaves. Movie theaters. A dark bedroom.
Your synapses lighting up like a switchboard when a wreckage sweeps in from nowhere.
Your therapist moves fingers that your eyes track, connecting a diagram of every time your body feels trapped, a graph that stretches everywhere, backward and forward, that bleeds out into every day you wake up and breathe.
Sometimes bad things happen, your therapist says. But more often, they don't.
Last month, a dog burst through the woods while you were hiking and sank four teeth into your thigh. I'm fine, you told your therapist. Your skin, bruised pebbles. It wasn't true. Your brain fogged over for three full days. Last week, while you were driving to the grocery store with your child, a car blasted into another car and flipped three times and you pulled over and called 911 and handed a teenager a towel for his missing teeth, for the blood soaking down his sweatshirt.
You were there to help, your partner says. You helped someone else through their own disaster.
You carry a PTSD app. Breathing exercises. You keep a notebook of safety. You want to believe your partner, your therapist. Your brain keeps searing your skull apart. More than anything, you want someone to see the shape of your brain, a ragged lacework that sometimes makes you freeze or else makes you disappear completely. You want someone to see that it doesn't begin with airplanes. That it doesn't even begin in a dark room, not anymore. That it begins again, every single morning, that it wakes up and begins again and again. That it doesn't look navigable, a chaos of emergency and not a constellation of stars, but that maybe, one day, it will.