#HoldOnToTheLight: Grief, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Substance Addiction

This greenish-gold image is the Facebook banner for the Sci-Fi/Fantasy movement, "Hold On To the Light", a campaign to raise awareness of mental illness.

Early in the morning in 1974, so early that no little boy believes in their wildest dreams that he would be awakened, Bart Howell was in fact pulled from a restful, blissful sleep. He awoke with bleary eyes in the harsh lamplight; the only thing he could really see was his aunt bending over him and the popcorn ceiling. She urged him to get up and hurried him into clothing. He was rushed out of the house before dawn, and for the next month, he slept on pallets on the floor with his middle brothers and sisters, in spare rooms, shared beds, and couches, passed from family member to friend and back, staying with anyone who had the time or energy to watch him. He was the youngest of eleven children born to Elizabeth and Robert Howell. He asked questions, his big, brown eyes wide with uncertainty and terror. He was repeatedly rebuffed.

“I would ask, “Where’s my mom?” and was told, “”Don’t worry about it.””

It would be over a month before he was told that his mother had died, having lost her battle with the cancer that had riddled her body. She had been sick for some time when she had given birth to him, and for five years, tried to ensure that by the time she died, he would be strong and healthy. She left behind a bright, intelligent, five-year-old, but could do no more. She slipped quietly into oblivion. Bart and his brothers and sisters did not come home until after Carol and Robert had married, solidifying the family and ensuring that the children would not be split up.

A year later, Bart’s oldest sister was killed in a car accident, leaving three children behind, Bart’s cousins, who were adopted by Carol and Robert. The two boys and the girl were raised alongside Bart, the boys becoming Bart’s brothers and greatest childhood friends.

Bart’s father, Robert, had been orphaned as a child, along with his older brothers. Now a widower, and knowing what happened to single parents who couldn’t be there all the time for children, he and Elizabeth had seen no alternative to his immediate remarrying after her death. The horror of a family split was avoided, but the damage was done. Bart’s brothers and remaining sisters grew up resentful towards their stepmother, only too happy to place the blame of their suffering on someone. Their mother was dead. It was someone’s fault. How could they be expected to love Carol? Wasn’t she the reason their mother was gone? No matter how logical it was, no matter who explained it, to a child who has lost a parent in the dead of night, there must be a cause. Carol came in, and Elizabeth quit the earth. There was a connection, but anger and resentment twisted the logic around until only the most evil explanation remained. It must be so. They could hardly blame their own mother, after all.

Bart never blamed Carol for his mother’s death. Of all the stepchildren that maybe had the right to be resentful, Bart never held his mother’s death against his stepmother, the woman who stepped into a pack of “wild savages”.

“It killed my sister. I’m sure of it,” Bart said, “It gave her a brain tumor. Hate breeds cancer.”

Despite the unified family, the loss of the mother created an unbreachable rift, spiraling several of Bart’s siblings into drug addiction at young ages that lasted well into their adult lives. Carol herself, beset by the chaos of–by then–fourteen children, became an alcoholic and pill addict. Bart’s father was truck driver, and was rarely home. When he was at home, he was a mental presence, a physical dragon, a commander of respect, the dealer of justice, but he was an emotional void.

Bart was no exception to drug addiction. In the 1990s, after an uneasy childhood and teenage years, Bart found himself at the height of his artistic boom as the lead singer of a punk band called The Stumbletons. He drank profusely and had been introduced to Speed, which led to a heavy use of Methamphetamine. Bart was committed to court-ordered rehab, which ended in disaster with his release. He completed the program, becoming a sort of mentor in his own right, his penchant and disposition towards teaching taking possession of him as he threw himself into the program, hopeful that he would come out a clean man. He cried the night he was released as he lit up a Meth pipe. Like so many others in drug rehabilitation, the only home he had was a drug house. His girlfriend and roommates cooked Meth. They delighted in mental torture, participated in an underground ring of human and drug trafficking, practiced incest as if it were a job, and even subscribed to their own brand of occultism. Pursued by his roommates, on the run from law enforcement, and desperate to be clean, Bart’s salvation laid half a country away. He fled to Dallas by bus, and never looked back.

Last night, I laid beside him, the man who will one day be my husband and who is already my life partner, and felt him jerk himself awake every few minutes.

“It’s been this way since I was five. I walk up to the edge, and just as I’m about to sink down, I’m instantly awake.”

Some nights, I’ve heard the sharp intake of breath as he wakes, not from some nightmare–he tells me he doesn’t dream–but from peaceful sleep, as if he were on the verge of screaming. In the morning, after he does manage to fall asleep, he is no more rested than he was when he laid down, if he in fact laid down at all. All he wants is to sleep, but he can’t. In his mind, the last time he sank into peaceful slumber, he was shaken awake, hurried into clothes, rushed out the door, and told a month later that his mother was dead. At the age of 47, this is a deep-seated fear, a consuming terror that no amount of time can take the edge from, no drug can dull, no art can pacify, no amount of love, sex, beer, hugging, or personal comfort can ever undo.

Grief over his mother’s death, compounded so closely by his sister’s death, has been punctuated in years following by the violent murder of his brother in the 1990s. A drug deal had gone horribly wrong, and his brother, pounding on Bart’s door, begged to be let in. Bart, struggling with his own addiction, turned him away. That night, he was killed by a drug dealer that had been tailed by the FBI for years. Though Bart was informed that the feds knew who had killed his brother, they could not move on the charge of murder, lest they lose their chances at federal charges.

“If I had let him in, he would still be alive,” Bart says in agony, holding up the scarf his brother had given him the day he died, “or, if I had let him in, they’d have found us both, and we’d both be dead.”

To a man struggling to come to grips with the cruel passing of his mother, the violent accidental death of his sister, the slow death of his second sister, and his father’s agonized death, the fact that his brother’s murderer would go free was more than he could bear. He sank deeper into depression, a depression that only the birth of his beautiful child could dispel, but that has been creeping back in bit by bit as one more birthday, one more Christmas, one more Thanksgiving at a time puts distance between the boy he was when he closed his eyes as a five-year-old and the man he is now.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is directly linked to drug addiction in what can often be described as a dual-diagnosis situation. Dualdiagnoses.org defines PTSD as “One of the most emotionally debilitating mental disorders…post-traumatic stress disorder causes intense anxiety, intrusive memories and nightmarish flashbacks that interfere with daily life…PTSD is a condition in which an individual experiences tremendous stress or anxiety after witnessing or being engaged in a traumatic event. Any physical or psychological trauma that leaves the individual feeling powerless and out of control may lead to PTSD.”

Multiple family deaths, then his brother’s murder, and the torture he endured in the meth house each contributed to his PTSD. He prefers to fall asleep with the television on to keep his ears from ringing. He has tinitus, but the silence also oppresses him. It invites memories in. He hears his brother banging on his door that night. He hears his father’s bitterness as he implores him not to lie to his brothers about enrolling in college, even after presenting the man with his school ID. He stares off into the distance often. It took nine years to realize no amount of intoxication would bury his mother, that no drug would silence his father. However, the depression persists, and the night time terror creeps up on him as he lays down in the dark, jerking him awake and forcing his eyes open to sudden wakefulness. He prefers to sleep during the day if possible. If he can see the sun, if he has to get up and get Jetty from school, he doesn’t have to worry that he will wake up and his mother will be dead. He barely sleeps at night, and though it has gotten easier now that Jetty is in school, he still uses a substance to fall asleep. Conversely, there is no pain medicine in the house stronger than Advil, and no one in the house drinks any spirit stronger than beer. No one is allowed to even use cold medicine. He often preaches the importance of physical health to all of us. He embraced my therapeutic attempt at homeopathic therapy through generous portions of soup and brothy foods. I think Pho anchors his soul to his body.

Something that is little talked of is the prevalence of occultism during the waking nightmare that was Bart’s residence in the Meth house, where reality and hallucination wound and unwound themselves in his mind until he no longer knew if his physical surroundings were a product of the drugs, or true horrors. Because of this, Bart has an incredible problem with any kind of study of occultism, even for amusement. For him, science fiction, fantasy, and horror, even written fiction, is an indulgence that has brought him only real terror and constitutes a real and present threat to himself and his son. This was especially difficult when he and I first started dating. I was writing a story involving a human trafficker and sociopath. I was nearly ejected from the house one night, and railroaded to tears over it. Later, he apologized to me as we stood in our kitchen, rehashing a few sore points. I write Fantasy and Horror fiction, and I enjoy tabletop gaming. I sometimes indulge in small rituals around the house that have their roots in Celtic rituals from which we are both descendants. For him, any kind of impression of magic is a deep-seated evil. It takes a lot of explanation before hand for him to realize that it is really only play. I was almost ejected from the house a second time when he found my sister’s ominous, large, black Renaissance Fair cloak that I used to stay warm while we camped at the Ren Fair outside of Houston. I had to dig out pictures of us at the fair wearing our costumes to convince him that the cloak had no ulterior purpose. He doesn’t mind it anymore, and it gets used regularly for our play and costume projects, but it originally triggered him so hard that he was inches from removing me bodily from his presence. My cosplay project has brought him new pangs of anxiety, as I took up an increased interest in Ancient Egyptian mythology as pertains to mummification.

Bart’s condition has improved since our relationship began. It is no longer a daily struggle for him to reassure himself that I am not a threat, that I don’t really believe in vampires, or worship Satan (he himself is probably as big of a fan of Ghost as I am). However, Bart’s mental state reminds me on a daily basis that fear cannot be explained away. Time may have no effect on fear. Terror takes many forms. As frightened as one may be sitting down to the unknowable and unnameable abominations by H.P. Lovecraft, nothing could be more terrifying than being rushed out your house before dawn, begging to see your mother, not knowing where you will sleep the next day, or the next. Perhaps Bart is not a tragic character is some epic fantasy. Perhaps he has never been enslaved by angry elves, taken prisoner by necromantic priests, perhaps he has never killed anyone. These are the plights of heroes we pursue in Fantasy and Science Fiction. For those for whom the darkness has spread out angry shadows and invaded every possible point of egress, threatening to choke the life out of your body, such stories are feeble fumblings of the bored and pacified.

Yet for all his distaste for the fancy trappings of fiction, Bart respects my work, enjoys the pleasure I take in my art, and encourages me to follow my dreams. For him, there is light around me. He wants very badly to stand in it. In me, he sees the artist he could have been had he lived a different life. For Bart, the pool of light cast by the happiness of his woman and his child is his guiding force, his true purpose, his only calling. In my art, fantasy or horror, he sees the light of imagination. For many sufferers of PTSD and Depression, Fantasy fiction, Sci-Fi, gaming, and pure whimsical fun offer a unique escape from their own pain and suffering. Bart is no exception.

As authors of Science Fiction and Fantasy, we have a duty not just to amuse the unburdened, but to help the burdened shoulder their load. We are the guiding light, offering a sweet salvation from everyday worry and terror. Consumers of media have all of their own myriad reasons for wanting to escape, but for those who have known true horrors, any other horror is merely a brief respite from the real ones lurking always. It is my pleasure to give what comfort my art can offer to one who is so burdened. It is my duty to tell his story, as I have told so many others, both real and fictional.

“#HoldOntoTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.

Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Home for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.”


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