There is a saying: “PTSD: It’s not the person refusing to let go of the past, but the past refusing to let go of the person.” That saying is a simple way for me to understand that try as I might, there are reasons my PTSD symptoms sometimes still have a firm chokehold on me. The list can be long depending on the time of year and triggers.
Autumn is beautiful and just started here in the Midwest. Blue skies and Vermillion colored trees often coexist with 70 degrees temperatures. This time of year, from late August until it snows represents trigger, after trigger for me. While I can appreciate the wonderful weather, the long season can be challenging with prolonged symptoms and what can seem like constant symptom management. If only my PTSD understood the calendar, and I could time my flashbacks to happen on certain calendar dates, instead of seasons. That would be awesome!
There are days when the triggers and symptoms management leave me exhausted and feeling like I’m a burden to my family and close friends. I spend most of the time finding ways to work on distress tolerance, and grounding when the autumn winds blow. I was feeling terribly guilty one day about my level of functioning, until my wonderful boss said to me, “It’s okay that you’re feeling this way right now.” Suddenly, I felt less guilty and more accepting of what was happening to me. I could roll with the symptoms instead of feeling like I was failing myself, my family, my friends, and my boss.
I’m sharing my three most frustrating symptoms. Perhaps some of you will relate to them, and for others, maybe they can provide an understanding if you know or have heard of someone with PTSD. I bank on the fact that how the symptoms look today, will not be how they look in the future. As I continue the process of healing and acceptance, I have already noticed that my symptoms are not as powerful as they used to be, but they are definitely still part of my life.
Flashbacks-The most frustrating of my symptoms. They can come at any time, although I have learned that certain things will trigger them if I’m not being mindful. For instance, I was looking at a photo album I had come across on my shelf one day and realized that the images I was looking at were most probably guaranteed to trigger me. The photos quickly drew me in and I found them compelling and validating, but then realized I was heading down bad-memory lane and put them away. My flashbacks are also triggered by the time of year and anniversary dates of trauma. Certain seasons, full moons, specific dates of traumatic events, the smell in the air, and the temperature, or the cool mist emanating as low fog hovering over the ground can bring on flashbacks.
I know I need to be patient with them. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago, that I understood that I had been having flashbacks for about 30 years. I was casually telling my therapist about an incident I witnessed every night after going to bed. I was telling him how I would wake up each night and witness an event happening outside my window. I described how every night I looked out the window and saw men dressed all in black with army gear, running silently through the woods, guns aimed and ready. I was telling him this because I thought it was so unusual that my boyfriend and roommate slept through this every night. He looked at me quizzically and said, “You were having flashbacks.” He went on to explain that I lived in a very quiet, safe suburb and what I was describing couldn’t possibly go unnoticed by others. Especially if it happened more than once.
I was stunned. I just never thought I was having flashbacks, I just thought it was extraordinary that I had such heavy sleepers in my house. I learned that since I have been experiencing flashbacks for most of my life, I need to be patient as my brain slowly rewires and knows that it’s safe.
I was with a friend a few nights ago, and suddenly fireworks began to go off in the far distance. It’s the time of year that we just don’t expect fireworks to be going off, and I was in a strange place by the woods, so I was already on high-alert. My friend noticed my anxiety begin to rise. She immediately understood that I was getting triggered. She calmly said that we were hearing fireworks, and took me outside to show me we were safe, there was no danger, and that she was here with me. Just having someone who understood what was happening and intervened in such a positive way, I believe staved off a flashback. This is a huge lesson that when I trust my support and let my friends and family help take care of me (as I would of them) that I can stop a trigger from becoming a flashback in certain situations.
Unable to Work-Unfortunately, the severity of my symptoms has left me with the inability to work full-time, well, even part-time. I’m cleared to work 2 hours a day if I’m having a good day. I simply can’t concentrate. My brain shuts down. I went from having a wonderful job with fabulous benefits to disability.
I’m extremely grateful that I have been hired by a wonderful person (in fact the same person I described in the above paragraph that helped stave off a flashback) to help with her with her business a couple of hours a week.
I can’t be in an office setting. My startle response is off the hook sometimes. While doing some work in a massage business, I would startle and yelp when someone walked through the door for their massage appointment. I felt so unprofessional! The customers who are coming in for a relaxing massage are starting their wellness experience by apologizing for scaring me. Awkward for both of us. Granted I live in the Midwest and we apologize for everything, it was still awkward.
If I push my brain and don’t listen as it starts to shut down and do just one more thing, it can start a chain reaction of symptoms that can render me down for the count lasting a couple of days.
Becoming Overwhelmed: The inability to concentrate can be overwhelming for me. I know what I want to do, and what I want my brain to do but I’m simply unable to do it. I’m too overwhelmed. Making choices at the grocery store, menu choices from a restaurant, even jumping in the car to run errands can feel daunting. There’s just too many moving pieces.
Sometimes the approaching of the night feels overwhelming because I know it’s highly probable that sometime during the night I will have nightmares. I practice good sleep hygiene. I’m mindful about what I read or watch on T.V. I set my intentions, find and acknowledge the perfect moments I had during the day, use all the tools in my bag of tricks, but the nightmares still come.
And sometimes it’s nothing… I’m overwhelmed because I’m a survivor of trauma and have PTSD and that’s just the way it is, even though I wish it was different.
I had to learn and keep reminding myself that I am working hard to heal, and it’s not anything I did, or am doing, to cause these symptoms. I’m not perpetuating them, I am living with them. When I catch myself pressing play on the tape of negative self-talk, I make myself stop, sit down, reflect, rest, and try to focus on the goal of what I want for my life.
I’m assuming next Autumn will be less triggering; I must assume that, because why not? Why not continue to believe that these symptoms will lessen their choke-hold…After all, I’m asking nicely; Dear Symptoms, Please Go Away!
Thank you for reading my books: If I Could Tell You How It Feels, and Untangled, A Story of Resilience, Courage, and Triumph