Post Traumatic Stress
What does it mean to have PTSD? I am writing this post in the hopes it will give those who have a PTSD sufferer in their lives a better understanding of the struggles a sufferer can go through so they can perhaps extend them a little grace in their journey toward wholeness.
I was diagnosed with PTSD shortly after my brother was brutally murdered on his farm in Zimbabwe, although I suspect I was suffering from it before then. I got help and learnt to manage my life in such a way as to minimise the symptoms. Friends would often tease me about the some of the things I would do to keep the panic at bay – things that certainly don’t seem rational to a non-sufferer. For example, the curtains and blinds had to be drawn before it started to get dark and never opened before it got light, the windows at the front of the house kept closed, never driving in the middle lane; make sure there was always a light on if I was going to be out after dark – which I rarely did those days. I remember coming home one night after dark having forgotten to leave a light on – I sat in my car paralysed for half an hour, sobbing, too terrified to move. My heart was pounding so loud I was sure I wouldn’t hear anything else!
I can’t tell you how many times I have had things said to me like smile; forget about it; fake it till you make it; think positive; suck it up princess; where’s your faith to name a few – when in reality it is taking every ounce of energy I have just to show up, just to take the next breath. Sometimes these statements make me just want to bolt, at others they make me feel like an epic failure!
There is a part of the brain that cannot tell time but it has a good memory. It remembers what you heard, saw, smelt, thought, felt and your reaction every time your fight, flight or freeze response was triggered. So a similar sight, noise, smell or combination of these when you have PTSD means you can become stuck in a cycle of fear and panic, especially if the trauma was severe or frequent. This is not something you can reason your way out of – I have tried and failed. I am learning that because all of you experiences the trauma, it takes all of you – physically , mentally , emotionally and spiritually – to interrupt and ultimately change the cycle. That part of my brain that triggers the alarm doesn’t know how many years have passed since the traumatic events occurred, it just recognises something familiar and sounds the alarm. My heart speeds up and feels like it is going to pound out of my chest, my palms get sweaty, my breathing becomes rapid, I get the shakes, tears start to flow. Then there’s the flashbacks, nightmares and insomnia – some nights I only get 2 or 3 hours sleep for days on end…
The panic can hit at any time – on a train, in church, waiting to see a doctor, at the movies, shopping – and can be triggered by a myriad of different things – a sound, a smell, something you see. For example, a car backfires and next thing you know, you’re picking yourself up from the floor where you instinctively dropped to take cover. Sometimes you don’t even know what the trigger is.
One day I went to watch the fireworks with friends – it was like being in a war zone. Having lived through a mortar attack, the sounds were way to similar and I jumped at the launch of every big firework. The crackling noise as the firework explodes, no matter how beautiful, just sounded like automatic gunfire. Before I knew what was happening, I had my hands over my ears to try and block out the noise, it was all I could do not to run screaming from there. I have avoided fireworks ever since. Every New Year’s Eve, I go to bed early with ear plugs in so there’s no chance of me hearing them.
The other day, there was a lot of helicopter activity overhead – suddenly I was back in 1981 – there was a massacre on the outskirts of the city I lived in where thousands were killed – full blown panic! In reality, it’s 2015 and the choppers were collecting water from the ocean to put out the nearby bushfires. Problem is, the panic hit before I could reason my way out of it. It’s exhausting.
Recently I have come to realise that a lot of the time I have allowed the traumatic events in my life to define me and dictate how I order my life. Because I know some of the triggers, I have used, what my therapist calls, the outdated strategy of avoidance. I avoid crowds, busy supermarkets, fireworks, trains, buses to name a few. Effectively I have built myself an invisible prison. I hardly ever feel safe (even in my own home), I am rarely still. A simple exercise like going for a walk takes courage for me. I am hyper-alert – looking for danger at every turn. Most days when I get home from work, I lock myself in and don’t leave again until the next morning.
I have come to understand that the strategies I have used to survive and cope have caused me to end up alone! I avoid any kind of intimacy. I feel cheated – it’s too late for me to choose some those things now that I avoided – like marriage – but I have to believe it’s not too late to thrive. That is why I am taking these mini time-outs, forcing myself to go and watch a sunset or take a walk on the beach. I became so conditioned to being alone and being self-sufficient that I rarely thought to ask for help, by circumstances are forcing that to change.
Clearly my coping mechanisms are not always working so I have to learn new strategies and practice them in the calm times so that I can short circuit the brain’s alarm system, stop the panic. I need to build new neural pathways so the brain’s default is not always set to sound the alarm! To quote a friend ‘It is indeed possible that you can thrive, even after the most challenging of situations’. I need to believe this is true or else there is no reason to get up in the morning, no reason to go on. I am told by the experts that I will always suffer from PTSD to some degree, but I can learn to minimise the impact on my life.
Where does my faith fit into all of this? At times, it is the only thing that has kept me alive, the only thing I have had that made any sense. It has given me a sense of gratitude – I know many have gone through much worse than me and been able to thrive. It has given me what little hope I have. It makes the good days better and the bad days bearable.