my computer brain is full of bugs  (2024)

Animator and master of effortless hilarity, varg (aka mammalfriend on YouTube), has a video on their channel simply called “bullfrog” in which they discuss the infamous “bullfrog bit” from an old episode of Family Guy and explain, more or less, why the bullfrog bit is a modern adaptation of the myth of Sisyphus. They also mention during this explanation that they personally reference the bullfrog bit daily, using it as a point of comparison for many struggles and occurrences associated with relationship conflicts, mundane tasks, and the ups and downs of modern life.

In essence, the bullfrog bit is varg’s metaphor of choice when they’re trying to articulate experiences for which they have no other language.

This is mine.

setting the scene: my brain as a computer

All of this started a few years ago when I was trying to explain how PTSD flashbacks work to someone who didn’t understand exactly how flashbacks affect the brain. The original metaphor goes something like this:

Think of your brain as a computer and the different types of information it stores as “data.” On a computer, you have various types of data files, from pictures to word documents to applications, and the computer stores each of these types of data differently depending on their size and file type.

Now, think of your memories as a specific file type. When you experience something, your computer brain will record this experience as a memory — a file that is saved and subsequently stored in a specific location (think, like, Photos or Downloads, for example). Likewise, the file’s properties will most likely indicate the date of creation, meaning you will have a concrete idea of when this memory happened. Moving forward, when you open this file (recall the memory), your computer brain will be able to identify — thanks to information listed in the file’s properties — that this is something that occurred in the past.

However, when we experience trauma, the process of file saving is disrupted. This is because we may dissociate to cope with what we’re experiencing. The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD) describes trauma-related dissociation as,

“…a ‘mental escape’ when physical escape is not possible, or when a person is so emotionally overwhelmed that they cannot cope any longer. Sometimes dissociation is like ‘switching off’. Some survivors describe it as a way of saying ‘this isn’t happening to me’.”

In the context of this metaphor, the dissociation prevents our computer brain from recording the “data” of the event as a memory — the specific file type we discussed as being necessary for identifying an event as something from the past. Instead, the memory is obscured by a long string of illegible code and hidden within an unfamiliar file type our computer brain isn’t necessarily equipped to interpret correctly.

What’s more is that the activation protocol for these files is often unknown to us, at least at first. For example: if you wanted to run an application you use for doing your homework (focus), you likely have one or more methods of “opening” that file so it can run in the background while you work. But with these poorly stored and unprocessed memory files, sometimes it’s impossible to know what will activate the file until after the conditions for it have already been met.

In psychology, we call these unknown activation conditions triggers: the sensations or specific environmental conditions that pull an unprocessed memory from our subconscious into our conscious minds. People who develop Post-Traumatic Stress following traumatic events don’t get to decide what activates these memories. Triggers can include anything: the scent of an attacker’s cologne or perfume; the texture of the sweater someone was wearing during a traumatic event; the sound of water running. For those who endured repeated, prolonged trauma, the triggers can be so incredibly specific and subtle that it’s hard to even begin to identify them: someone moving just a little too quickly; a nearly imperceptible change in tone; the use of a word or phrase that wouldn’t normally carry any hostility but stings like a branding iron thanks to the way it was encoded in a series of painful memories.

Triggers activate these unprocessed “files,” and flashbacks are what happen as a result of the recording error we talked about earlier. Because your computer brain didn’t quite record the event or events as a memory file, it also didn’t record sufficient information to fill out the properties tab. This means that, when this memory is pulled forward as a result of a trigger, your computer brain will not be able to identify that it happened in the past — because there’s no data to establish that fact.

This is one of many reasons why flashbacks cause so much distress: the memories feel fresh. It feels like whatever you’re reliving in your mind’s eye is happening right here, right now, and your brain has no way to definitively tell you otherwise.

In short: PTSD causes psychological programming errors.

subscribe to join the ptsd-programming-error person club (we have jackets)

the malware metaphor: ptsd.exe

Perhaps there’s something problematic about me as an autistic person referring to my brain using computer terms — or maybe this metaphor makes so much sense to me because I’m autistic. Either way, establishing a personal canon that features my brain as a computer and my PTSD as a type of malicious code lays the groundwork for the second half of this metaphor, which I now use religiously in (and out of) therapy to describe what is often going on inside my head.

For my folks who don’t know sh*t about computers and stupid tech jargon, allow me to define for you a couple of relevant terms:

  1. Data File: All you need to know about data files to understand this metaphor is that a computer can’t typically use them until another program interprets them first.

  2. Executable File: Executable files, on the other hand, can communicate directly with the computer. The code within an executable file provides the computer’s central processing unit with a set of instructions that tell the hardware — the physical sh*t inside the machine — what to do. Note that not every executable file has the .exe file extension. That’s just a commonly used one. The important thing to note about executable files, though, is that they can also be used to infect people’s computers with Malware.

  3. Malware: Bad. You don’t want it on your computer.

To help you understand what all of this means in context, here’s a super simplified example:

Bob gets an email with a link. The link reads as follows:

marketreport.txt.exe

Bob doesn’t know a lot about file extensions, but he does know that .txt means text file, so he clicks on it, assuming it’s a word document. However, he didn’t notice that .exe on the end, which is actually indicative of an executable file. So when Bob clicks the link, he’s expecting to open a text document. Instead, he accidentally triggers an executable file that then immediately installs malware on his computer — because it doesn’t require an additional program to interpret its data. It can communicate with the computer’s processing system directly, and that’s exactly what makes it so dangerous.

With me so far? Cool. Here’s the metaphor:

If PTSD is an executable file, the debilitating symptoms I experience as a result are its malware.

Going to therapy and seeking help has been a practice in building trust. I am a deeply paranoid person who tends toward isolation. Although my core values reflect a reverence for compassion and optimism, I’m not immune to the cynicism and recurrent rage that are characteristic of chronic PTSD, and I’m not always particularly cooperative when it comes to change. I’m also pretty suspicious of therapy as an “industry,” and I’m stubborn as a mule, which means I’m often resistant to therapeutic methods of addressing my problems.

In short: I’m a really frustrating patient — but me being a little bit of an asshole is only a fraction of the whole problem.

The tools my therapist gives me to cope with my symptoms are data files. I have to process them in the program of my short-term memory first and then make the conscious decision to let them run as designed.

My malware, on the other hand, doesn’t need my permission. It can activate in an instant, and once it starts to infect my system, it is nearly impossible to stop.

While I know it generally receives more airtime than other, more stigmatized disorders, I feel like PTSD is criminally misunderstood, both by the general public and by many medical and psychiatric professionals. When most people think of PTSD, they conjure up a short list of broad, not-PTSD-specific symptoms (if they’re able to identify any symptoms at all) and a very vague patient profile that describes the experience of a very small number of sufferers. Most people don’t seem to understand that post-traumatic stress — especially chronic post-traumatic stress — is actually way worse than they think.

I have the dissociative subtype of PTSD (a.k.a. PTSD with Dissociative Features), which means that my dissociative symptoms are more clinically significant than is typical of Post-Traumatic Stress. Like many folks with PTSD, I relive the strong emotions and physical pain tied to certain events when triggered, but my severe dissociation adds another layer of complication.

When I start to have a flashback, my body and my brain shut down. I experience intense depersonalization and derealization, which cause me to feel completely detached from my body, my thoughts, and my environment to the point that I’m often rendered unable to speak or move. In moments like this, it’s not merely that I don’t want to talk; it’s that I physically can’t. It’s like I’m under a gag order wherein any amount of communication is too much, and I’m forced into silence and immobility as a psychological code adjusts the settings of my brain against my will.

In other words: once I hit this level of dissociation, the malware is already running.

And this is where the complications arise — because just being dissociated is one thing; being dissociated and trapped in that dissociation via an internal manifestation of my trauma is another beast entirely.

Although I’ve talked to my therapist about this at length, I’ve yet to find a fitting clinical description of what I experience when dissociated. It seems like nothing I say can accurately convey how I terrified I feel in that state. It doesn’t really do the reality justice, and I’ve no doubt that, to the average reader, this will likely sound f*ckin’ crazy, but I’ve tried explaining it to my therapist like this:

When I dissociate, I’m not merely detaching from myself. Something else — a piece of my psyche, a manifestation of my abusers, a version of my internal monologue — fills the space where I was, clouding over my consciousness until it feels like there’s someone else in my head with me. It feels like someone or something separate, other, alien has taken the reins, and once it has, it’s not keen on giving them back to me.

More importantly, it’s not keen on letting me get through the dissociative episode unscathed.

Imagine that you’re just going about your day, trying to be a responsible adult in recovery and not someone who falls apart at the most inconvenient times, when out of nowhere—

You are so f*cking stupid.
How could you possibly believe that things would be different this time? Don’t you get it? You don’t deserve good things. You deserve to be in pain and deal with it all alone. You are not a human being. You are not a person. You don’t get to have needs or feelings—SHUT THE f*ck UP STOP BEING SO DRAMATIC ALL THE TIME NO ONE WANTS TO HEAR THAT sh*t.

You are doomed to live your life alone. Trust no one. Stop being so f*cking stupid and naive and putting us in situations where you’re made to look like a fool for trusting someone. How fUCKING STUPID CAN YOU BE? IT’S LIKE YOU WANT TO BE HURT AND THEN BITCH AND MOAN AND CRY ABOUT IT WHEN IT HAPPENS. NEWSFLASH, IDIOT! YOU DESERVE THIS! YOU EARNED IT! AND NOW THE ONLY OPTION IS TO RUN AWAY LIKE THE COWARD YOU ARE.

YOU ARE A f*ckING COWARD. YOU DESERVE THIS. YOU ASKED FOR IT. YOU WILL ALWAYS BE ALONE BECAUSE YOU ARE A BURDEN AND EVERYONE ELSE WOULD BE BETTER OFF WITHOUT YOU.

YOU CAN’T EVEN FUNCTION LIKE A NORMAL PERSON THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO HAVE BEEN THROUGH WAY WORSE THAN YOU THAT FUNCTION BETTER THAN YOU DO WHAT IS YOUR f*ckING EXCUSE STOP FEELING SORRY FOR YOURSELF AND GET A f*ckING GRIP YOU ARE SO PATHETIC IT’S SICKENING IT’S DISGUSTING HOW YOU USE YOUR SO CALLED ILLNESS AS AN EXCUSE YOU MAKE EVERYONE ELSE’S LIVES MISERABLE THEIR LIVES ARE HARDER BECAUSE YOU’RE IN THEM SO MAYBE YOU SHOULDN’T BE MAYBE YOU SHOULD JUST KILL YOUR—

*Sigh.*

This is, in part, is what I and many other PTSD sufferers mean when we say that PTSD is disabling. Little spiels like that run through my head all the time — except it feels like someone else is giving them to me, and I don’t know how to shut them up or remove them from my computer brain.

It’s not for lack of trying. I’m medicated. I see a therapist once a week. I journal, I exercise, I drink a sh*t ton of water. I’m doing everything I’m supposed to in hopes that my symptoms will improve. And to be clear, they have! I am much better these days than I was even a few months ago. It’s just that, as I embark on the road to recovery, it’s becoming increasingly clear that my PTSD is far more severe than I thought it was.

This condition impacts every single part of my life: my personal and professional relationships, my ability to work, my physical health, my sleep, my diet, my stress tolerance, my memory, my bodily control, my consciousness, my contact with reality, my perception of the world, my will to commit to recovery — PTSD colors all of these experiences, and it’s exceedingly difficult sometimes to not just see the world in shades of black and white. It’s difficult to play-pretend as a “normal” person when my PTSD — just like my chronic pain and fatigue — disables me.

Because as much as I like to shame myself for my invisible disabilities and discredit the severity of my problems, I can’t turn this malware off, and unlike an actual computer, I can’t have someone tear me apart and wipe my system (though that would be super convenient). My only option is to do things the hard way: to face my trauma and triggers a little bit at a time. To accept that recovery is a long, complicated process, and I may never be fully free of my malware.

This little metaphor is slowly falling apart, methinks, but I hope that someone out there is able to make sense of what I’m trying to say here, which is that PTSD sucks, and it’s so much more serious and life-threatening than most people seem to think it is. I could spend the rest of my natural life trying to describe all the intricacies of this disorder, and there would still be stuff left out. It’s scary, and it’s painful, and it’s not something we can survive all alone.

If you have a loved one or loved ones with PTSD, I encourage you to talk to them about their symptoms and triggers. If they’re comfortable doing so, maybe they can shed some light on what you can do to better support them. It’s hard for folks without PTSD to understand, and that’s okay. It doesn’t necessarily have to make sense to you, and you shouldn’t put pressure on yourself to “fix” their brain — because you can’t.

What you can do is help them sort through their sh*t from time to time, either by offering direct support or encouraging them to seek support from someone else who’s better equipped. You may not be an IT expert, but with enough patience, pretty much anybody can open the task manager and try to figure out what’s slowing us down.

For now, it seems my computer brain is stuck with the PTSD malware. I guess I’ll just have to keep reminding myself that having malware doesn’t necessarily make me broken.

I’m just a little buggy.

my computer brain is full of bugs (1)

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P.S.: Not that y’all asked, but today’s essay is out a little early because I won’t be home at 4 p.m., and the last time I scheduled a post, Substack didn’t post it. 🫥

Anyway THANKSLOVEYOUBYE!

my computer brain is full of bugs  (2024)
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