Finding Rat Park

Meaghan Buisson

“Not again!” I struggle to sit up. Emerging from that space where dreams are more lucid than wakefulness and neither feels safe, my bed sheets are knotted, drenched in sweat. Vaguely, I worry about mold. How DOES one dry out a mattress in the drizzly mist of a west coast winter? Shame slams into me. I’m ruining a futon.

Oddly, the last one brings the most pain.

In a year marked by relentless transiency, December ended fittingly with a move. My journey ended – or begins, really – in Vancouver; a city I am now wonderfully and incomprehensibly trying to call “home” for at least the next 4-6 months. Wonderfully, because the impetus to make this move was the pull of forward’s progress after years of being mired in both recovery and despair. Incomprehensibly, because since December 21st, 2013, the longest I’ve stayed in any one place is a mere thirteen days.

We are all coming and going. But sometimes, it’s easier just to leave.

Juxtaposing promises of stability against overwhelming uncertainty, this most recent move has been a challenging transition. Ten hours after arriving, I sat through meetings with strangers soon to be support. But a week later, I still haven’t unpacked. Beyond any hopes or fears of what may be, I am avoiding that which I know well. Through countless moves, my ability to minimize material possessions has been honed to a fine – if occasionally ruthless – skill. Unfortunately, shedding the baggage of my past isn’t so readily accomplished. No matter how hard I’ve tried to lose it in a foreign country or down a dusty country road, like the rickety old cat Canadian children sang about in the 80s, “it just keeps coming back.”

According to Tolle (2005), “no matter how active we are, how much effort we make, our state of consciousness creates our world. And if there is no change on that inner level, no amount of action will make any difference. We would only re-create modified versions of the same world again and again.” When it comes to mental health, simply changing one’s external landscape – while occasionally helpful – rarely suffices.

Thus the realization, that any truly integrative and effective healing work requires equally substantive and concurrent effort to change my inner realm as well. A long-denied need for social belonging keeps me relentlessly moving on the periphery of engagement – but fulfilling this need is every bit as critical for wellbeing as that of individual autonomy. Sense of self gives rise to community – but community is the framework for one’s sense of self. Wholeness, therefore, requires re-establishing connection with both. If either one is lacking in my predominant geopsychosocialpolitical environment, it’s not the right place for me.

Shifting geography is easy. Shifting the landscape of my heart, less so.

The work required for this time in Vancouver to be something more than just another failed effort to shift my stubborn label, “treatment resistant PTSD,” depends as much on what goes on beyond the containment of set and setting as it will within. To be truly whole, I cannot avoid that which I’ve long tried to ignore – that I, human, am a social being. By the very nature of whatever evolutionary tick caused my ancestors to group together as they scampered across African plains with “Eat me, I’m prey” stamped across to their puny butts, at a fundamental level, I am wired to attach. Darwinism at its best.

Contrary to Maslow’s hierarchy, physiological needs alone aren’t sufficient for life. The late British psychiatrist D.W. Winnicott explained trauma as one of two things that go wrong: things that happen that shouldn’t happen and things that should happen that don’t. For example, regardless of whether you landed on this planet as microscopic worm larvae, a rat pup or infant child, being raised in an environment where there’s a paucity of proximal contact – despite all physical needs being met – has marked and lifelong consequences. Isolated worms don’t grow (Ardiel & Rankin, 2010). Traumatized rats develop attention deficit disorders (Sullivan & Brake, 2003). Emotionally bereft children grow up to become addicts (Maté, 2008). Such patterns of intense craving, temporary relief and negative consequences – matched only by concurrent inability to stop – is a coping mechanism arising in response to overwhelming trauma. Be it substance or behavior, all addictions engage the same brain circuitry, reward system, psychological dynamic and gut-wrenching emptiness.

Turning the lens to my own behaviors, I can’t deny the presence of patterns that often leave me wondering if I’m reacting through addiction or responding by choice. That which I do to make me “feel better” is equally that which spiritually rips me apart. My addictive behaviors – the countless ways I bolt from myself as much as others – provoke intense isolation and shame. No matter how much I try to pretend otherwise, they are but a “meager substitute” (Alexander, 2008) for true psychosocial integration.

Mulling this over in a foggy Vancouver morning, I know that at some point – for the sake of my soul as much as my sanity – I shall have to launch myself into doing that which most terrifies this mind: Get involved. Make friends. Socialize. Volunteer. Something, anything, everything to alter this familiar pattern of isolation that brings sense of safety yet simultaneously fosters, magnifies and maintains the very cycle of trauma, addiction and thwarted recovery I most wish to break.

But it’s so much easier to simply avoid. To live out of a backpack. The back seat of my car. An absent friend’s couch.

The quietness of his apartment becomes a refuge from the pressing crush of urban humanity, the fears that rise unbidden, the surge of overwhelming anxiety. I spend hours curled in a ball on the sofa, his down jacket wrapped around me. Partially, because I can’t figure out how to turn on the heat. Mostly, because I don’t want to cost him any money even if I could. Especially, because it feels like a hug.

In the past week, I’ve done more loads of laundry than Tony has likely done in a year. Every morning, I wash sodden sheets and struggle to dry a moldering mattress. Night sweats. Terror. Post-traumatic stress disorder. There are days I become frustrated at my struggle; wondering how can I have so much? Mine is a wealth born not of money, but geography; the expectation of an education – not to mention clean water and sewer lines. It’s the wealth of spirit, having somehow managed to claw my way through countless episodes of psychiatric drugging, homelessness, suicidality… injuries that should have killed me, experiences that almost did. It’s the richness poured upon me by the kindred souls and opportunities that seemingly and inexplicably come into my life precisely when needed most. It’s everything and anything that’s kept me alive, and all within me that’s refused to die.

How can this be? How can I be all that I am – and yet still be “all that I am”? And in such split, how much of what I perceive to be “me” is really, simply, PTSD?

At some point it happens. A heartbeat occurs, a breath marks the shift where trauma becomes so familiar, one stops noticing its presence. For me, it was really only in the past month – after a year of relentless bolting – that it finally occurred to me that my seeming inability to connect firmly, attach readily, or stay in one place long enough for someone to even notice the color of my eyes was itself quite plausibly and firmly rooted in trauma.

I drift through people’s lives like an apology best left unsaid.

In the relentless quest for wholeness that drove my steps from Guatemala one week to Mexico the next, then Winnipeg west to Vancouver, I reject much to embrace more. I am grateful for the experiences that crash into my life, but recognize the extremity and scope of stress such existence creates. From the larger realities to the daily reminders of any number of ongoing struggles though, oddly, none hurt as keenly as that which is most readily dismissed.

It’s the ache. The ache to be more than a passing guest in the warm homes I pass though. For a kitchen that doesn’t fit in a cardboard box, tea bags that don’t explode from relentless overuse and friends at my front door. For the experience of waking up to a smile, not terror. To know what it’s like to feel wholly safe in a relationship.

For a partner whose definition of luxury is a silk liner in a down sleeping bag. Canoeing across Canada. Hiking in Burma. Someone content with shaggy hair and Birkenstocks. High heels are an affront to reason.

The ache to know what it’s like to be me… and part of a dyad, rather than feel as though acceptance comes only by fitting someone else’s mold.

It bothers me that I care about this, no matter how much I tell myself otherwise. Yet for all the times I’ve been accused of independence bordering on pathology, I cannot quell this most basic of human needs: I crave, as much as I fear, touch.

Therein, as Shakespeare wrote yet surely never intended, lies the rub.

To read the classic Trauma and Recovery is to sense the eerie familiarity of a stranger’s observations coming a little too close:

“Chronically traumatized people are continually hyper vigilant, anxious, and agitated… (They) no longer have any baseline state of physical calm or comfort… Intimate relationships are driven by the hunger for protection and care (and) haunted by fear. The survivor is left with fundamental problems in basic trust.” (Herman, 2001)

Countless times in therapy, I’ve told myself that once I am finally able to fully explain what happened, once I’ve finally cried myself to emptiness, once there’s nothing left to give, all my related problems would go away. This past year, I realized that wasn’t the case.

Barring some exception, my presentations of ‘health’ remain absent of baseline. Carefully constructed illusions hinging upon much I avoid. Apparently, this is quite common. Indeed, according to Herman, “by itself, reconstructing the trauma does not address the social or relational dimension of the traumatic experience. It is a necessary part of the recovery process, but it is not sufficient.” (Herman, 2001)

How depressing. After a lifetime of being unique, when it comes to my disorders, I am merely average.

It’s those exceptions that cause me to pay heed. Noticing how every moment of wholeness has a singular commonality. Ironically, it’s also what I tend to avoid. Connection. To myself… and to others.

The sun pours through my bedroom window. I didn’t realize there even was sun in Vancouver in January. There is much I don’t know. There is much I have to discover. There is a proximal community somewhere in this strange new land, waiting to be found.

Perhaps tonight? The  first of eight lectures on addiction is nearby. Incredibly, the organizer is Bruce Alexander himself – a man I’ve never met but whose work on the dislocation theory of addiction led to my coming west. Seeking my own “Rat Park”, one might say. Even more incredibly, he lives up the street.

The process of post-traumatic growth is akin to rebuilding a shattered vase. When the container of one’s life is blown apart, some cope by piecing the vase together again, creating something that looks the same, perhaps, but is impossibly fragile; collapsing at the slightest blow. Others never manage to pick up the pieces; their lives remain shattered and scattered around them. Still others will look at the vase, realized it has changed forever – but then pick up the pieces and create a mosaic. The effects of trauma are still visible… but so too the beauty of the reconstruction, the creativity of moving beyond.

Like mortar for a shattered vase, that which makes us most utterly vulnerable is that which makes us human – our need for each other. While the determination of where each piece goes can only come from within, it’s impossible to achieve wholeness in isolation. Peace comes in pieces. Connection is the glue.

* * * * *


Alexander, B. (2008). The globalization of addiction: A study in poverty of the spirit. New York, USA: Oxford University Press.

(For an excellent portrayal of Bruce Alexander’s “Rat Park” study on addiction, click here.)

Ardiel, E. L. & Rankin, C. H. (2010). The importance of touch in development. Paedritr Child Health, 15(3): 153-156.

Herman, J. (2001). Trauma and recovery: From domestic abuse to political terror. London, UK: Pandora.

Sullivan, R. M. & Brake, W. G. (2003). What the rodent prefrontal cortex can teach us about attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder: the critical role of early development events on prefrontal function. Behav Brain Resear, 146(1-2):43-55.

Maté, G. (2008). In the realm of hungry ghosts: Close encounters with addiction. Toronto, Canada: Random House

Tolle, E. (2005). A new earth: Awakening to your life’s purpose. New York: USA. Peguin.

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  1. Beautiful written, but also a sadly tragic piece, Meaghan. I pray for your continued healing, and that the mosaic you create as you continue along your journey, turns into something truly stellar some day. I actually used to work as a mosaic (tile) designer, and actually also worked for a company named Mosaic, I was in charge of their finances. Plus, I must confess, I’m also a fan of Mosaic Law because I wish for a better world, and believe in that wisdom. So I love your analogy.

    I do agree with Tolle’s statement, “no matter how active we are, how much effort we make, our state of consciousness creates our world. And if there is no change on that inner level, no amount of action will make any difference.” I think ignorance of this reality is a part of the lack of wisdom behind today’s biopsychiatric belief system. Drugs don’t change what’s inside, and what’s inside does matter. There’s something to be said for looking at life as if the glass is half full, despite that philosophy leaving you more vulnerable than is, at times, wise. Hope heals.

    When growing up, my family moved a number of times. I didn’t know if Chicago was my home, or New York was my home, or Ohio was my home. After I graduated from college, I wanted a place to call home. I decided to make Chicago my home. And I loved it. Then 9/11 happened, and I was absolutely heartbroken, I realized New York was still my home, too. Not long ago, I moved back to Ohio, so now it’s my home again. I guess they’re all my home. I pray your journey leads you to a home you love.

  2. Meaghan: Thank you for sharing your story. In many ways it echoes my son’s struggles. He too is always trying to escape and wants desperately to leave his home town but lacks the funds to do so. He wants to connect but is afraid to do so.

    Vancouver is a beautiful city but the rain can be so depressing. I hope you will make friends there, and find true peace and healing.

  3. Wow, thank you Meaghan for bring back some very unpleasant memories for me.

    I remember so clearly feeling safe in my home, and so loved by my beautiful wife. Enter mental health services and it was all gone in a moment. What did I do? I ran looking for somewhere safe. Only when it was explained to me that what I was looking for did not exist did I begin to understand, there is nowhere ‘safe’.

    Since that point I have been preparing my soul for removal from this body. To use an analogy I heard from a very wise man, when the angels come to take my soul it will fall from my body like a drop of water from my hand, and will not need to be torn out like a wire brush pulling at wool.

    A home, a partner and loving relationship? These things will not be poked in the hole in the ground they put me in, but my good deeds will.

    I wish I had the ability to write as well as you and was able to explain these things better, but I don’t. For me it all started with that one realisation that there is no ‘safe’ place.

  4. Congratulations for taking a leap of faith. I believe you embody the courage to heal.

    My leap was the opposite, from big city to rural. First thing I did was to seek out a meditation community in order to ground fully into my new environment and culture. I had a few lessons still to learn and some past time energy to clear–which is to be expected with such a change–but overall, everything has unfolded beautifully, better than I could have ever imagined. At times, seemingly miraculously. Keep the faith!

    Best wishes with your transition.

  5. So appreciate your wresting with paradoxes about being human; these are so easy to dismiss unless we’ve the courage to really live, which you seem to have done so fearlessly. Welcome to Vancouver, BC. Being warned of the wet and grey, I’ve been delighted by the light, that is always around some corner, ready to peek under some flap of sky and just sparkles on all this water. Wreck beach in the winter at sundown is a glorious place to catch the sun before it goes down on many a winter dusks.

  6. The relocation that really worked the best for me : My life was falling apart and I was periodically needing to go to court as the judge was to determine who would get custody of my only daughter. Things were complicated and the stress so high I could easily have ended up in a mental institution again. I needed to keep a clear head cause there were important decisions I had to make. I needed to sleep enough I didn’t want to be drugged and I had to be mentally sharp on court hearing days . I thought of a quote of Thoreau’s . “Leave the pines and unnerve yourself .” I took it seriously and decided to leave my Chicago apartment behind and go on an extended backpacking tour of National Parks . A friend came by while I was preparing and wanted to come with . I said ok and we ended up backpacking in various Parks only coming back to Chicago for court dates . I had a theory that every person has a natural inner sense of time passing which living in the city throws off . Living in the city , time seems to pass very quickly . After fully 2 months of backpacking in national parks my sense of passing time did self readjust to a much slower natural speed and I felt much more balanced . The backpacking and hiking went on for 6 months. Thoreau was right . Spending this active time in the wilderness gave me the strength to endure the impossible . While in the wilderness I thought this way of life along with a fews like minded people might well be the best way to live altogether .I still do. I did end up living in a mobile close to the Dunes recreational area along the central Oregon coast minutes from the ocean shore . My daughter is happily married now and I have 2 healthy grandkids . Plus I’m free of psychiatry .