Flashback to 8 1/2 years ago:
I was settling in for work, after another difficult morning of trying to get my then 16-year-old daughter out of bed for school when I received a call from the police department saying that my daughter was hit by a car while walking across the street to school and they were going to patch me through to the ambulance to talk to her. As soon as I hung up the phone, I stood up heard myself make a strange sound, heard the sound of glass breaking in my mind and then I experienced a very vivid and intense flashback (although I didn’t know what it was at the time) of a girl sitting in an airport, alone broken and bruised. And then just like that, the flashback went away, I was whisked away to the hospital by a co-worker to get to my daughter and I spent the next year tending to her health needs.
The year following Aria’s accident I was busy with tending to her health, taking her to appointments, trying to work full time, and keep our household running as normal as possible. And at the same time, I kept having these experiences that were making me feel crazy. I had worked so hard to keep my life, my family and their world so protected that the instant that Aria got hit, my controlled snow globe world came crashing down…In fact, when my son and I were talking the day of the accident, he looked at me and innocently said, “things will never be the same again.” Extremely prophetic words, that at the time neither myself nor my family had any idea what they meant.
During the course of the year, I began to become more anxious, I started losing time, I was having these weird memories that kept exploding from my mind that I would immediately smash back down; I was becoming unglued I knew something was seriously wrong with me…or that I was going crazy so I made a call to a psychologist who agreed to see me the next day.
That’s how the slow unraveling of my psyche began, or really now I look at it now, that’s how the slow knitting together of my psyche began. When I began working with my first therapist, I was anxious to get everything out that was coming up. I was telling her things that I thought would never and could never be revealed. I had no distress tolerance or coping skills at the time so I found myself in a constant state of crisis. I was becoming more and more unstable, and would lock myself in my room for hours for fear that I was going to hurt myself and I didn’t want to be around my family.My first therapist diagnosed me correctly with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but didn’t teach me the safety skills I needed before I could begin to process any memories. After nine months, I left that therapist and found the person I have been working with for the past seven years. His immediate direction was Safety First…Then Processing. (but that’s for another post)
My Families Reaction:
My poor family! I had gone from the rock of the household to this crazy, upset, out of control person. We had never heard of anything like this and my first therapist had never suggested a family meeting. My family was confused and upset, no one knew or understood what was happening and everyone was handling it in their own way and on their own. Our once, the four of us against the world family unit had deteriorated into everyone for themselves in a ship that was sinking faster every day
My husband was stunned. He didn’t know what to think. I have always been an emotional person, but I was completely unglued. I was upset, angry, hurt…nothing he said or did was okay and I took everything personally. I reacted to everything way out of proportion. At first, he thought this was fall- out from my daughter’s accident, which was even more confusing because we were pretty good at communicating about her needs and our feelings about what was going on with her during her time of convalescence.
My daughter was confused. She was a 17-year-old, with a mom who couldn’t deal with anything anymore. Because of the constant flashbacks, floods of emotion, and a dark past trying to find the light of day immediately, I was unable to discern what was real fear and danger from the danger of the past. I was transferring a lot of my fears onto Aria, texting her at school, (completely out of character for me) and then getting angry at her when she would text me back because she was using her phone at school. She was confused that I was texting her and then feeling angry that I was mad when she responded.
My son intentionally removed himself from the family. He couldn’t deal with a mom who was so upset and in crisis. He told me at one point that he hated coming home because he didn’t know what he would find. He needed me to be the mom I had always been. So he stayed away for about 4 years.
At the beginning of my PTSD symptoms, my family was just as confused and upset as I was. It was a shift in our family dynamic that none of us ever expected and we didn’t know enough at the time to get help for the family unit. That changed nine months later when I left my first therapist and started working with Kevin.
Flash forward to today:
My symptoms have definitely affected my family and they still do today. I went from the grounded beacon of the family to becoming almost totally dependent on them. After I learned some coping and distress tolerance tools I was again able to maintain a “mom role” and thank goodness my children are now in their twenties. Even though they have taken on different roles in helping me manage my illness, they still expect me to be “mom” when they need me in that role. There is no hesitation or thought, they can walk that line brilliantly and I’m thrilled to be able to function in that role when needed.
Sometimes it’s difficult to know that my daughter is not only my daughter but one of my caregivers. She is the one who can tell immediately if I am having a “bad day.” Among many other things, she knows how to help with a menu in a restaurant so I don’t get overwhelmed by choices. She can tell if I am in over my head and overwhelmed and can tell if I’m triggered.
My son, who had the biggest problem adjusting because mom wasn’t the mom he expected anymore, has grown into taking the responsibility of managing anything that is concrete and sequential. He’s a teacher by profession and he feels best when he can problem solve a problem for me. He helps me with the things that can be extremely overwhelming, like making a power point for a presentation, or having to make calls that require going through multiple layers of people before getting the right one on the phone.
My husband has been wonderful and supportive and picked up the slack when I couldn’t. He works hard, comes home from long physical days at work and still is attentive to his wife who has a chronic illness. He appreciates the help the kids provide as he has a lot on his plate. But our dynamic has changed too. He sleeps in another room because my screaming nightmares, wake him up. He has to get up at 4:30 am for work every morning, so it’s imperative that he gets his sleep. We have been married for 33 years, so we adjusted and maintain the attitude that this is a temporary arrangement in response to my illness. I just started meds, that are supposed to help with nightmares in people with PTSD. Fingers crossed!
It’s all okay, and it’s all not okay. My family dynamic has changed, and that happens. When you are the reason for the change it’s a slippery slope from feeling like a burden to feeling like this is what happens in life and we adjust. Like any disease, PTSD doesn’t just affect one person, it affects all those in your life who care about you and love you.
My son calls our life the New Normal. he said, at first, it was awful, terrible and scary. Now we know what to expect and we adjust. We all know how to work around and with your symptoms. It’s okay, it’s our life and we are lucky. As I continue to heal, and our family grows and changes our “normal” will become different all the time. I continue to stay hopeful and I’m extremely grateful that we found a way to stay together as a family ever knowing that things will never be the same. The lesson of the impermanence of life.