I sat in that chair. . .the same chair I'd sat in every Wednesday for the past year and a half. The arms were rubbed to a burnished gloss by myriad anxious hands and the tufts in the upholstery begged to be plucked by nervous fingers. I told my doctor everything I'd been experiencing: flashbacks, insomnia, hyper-vigilance, social anxiety, paranoia, and bouts of complete emotional numbness.
"Sometimes I can feel it coming on," I told her "and sometimes it broadsides me out of nowhere. I'll hear a certain song on the radio or run into someone I haven't seen in years and it's like a tidal wave of panic washes over me and I just go into fight-or-flight mode." I paused, picking at the chair's upholstery and blinking back my tears. "Am I going crazy?"
Dr. Mills leaned forward, silently sliding the box of Kleenex on the table in my direction. "You're not going crazy." she assured me. "Far from it. What you're experiencing is called post traumatic stress disorder."
I looked up at her in shock. "Wait. . .what? I have PTSD? What am I, Private Ryan? I've never done a tour in 'Nam."
"I think Private Ryan was World War II." Dr. Mills mused.
I shook my head in frustration. "Thanks for the clarification Dr. IMDB, but my point is: I'm not a soldier. I've never served in the military. I've never gone to war. How can I have PTSD?"
"Soldiers aren't the only ones who get PTSD, Jen." she said with a gentle smile. "Survivors of natural disasters, accidents, sexual assault, domestic abuse. . .people who have suffered debilitating injuries or illnesses, those who have lost a child. . .any traumatic event can cause PTSD. And let's face it, you've been through some shit."*
*Dr. Mills keeps it real. And she curses like a sailor with Tourettes. I love her mad hard.
"It still. . .I just. . .It can't be PTSD." I stammered.
Dr. Mills leaned back patiently. "PTSD is catagorized by the following: exposure to a traumatic event, re-experiencing the trauma through flashbacks/dreams/memories, avoiding people, places and things that remind you of the event, insomnia and panic attacks, and allowing these issues to affect relationships and other aspects of your life."
"Oh," I said. "Well. . .shit."
"Shit indeed." Dr. Mills agreed with a nod. "PTSD isn't something you just get over or outgrow, but the good news is, with treatment and time your panic attacks will be further and further apart, and you'll learn how to deal with them when they arise." She grinned at me. "And I know you. . .you'll deal with this the same way you've dealt with everything else in your life. Like a rockstar."
And I did. . .eventually. But not at first. In the beginning, I had three or four flashbacks a day. The smell of lavender, driving past a hospital, any song by The Police. . .*
*Seriously, fuck you, Sting.
. . .any of these would make my heart race and cause a panicked roaring in my ears. One time I was at Sears, looking for a new microwave. I pressed the buttons on one and the sound it made was eerily similar to that of the respirator that kept my son alive in the N.I.C.U. Five minutes later I was hunched in a restroom stall, sobbing and shaking for the better part of an hour. Events like this happened daily for about three months. . .then, every other day. . .then, eventually, they became random, isolated events. Dr. Mills was right: like diabetes or alcoholism the problem never really went away, but I learned how to manage it.
I still have events to this day, only my reaction to them is nowhere near as extreme. I try to keep it internalized, but occasionally there is some collateral damage. A few months ago I lashed out at my friend Kelly for wearing a perfume that triggered my anxiety. Fortunately Kelly's even more jacked-up than I am so she was willing to hug it out and forgive me. And the other night I got a phone call from a person who is a major anxiety trigger for me and minutes after that I projected my paranoid bullshit on my friend, Nathan, who probably thinks I'm a total whack job now.*
*I really am sorry, Nate.
But I'm not. A whack job, I mean. Well, no more than any other person tap-dancing on this spinning rock we call Earth. People with PTSD are not crazy. Sure, you'll get the isolated event of someone having a Hurt Locker flashback who'll climb a bell tower with an MK-7 but theses incidents are few and far between. In fact, most of us have greater mental clarity as a result of our trauma(s) and are a hell of a lot more in tune with reality than your Average Joe. We are not homeless drifters begging for change at a freeway offramp; we are doctors, and lawyers, and students, and stay-at-home-moms. We are that smiling barista who always remembers your order. We are the grumpy man standing behind you at the ATM. We are the laughing child on the playground clambering to the top of the jungle gym. PTSD doesn't care how old you are, how much money you have, whether or not you voted for Hillary Clinton. . .*
*Which is traumatic in and of itself.
. . .it can affect anyone at any time. So, no. . .we are not crazy. And we are not weak; we are survivors, and fighters. We have been through shit that would bring the strongest men alive to their knees and we have walked through the fire like we owned it. We get up each day, every day, and live a life of purpose and integrity. We go in, we get it done, and we do it like a motherfucking BOSS, and if that isn't the definition of strength then I don't know what is. You don't need to be afraid of someone with PTSD, or feel sorry for them; in fact you should feel honored to know someone with PTSD because in my experience, they are the funniest, kindest, and most honest individuals on the planet. And if someone with PTSD tells you about their life and allows you into their world then you should know how truly special you are, because we don't trust easily, and we are very selective who we allow into our lives. But once you are in our lives, we are the most loyal friend you'll ever have, and we will never, ever, do anything to willfully hurt you. . .we know how that feels and wouldn't wish that on anyone.
I've had lots of different reactions when I've told people about my PTSD. Some are curious, some comforting, and some simply run in fear. There are no right or wrong reactions, but there are definitely right or wrong comments. Here are some of the ones I hear most often:
“I thought only soldiers got that”
You’re right. Soldiers ARE the only ones who get PTSD. Just remember: we’re all fighting our own little wars each and every day.
“It was a long time ago. Why don’t you just get over it?”
Good point. Maybe I should just “get over it”. But, first, try a little experiment. Close your eyes, and imagine yourself in an Iraqi spider hole, surrounded by the corpses of your closest friends. Imagine yourself a terrified 7 year old child, wondering if Grandpa was going to make you touch him again tonight. Imagine holding your child in your arms and watching his life quietly slip away. Imagine yourself lying bleeding on the floor after your husband’s latest beating,then looking up to see your 4 year old child watching terrified from the doorway. Now, open your eyes. How do you feel? Get over it.
“Millions of women go through what you did. They don’t ALL have PTSD.”
Millions of people drink every day and don’t get cirrhosis. Millions of people smoke for years and never develop emphysema. What can I say? Some of us are just “lucky”.
“When are you going to be cured?”
Well. . .never. There are two kinds of PTSD: normal and chronic. The normal kind lasts from a few months to a few years, whereas the chronic kind can go on indefinitely. So, basically, normal PTSD is like a student loan; given enough time and effort, you’ll pay it off eventually. Whereas chronic is more like a 30-year mortgage; you’ll be paying off that shit for the rest of your natural-born life. According to my therapist, my PTSD is “normal” which is comforting in the sense that she doesn’t feel it’ll be a lifelong issue, but still distressing because there is no clearly-marked finish line…no countdown til completion. Just living my life wondering when the next trigger might set off another panic attack or week-long bout of insomnia. Good times.
“But you always seem so happy.”
I am happy. In fact, I am one of those people who is so pathologically optimistic that I make One Direction look like The Cure. But I'm a human being, and as such, bad things will occasionally make me sad. In the immortal words of the great prophet Winona Ryder: "If you were happy every day of your life you wouldn't be a human being, you'd be a game show host."
“It’s all in your head.”
So is ignorance. That doesn’t make it any less real.
So how do you talk to someone about their PTSD? Well, sometimes, you don't. Some people (like myself) are pretty open about their past, others. . .not so much. If your friend or loved one is pushing you away, don't take it personally. Keep in mind that withdrawal can be a symptom of PTSD. A person who withdraws may not feel like talking, taking part in group activities, or being around other people. Give your loved one space, but tell him or her that you will always be ready to help. Don't judge them or counsel them, just be there for them and let them know you're happy to listen when they're ready to talk. Be patient. Be understanding. Encourage their independence and self-esteem, and help celebrate their little victories. People with PTSD need to know that they can trust you, so always be honest with them, even if it's not what you think they want to hear. And let them know it's OK to show a little vulnerability from time to time. We aren't superheroes. I spend most of my life caring for others at home and at my job and honestly, all I really want at the end of the day is for someone to hold me and let me drop my guard a little so I can feel cared for as well.
I am blessed to be surrounded by so many loving family members, highly inappropriate friends, and a small, suburban community where my children and I can feel safe and happy. I know that not every person with PTSD is as lucky and I pray for those people every night that they can find a person or a place that makes them feel safe. . .that they can find that flickering candle that will guide them out of the darkness. We are all fighting our own battles. We are all veterans of our own wars. Be kind to everyone you meet, even if they don't seem deserving of your kindness. I've found that the rudest, angriest, and most unlovable people in the world are the ones who need love the most. Embrace your scars. Love the darkest parts of yourself. Know that you are worthy of love. Be at peace.