It’s been five years, myriad careers, a full cycle of friends, great loves lost, and a good deal else that has brought me to this moment. At first I didn’t know what was happening. I figured it was bad culture shock. I’d just returned from serving disasters all over the United States. I didn’t sleep for the first two months due to night terrors (about zombies, no less). My then partner told me over and over that I had changed, which is hard for someone who is scared and lost to hear.
It was six months before I figured out what was going on. I was so confused by memory gaps and my inability to connect with the people that I’d loved, so I called the person that had served as our counselor during my time away. I knew she’d have a basis for understanding what I’d experienced and how it might be affecting me. Her response: “It sounds like you experienced trauma. Do you feel traumatized?” It hit me like a brick, and naturally started a deluge of research.
But I didn’t get help, though my partner urged me to do so. I continued in denial. I feared bias and slanted eyes, even from the ones I loved. I thought that the strength I’d found to pull out of suicidal depression when I was 14 could be used for this. In fact, the denial lasted until a week ago, through further stress-related mistakes.
The unfortunate fact is that PTSD is a bit of a sleeping troll. You can make all the noise you want, cause a ruckus, go away and come back, and the troll won’t wake. Then, one day, out of the blue, he decides he’s hungry and he’s going to gnaw on your life.
What Happens When Your Love Hurts You
Disaster Relief and Humanitarian Aid was everything I’d wanted in life. Even at age 13, I would rebuke my parents’ concerns for my well-being by stating, “Someone’s got to do it.” It was urgent, compassionate, and (being a story teller) something to advocate. I have always been good at connecting with people and making them feel comfortable. I excelled as a caseworker after Hurricane Katrina and the Samoan Tsunami, and would tell the stories of my experience so their plight wasn’t ignored.
Imagine the confusion when the very thing you want to do causes a fear response – panic attacks. That’s what happened when I returned home. I’d tried to continue my membership with the American Red Cross so I’d have a chance at deployment to other disasters as a self-employed civilian. Even as I write this, I think it’s a great idea. As my love for photography grew, I trained with them to photo-document local disasters. Yet, every time I entered the office, my heart seized. I couldn’t breath. I felt like everything was crashing down on me.
In an effort to rationalize what was happening, I figured I’d start my own nonprofit organization. It specialized in Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief, but was inclusive of secular volunteers – I’d realized that without church or school affiliation, volunteer opportunities were slim. It went well for a while, but it, too, eventually floundered and died due to its similarities to what I’d experienced.
If the one thing you’re sure you want to do suddenly became torture, what would you do? I did what would be expected of me – float. I spun my wheels, whittling at my personality to isolate individual things I excelled at, and marketed them as new companies. All the while I was working toward figuring out which parts of my life my brain had ‘blacklisted’.
Not Just For Veterans
PTSD used to be known as ‘Shell Shock’. Military personnel would come home fundamentally altered, often abandoning themselves to drinking because they didn’t know what was wrong. Families that weren’t close knit would likewise leave their relative to float, unsure of what else to do. Love and support is one of the most important things one needs while going through the effects of PTSD, but before it was understood as an actual disorder, veterans were told to ‘man up’ and move on.
I really want to outline that PTSD doesn’t just affect veterans or military personnel. This may be apparent since you’re reading an article written by a woman who wasn’t in the military, but I want to impress this on the public at large.
I was diagnosed during a period of negative news coverage about PTSD affected veterans and violent crimes. It was scary and deterred me from getting help for fear of discrimination. I didn’t want the stigma of a loose cannon, someone unable to control herself.
PTSD happens under circumstances of great stress. Often these circumstances are life-threatening, but on a long enough time scale with the right amount of stress, the brain rewires what ‘survival’ means. When one returns to ‘regular life’, those survival tendencies don’t fit. The brain also records the experience as emotion, rather than as a normal memory, making it an easy trigger.
Why Are We Hiding?
So often we are pressured to hide PTSD. But why? Do our experiences not shape us into who we are, today? If you want to know who I am or where I’m from, this is just as relevant.
I have, over and over, had friends I thought were close and compassionate totally shut down when I bring up my experience with PTSD. It affects my daily life, and talking about it is the first step to recovery (by discussing the experience(s) leading to the disorder, the brain reroutes the experience from emotional trigger to a normal memory). I honestly believe that if we open up and share with the world, the world will start to understand, accept, and support the shape our minds have taken.
If you or a loved one are suffering from PTSD and you want to know more, here are some of my favorite resources to get started. Please bear in mind that PTSD is extremely personal, and while many symptoms may appear the same case to case, triggers are usually very individualistic and may take time to recognize fully.
Why PTSD Needs Treatment – Some triggers and signs.
Anger and Trauma – Some things you may be experiencing.
PTSD and Activists – An extensive list of symptoms and how to support.