Only a couple months ago I begrudgingly wrote about an awareness month ~ Limb Loss Awareness in April ~ and I recall thinking (and writing) that I could perpetually go from one month to the next banging my proverbial gong and demanding attention for whatever condition was represented in that month. As I said then, the banging gong is usually easily ignored unless it is in your house. I could go on at length about Antiphospholipid Antibody Syndrome, that intriguing blood disease that has caused me so much harm, as June is the awareness month for it, but as interesting as the disease is to me, it really doesn’t mean much to anyone whose life hasn’t been touched by it. Besides knowing me in whatever sense you know me, as a friend or reader, most of you, I’d wager, have no connection to APS at all so what would be the point? Awareness of APS might get a handful of more patients treated ~ perhaps ~ but beyond that the reach of my words won’t have the potential to change quite so many lives as they would should I choose to talk about another condition that impacts far more people that is also addressed this month:
Post Traumatic Stress (Disorder) ~ PTS(D)
Yes, June is “PTSD Awareness Month” and while there is a part of me that wants to keep quiet on such a misunderstood condition and how it has impacted my life, there’s another part that thinks that being vulnerable and brave enough to speak truth about it might potentially change more lives. Besides, I rather think there’s something sexy about being unabashedly honest with one’s truth.
PTS(D) ~ I cannot even begin to guess what went through the mind of each of you as you read those letters.
Did you think of some news story about some soldier returning from war and seeming utterly crazy?
Did you think about abuse and addiction being blamed on PTSD?
Perhaps you thought of suicide and the now infamous statistic we are all aware of with the 22 veterans a day who commit suicide?
Maybe you thought of the constant issues you’ve seen addressed in the news with how the VA has addressed veteran mental health, or you thought of some war movie or other that you think showed the “reality” of PTSD?
Maybe you’re connected to the military community yourself and you thought of friends, or maybe even yourself, in the struggles they have faced to reintegrate into “normal” life after having experienced the trauma of combat?
Maybe you thought of something completely unrelated to the military when you thought of PTSD, like someone trying to recover from the emotional trauma of a terrible car accident or abuse, from recovering from having been raped or witnessing murder, from seeing someone spiral into depression to the point that they felt like suicide was the only escape from the hell inside their head?
Post traumatic stress does not have to be related to war, although the two are obviously linked, but can come from experiencing or witnessing any traumatic or terrifying event and the difficulty one finds in recovering from that experience. You’ll note I put the D in parenthesis? It’s because I object to the idea that recovering from trauma is a disorder. Any one of us at any time may experience something that shakes us to our core to the degree that we struggle to move past it or heal from it no matter how much time has passed and no matter how much logic and reason we apply to our memories of what happened. Struggling to cope with trauma doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us, it means that we are human beings with morality and with a soul that was wounded by our experiences. I worry far more about those who do not seem at all to struggle to cope with trauma because what kind of person isn’t traumatized in the least by traumatic life events?! I’m not talking about having healthy coping skills and being able to address the trauma, I’m talking about the coldness of Dexter, unable to make the human connection at all or unable to be impacted by the darkness they’ve experienced.
I have been diagnosed with PTS at different points for different experiences I have had that have left a permanent mark on my soul.
I am among the most level-headed and rational people you will ever meet. I can look critically at situations and concerns, finding a way to the root of the problem, and addressing them without becoming so emotionally embroiled that I cannot see reason or function. But I have experienced traumatic events that have seared themselves so effectively into my subconscious that despite all my logic and reason, I still continue to react to things that trigger those emotions and the fears they speak to.
A terrible car accident: I hesitate when making lefthand turns across traffic and my mind races in traffic as I watch every mirror and window for unexpected movements with other cars.
Assault: I have a hair trigger now and I listen far more to my intuition than I used to. I’m not afraid to defend myself but I certainly avoid situations that put me at a disadvantage. A long time ago I’d have had no problem being in the middle of a crowded room but now I prefer to be on the edges, near an exit. Being in a wheelchair definitely leaves me feeling more physically vulnerable than I used to feel and even in a small group I feel my hackles rise when people get too close or too forceful. I worry about how I will feel when I finally have a leg to stand on again: will I feel more secure again?
Emotional and physical abuse: Despite all I understand about how it started and why it took so long to recognize it for what it was, I still blame myself and question how I ~ as intelligent as I am ~ could have been so stupid. I don’t trust people like I used to, that’s for sure, and I wonder if I ever will. I feel like the innocence and purity of spirit I had were taken advantage of and used to ensnare me. I have friends who still see my openness as it was before, but I know a part of why they still see it is because they knew me when I was innocent and I know I’m safe enough with them to be open without worry; they’ve also all seen my quick reaction when something triggers an emotion or memory, though I don’t know if they realized why.
My logic and reason couldn’t protect me from those things. They couldn’t stop them. They couldn’t change the impact those experiences had on me. No amount of rationalizing what led to these experiences or pouring over the memories and flashbacks can change that I have lived through and survived trauma.
Trauma has the power to change you to the degree that even your personality can become profoundly altered from the experience because trauma comes hand in hand with fear.
Fear is a natural and normal response to danger and it brings up within us the urge to fight, flee, or freeze. Researchers have known for decades that adding the fear of pain or discomfort is enough to change the behaviors of people and animals completely even when the possibility of pain or discomfort is removed. The fear of rejection is as strong a stimulus as the fear of death because the same stress hormones are released when the brain senses an opportunity to fear. While we can train ourselves to react differently to different dangerous situations so that we can continue to do what we need to, like learning how to do CPR and first aid, learning how to tactically move during a firefight to get to safety and to rain down hellfire on the enemy, learning how to wrangle 30 6 year olds during a fire or lockdown in a school, and learning how to react when a deer jumps in front of one’s car, we are not changing the fact that those stress hormones have been released into our bloodstreams. Firefighters learn to run into burning buildings despite all the logic and reasoning behind not doing so. Police officers and soldiers learn to run toward the gunfire instead of away from it. EMTs and medics learn to render lifesaving aid even in the midst of horrifying accidents, mass shooters, and combat. They have trained themselves to react differently to the stimulus of fear in those situations but that doesn’t mean that the fear and trauma related to those events will not impact them.
I can process the events I’ve experienced and address the emotional and physical trauma I experienced because of them, but I can’t change the fact that there are now stress responses ingrained into my brain and body as the result of them.
I can go through every flashback to every horrifying moment of those events, reliving the fear and acknowledging it’s impact on me mentally and physically, but I cannot take away or turn off the switches that were flipped.
One of the most unfortunate impacts of PTS that I see is the rise of Secondary PTS that is the result of experiencing someone else’s PTS and hearing about their traumatic experiences firsthand. This impacts family members, spouses, caregivers, and those whose profession brings them in direct contact with and within the care team of those experiencing PTS. The act of listening and empathizing with those with PTS takes an emotional toll and living with someone whose PTS causes them to react to different stimuli in uncommon ways can cause others to react similarly. As if my own PTS isn’t enough, I have secondary PTS from living with, loving, and caring for someone who has PTS from combat. Anything that at any point would make his PTS come to the surface, making him “twitchy,” now makes me twitchy.
There’s no logical reason why when I see objects on or by a roadway the first thought I have is, “IED,” except that reacting to his memory of an IED became so commonplace for a time that it became a part of my behaviors as a means of alleviating his reactions.
It doesn’t make sense that I can’t watch war movies anymore, even ones I used to love, without getting twitchy and thinking of the hundreds of stories I’ve heard from the soldiers I’ve met and become friends with over the last 13 years, but I do. Why should a movie about something that happened 70 years ago make me dream about some familiar tale from a friend that happened in a war 60 years later? Yet it happens. A lot.
There’s no rational reason when awakened from deep sleep by fireworks or a car backfiring that I should think, “oh shit… taking fire,” or, “oh my God, someone’s breaching the door,” or, “fuck… RPG,” when I haven’t been in combat and experienced any of those things, yet I have had those reactions more times than I care to admit. I’ve been around those whom I cared about and empathized with when they reacted so many times that those reactions became my own. It takes less than a second for me to realize how absurd it is that I had those momentary thoughts but it doesn’t change that I woke thinking about what to do in those situations because it is what they used to do when they were triggered by a momentary flashback to some event or other.
Anyone who has ever slept next to someone who experienced PTS related night-terrors learns really quickly how to react to those particular night-terrors. All the combat and military lingo and appropriate responses I learned from listening to the stories came in handy when the terrors would come because if I used them, the terrors would fade, but if I tried to wake him from the terrors they got worse. When the terrors stopped, my reactions didn’t because I’d been living with the ghosts of combat long enough and the stress from those ghosts changed how I behave in those situations.
There’s this misconception about PTS that it breaks a person and that the person suffering becomes a danger to themselves or others simply because they have PTS.
While there are times where the darkness within PTS can become so dark that it feels like there is no escape, while there are a few examples of those whose reaction was such that they were a danger to themselves or others, that doesn’t mean that every or even most of those experiencing PTS are in that darkness or have become that dangerous. While there are those whose darkness takes them down paths toward abuse, addiction, infidelities, thrill seeking, and depression, that does not mean that PTS always means those vices will or do arise. I would wager that most of those who are living with PTS are functional and capable of living perfectly normal and healthy lives as long as they get the help they need to sort through the traumatic experiences they’ve lived through.
I can address my post traumatic stress and learn how to control my responses to things that trigger those reactions.
However, the truth is that PTS is not something that can ever be completely healed because the impact of that stress cannot be taken away, so although I may be able to move on there can and will be permanent changes in my brain and in my personality as a result.
That doesn’t mean that I’m broken.
It doesn’t mean that I’m ruined.
It doesn’t mean that I’m dangerous or that I can’t bear to live.
It means that I’ve experienced trauma firsthand and I’ve survived.
I think that makes me pretty badass.