What PTSD Means to Me

It’s PTSD Awareness Month, so let’s go over what that means.

I am one of many who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a.k.a. PTSD.

I say this to someone and most of the time they reply, “What?”

It means a trauma happened, and even though it happened it the past, the footprint it left in your mind is so severe that any time conditions appear to be the same as during that trauma, usually described as “when a trigger happens,” your body undergoes extreme stress and expresses that stress in a physical and/or mental reaction. Sometimes even having to recall the events unexpectedly can be all the trigger you need.

The mind is a beautiful, crazy thing.

If you still don’t get it, think of this: Ever spoken about something attached to any kind of strong emotion and felt that same emotion almost exactly as when the event happened? How about remembering how it felt when you tasted straight lemon in your mouth? Men: how about watching another guy get kicked in the groin?

If any of these evoked physical reactions from you as you read about them, such as your mouth watering at the thought of pure lemon in your mouth, or wincing at the thought of a groin injury (sorry, fellas), then you can begin to see how PTSD works. Your brain, in all its splendour, has stored a physical memory of that thing. Everything in life that we do has a physical and/or emotional memory attached to it. If we haven’t done that particular thing before, we are reminded of a time we did something similar. When these memories occur, we can often feel very physical reactions to them.

At this moment, I am typing. I am typing at the rate of about sixty words per minute. I could not do this if the physical memory, muscle memory, of all the practice I’ve had was not in my brain, at the ready. This is an instinctual thing, part of growing up and being human. Similarly, as part of humans adapting to protect ourselves from harm, we involuntarily store memories of dangerous situations for future, protective reference.

So the soldier who has gone to war and seen all kinds of awful things, will often come back “shell-shocked.” It happens more often than you think. There is a really good representation of this that is currently in the process of being created. I found the trailer really interesting. check it out below, or at http://www.burdenoffreedomthemovie.com

As you can see in this trailer, the returned soldier is no longer at war. But the trauma from the experience has left such a lasting impression that they can’t help but feel like they are right back in that situation, again, and again. It can be so tragic, turning people who were once just as normal as the next person, into altered versions of themselves with undesirable reactions to things that don’t seem to be bothering anyone else. I’m not comparing my PTSD to what is shown in the trailer. But regardless of severity, PTSD is PTSD.

What PTSD means to me is that if I’m minding my own business in my house and the phone rings, my heart races, I get sweaty palms, and feel immediately scared and on edge. Of what? Well, there have been times that I have picked up the phone and had abuse hurled at me. I would block the numbers of the people, they’d call from private numbers, I’d pick up the phone and have a nasty surprise. The verbal abuse and associated behaviours of the people that used to do this was so bad, and lasted for so long, I now hate phones. Especially when they’re ringing.

Here’s an example: after losing absolutely everything in 2008, I had bill collectors calling me. I had no money whatsoever. I had lost so much there was no way I could work. I was a wreck. I was only twenty, I didn’t have savings, my family was not rich in the slightest, yet here were these bill collectors calling me and telling me to “grow up” and pay this bill that only resulted because I had forgot to cancel a gym membership for a gym I attended twice. I had nothing, and they were literally calling me all kinds of names and reducing me to tears as I tried to explain to them why I couldn’t even begin to pay them for this. It was really awful and I never want to experience that again, so I avoid the phone and avoid calling anyone unless I absolutely have to.

If I hear someone closing their car door outside, I look around to see what kind of car it was. I peer through my curtains, trying to be invisible, to see if it’s the car of someone I don’t want at my door. Every time. And it’s because I’ve told people in the past not to come to my house, and they still have. I’ve been stalked before by people who have caused a lot of harm in my life, and I live in constant fear that they’ll find my new address and show up at the door. And if they ever do, I’ll probably have to move.

If I see a car that looks like the car of someone I used to know but don’t want around me ever again, I panic. I could be driving and suddenly be very paranoid that the car I’ve spotted might be following me. I continue to panic until I see that the driver is a stranger and not someone I should worry about. For these reasons I memorise licence plates.

Once when I heard a car door outside, and had lately been stalked by my narcissist mother-in-law, I actually passed out. My heart raced, I sort of fainted, and the person who was there at the time actually thought I was dead. I came to suddenly, with an instant feeling like I was burning, confused and disorientated. I heard a popping and fizzing noise in my ears, and my skin was hot all over. Because of this incident, panic attacks are that much more terrifying, as I truly believe I could have gone into cardiac arrest that night and actually died.

If my doorbell rings, or someone knocks, I hush the children and try to pretend no one is home until I can peek through the little peek-hole and see who it is. If it’s a friend who has shown up unannounced, I will still only reluctantly open the door. And even then I’m a bundle of nerves for a few minutes until I can calm myself down and tell myself it’s okay.

Confession: With the exception of one friend who has known me long enough to be allowed to surprise me at my door, showing up unannounced is almost like a black mark next to someone’s name in the book. Once is an accident. I’ll probably try to hint that showing up unannounced isn’t the best idea when dealing with me. If they do it again, we’re probably not going to stay friends. They could be perfectly wonderful in every other regard, but I can’t have people showing up at my door without notice. It can cause a panic attack and all the feelings associated with the nasty people who used to do it in the past are then associated to these unsuspecting people, and when I think of them in the future I begin to feel bad feelings toward them.

One of the first things I remember occurring due to PTSD, was when I was about ten years old and was on a trip with a group of kids. I had fallen into a hot tub, and had bruised my leg so badly there was a huge lump on it. I could hardly walk. Because we were there for a competition and I was in so much pain, the male chaperone tried to give me a children’s Tylenol. (This is a chewable acetaminophen (paracetamol) with a strawberry flavour.) I lost my mind over it. I was hysterically crying, refusing… they could not have prised my mouth open to give me this thing. Finally the guy shouted at me “Quit bitchin’!” and I was so intimidated I finally took it.

To them I was just throwing a fit for no reason. But I was not the kind of child who used to throw fits for anything. And I didn’t know at the time why I reacted this way. But years later when I began to have certain flashbacks, I finally understood…

I had been in a daycare that was run by an evil family parading as children’s pastors. The wife would give us “vitamins” that were children’s chewable Benadryl, strawberry flavour. This is an antihistamine with a drowsy effect. It would put us to sleep and the husband would abuse us. They would show us movies where people were being maimed and said that if we ever told, our mom would suffer a similar fate. I was almost three years old at the time, but this period of time has affected me throughout life, most specifically when being around men or pressured by men. And to this day I will not let medicines touch my tongue. I put water in first, then pill, then swallow with more water.

PTSD means to me that when I am unexpectedly asked to recall events from the past that were traumatic, I am filled with sorrow. I cry in public a lot. I blame part of this on my American-ness, because apparently Americans express emotion a lot more freely than the British, but a lot of it is Post Traumatic Stress. Having to recall events suddenly can put me in a funk and I will stay in that funk for days, which brings me to perhaps the most important point of this article:

The reason(s) why anyone is suffering PTSD is none of your business. Don’t suddenly ask them about it.

I mentioned in Why I Chose to Speak Out that I am not working at the moment. This means that I occasionally have to go for a review so they can deem whether I’m ‘disabled’ enough to qualify for benefit. During my latest meeting at the JobCentre, the woman assessing my case was asking me all kinds of questions. Keep in mind, my doctor has told me not to work right now. Several other support agencies have told me not to work right now. I have been through a lot in the past year alone that is enough to deal with, now compound that with a lifetime briefly described in the article cited in this paragraph.

The woman asked me what I’d been diagnosed with. I told her PTSD, anxiety, depression. She said, “And what do you think the PTSD stems from?” I was shocked.

A bit bewildered, all I could begin to say was, “Uh… my life?”

I had to sit there, in this office full of people waiting on chairs, people behind desks, people everywhere, my youngest son at my side, and find a way to answer this woman. I strongly felt that she had no business asking this question, but she was sitting there typing away on her computer into the system holding the records of my life and the power over my keys to living it, and so I tried to answer her. I immediately burst into tears.

After fumbling an answer (which was really a list, because it was no one thing but several and I was otherwise lost for words) she eventually agreed that I shouldn’t be working right now. But I can’t shake the feeling that was a bit of a sadistic thing to do. Either she likes to make people suffer and watch their reaction, or she didn’t understand at all what PTSD implicates.

PTSD means to me that if someone tells me that’s been their diagnosis, I say “I’m really sorry” and I do NOT say “That must be hard” (because we don’t need to be reminded or told how to feel), or “What do you think that stems from?”

If I have a friend with PTSD, I ask “What do I need to know about this?” and let them tell me what to avoid when interacting with them.

You would not serve your vegetarian friend a rare steak. So don’t ask someone with PTSD to tell you why they’ve got it.

To ask them to explain why they’ve got it is to ask them to recall the incident that caused it. That is most certainly a trigger. Like serving a vegetarian a bleeding piece of meat and forcing them to eat it, this is cruelty for someone with PTSD.

Their reactions could be so much more than just crying or getting sweaty palms. You could find yourself in a dangerous situation very quickly if they suddenly suffer a dissociative episode (black out) and go into survival mode.

If not danger for yourself, it could be dangerous for the other person. This stuff is no joke. Panic attacks are not fun, feeling out of control of your reactions is not fun. (Yes panic attacks are real, no they are not made up, and it could happen to absolutely anyone.)

PTSD means to me that because a trigger could happen anywhere, at any time, I don’t go out much. I don’t socialise much, and if I do, I have to put on a brave face and force myself to do things. Because people in everyday life don’t understand, and can easily label sufferers of PTSD “crazy,” the best option for many is to shut themselves away. The lack of understanding of this condition, the same as with most mental health issues, is ultimately delivering a death sentence to those of us who have these conditions.

We are being forced into cages, we who were once just as normal as the next guy, because of luck of the draw, because of ignorance, because of the stigmatization of something that could strike any one of you suddenly and without warning (though I really hope it doesn’t, because I wouldn’t wish this on anyone). In these cages we cope day by day until we cease to exist. Is that really living?

PTSD is like a mental scar from an occurrence that caused a mental wound. In order to reduce its similarity to a death sentence, it would be wonderful if everyone took some time to educate themselves on the condition. Especially those who might come in contact with people affected by this. If not, I hope this article from one person’s perspective has given enough of an introduction to the subject, with a few key points to consider.


Video clip used with permission of Burden of Freedom.

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It’s Still Self-Harm

I suffer from generalised anxiety disorder, depression, and PTSD, that I know of. As much as these diagnoses say “mental illness” or “mental health issues,” for me they are also very physically related. Not only do I feel like I’m being zapped with volts upon volts of electricity as I shake, sweat profusely and get clammy palms at the thought of confrontation, but I am constantly worried about my body. And not in a way most people would think.

When I started doing these blog posts and looking through my hard drives for photos I thought would be appropriate, I saw my body in the various sizes it has been in the past five years. In 2010 I weighed about sixteen and a half stone. By the end of 2011 I was ten stone. That’s about ninety pounds’ difference, over forty kilos. Since that time I’ve put on ten pounds here, twenty pounds there, then freaked out and made resolutions and worked it back off again. When I see the pictures of how big I was, I feel disgusted that I could’ve let myself get that big. When I see the ones of me smaller, I think how good I looked, how I wish I could be that size again, but also how I remember still feeling huge and disgusting at the time. Over the past six months I’ve put on weight at a rate so much higher than ever before, and am now a good thirty pounds heavier than a weight I’m comfortable being. Except I’m only comfortable with being any weight in hindsight, because no matter what size I may be, I still feel uncomfortable. This got me thinking… what is my problem?

I see these people running around outside in their spandex and neon shoes and even when they’re three hundred pounds heavy, I envy them. I envy that they have the courage to get out there and sweat, running around alone in public, because I would hate for people to be looking at me doing that, regardless of size. I hear of consistent runners and exercise-doers and I am in admiration of how these people can keep these routines in place. I envy myself when I look at my pictures, for being able to get in shape all those times. Sometimes I have no idea where that discipline came from, but I want to find it again.

When I moan about my weight to those I know, thinking how annoying I must sound that I’m even talking about it, I hear generally encouraging things. Some people tell me I’m not too big at all, that I still look great, but thanks to anxiety I don’t accept this as truth. I’m not fishing for compliments from them, but in my head they’re looking at me and seeing all the things I see when I look at me, which is this bulge and that ripple and that flappy bit and this crease, and I feel the need to excuse myself for how I am. I feel they hate me for whining about it, but I can’t stop. They waste their words reassuring me about something which will only stop being an issue when I stop using it to hurt myself.

As I went through another bout of deep depression and started gaining a little bit of weight this year, I felt not only angry with myself for getting carried away with my eating habits, but a masochistic sense of relief and a compulsion to keep getting bigger. I stopped caring about how much butter I put in this, or how much sugar was in that, and completely threw out my own philosophies on eating properly. I was beating myself up constantly that I was only compounding my own problem and making more work for myself. I knew that if I didn’t hold back the portions, my clothes would no longer fit and I’d have to buy more, which I couldn’t afford. But then I’d buy another tub of ice cream, and go to the scale and feel worthless and stupid for gaining another three pounds in one week.

After thinking heavily about it, I’ve come to understand why I do this. I don’t harm myself in the traditional sorts of ways most people would think of when they hear “self-harm” but this is a cycle of anguish that never seems to end. It’s still self-harm even though there’s no blood or bruises.

When I’m feeling better and more motivated, I can look in the mirror and appreciate my stretch marks as “mommy stripes” and my returned layers of fat as “womanly curves” and “proof I’m eating,” which is good in a way because I’ve experienced loss of appetite for weeks at a time and starvation due to poverty alike. But within a matter of days or even minutes I’m saying all kinds of mean things to myself and going to the cupboards to find something high in fat, salt and carbs. It doesn’t feel the same as “emotional eating” where people binge when they’re either happy or sad. It is deliberate sabotage of what I know in my conscious self to be healthy and good for me.

When I’m bigger that means I’ve also stopped doing any kind of real exercise which equates to weaker muscles. When my core is weak I can have excruciating and debilitating back spasms. When I have that extra layer I experience the cutting off of circulation and numb limbs when I’m on the floor playing with the kids. I’m slower. I have less energy. I increase my risk of developing diabetes, which runs in my family. I stop going out of the house. I stop seeing friends. I feel ashamed when I see people who knew me when I was smaller and this can trigger panic attacks. I create more pain of the physical, emotional, and psychological varieties. I tell myself I’d be so much healthier and happier if only I were smaller like I used to be, while simultaneously feeling fear of being that size again.

The fear of being healthier is attached to the incidences in the past in which I was sexually and non-sexually harassed or assaulted by others. When I’m smaller I get a lot more attention for the way I look while loathing the ‘lookers’ for being so shallow. In addition to more serious incidences of abuse, there have been times in the past when I’ve been followed through town at 5:30am by a large man making kissy noises at me, been touched inappropriately in the workplace, been disregarded as an intellectual based on stereotypes of pretty girls (so much wrong with that), been asked to flirt to earn the company free work, been whistled at, hollered at, objectified and singled out for being attractive. I’ve faced competitive attitudes from co-workers, hatred, animosity, and bullying from other women, threats to my well-being, and general negativity.

But those things are in the past, and it’s the anxiety and PTSD telling me to be afraid of what I should be doing for the sake of my health because if I do it, I might get hurt. It’s nonsense, but that’s the difference between one who suffers from these conditions and one who doesn’t; the privilege of rational thinking.

I know that if I exercise and eat appropriately I’ll slim down and my nicer clothes will fit, my release of endorphins will increase, I’ll feel more confident, have more energy, a more consistent heart rate, possibly a reduced rate of panic attacks, and so many more benefits. I know that if I just put my workout clothes and shoes on, turn on my fitness DVD (because there is no way on this earth you’ll find me jiggling, panting and sweating in front of strangers), I will be done in about thirty minutes and feel really accomplished. I know this, but in the straightjacket of depression I can hardly bring myself to do what is needed to get it done.

These are three invisible illnesses among many. Their ability to manifest in a physical form can include literally preventing a person from doing or saying something they know they should, and compelling them to say or do something they know they shouldn’t. It hurts to know these things have any power over me, despite all my stubbornness and shows of determination and willpower in my former years. And it hurts even more that even though I accomplished so many amazing things before, I can be prevented from doing a few silly crunches and lunges.

So as I’ve been writing about strength and putting one foot in front of another, I thought it time that I get back up and try again to take my own advice… and I’ve done two workouts in three days. It’s no big deal on paper but any victory over self-harm for someone battling it feels like a gold medal.

…and if this sounds like you, reader, you’re not alone.

Get back up off the floor and keep going, keep fighting.

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Photo and design of papercut: credit Lucy Jerwood http://www.facebook.com/twinklecuts?refid=12 (Thank you Lucy!) Artwork created for the Always Keep Fighting Campaign (see here).