In late August 2005, I packed my homework and a couple sets of clothes, and evacuated with my grandparents from Hurricane Katrina.
I ended up transferring to LSU for the Fall 2005 semester. Preston left his family in Texas to be with me. We both lived on campus. I got a job scooping ice cream at a nearby Baskin Robbins.
LSU and the surrounding community was supportive of the refuges, especially around campus. The school hosted a debriefing for refugees, and Preston and I attended. In a large room, a line of friendly looking people stood before several dozen folding chairs. I made eye contact with one of the councilors inparticular, a plush blonde woman with a warm smile.
Katrina had been hard for me, but it was nothing compared to what thousands of others endured and lost. For me, my evacuation contained flashbacks that I couldn’t explain to anyone around me. I panicked and cried and wanted my mother and was intolerable to be around. It was one of the three times in my life that my Pa-Pa yelled at me. If I survived this storm, if I could get out of here, I would get better. I would find a real therapist, and I would do the work. I bargained with the raging hurricane above me.
When I was called for my appointment at the LSU counseling center, I was thrilled to see the same blonde woman whom I’d liked in the debriefing. Erica was my first good therapist.
Part of Erica being a good therapist was my side of being a good client. I’d read The Courage to Heal by now, and had discussed with other survivors online the good and bad sides of therapists. My research led me to believe that the most work would be accomplished if I was up front and said everything. Then the therapist would know, and have the complete picture, and would tell me what the fuck to do, right? I surprised Erica when I first introduced my intention.
“My plan is to talk to you like I already can trust you, even though I don’t know you yet. Is that ok? I really want to work through these issues quickly.” Erica blinked a few extra times, and then said that being honest would speed up the process.
Therapy with Erica was the first place that I said the truth, the fears I had about the truth not actually being the truth. I said everything. When I wasn’t in therapy talking, I was writing. I wanted it all out, all on the table, so I could sort and file it away.
I got my first memories on Thanksgiving. I had some pieces that I’d known all along, but I didn’t remember any sex. My family in California believed me, but when I told my Louisiana family, it was a different reception. My Pa-Pa told me that I was wrong. I didn’t believe me. I didn’t want it to be true, anyway. But now I had images, I had sound bites, I had graphic content in my brain. I cried and vomited in Preston’s dorm room, barely lucid for hours.
I went to therapy and told Erica. I cried while she held me. I told her I’d made it up, and she told me that it wasn’t my fault. I learned about trauma affecting the brain, about how PTSD transports the brain back to the trauma itself, creating a flashback. Erica helped me build a safe place to think of when my mind got sucked back to the trauma. It was a gray box with a blue Dillard’s ribbon that tied the lid on. She got me little doll house pieces to represent myself in my safe room. We imagined a window that looks onto a private ocean, one that can’t be reached by any way except through my room’s door. When I would lose the room and start to hear myself screaming, I’d look for my safe room. I’d think of the books I’d keep on the shelf in my room, and what the ocean might look like in this weather. It gave me an anchorpoint. It was the first time I saw therapy directly fix a problem that I could not overcome alone.
Preston was depressed. Understandably. New Orleans had been all but destroyed. He had some friends at LSU, but mostly we had each other. Therapy got heavy, fast. Preston did not sign up for a weepy girlfriend who no longer wanted sex. I relapsed and sliced my breast open one night, and Preston was furious. He didn’t speak to me for days. Before we parted ways for Christmas, two things happened. Preston told me that he didn’t want to hear about my therapy for a while, because he needed a break. Preston also didn’t listen to me when I told him not to do something sexually.
Leaving Erica broke my heart. I was going to be back at UNO in the spring, and I wouldn’t be able to see Erica at LSU. On our last session, Erica introduced me to Kimberley. She lived in New Orleans and had evacuated to LSU like I had, and would be going home in January, too. She would be my new therapist. My first impression was that she didn’t need to be wearing that ridiculous turtleneck in Louisiana, even if it was December.
The Christmas of 2005 was the last time I have been in California for Christmas. I remember spending the night in a filthy hotel with Sam and Louis, before we watched the Rose Parade. I remember not calling Kimberley to make an appointment. I remember pacing in the bedroom, willing myself to stay there and not go to the kitchen.
January came. My grandma and I took ten days to drive my newly acquired used car to New Orleans, picking up Preston in Texas along the way. Preston and I moved into the 7th ward, on Music Street. We had a roommate from France named Greg. It was a drafty shotgun in a bad part of town. The most common sighting of other people involved seeing the National Guard driving their Hummers. Garbage would go without pickup for weeks. I saw a dog, stiff from death, in a metal trash can. The city was raw.
I went to school. I went to work, becoming a waitress at Red Lobster. I went to therapy. I slept.
Erica trusted Kimberley, and I trusted Erica. I decided to trust Kimberley, too. Trusting last time had worked out well for me, and I didn’t want to have to kill myself. I either had to figure out therapy or figure out death.
Kimberley and I worked together for the semester, slowly, until she graduated and had to move on. She transferred me to a woman named Christina. I started to view therapy as a team effort. I’d signed releases, and now Erica, Kimberley, and Christina could all freely communicate. We decided to get a doctor on board, if only to regulate my sleep.
My life started to take shape around healing. It was all consuming to work on feeling my body and keeping myself aware of the things I told myself. The concept of being mindful of my self-talk was exhausting. I ran life at full-speed, like I had at the end of high school. I took up a second job in the early fall of 2006. I was doing too much, and going too fast. I was starting to get dizzy. I was going to fall.