Robert Learns How to Manage PTSD
flash fiction by jemma frost
A lodestone hung about Robert’s neck, attracting every horrific sound and image leftover from the war until the weight threatened to bury him in a deep pit resembling one of the mass graves dug for fallen soldiers. Dabbing a handkerchief across his sweaty brow—a reaction that defied the chill in his bones—he cursed his traitorous body.
Cursed the war.
Cursed himself for being pathetically weak-willed.
Why couldn’t he control this? Why wasn’t he strong enough to overcome the past’s bloody hold on him?
“Rob, there you are. Your—” His best friend and colleague Harry, entered the barn where he’d secluded himself, trying to hide the sudden attack of nerves. Especially from Harry and his mother. “Another one, eh?” Harry’s tone gentled as he crouched before Robert, twirling a stray piece of hay between lean fingers.
Nodding, unable to speak through the bottled breath in his lungs, Robert kept his eyes averted. This wasn’t the first time Harry had found him debilitated from a memory of their time serving as physicians in the British military.
Damned bloody war.
He earned his medical degree and enlisted right as the war began. Of course, he couldn’t regret the decision—many soldiers were saved because of his expertise—but they also reminded him how little he’d actually suffered.
Robert had all of his limbs and, except for these episodes of madness, his mental faculties were still intact as well. By all accounts, he’d survived no worse for wear while others limped on crutches or lost their sight.
Yet, he remained plagued by night terrors and flashbacks so real he swore he could taste gunpowder in the air.
“I’ve been thinking about how to help you, and I wondered if you might try something for me.”
Robert glanced up in surprise, though he shouldn’t be shocked to hear his friend wanted to offer aid. It was in their blood to heal people. Swallowing the tar sticking in his throat, he forced out one word. “What?”
“As a boy, I used to fear the dark. Can you believe it? Me, afraid of anything?” A brief twinge of amusement pricked his chest at Harry’s joking tone, his naturally buoyant demeanor injecting a bit of lightness into the ominous cloud Robert felt mired in.
“Every evening I woke in bed, struggling to orient myself, when my eyes would catch on the striped yellow wallpaper lining my room. Admittedly an ugly shade, but in the wee hours it provided enough brightness to calm my pounding heart.”
Harry continued his story, and Robert wondered where this was headed. Fearing the dark as a child was a common occurrence that most grew out of, but he’d never heard of a mature adult suffering from the attacks of body and mind that he dealt with. Let alone outgrowing them.
“And with my focus centered on that wallpaper, I began counting the stripes—over and over again. I’d get to the highest number I knew at the time, then start over at one. Repeatedly, sometimes for hours, it seemed. But it soothed my fear until eventually, sleep claimed me again,” Harry explained. “Perhaps you might try counting.”
“Counting what? Milly’s patches?” Robert gestured mockingly towards the black and white dog gnawing on a stick across from them. She’d followed him to the barn after he’d abruptly left Mother preparing supper alone in the cottage.
“Yes. Or the knots in the wood grain on the barn door. Or the lines on your hands. I don’t have an exact science to offer, but I think the effort to count or have a repetitive pattern in your head might distract your body enough to move past whatever is ailing you.”
“Worth a shot, I suppose.” It’s not like he had anything to lose. His pride lay in scatters along the dirt floor; he couldn’t get much lower than being reduced to a sniveling mess on the ground.
One, two, three…
He ticked the numbers off in his head, staring blankly forward.
Four, five, six…
He tried to turn his concentration to the familiar digits, unconsciously timing his breaths with the mundane list.
Seven, eight, nine…
Incrementally, the lodestone he’d imagined around his neck lessened, its magnetic power diminishing until the sights and sounds of the past gave way to the present. Birds chirping in the rafters above drifted downward while the innocuous chewing of Milly filtered through ghostly blasts of cannon fire.
One, two, three…
Robert began again, and by the fifth pass, he finally felt able to bear his own weight and eased to his feet, though he kept a steadying hand on the wall behind him.
“It’s working.” A note of relief and tempered hope rang clear. He didn’t know how long Harry’s trick would be effective, but for now, it was enough. For now, he’d endured another aggressive barrage to his senses.
“I’m glad, old friend.” Harry squeezed his shoulder in compassion before waving towards the humble cottage situated beside the barn, puffs of smoke rising from the chimney. “Shall we see what your Mother’s cooked for us, then? Her meals always seem to cheer you up, and I can’t say I’m surprised. She’s got quite the talent.”
Yes, his sweet mother knew her way around the kitchen and how to care for her only son.
Shaking off the last dregs of terrible memories, Robert allowed the comforting warmth of familial love and friendship to chase away the ice that had encased his body.
As long as he had Harry and his mother, Robert would be alright.
But God help him, if he ever lost them.