Effects of PTSD on my family and friends

I’m going to be presenting at a conference in February on living with courage and resilience with PTSD. While working on my presentation, I began thinking about the effects this illness has had on my friends and family the last seven years.

One of the reasons I continue to write and share  is because my PTSD symptoms still have a pretty good choke-hold on me and I want to bring awareness to complex PTSD and what it feels like to live with it every day. As with many mental illnesses, PTSD can be fairly invisible on the outside. The shift in my functioning once I couldn’t repress my memories any longer was pretty dramatic. But physically there was no altered appearance. Often with such a sudden onset of symptoms in an illness we expect to see changes on the outside. Most of us, are used to seeing the physical manifestations of being ill (a pained look, a limp, weight loss, pale)  my friends and family were having a hard time understanding what was going on with me.

I had always been the master of wearing many masks, and deflecting any conversation away from me, always with a supportive smile for everyone, and a reach out to me if you need something demeanor. Never, expressing a need for the same kind of support of my own. But when I couldn’t hide my illness any longer, my friends wanted to reach out and help me. I couldn’t help them, help me because I didn’t know what I needed. All I knew was that I was going crazy, and there was nothing anyone could do to help me. I didn’t need food, company, or phone calls. I needed someone to stop the madness inside of me. One day, while haveing breakfast with a friend, she expressed her helplessness at not knowing anything about PTSD and asked me “what does it feel like inside?” That question stopped me for a moment. I couldn’t find the words to tell here or to explain it, so I wrote a poem (My PTSD) and that was the beginning of sharing some of my writing, but more importantly, it gave me a safe and effective way to share with others and help me begin to understand in a fairly objective looking way how PTSD affects me on a day-to-day basis, and how the symptoms changed my way of living in the world.

My symptoms include (not limited too) flashbacks, concentration issues, becoming overwhelmed and my brain shutting down, not being able to make choices, anxiety/depression, hypervigilance, and sensitive to the triggers that start the whole shebang of symptoms. We use the term, triggers, triggers everywhere.  Like a lot of people, I’m triggered by anniversary dates and other events, but because my situation was so pervasive and went on for so many years, in so many places often regular outside noises can initiate a flashback. The wind can blow a certain way, or fireworks, or a car backfiring, even the moon can bring on flashbacks. Ugh!  right?!? But those symptoms and my reaction to them often involve my family and friends to recognize what’s happening and patiently either wait or help me through them. For a rock of a person, who never needed any help in any situation…well, you can imagine how discombobulating that can be for myself and others.

Unfortunately, my symptoms have left me with the inability to work. I went from having a wonderful career with the fringe benefits that provided me with some semblance of  comfort for the future and the ability to provide for my family to  only being able to work about 2 hours a day…on a good day. I simply can’t concentrate, do more than one task without interruption and my startle response can be off the hook sometimes.  The one thing that doesn’t seem to be damaged is my ability to use my higher level thinking skills. I have been fortunate to be able to continue to help with marketing ideas for small businesses, and help with recruiting efforts. And also, I’m able to write and have the desire to talk about this topic in public.  As long as I’m careful and don’t push past the point of my brain shutting down, I can recover and have a pretty good day. If I do push myself then I can be down for the count for several days in a row. It seems as if my symptoms (depending on the time of year) can start a chain reaction, so I needed to learn to work within my deficits. This isn’t easy or comfortable for me and because I’m still pretty new at learning how to work within my symptoms, I can find myself becoming frustrated and angry at my PTSD! Honestly, most days, if I’m going to be honest, I am VERY angry at my PTSD. But then I settle down and think about what I want for my life and try to rest and reset.

At the beginning of my PTSD symptoms, my family was just as confused and upset as I was.  No one knew what was happening and everyone was handling it in their own way and alone.  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. 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.

My symptoms have definitely affected my family and they still do today. I went from the grounded beacon to becoming almost totally dependent on them. I have been able to maintain a “mom role” and thank goodness my children are now in their twenties, but 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 right away if I am having a “bad day.” Among other things, she knows where I can look on a menu so I don’t get overwhelmed by choices, she can tell if I am in over my head and can tell if I’m triggered. My son, who I think had the biggest problem adjusting because mom wasn’t mom 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. My husband has been wonderful and supportive and picked up the slack when I couldn’t. But our dynamic has changed too. He often 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. But that has had a huge effect on our marriage. These are just a few examples on how PTSD symptoms have affected my family and friends.

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.  I also want to be honest when I speak and write on living with courage and resilience. Like any disease, PTSD doesn’t just affect one person, it affects all those in your life who care about you and love you. It’s something I’m aware of every day, it’s something my family and my close friends are aware of and it can be an uncomfortable, but never dull life. I’m sure if asked, my family may pick dull….but maybe not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Calling the Warrior to Fight my Demons

Take a deep breath-breathe-don’t project-don’t anticipate-just wait!

Take it one day, one moment at a time.

I can fight this. I can beat this.

I am determined to live the life I want and I will forge on.

Try to learn the lessons, and just sit with it….good!

I can fight this. I can beat this.

I am determined to live the life I want and I will forge on. Keep all the lessons, good thoughts, well wishes and the prayers from all the people who support and care about me and use them as Ass-kicking agents.

The healing has already begun!

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A cloudy week of PTSD

I want to wrap my brain/mind and myself in a straight jacket, cover it with honey and be put in a room with puppies so that I feel the happiness of drooling slimy puppy breath that brings smiles from oozing love.

I want this new person that I sometimes don’t recognize and feels like a shadow to go away and give me room to  continue to become the person I was feeling good about working on last week. Even though I didn’t know who I was becoming, at least I felt whole.

I want to deep breathe naturally not because I find myself holding my breath as I come out a flashback.

I want to ease the pain in my body that I know is not really there, but is there because of body memories. How about some medicine for the pain in my psyche that feels so bruised and damaged?

I want to be able to have a conversation with someone that doesn’t sound like I’m speaking through a plexiglass partition, wondering if that is really my voice saying those words; I wonder if the person knows I’m triggered?

I want to know that my pain-filled, mixed-up, fragile brain will settle down and I once again will be able to get back to the business of healing.

I want to know that this week is just a glitch. That I will once again be moving slowly along the scale of fucked-up-edness and that this feeling of sliding into the abyss of PTSD will end and I will not become a sad statistic.

I want to know that even though I don’t have the strength of mind, body and emotion right now that I am still mega-tons stronger than any abuser that ever tried to kill me physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually!   

It’s been a cloudy week of PTSD!

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A place of peace

I’m sitting in this place of peace, listening to the waves hitting the rocks reveling in the joy of their hypnotic cadence. The water sparkles like diamonds as the sun plays upon it. The seagulls are flying overhead and occasionally land on the rocky beach in pairs of two or three. They rest on the rock and seem to also be gazing out over the restless water. Next to me in the tree, I watch a spider lord over her intricate web that is filled with little bugs trapped in her silk. Off in the distance, tall purple flowers are swaying just a bit in the breeze. My triggers are reset. I am at peace, not judging, not thinking, not talking, and just resting.

Then out of the blue, it happens. First it comes as a sort of uneasiness in my stomach, and then the diamond reflections on the water became cartoonish, the bugs in the background are the noises of the desert then a wave of emotion takes my breath and stops my lungs and the world starts to morph. I can feel myself being pulled away. Just sit with it until it passes I can hear myself think in my distant mind. I feel myself stand up. Always standing, watching as others or myself “happen.”

It passes. The water becomes fluid again, the breeze touches my ice cold skin in the burning sun, the muscles in my stomach, head, arms and lungs ache from being contracted and I am standing there. Wondering what did I do wrong in this place that was just moments ago, wonderful and restful and safe. I turned it into a place where I failed to stay grounded and living normally amongst the people. Standing there turning beautiful places and people into nightmares. I want to turn and walk away. 

But I don’t walk away, I sit down, my triggers are reset, I try to feel the peace, not judging, not thinking, not talking, just resting, telling myself “just be.”

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My Anatomy of HOPE

My anatomy of HOPE:

Hearing myself speak, and read the words of what happened to me out loud; trusting that no one can ever take my truth away again.

Okay with where I am on my journey of healing. Understanding it is never a linear process, and growth is a life-long endeavor.  

Prepared to continue to do the hard work it will take to heal from the effects of my trauma.

Eventually having unyielding acceptance that being vulnerable, and authentic is what keeps me surrounded, supported and loved by the people in my life now and who I have yet to meet.  

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Zen and Grief

Some mindfulness masters teach, that you cannot fully begin to meditate until you have wept deeply. I once read a story of a Zen teacher who flirted with meditation for years before he decided to commit. He recalled how he wept openly and often for two years and after he had grieved for many things in his life, only then was he able to sit in silence.

I was sitting outside this morning, feeling the pull of profound grief and sadness for the life I had uncovered. For the loss, for the pain, for the torture for the years that I clung to survival as my only way of life. Sad for the years of having no hope, no dreams, no promises made…thinking that whoever came into my life would go. Not by virtue of old age, sickness or played out friendships. But would just turn around and go.

I began to recall the lesson about weeping. I thought about the many times during guided meditation that I would begin to shed tears. Not weeping, but feeling the unmistakable wetness on my cheek from tears. It was always at that time, I stopped and pulled myself back to reality. The reality of kids, shopping lists or work. Never understanding that perhaps those tears marked the beginning of my spirit wanting to open up, cleanse myself from grief and help guide me on my path.

Before I came in to write this, I grabbed a cottonwood floaty made a wish, blew it away and came in to write.

I wished I could go away deep in the woods without the sounds of the world and cry. I thought about a story I once read of the girl in the silver boat who had gone through the woods and came out on a beautiful shore. I thought about my intense pull to grieve.

Maybe someday I will get the chance to be like the girl in the silver boat, but then again, I realize that is just a story. A book, a metaphor. Perhaps the person who said they wept for years is also a story, a metaphor.

It seems I long for the same endings that people get in stories, movies, and books. It seems that sometimes I don’t have faith in my ability to heal completely because I feel like its just words I am supposed to feel, not feelings I am supposed to feel.

I’m having a hard time feeling the words. My body, my mind wants to feel the feelings. I yearn to be like those who have the ability to go find solace in quiet places. I’m not ready to dwell in those places. I know that its the way it is right now.  I accept it and respect the reality and the process of healing. Someday, perhaps I hope to grieve that too.

I am not a Zen teacher. I don’t necessarily want to be able to sit for hours. I do, however, intend to stay the path.  I set my intention every morning, I try to evolve but know deep down inside that without shedding the tears, feeling the words, I will never heal the way I want to heal. Without grieving over the life that was, I will just scab over and create a new gnarly scar. 

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The Courage to Speak the Truth

About seven years ago I made a commitment to myself that I wanted to live not just survive. (my personal legend)  I knew the difference between the two, as I’m sure most people have their own meaning of what  surviving vs. living is. I was clear. I knew that I couldn’t begin to fully live if I didn’t try to recover from my past trauma. I couldn’t connect to the world, be a role model to my children or release some of the PTSD symptoms that had a firm chokehold on me if I didn’t fully commit to myself; which meant having the courage to speak my truth. Even after seven years there are days when this feels too big to conquer, but my personal legend is tremendously important to me. It motivates me during the most difficult moments of every day.

I’m still learning and accepting how much my past trauma impacted every aspect of my mind and body, spirit and soul. I’m in therapy, I read, I have a magnificently supportive family and circle of friends, and I continue to seek out and build a network of people who live, grow, and change with the season. I keep my eye on my goal.

In the fall of 2014, I had an amazing experience. I had finished my first draft of Untangled. I had written the truth. I decided to publish the book for a few reasons. I started to think that maybe others who were going through, or had been through trauma, might find something in the pages they could relate to. I also thought the book could be helpful to someone who has a loved one with PTSD, to help them understand why that person acts or thinks the way they do, or to simply hear what it feels like to be a victim of trauma.

I wanted to stress resilience, the ability to survive and eventually thrive. I had reached the summits of many mountains on my journey towards living. I’m optimistic about having a beautiful life. I do have a beautiful life! I’m still very much in the middle of my healing process, it’s never linear, but there is always growth.

Untangled has been published for almost three months now. It has been an amazing and gratifying experience to have spoken at conferences, be interviewed for podcasts, and hear the feedback from those that have read Untangled. I feel like I’m not alone in what happened to me, and I have found that some others don’t feel so alone now either. I also learned, that we, as a human species all have the same feelings. You do not have to go through horrific trauma to feel intense sadness, grief, fear, anxiety, not-good-enough, shame or failure. By the time we are adults, we do not go through life unscathed and everyone’s “trauma” counts as their own valued experience. It’s getting to the place where we have the courage to go to the uncomfortable places where we decide it’s time to look deep and be vulnerable and live or stay in survival. Either choice is okay…it’s simply a choice.

I trust my journey of growth and change is never-ending. I begin each and every day ready and willing to claim my life, my truth, and my health, and to stand tall with blinders off and my eyes wide open. The story of my life is my truth, and no one has the power to take that truth away from me ever again.