Onion Tears

We got hammered with snow yesterday. There is at least a foot of new snow and the tree-bending bitter winds continue. We had two bouts of intense shoveling yesterday, but worked as a very cohesive team so much so that dare I say it was nearly fun. The wind left something to be desired, especially when we were hauling shovel loads brimming over with the plow-compacted snow mound at the bottom of the driveway into the wind over to the mailbox mound where we could deposit it. Heavy, hard work. The wind was so fierce that it reversed some of the work we did, blowing the tops of the newly shoveled banks back to the path just cleared. This is undeniably frustrating, but we kept a lighthearted attitude about it.

I had an emotionally trying experience the other day. I was in a public place that I didn’t want to leave when someone came next to me who smelled exactly like my attacker: Cigarettes half-heartedly concealed by wintergreen lifesavers and the same cologne. Like someone cutting onions, my eyes immediately spilled over with tears when I breathed in that familiar forgotten cocktail. They say that smell is the sense most intimately linked to memory. As someone with the scent ability akin to a human bloodhound and a memory for most things like a steel trap, I could definitely serve as an n=1 case study proving this theory. I worry that unless I undergo a devastating brain trauma or a lobotomy, both of which I pray I’ll never face, I will forever associate that smell with the man that so tormented me.

An exposure to that smell so inextricably associated with him has only happened one other time since the incident when I took a cab from the airport in Tampa to a seedy motel where I was crashing alone for the night en route to some volunteer work. The circumstances surrounding that experience were significantly more stressful since I was already nervous about traveling alone and the attack was much fresher in my recent memory. Despite these vast differences, my responses to the two events were rather antithetical. I had a complete meltdown. I had to stay on the phone (in tears) with a friend all night watching Seinfeld from my lumpy motel bed. The event sent me into a PTSD tailspin, not just consuming my thoughts that night, but for weeks on end, day and night. It was as if any of the little progress past baseline that I had gained at that point was fully reversed to a level equally far from baseline in the negative direction. I felt worse than I did acutely post-trauma where I at least had the protective effect of heavy denial on my side. Memories and fears of the trauma became so embrasive (in a bad way) after my brain was triggered by the cab driver’s smell that my psychological and physical health plummeted and grad school (my daily life), which had been a beautiful and safe distraction, became a fear-laden wasteland for a few months where I sat in class paralyzed by fear and tormented with flashbacks instead of engaged in lectures and labs with my peers. The experience so vehemently triggered a primal terror response in my brain that in all seriousness, with hindsight, virtually ceased what could be considered safe functioning. I was bedeviled with panic, depression, hopelessness, and irrational, debilitating fear. Eventually, with therapy, time, and help, I climbed out of that nadir and at least recouped to baseline. It was another year and a half until measurable progress was attained.

This brings us to the second odor exposure, the one encountered this week. Yes, I did technically cry, but it was more of a physiological reflex than an emotionally-fueled cry. That’s why I compared it to the tearing up reaction many of us develop while slicing onions. We aren’t sad when those tears start flowing, the body just forms them. When I inhaled his scent the other day, I didn’t even have time to register an emotional reaction; my eyes immediately filled with tears. Of course, within a matter of one second, I placed that smell and the traumatic memories associated with it came flooding into my consciousness. At that point, I did start to respond emotionally, but not with the same drastic and dramatic breakdown that occurred in Florida. Instead, it was a mere acknowledgement of sadness that I feel about what happened and the aftermath I’ve had to endure. It was as if I was leaving the house, noticed a light on (metaphorically resembling the awful memory), and then I responsibly, and with near automation, shut it off. I stayed where I was, tried to shift my mindset and focus on something else in my immediate environment, and surfed through the sensory assault. It wasn’t as much of a closed and locked door encounter as that, since admittedly, I have had a few core-shaking flashbacks and nightmares in the 48 hours since this incident, but I’m fine. I’m holding my own and pushing through with perhaps just a few dents in my armor. This is hard-earned progress. I imagine I’m still in for some further PTSD repercussions in the next several days, but I think I can prevail. I’ve got this.

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