For a change of pace and in a bit of balance, I wanted to write a post about what it’s like to live with somebody who has PTSD, because of course, that is certainly no picnic at all. In fact, I’ve been wanting to that from the beginning of publishing the PTSD stuff. I tried, about half a dozen times. I think I wore out the words ‘backspace’ on that button. It turns out, I can’t write that post. It would be secondhand at best, and I’m not objective enough to do it anyway.
On the one hand, I do understand it’s hard, it’s not fun, it’s unpleasant in just about every way, it’s another kind of trauma, and it means you totally lost in the spouse/mom lottery, but on the other hand, those with PTSD do not have it by choice. It’s not like they can just walk away from PTSD. Those who have to live with somebody with PTSD have that option of walking away, and they mostly take it. Even those who stay can walk away at least momentarily- they can escape for hours and hours at a time. Yes, they don’t go through it unscathed, and at the back of their minds there is always that regretful, sad knowledge that their family member is not like the other ones and many things in their lives will never be like other people in many sad, bitter, frustrating, and unpleasant ways because of the PTSD, but there is still at least momentary relief and escape not offered to the one who actually has PTSD.
OTOH, if you have a family member with PTSD, it’s also a convenient scapegoat- you can blame every disagreement, every single clash of opinion, everything that annoys you, everything they say and do and most of the things you say and do on the crazy person and everybody else sympathizes with you.
See, I can’t write that post.
I can only write about what I know about PTSD, and that is what it is like to have it.
I haven’t been detailed about it, but I have been clear enough, I think, that the first of the traumas contributing to my PTSD stem from childhood as far back as I can remember and no doubt at all before that (have I mentioned the scars I still have on my face from the abuse of my very first first babysitter who started watching me when I was six weeks old? yeah. I think I was doomed from the get-go).
But I don’t talk about the more recent trauma, and I still just can’t imagine what it would be like to be in a place where I could type it, let alone say it out loud.
Not too long ago while cleaning up parts of my inbox, I stumbled across something I wrote shortly (as in within a year) after that of which we do not speak. Here’s part of it- it was part of a prayer request to a small email group I was on, and pretty much everybody in that group knew what had happened to me. I wrote:
“I am so tired of being so needy, so much of a downer, and bringing grief to other people’s lives again and again. But I really need prayers. I never have a good day, but most days I can fake it better than others. The last few days haven’t been that way, and there are far too many of those days anyway. I also do not open up well, it hurts to do that, and it is hard for me. I have been a private person all my life, keeping my griefs and pains to myself, seldom crying in public, a coping mechanism I needed to survive a very painful childhood, so that is hard too, and once the floodgates are loosened, I do not know how to close them again…. People say things that are helpful and encouraging, but I cannot hold onto those things. Please forgive me for not being stronger, for not being more supportive of others….”
Most people wrote back with loving, supportive comments and promises to pray, and they were lovely and encouraging and came across as sincere.
Two people sent me scathing rebukes, one in particular stood out in a ‘seriously? I can’t believe he said that’ sort of way- he fixated on the ‘most days I can fake it’ comment and rebuked me for being a dishonest hypocrite. Christians should never ‘fake it.’ That’s being dishonest and a sin.
One sweet, wise, generous-hearted soul who had some searingly painful stuff going on in her own life at the time wrote back telling me she thought I needed to go see a doctor or a therapist and consider medication. I wish I had listened to her then. Actually, even then, it wasn’t that I was unwilling as much as I was seriously unable to pick up a phone, make that appointment and drive myself to the doctor (who at that time was a 45 minute drive away).
She also encouraged me not to fake it, not because it was a ‘sin,’ but because she just felt it was healthier at that point for me to quit pretending I was okay when I was quite palpably not at all okay.
I wrote her back:
“I [agree with you that I] am probably clinically depressed, whatever that means (does that sound ugly? I don’t mean it ugly. I mean ‘who am I to self-diagnose?), As for ‘faking it,’ quite often I just have to so we can function. We are really busy. We have houseguests constantly- we have had an average of one family each month come and stay with us for anywhere from one night to a week, and we are having at least four more sets of houseguests between now and the end of the year (by groups, in this case, it’s two families of three, one single guy, and one married man who is coming without his family on a business trip. We did have a family of 12 last month). There will probably be more. We have company every Sunday afternoon and every Tuesday night, at a minimum. We’re having company tomorrow night, too, and last week we had guests three nights in a row in addition to our usual Sunday afternoon/Tuesday evening rotation. Most of our houseguests are friends and Christians, but some of the overnight guests and nearly all of our other company are people we are trying to… help… to reach out to in some way. I really can’t just sit and cry in front of them. Some of them I have only met in the last year and they don’t even know [about that of which we do not speak]. It’s hardly the sort of thing I say when introducing myself. I have to hold up. And sometimes I just can’t hold up anymore, I need a venting space in order to keep on holding up the next day.”
She wrote back pointing out what seems totally obvious now- maybe, she said, we should stop having so much company. Of course I couldn’t just sit and cry in front of houseguests, she agreed with me about that, but, quite reasonably, her solution was that maybe we could put a halt to having all those houseguests.
Instead, my husband signed us up to be foster parents, in addition to the regular company we continued to have.
Well. I couldn’t even imagine myself capable of doing that, I couldn’t travel to the classes, sit in them for hours, get my house safety proofed and presentable (besides my own personal issues, we had THREE large dogs at the time, one of whom was not exactly child-friendly), but I thought it would be a reasonable compromise to bring the Two Little Boys into our lives more than we had been. So we did that.
And we continued to have company.
I also continued to participate in activities that psychologically are known as (even though I know this is a word that has gotten much rightly mockable over-use recently) triggering. Some of them have actually always been triggering, I just didn’t know that word, and I didn’t know that some of the things I did which I considered character flaws were actually useful and necessary coping mechanisms, and I had always gone right ahead and done them even though I had never gotten anything but stress and anxiety out of them and nope, not gonna tell you what they are.
And we continued to have company.
Right up until I just took to my room, locked the door, and quit coming out to greet the guests that other people invited over. I actually did this two or three times before the flood trickled down to a thin little rivulet.
As I continued to try doing those other things that had always been triggering and not just because of that unspeakable trauma (as well as a few new ones stemming from that Thing), I started in on a whole new batch of symptoms.
I had dizzy spells so serious I was terrified of passing out in the shower because obviously the most important worry if I were to faint there would be that paramedics would see me naked.
(actually in this small town my biggest and a quite realistic fear is that the paramedics on call would be the two grandmothers who wouldn’t be able to lift me out of the tub and onto the cart, or that it would be that one guy my age who turns out to be a courtesy cousin because my step-grandmother was his grandmother’s cousin, and I am not making any of this up)
I had heart palpitations and ended up sweating through my clothes in a number of activities that shouldn’t have caused any of that. I had back spasms so severe that sometimes just walking a store started them off and I would have to double over my shopping cart, or a shelf, trying to get them to stop.
I had thinning hair, and other symptoms so serious sounding my doctor sent me to have my thyroid checked and checked again because he suspected cancer.
I didn’t tell anybody until the results came back normal, because it’s totally rational to keep that possibility a complete secret from everybody.
I couldn’t remember things and I used to have the memory of an elephant.
I had absolutely no energy. I had blinding head-aches. I had random aches and pains, I woke up in more pain that I had been in when I went to bed, sometimes my joints ached like I’d been beaten (I wondered about fibromyalgia), other times they burned. I hurt so much- it hurt to make the bed, to bend over to pick up a piece of paper, to carry a laundry basket, to walk any distance at all.
I’ve never been the most patient person in the world, but my fuse pretty much just disappeared, as in, I no longer had a short fuse, I had no fuse. I attributed it to the constant physical pain I was in.
I got hives, in particular connected with two or three specific activities that were, I now know, ‘triggering.’ I scratched the skin off of my itching hands to the point where I carried band-aids with me everywhere I went because my hands would be bleeding by the time we were done with whatever it was.
In short, faking it in an attempt to soldier on was just not working for me.
In the meantime, I did three family weddings, six grandbaby births, stayed with my daughter in the NICU when Striderling was born for nearly all of December, took my kids to camp, interpreted church services (a stressful and incredibly mentally taxing activity I am ill equipped for that was supposed to be temporary but apparently I was the only one who thought so), and cooked, cleaned, had company, and went to bed for longer and longer periods in between those things.
I quit doing more and more things- sometimes not exactly voluntarily. If I was getting ready to go somewhere and suddenly found myself hyperventilating and sweating, my ears ringing, my mouth dry as sawdust, seeing stars or some horribly sick-making flashing dark and light pattern in front of my eyes, I went back to bed until I recovered, and didn’t go, but I thought there was some undiscovered physical cause. When I fought through and tried anyway, I always paid for it later, and recovery times took long and longer to the point that life was a recuperatory, invalid like experience.
I’ve always had a low tolerance for noises or for being startled, and my startle reflex amped itself up to impossibly ridiculous levels.
It was like I once stood in a vast and open space, and like a CGI scene in a movie, that space was evaporating around me, closing in until the space safe and available to me was enclosed by the walls of my room and bathroom, while the distance between my room and the front door felt like a thousand miles.
All of it, once I started looking up PTSD, was pretty much textbook PTSD, even the physical symptoms. There was just nothing I could do about it on my own because I couldn’t get anywhere on my own. Shasta actually made the first appointment for me with a therapist because I could not make the phone call. he is generally the one to take me to my appointments because he’s the only off work in time to do it, and I can’t get myself there.
And there’s more I would or could say but I don’t know that I should say or how to say it, so I will just end with this:
I didn’t write all this to whine, to enlist your sympathy (although I will certainly lap it up if offered) or pity, or simply as an exercise in public exhibitionism. (Is there private exhibitionism?).
I wrote it for this- if anything I have written here sounds familiar to you, get help.
Get help. Especially if it sounds like somebody in your life who has been breaking your heart, hurting your feelings, leaving you woefully confused about why they are seemingly pushing you away, and driving you crazy and making you say unhelpful things like, “But if you would just….” or “Isn’t it time….” – please. That’s not helping. It’s making everything worse.
Get them help. Get you help. Get on the internet and google all the things that have been annoying and frustrating you. Find a good therapist. Educate yourself (and you know, maybe it’s not PTSD. Maybe there’s something else going on. You probably won’t find out or fix it by staying at home getting annoyed with each other). If you have kids, you have a serious parental responsibility to be informed and to inform them. Knowledge is power.
A lot of people mock self-diagnosing, but pretty much everybody I have read about or talked to who has PTSD got help first because they googled and learned something about what they might be dealing with.
And if it is PTSD, once you’ve made sure you understand that it is a brain trauma and not a series of bad choices willfully made, figure out what the triggers are and what the particular specific symptoms are and stop urging the PTSD person to just go right ahead and shoot themselves in the head with those activities that are triggering and relive that trauma all over again and again and again.
But mostly, get help, get information, get knowledge, get wisdom- not just for the person in your life with PTSD, although I have to say I do think they deserve to have somebody love them seriously enough to LOVE them with all the unconditional warmth and devotion possible as well as to be informed, but for you, too.
Because you deserve attention and sympathy and understanding, too.