To the Veteran With PTSD: I Am a Civilian, but I Feel You

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Editor’s note: New data shows an average of 20 veterans take their life each day, so the numbers in this article have been adjusted accordingly. 

Push-ups: 22 per day for 22 days to raise awareness that on average, 20 veterans lose their lives to suicide daily.

several people do pushups for PTSD awareness

With each press against the floor, I think of you.

When my triceps collapse from strain, I think of you.

As my form turns solid and my shoulders stabilize, I think of you.

The #22Kill movement, created in response to the Department of Veteran Affairs’ 2012 Suicide Data Report, works in conjunction with Honor Courage Commitment, Inc.. Together, they educate the public about mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that can lead to suicide, and offer empowerment programs to transitioning military brothers and sisters.

#22Kill strives to “bridge the gap between veterans and civilians to build a community of support.” The final words to flash across the screen of the website’s video are “We’re here for you. We hear you.”

Today is day 22. As I post my last set of push-ups to social media and tag fellow CrossFitters to accept the challenge, I need you to know something:

I feel you.

I am a civilian. I have not sacrificed my life and time to protect our country’s freedoms, but I have survived child sexual abuse. I have experienced trauma. I know what it’s like to live with darkness, peer down the spiral and question the value of my life.

For 25 years, vigilance, control, mistrust and detachment managed the pain, angst, hurt and rage brought on by traumatic experience. But I found a way to push up — to rejoin life and contribute in a way I always imagined.

Treatment through therapy made the difference for me. With a pride too big, walls so thick and shame so deep, at first I couldn’t ask for help. I didn’t value myself enough to reach out; I thought vulnerability translated into weakness. There was peace in my solitude.

But I valued those who loved me. When I could no longer dodge my husband’s plea, when I reached the edge, feeling as if my skull might split, I answered this question:

Who do I have a responsibility to?

Mac (my husband) and our new marriage underwent many trials because of my trauma. I worried my mental health, in its current untreated state, would have a negative effect on our children. This was unacceptable and unfair. I resolved to do my part and agreed to keep the appointment Mac had made with a social worker on my behalf.

Once there, I harnessed the strength I had used to endure and suppress my experience to open wounds and talk.

The session discussions, albeit uncomfortable and scary at times, encouraged trust. With consistent support, I learned tools to help me tackle triggers, reframe the rage, be mindful of mood shifts, channel destructive tendencies into a safe and productive rush, express vulnerability and deepen relationships. I came to understand the genesis of my emotions, recognize they were typical for survivors and accept I wasn’t alone.

The likelihood of my full recovery is slim. But now, over a dozen years later, I’m equipped to fight the funk when it drives a heel into my back. With each win, trauma loosens its grip and I gain power.

I’ve also gained direction, purpose and most importantly, worth. I can approach parenting with a healthier perspective, contribute to a more loving, respectful, and meaningful marriage and pursue career goals, creative passions and fitness aspirations with assurance. I am a better friend, I know how to navigate social situations and I enjoy being with people.

Bad and unnatural things happened to me. My mind and body reacted to them. That doesn’t make me less deserving of a rich, positive and fulfilled existence. I have every right to be here — to push, to grow and to live.

And so do you.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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Explaining My Husband's PTSD to My Daughter

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“Mommy, why is Daddy so angry?”

I feel my throat tighten as familiar tears prick at the corner of my eyes. My daughter sobs into her pillow. She doesn’t see me trying to empty my face of the distress that rattles me. The turbulence of my husband’s anger still hangs in the air, even though he left the bedroom and the house a while ago.

“He really frightened me, Mommy.”

My children do not deserve this. I don’t either, but this is their father, the only one they’ll ever have. This is my husband, who I vowed to love and support. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is part of our lives now, and we live with it as best we can. No more playing it down. I need to be honest in admitting these rages affect us all. No more making excuses for him. It’s true that he didn’t ask for PTSD, but he is in control of his own recovery.

I stroke my daughter’s soft hair, soothing the anxiety that lingers in us both, searching for the words that might make sense to a 7-year-old.

“Darling, I have a story to tell you about Daddy, but it’s not a happy one.”

She rolls over to look at me, her eyes and face still damp from her tears. I feel she already knows a lot of what I’m about to tell her.

“Daddy has been a paramedic for a lot of years, many more than you’ve been alive. Over that time, he has helped a lot of people. Most of the people he helped were very sick or very badly hurt. Some of them even died.”

Her eyes widen at the word. For a 7-year-old, death is becoming a very real concept, something tangible, something to fear.

“Even though your dad is an amazing paramedic, not everyone can be saved. Some of the people were old, but some of them were little children or babies.”

She doesn’t speak, but fresh tears begin to well. I move in closer to keep stroking her hair and carry on with my story.

“The sadness and hurt from all the people Daddy helps stays with him in his mind and that’s why he no longer works on the ambulance. He simply cannot bear any more sadness and hurt. When this happens to someone, the doctors call it PTSD.”

I notice a flicker of understanding. She recognizes the term. She’s no doubt overheard it in passing conversations.

“PTSD can affect anyone, but it can be more likely with people who work in ambulances, the police, firefighters or soldiers who go to war, who all see a lot of sad and scary things.”

I pause a moment, mindful of the emotion beginning to engulf my voice.

“The sadness and hurt in Daddy’s mind sometimes gets overwhelming, and it rushes out as a loud angry shouting voice, lots of stomping and banging, and a very scary face.”

Her little voice tentatively cuts in. “Is that why Daddy had to go to angry school?”

“Yes, that’s right. You remember? Angry school is what we called the place that daddy went to to learn about why PTSD makes him feel so sad and angry. There were other people there too, with PTSD like Daddy, having a break. The doctors taught them ways to get their bad feelings out safely. They also worked out which medicines might help with Daddy’s PTSD.”

She absorbs every word I say, her little brain processing this very grown up topic. I feel a sudden flood of dread in the pit of my stomach. What the hell am I doing? Isn’t she too young for this? Isn’t it all too much? But I’ve already come this far, and honestly this is as much about her life now as it is ours. My daughter deserves the truth and she deserves to hear how it ends.

She waits for me to continue. “So when daddy’s PTSD is triggered, it often comes out as a lot of anger. But sometimes it comes out as crying. Sometimes it comes out as nightmares when he’s sleeping, which make him upset the next day. PTSD makes Daddy very tired. You already know about how he needs time on his own when he’s feeling stressed.”

I look down at her and see her give a small nod. Her tears have dried now. She snuggles a little further into her bed.

“But although PTSD will be with him forever, because no one can block out bad memories, there are three things you must always remember. PTSD is something that has happened to Daddy, nothing you did to make it happen and nothing you do will ever make it worse. PTSD might make Daddy scary and loud at times, but his rage is never your fault.”

I turn my gaze to meet hers in the now darkening bedroom.

“And PTSD will never ever stop Daddy from loving you to the stars and back. We are the reason Daddy tries his best to overcome all that PTSD brings.”

She throws her arms tightly around my neck, thankfully not seeing the tears spill down my cheeks. I could easily hug her forever.

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5 Things You Can Do to Support Someone With PTSD

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Having a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sometimes makes you feel like an alien; sometimes it makes you feel alienated. Not everyone with PTSD got their diagnosis because of the same type of trauma, or even the same reaction to their trauma. So, knowing how to respond to and support someone you know with PTSD can feel a bit tricky.

Here is a list of five things that you can do to support the person you care about. Please keep in mind this list is created by me, someone who endured a specific reason for being diagnosed with PTSD and someone who has specific ways the trauma is triggered. But this is an attempt to bridge the gap between those of us who deal with PTSD and those in our lives who care about us.

1. Do not mistake a PTSD diagnosis as a diagnosis of weakness.

Someone with a diagnosis of PTSD is a person who has moments of feeling weak. It does not equate to someone being a weak person. There is a huge difference. Responding to one with PTSD as though they are strong shows them they have dignity and value in your eyes. Assuming that they are weak or “broken” removes what dignity they have remaining from the trauma(s) that they endured.

2. If a person says they have PTSD, ask if they care to share more.

Having PTSD has countless challenges associated with it. When someone is open enough to confide they have PTSD, please know that is a huge trust shared with you. Some may choose to share more now or later, or they may not. What is important is the person with PTSD feels safe. Revealing this information is not the same as sharing what college one attended or their favorite sport that naturally leads to additional social conversation. Sometimes just saying that is a large enough step for one day.

You can politely ask if they would like to share more. This gives the person an out. It puts control back in their hands. Control shows respect and caring and is a healing aspect for those with PTSD. If you are told no, please respect that boundary.

3. Ask if there is anything you can do.

If someone shares that they are being triggered or feeling off or dealing with anxiety, simply ask if you can do anything. Closed-ended questions often get a bad reputation in professions such as sales, retail or counseling. Yet, for those dealing with PTSD, they can be helpful. The simplicity of elicited response allows the individual a quick answer without the expectation of lengthy conversation. If the response is yes, ask how you can assist. If the response is no, leave the subject alone and trust the answer.

4. Be willing to listen.

If you are being confided in, please listen. Know this is not a typical conversation in which your opinion or experiences should be shared in equal measure. When someone shares their most vulnerable aspects with you, it is a gift. Treasure it as sacred and fragile. Listen with open ears. Listen with an open heart.

5. Keep it confidential.

As someone is sharing their experiences with you, whether past or present, nurture what they reveal. Keep this information private. Remember, part of healing for those with PTSD is the aspect of trust. Simply keeping conversations confidential can add to one’s healing journey. Experiences that warrant PTSD diagnoses are so traumatic or horrifying, they can rip someone to their core. Their sense of safety can be completely absent. In keeping the smallest conversation protected, it allows the steps of safety to be reintroduced and trust to begin.

Please note: If someone mentions suicide as an option, please take all talk of suicide seriously. Saving someone’s life so they can receive proper treatment is of tremendous importance. In these instances, confidentiality is overstepped by physical and mental safety.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. 

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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5 Things That Make Me Feel Safe During an Anxiety Attack

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I don’t usually disclose this, but for the last 10 years or so, I have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. It’s difficult for people to understand what it’s like when depression finds you and takes a hold of you. People who have never felt what it’s like to be frozen and in a fog you can’t get out seem to never show compassion. They can’t seem to wrap their minds around it. It’s likely because they don’t know what it feels like to lie on the ground of their room for two days straight, not eating or sleeping, thinking the floor was the best place to be. When I’m in a moment like this, I think to myself, “You deserve to be on the lowest point of the place where you live because that’s who you are.”

Yes, I have PTSD. Yes, I sometimes have depressive episodes, where I don’t shower for days or eat. Yes, it’s difficult to take care of myself during those times. Yes, I am prone to crying during those times. And yes, I am a fighter. I’ve always been a fighter.

Despite the despair I feel inside, something inside me wants to live. Something inside me tells me living is the best revenge. Something inside me always screams for me to get up when I can’t. So I get up. I go to see my therapist, psychiatrist and take my medication. I keep getting up, and I move until moving becomes ritual. I move until I feel like I’m not mimicking life but actually living it.

Feeling safe during these times is extremely difficult. I thought to myself one night, I should make a list of what makes me feel safe as a reminder to myself. So here it goes:

1. My cat.

He was abandoned when he was 4, and I found him at an adoption event. He looked as miserable as I felt after a rough break up. I knew then and there that we were going to heal each other, and we did.

2. Writing.

When I write, I feel free.

3. Yoga.

On my mat is one of the few places I feel calm and at peace.

4. Cooking.

Food and smell has so much to deal with how we commune with people. I feel like family when I cook with people.

5. My friends.

This year has been probably the most difficult of my life, and my friends, the ones who see me when I’m at my worst, have continued to love me regardless. I’m grateful for that.

When you’re having an anxiety attack, what do you hold onto? What makes you feel safe?

This post originally appeared on Wallaine’s blog “lost, found and everything in between.

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To Those Who Feel Broken From Childhood Trauma

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This is for you. This is for me. This is addressing the horror, the invisible illness: childhood trauma.

You might feel broken right now. No matter how long ago the trauma happened, resurfaced or how many years you have been on this dizzy, circular ride of healing, you still carry a part of you etched in emptiness. I want you to know it is OK to not be OK.

It is time to give ourselves permission to be human and love the parts of ourselves we feel are ugliest. The past couple weeks, I have cowered inwardly with shame as I fight desires to scratch my face hard or hit myself after I had an argument with someone. I want to make myself hurt physically because the pain is so deep. In the middle of these days with this fight, I still have wonderful moments of car dancing, laughing and completing challenging yoga poses.

Three years ago, repressed memories of sexual abuse came up while I was simply living my life. For a year, I hid in silence, went to doctors because I thought I was crazy and convinced myself it must be a brain tumor. During this time, horrid poetry surfaced in my journaling sessions and nightmares haunted me. I tried to run but it needed to be recognized.

You, reading this, you are beautiful even if you feel broken. What broke you was not beautiful. It was terror, but you who are reading this, you woke up today. You are so beautiful! You are so brave! When childhood trauma resurfaces over and over again in different pieces throughout our adult lives, we spiral, and we have every right to spiral.

I was hospitalized four times in 2014 for suicidal ideation. I was diagnosed with different disorders each time. I finally met a therapist who said, “R.D, what happened to you was horrible. You are going to have symptoms of several different mental illnesses as the chaos is being processed.”  Then, I read a similar statement in one of my workbooks. I recognize symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, borderline personality and anxiety. I haven’t found one label to attach but learning a little about each has helped me face parts of my trauma.

When approached with love from myself and others, I find a puzzle piece of healing slips in. I hate that I am suffering with desires to inflict self-harm, but two years ago I wanted to kill myself. It may sound silly, but how wonderful I don’t want to take my own life right now. I never promise it won’t get that bad again because I have to validate the weight of my pain and recognize I don’t know what the future holds, but I am doing my best.

I was doing my best then too. The hospitalizations were traumatizing, but I was doing my best. Now, I talk to someone and tell them. I have the hotline number in my phone if I am feeling too embarrassed to tell a friend or my husband.

I am beautifully broken. We are warriors who have walked through the fires of hell and facing its flames, learning how to be different than those who harmed us, tell our stories to therapists, friends, journals and discussing medicine, art, healthy food and all of the lists and plans we make for daily self-care and for in case of a crisis. The strength all of this takes is draining. Yes, it ends up being worth it, but it is so so hard because it is you and I who have to do the work on ourselves.

There are so many aspects to one moment that triggers us and a thousand emotions swirling at once. At one time, I want to hurt myself, just to release pain somehow. I want to wail loudly, pound the walls and then scream. I want my husband to come in the bathroom and save me, even though I had to leave the room to breathe.

It is so hard for people in our lives to know what we need. It is so hard to learn what we need. I told my husband if we argue and I go into the bathroom, I need him to come after me right away, just for now. Some part of me needs that healing. He will try I know because he always tries, even if it doesn’t make sense. Even in my healing from trauma, I have to allow other people to be human and make mistakes. This is why five or six people supporting me is a good idea.

There are many parts to healing. The only good advice I have gotten (which is also the hardest) is to be kind to yourself. Recognize the little steps because they are actually huge, wonderful steps. It is OK to fall. It is OK to want attention, to want to be saved. It is OK to eat popcorn and watch chick flicks or Marvel movies all day in the dark.

Have grace for yourself, as with each day, even each hour, your needs may be different. Sure, we have emotions and habits that can be unhealthy, but we are learning, growing and honoring that the process is life long and hard. This is for those who feel beautifully broken, to the invisible illness of childhood trauma destroying us one moment and proving our amazing strength the next. To the moments we want to be normal and for no one to know what happened, to the moments where we need to shout it out. You may feel beautifully broken, but you are beautifully brave!

This post originally appeared on R.D. Stine’s blog.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. 
 
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255
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A Letter to Myself After My PTSD Recovery Program

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We were asked to write a letter to ourselves as part of a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) recovery program. It was mailed to us by the team three months later.

Dear Christina,

This letter is to acknowledge all the hard work it has taken to bring you to this moment in your life. I know how much you struggle with your worthiness and purpose. You are not responsible for your trauma.

You have been given the tools, therapy and insights to live your best life now. You cannot change the past. Stay grounded and in the present tense. This is where safety lives. Laugh, cry, scream, smile. Give yourself permission to live a unguarded life.

I know the “old you” is reminding you of your trauma, but please put down the backpack of shame and guilt you have been carrying all these years. It’s time to put it down. It’s far too heavy a burden to carry another day. Even Jesus only went to the cross once. No human is expected to do so daily!

Remember, “We only do what we think it’s best at the time. When we know different, we do differently.” Dare to do better, live better and forgive yourself better. Love yourself with the same measure of love you bestow upon others, unconditionally and without judgement.

Remember how to balance and remember what throws you off course. Make self-care a priority. Eat enough, take risks and socialize with family and friends who bring out the best in you. Be honest about where you are and what you need.

When you are tempted to lay down with your demons and sleep through your life, get yourself up! Call someone, go for a walk, sing with the radio, dance in the kitchen, buy chocolate, color your hair, plant sunflowers, meditate or hug someone. Live life. Don’t fear it. It’s far too short to not embrace should tomorrow never come.

Make all your relationships as important as your children — especially your relationship with yourself. Let others love you as fully as you love them. Don’t continue to nurture unhealthy relationships that are toxic to you.

Keep your boundaries high enough to protect yourself, but keep your walls low enough to let loved ones in.

Never forget healing — like wellness, is a journey, not a cure. When you stumble, remember you are still moving forward.

Take a deep cleansing breath and try again.

You can do this thing called life.

Arms open wide,

Christina

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: If you could go back to the day you (or a loved one) got a diagnosis, what would you tell yourself? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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