In a previous post I wrote about some of ways I have attempted to deal with my Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For anyone who is battling this disorder, it is no easy feat. Not only is it difficult to deal with, it is also hard to explain to others including friends, family, and even to one’s therapist. This disorder makes me feel-for lack of a better term-“crazy.” PTSD makes me feel things I don’t want to feel and drags me to places in my past that I don’t want to go. It blurs that line between the past and present so that you feel lost with no emotional anchor. Yet how does one explain this so that others will understand? This post is my attempt to describe what this experience is like for me when I have a PTSD episode. I would encourage those of you who also have post-traumatic stress disorder to share your stories. The more we talk about this openly, the more we can bring awareness to the general public. We can do this together.
It is some coincidence that I was just writing about PTSD last week and this week I experienced a full blown episode. PTSD usually begins with some sort of trigger. The thing about PTSD triggers is that they can take you by surprise. Some experts advise to write down all your triggers. The thing is…you cannot possibly know what some of these triggers will be until they happen. This is one of the horrible aspects of PTSD is that a trigger can seemingly come out of the blue without warning. Just when you think you have control and a handle on things, a trigger will remind you that these traumatic memories are still right under the surface.
My recent PTSD trigger was a news story about an owner of exotic animals who killed himself after setting more than fifty of these animals free to roam the community. Bears, lions, tigers, and assorted wild cats were hunted down and killed by the local sheriff and his deputies in order to protect the people who lived near the animal compound. Some news reports showed graphic images of the dead animals lying side by side. As an animal lover, I was horrified by this tragedy. But it was the visuals that did me in emotionally. The pleading of the owner’s wife to not to take her “babies” was also heartbreaking. It was a situation that could have been avoided had authorities stepped in years earlier to prevent this man from hoarding wild animals.
At first I felt upset but it was the sort of upset anyone feels when they hear about a tragic news story. You feel badly but from a distance. But then I heard a response on the news that somehow “it was for the best” for these animals to be killed. Those words triggered a memory I had forgotten and I could feel the episode coming. When I was eleven years old my mother, who suffers from schizophrenia, had a major breakdown. The breakdown didn’t happen over-night. It was brewing for months. She was having both visual and auditory hallucinations. She was so paranoid that she had a knife under her pillow. My mother was neglecting any self-care or care for me. We had very little food in the house and no heat except for a couple of electric heaters. It was winter and it was becoming very cold. We would wear coats to bed and I could see my breath. My mother had stopped cleaning. Mostly she would sleep, talk to herself, and smoke. She was down to smoking butts. It was near Christmas and I put up our artificial tree in our bedroom and decorated it to have some vestige of normalcy.
We also had pets. I believe I had two dogs, two cats, and two guinea pigs but my memory is blurred. These animals were my “friends”-my only friends during this time. I tried to take care of them the best I could but it was becoming more and more difficult due to my mother’s mental illness. About a week before my mother’s major break-down she refused to let me out of the house, even to go to school. She would not let me answer the phone. I had no communication with anyone and could not receive any help. Under the Christmas tree was dog poop as I had no way of taking them outside for a walk. My world was rapidly unraveling and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
My mother allowed me to go to school one day and my teachers knew something was wrong. But they didn’t pursue it and I was reluctant to share for fear of what my mother would do or what would happen as a result. On that day when I came home from school, my mother finally got out of bed, and met me at the bus stop. The following hours began my night of terror as she took me to the airport to wait for an imaginary boyfriend (one of her many delusions) to take us away. My mother repeatedly slapped me, dragged me by my wrists and hair as on-lookers walked by and did nothing. This went on for hours. I felt that I was invisible. Nobody would look at me as I searched the crowd for anyone who might help.
We did “get away” that day but not to the fancy delusional resort my mother was hoping for. My mother went to a mental hospital after police were called. My uncle, who I had not seen in years, came reluctantly to take me. I had on the clothes on my back, some school books, and the autobiography of Helen Keller. Everything I owned was left behind as well as my pets. In the days following my mother’s mental break-down, I was told by my uncle that my pets were all put down. “It was for the best” he said as an afterthought. I had no say so in the matter. I never got to say goodbye. There was no closure for me.
During the first evening of staying with my uncle he told me that this situation with my mother was my fault. He wanted to know why I had all those pets. I explained, “They were my friends.” He wanted to know why the house was in shambles and why I had not helped my mother. I was at a loss. How can an eleven-year old child stop schizophrenia or poverty? The real question is why nobody helped us. This was a man who knew about our living conditions and had done nothing. I said nothing in my defense; my voice and soul were mute. When he left me to sleep I gazed into the twinkling lights of his Christmas tree and wished I could be absorbed into the light. Tears came out of my eyes but I couldn’t feel anything. I was numb.
On that evening my world stopped. It is one of my stuck-in-time moments. And when I am triggered, I am a reluctant time traveler who must visit this time and place over and over again. When I heard the news story about the demise of all those animals followed by “it was for the best” I reverted back to the 11-year old girl who heard the same words after my pets were put to death. I loathe those words. They were also said to me when I had a miscarriage and lost my baby. It is never for the “best” when someone or something you love dies. This is not how it feels.
The recent photos of the dead lions and tigers sent me back to the time when I had lost my animals. I felt that I had let them down. I feel responsible. I could not save them or my mother. I never grieved back then. I had to go on and survive. There was no time to emote.
In therapy I was told that these events were not my fault. I accept this conclusion logically but emotionally I am arrested in my emotions. Part of me is still that little girl who didn’t get to grieve. Perhaps PTSD in some cases is like the ghosts of Christmas past like in the Charles Dickens novel, A Christmas Carol. These memories prompt us to resolve these emotional crises. But how? We cannot go back in time to change things and even if we could, some events are not changeable. But we can get out those emotions which may have been stifled from the original event.
In my recent episode I first felt that familiar panic and the wave of fright over the abuse I endured as a girl leading up to the traumatic events of my mother’s hospitalization. Sadness and grief were also invoked. I cried and howled, the gut wrenching anguish of that child who didn’t get to express all the pain and rage I had neatly tucked away for decades. My eyes ached from all the tears and I briefly felt hollowed, like a gutted pumpkin. But then a sense of peace came over me. I was still and calm. Some of the heavy weight of that childhood trauma had been lifted.
Will I be triggered again? It is very possible. Do the tears resolve things and provide closure? Not always. But I can tell you that it did help to get some of those emotions out. The healing process can be long and arduous. If you are suffering from PTSD be patient with yourself. This is not something you can fix or cure overnight. If you need help please don’t hesitate to call a mental health professional to help you deal with your feelings. If you need help in explaining PTSD to friends or family we have many articles here on Health Central about this topic.
If you have post-traumatic stress disorder we would like to hear your story. What triggers an episode for you? How do you cope? Your story may help someone else who is going through the same thing.
Here are some additional articles about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder:
• Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Memory: How We Can Change the Script http://www.healthcentral.com/anxiety/c/84292/145648/traumatic-stress
Published On: October 22, 2011