Chicago Portrait no. 38: How is Living on a Busy Street Like Having PTSD?

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I live on a street corner that’s active all night. There’s a Mariano’s, two large apartment complexes, several pricey condominiums, and a McDonald's. One street runs north-south from the heart of the city to the tip of Evanston. The other street spills directly into the highway, then runs west to the suburbs. All night and all day there are cars, semi trucks, and several routes of buses churning along its pavement.

Down the road a few miles, there’s the Chicago Transit Authority garage, were all the buses on the north side go to gas up and be cleaned, so extra buses head there too, at all hours of the day and night, their breaks bleating like injured whales. It confuses the people waiting at the bus stops. They stand by the bright blue CTA signs, holding themselves straight, and then crumpling in a fit of frustration when the garage-bound buses pass without picking them up. Sometimes they make noise in protest or confusion. There are many Russian immigrants living in one of the retirement communities around the corner; while many of them have lived in the city for decades and keenly understand its ways, others do not, and they are vocal.

There are always vast arrays of people darting east and west, and less frenzied commuters going north from the city. The roads are always full of perturbed drivers heading somewhere urgently, or headed home wearily. Up the road there are towering behemoths; retirement communities with fancy names and pretty gardens cordoned off by wrought iron gates. The buildings are old, many of them former hotels erected when the lake was a destination in and of itself. The buildings still bear their old resort names, things like The Breakers or The Windmore or The Pink House.

Their residents are always dying or having close calls or setting fires. The ambulances and fire engines scream up the street, beeping and flashing their lights. I can hear them coming in the distance. As the volume changes and the cavalry of catastrophe roars up to my corner, the ambulances get obstructed by traffic and cut through their own cacophony by honking their horns. Somehow, every ambulance, fire truck, and cop car has its own unique signature of beeps, screams, howls, and honks. Sometimes cars honk back out of frustration or anger or just to say, “Hey, I hear you. I can’t move either.”

I have not gone two hours without hearing an ambulance, at all, in the past three years. At first the frenzied sounds kept me up all night. Then I was able to drift off, but the sounds would wake me up. Now they still interrupt my thinking, and churn my blood into a froth, but I can ignore them enough to mimic resting. I can hear a faint blaring at all times, even when it’s not actually present. It will be soon enough.

There are car alarms too, and noisy delivery trucks, and road-raging drivers, and irate McDonald’s customers, and screaming children walking to and from the school two blocks away. Sometimes it all comes at once: a truck delivering frozen patties to the McDonald's will rumble like thundercloud over a metal plate in the road, and the vibrations will set a parked car’s alarm off. The alarm will cut through the air and wake a woman who screams out of a window. Another car will honk its whole way through the intersection in protest of…something. A man named David with a blackened tooth will ask for change and a white lady with a fanny pack will yell invectives and stand in the way of a screeching ambulance. A cop will come and honk his horn at some kids bouncing a basketball. The guy with Tourette’s will make his way through the parking lot, screaming his throat bloody, until a cab driver nearly hits him as he peals out of the parking lot.

At some point my nerves fray to the point where I’m screaming too, out the window, at everything, and then I’ll laugh like a distraught hysterical woman in a 1950’s melodrama, and then I’ll definitely cry, but then I definitely won’t sleep, at least not for a while.

I get so sick of the alarms. It bothers me most when I’m walking down the street. The ambulances sound so acutely nasty when they’re not muffled by the walls. The honking that parts the blaring of the alarm is so brutal, so bracing that I can feel the muscles of my heart tense up. I find myself hating these life-savers.

Notice how I haven’t said a word about the people the ambulances are there to rescue? I stopped thinking about all the people who were sick or dying and summoning ambulances for help a long time ago. I used to stare out my window and scan the skyline, looking inside the windows of rooms that had their lights on, imagining the manifold traumas the residents faced. That used to make me feel less alone.

Now I know I am never alone, but I’m enveloped in chaos instead, chaos I can’t claw myself out off. When a fire burns and a long stream of noisy trucks rush by to the aid of a hundred stoop-shouldered senior citizens, I feel close to nothing and no one. I just feel pissed off. When ambulances speed one after another up Sheridan, I yell to the air, “What’s the big fucking emergency??” as if it weren’t a matter life and death. I don’t think about the loss of life. Instead I remember that an ambulance costs $5000 a pop, and that nobody can fucking afford that, and how dare these people be so wasteful, and don’t they realize that ambulances cause car accidents, and how dare they be better off than my friends and loved ones, who have to take trains or taxis to hospitals that might just turn them away.

For years I’ve lived in a crumbling box with alarms continuously blaring outside of it. Eventually the panicked sounds of perpetual unsafety numb you, but not in a way that resembles relief. Panic is still the background radiation of my life. It’s just now I’ve lost the energy to do anything about it. It shakes me in my sleep, it breaks my concentration, it makes the whole world vibrate until everything is too blurry to see. There is too much sound, all the time, and I cannot hear or feel a steady heartbeat thrumming in my chest. I can’t care about others, or be sad, or be put on alert by even the most extreme kind of alert. I am always up, but never awake. I am never off guard, and also never safe.

This is what it’s like to life in the shadow of a dozen small traumas. Or at least that’s what I’ll tell my students the next time I’m teaching about PTSD and one of them tilts their head and wonders how somebody can be afraid and apathetic at the same time.

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