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We Need to Talk About PTSD Related to Child Loss

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Dear World,

October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, and today I want to share with you my experience with PTSD, which is directly related to the loss of my infant/child.

Yes, you read that right, post-traumatic stress disorder.

It is not uncommon for someone who has lost a child to develop PTSD, and although it is not uncommon, it is rarely talked about.

As a whole, most people are becoming more aware of PTSD, but most of that awareness has to do with combat-related PTSD. I have a dear friend who battles combat-related PTSD, and although we have the same symptoms, as well as the same diagnosis, our PTSD illnesses are very much different. I personally cannot speak about combat-related PTSD, but I can help shed light on PTSD related to child loss.

I wish more people knew PTSD can happen after the loss of a child. I have been openly judged because of some of the “triggers” I have. Although I am working on dealing with them, it is not easy, and it is not a fast process. Anxiety, flashbacks, avoidance, fear, and nightmares are all part of PTSD.

Anxiety and Fear: I do have terrible anxiety about pregnancy and infant loss. I have had people tell me I need to stop worrying because it will not change anything. The problem is my worrying is not about what might happen, but it is about what did happen.

Flashbacks: When watching television, I am unable to watch any type of labor/delivery scene because it takes me right back to my delivery with Robby. I was in labor for days, knowing my baby boy was not going to survive. Even if it is a comedy show, it gives me flashbacks.

Nightmares: I have intense nightmares about Robby’s birth and death. I relive those moments over and over in my dreams.

Triggers: I can be walking around the mall and when I see a small boy who would be about Robby’s age, I have trouble breathing. I can be eating at a restaurant with my family, and hearing the sound of a newborn cry can make me feel like the walls are closing in on me. Sometimes just even seeing pictures and announcements on Facebook can be enough to be a trigger for me.

Avoidance: This one might be the hardest for people to understand. There have been situations I have avoided because of my PTSD. A baby shower is a perfect example. Yes, I will be able to handle that someday, and when the next opportunity arises for it, I will try to face this certain trigger of mine.

If you know someone who has lost a child and is dealing with PTSD, I urge you to please be gentle with them. Please be gentle with all who have lost a child because they might be dealing with things you aren’t aware of or things you might not understand. Please do not assume they are OK because it has been long enough in your mind that they should be “over it” by now.

Image via Thinkstock.

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To My Husband, From Your Wife With PTSD

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My love,

We have been married more than seven years, we have two beautiful, differently-abled children, and we just got a dog. Life has been a whirlwind — a beautiful whirlwind of joy and pain since the day I met you. But it wasn’t always beautiful, and because of that I will always be a little bit broken.

My love, my birthday was months ago, but I am just now getting the chance to tell you. I saw what you said to your mother that day. The text.

“Is it always going to be like this? It was years ago. I don’t understand why it still makes her anxious. How can a whole third of a year make anyone anxious? Is she ever going to get better?”

No, my love. I am not.

My post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a shadow. It follows me everywhere. The pain I endured in my childhood will always be real. The very worst thing he ever did to me, an innocent little girl he should have loved unconditionally, he did on my birthday. Every year until the year he left, the abuse and neglect got worse starting in February and culminated on my birthday. It sent a very clear message, aside from the usual messages of abuse — a message of “I despise your existence and I don’t want you here.” Going through things like I did can change the way your brain perceives reality and danger. And thus, I will probably always be scared. I will always see his face lording over me in my dreams. I will always feel the air escape me. I will always relive the abandonment. I just wanted him to love me.

Yes. It will always be real. It will always hurt. But it hurts less than before. I functioned better last year than the year before. I am sorry your wife is flawed and broken. I am sorry there are times when my PTSD worsens so much that you can’t touch me, that the kids can’t touch me. But I believe in its own way, my brokenness — my vulnerability, my raw insecurity — makes me beautiful. I wouldn’t be me without it. We wouldn’t have been without it. I love you so, and I know you love me, my love. So please, hold me when I need it, and remind me when I don’t how much you love me. Be sensitive. Feel free to ask my friends to take over when you can’t anymore. My birthday is painful every single year, but you and those two boys make my life beautiful.

I used to think I had “overcome” my PTSD, but time has shown me it’s still part of me. It’s in quick overreactions, like getting defensive about why I am cooking what I am cooking. It’s in nightmares that never go away. It’s me in tears because our awesome kids won’t stop screaming. It’s a part of me. But it’s also in my great empathy. It’s in my passion. It’s in my dreams. It is the ugly that I choose to make beautiful, and you and our boys are a part of that choice.

I need you to know I didn’t read your text out of mistrust. I read it because I knew in my heart my pain was hurting you, and that you couldn’t completely understand it. If I could, I would protect you from my pain, but I cannot. I promise you, however, that even if I don’t understand a pain you endure in the future, I will be empathetic. If I could get better I would, but I would never change my past. I would never do that, because then we might never have met. And much like the lyrics from that old song go, “God blessed the broken road that lead me straight… to you.”

Thank you for loving me broken.

If you or a loved one are affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-0656-4673.

Follow this journey on A Special Kinda Life.

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To Kim Kardashian West, From a Fellow Home Invasion Survivor

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We haven’t met, and probably never will. I admit, I’ve never been a fan of yours. I find your TV show to be annoying and your family generally self-absorbed. But today, my heart is with you.

I know what happened to you in Paris will change the rest of your life — because it happened to me, too. Like you, I was robbed and held at gunpoint in the one place I should’ve been safe, my home. On the morning of November 28, 2014, I was loving my life in sunny San Diego when a stranger burst into my home. I am disabled due to cerebral palsy, so I had no way to defend myself as he put a gun to my head and threw me out of my wheelchair onto the floor. I lay there helplessly as he took my loyal caregiver of five years to the back bedroom. My life as I knew it was over.

In your case, the attackers stole millions of dollars worth of items. In mine, he only got a few hundred dollars worth of jewelry before being interrupted by my courageous caregiver, who escaped from him and ran to get help. But the amount of money doesn’t really matter. What they stole from us is far more precious: our sense of safety. Our basic belief that we can go about our lives without a stranger trying to harm us.

As I lay on the floor, terrified and waiting to find out how it all would end, so many thoughts ran through my head. I wondered what he wanted. I wondered if he would come back and shoot me after he finished doing God knows what to my caregiver. After she ran and he followed, I wondered if he would shoot her. I wondered if I could ever feel safe or be happy again. And I wondered, if I survive this, will I have PTSD?

I know that seems like a strange thing to think about, but I have my MA in psychology, and I had previously experienced post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms after surviving an abusive relationship. Even as I was laying there, I knew I wanted to survive and be able to thrive. I had been through too much already.

Police outside Karin Willison's house after a home invasion robbery.
Police outside my house, November 28, 2014.

I did survive, and so did my caregiver. Her escape scared our attacker off, and neighbors helped me back into my wheelchair while she called police. Thriving… Well that’s a different story.

For me, things weren’t over after the robbery ended. The attacker started sending me death threats by email. I had to move to another state for safety reasons. Eventually, he was caught. He turned out to be the boyfriend of another caregiver I had fired. They are both in prison now and will be for a long time.

I hope they catch the people who attacked you soon. Knowing those who hurt me are in prison has helped me tremendously. But it’s not enough. Right now, you’re going to need your family and friends. Don’t be afraid to lean on them for support. Put aside any disputes of the past, and love them, and let them love you back. Take note of the people who step up to be there for you emotionally, and those who don’t. If anything good comes of this, it’ll be that you learn who your true friends are.

Maybe life afterwards will be easier for you than it was for me. You have many resources I don’t. The $40,000 I lost having to move and start my life over again isn’t much more than a night on the town in your world, whereas to me it was devastating. You have a team of bodyguards and can increase security even more on your homes. But that might not be as comforting as you expect. You might wonder how you will ever feel safe again. The truth is, I’m not sure if either of us ever will. But that doesn’t mean giving up.

In the days and months after the robbery, I learned the answers to the questions I asked myself as I lay there not knowing if I would live or die. Yes, I have PTSD. No, I don’t feel safe a lot of the time. But yes, I am happy again. I struggle with panic attacks, sometimes relive memories of the attack, and I’m often hypervigilant and jumpy, especially at home. I have a few triggers: men in hoodies and strangers coming up behind me can make me nervous. I almost never sleep more than five hours a night because I’m afraid to get in bed and feel helpless. I take medication, and some days are harder than others.

But despite those struggles, I’ve found happiness again. I’m using this as an opportunity to start over. I didn’t think I’d like the place where I live now, and I still consider it a temporary stopover while I regroup, but I’ve found a community of people who accept me and help me feel safer. I have a new job I really like, a loving father and stepmother, and wonderful friends old and new who have supported me through everything. And most importantly, I’m doing things that heal my soul and help others, like continuing my work as a travel blogger and public speaker, educating people about disability and overcoming adversity.

Right now, you might be wondering if your hands will ever stop shaking. Or maybe you’re wondering if you’ll ever feel up to “breaking the internet” with booty photos again. I don’t know exactly what you’re feeling, but I believe you’ll soon be at a crossroads. I encourage you to use this as an opportunity for change. Take time to heal, and then find something you believe in, a cause you can help with your tremendous fame and influence. Channel your emotions into doing good in the world.

We who have survived violent crimes need your voice, to advocate for better mental health services and compensation for survivors who have been financially devastated by medical bills or moving costs. We need society to care about rehabilitating nonviolent criminals before they cross the line to committing heinous acts. We need someone like you to be our advocate… if and when you feel ready to share your story. It’s been tremendously healing for me to share my story, and I believe it would be for you, too.

I know it’s probably hard for you to see beyond your terror and anger right now. But I promise, you will. And on the other side, you’ll find hope. I may not be a fan, but as a fellow survivor, I’m here for you if you ever want to talk. I wish you the best.

Follow this journey on Free Wheelin’.

Lead photo: Kim Kardashian West, Facebook.

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4 Things to Keep in Mind When You're Dating Someone With PTSD

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Dating someone with post-traumatic stress disorder can be a struggle to say the least, but there are a few tips and tricks that can be used that will help ease a little bit of the bumps in the road. By no means is this the end-all-be-all, just a few things that I’ve learned in the process of trying to get back into dating.

1. Take it slow and have patience. Having PTSD means having a bit of a high fight/flight reflex. Taking it slow can ease some of that inherent fear. It means being patient, and understanding that you shouldn’t take things personally when your significant other has reactions that are different than what you expected.

2. Build trust. Most assault survivors with PTSD have trust issues inherently. They were violated in a way that is difficult to recover from, and it may take longer for them to trust. Help them build trust, and again, be patient.

3. Believe them. If and when they trust enough to talk about their assault, and what has come after it, believe them. Be supportive, and don’t be judgmental. There is a stigma attached to having been sexually assaulted that makes it difficult for survivors/victims to speak up about it; that being said, when they do… listen.

4. Learn triggers. Instead of trying to fix things for your significant other, learn what their triggers are. Ask questions about how you should respond, or how to minimize accidentally setting those triggers off. It might be something as simple as avoiding a specific perfume/cologne, or something as complicated as needing to make sure you’re extra careful in crowded places.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, or in any particular order, but it is just a few things to keep in mind when dating someone who has assault-associated PTSD.

If you or a loved one are affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-0656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

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What My Husband and I Wish You Knew About Combat PTSD

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a man in the army kissing his baby My husband is a combat veteran. He was a Corpsman in the U.S. Navy for five years, and was attached to a Marine battalion that deployed to Afghanistan.

My husband has been diagnosed with Combat PTSD after his deployment in 2012. For respect for him and others I will not go into detail about the events of that deployment. Amazing men were lost, and amazing men were permanently scarred emotionally and physically. 

PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder. It can change the entire way you perceive the world.

Over the years I have watched him struggle and I felt helpless. It’s like nothing I do or say helps. I try to never question his actions or his feelings. I always try just to be that listening ear he needs.

We have recently gotten to a point in the last four years where he is more open about his thoughts with me. He’s more willing to share what it’s like in his mind. We got to talking about what he wished others would know about his PTSD. With his permission, I decided to list the top 10 things he and I would like others to know about his disorder.

First and foremost, PTSD does not automatically make someone “crazy.” I’ve noticed that when I actually tell another person he has PTSD, I’ll sometimes see that look in their eyes: Oh no, he is going to go bananas! Watch out! Stop it with that nonsense. It’s rude, and I can totally tell what you are thinking. He is a loving husband and a caring father.

When living with Combat PTSD, you are constantly surveying your surroundings. For the length of his deployment this was one key to survival. He always had to be ready, always had to be watching the landscape and the people around him. Always had to anticipate any harm that might come. This is ingrained into him. It’s especially noticeable when he is in large groups of people. Our last trip to the Zoo he was people watching more than he was watching the animals.

He is not indecisive because he is trying to be difficult. In his mind, one wrong decision means death. It did over there, anyways. He carries that thinking with him still.

PTSD keeps him up at night, literally. The fact that we have two young children is also a reason he can be up all night, but it’s also the nightmares. When he first came home I probably got punched in the face once a week, or got nailed with a flying elbow. He was having horrific dreams and acting them out in his sleep. I was never in any harm or actually hurt by his thrashing. His nightmares were intense, and still can be. Recently he has been keeping the both of us up with his swift kicking during nightmares. I don’t even want to image the horrors he is dreaming about.

He has come home from deployment, but he feels he never left Afghanistan. When I asked him to explain he said that it changed him, and the old him got lost over there. 

Although he lives with PTSD and other health problems from deployment, he still wants to go back. I will never understand this statement. This seems to be common with a lot veterans. My husband explained he felt alive there. He went from being a warrior to just an everyday civilian when he came home. He misses that part of his life. 

The guilt is unbearable. There are several reasons why he carries so much guilt with him every day. He feels guilty he came home. He feels guilty he couldn’t save another’s life. He feels guilty for things he may have done. No matter how much I repeat over and over that isn’t at fault, he still will hold tight to the guilt. This can send his emotions spiraling. Anger and sadness are the two most common emotions I see when the guilt takes over.

He has thought about suicideHe stressed to me he never intended to attempt suicide, but that thoughts of it have popped into his mind. To him, it is just easier to let go of life and be free from the clutch of PTSD. What stopped him? His answer to that was our children and me. He knew it would harm us if he took his own life.

There has been a silver lining to having PTSD.  He is enrolled in college. Something he thought he would never be able to do because of financial reasons, or he just thought he wouldn’t do well. He is a sophomore in college. He wants to be a social worker at the local veterans’ hospital. He never wants to leave another vet helpless or feeling lost. PTSD has made him more understanding to those going through the same symptoms.

He doesn’t talk about his PTSD because he’s afraid it would change other’s perception of him. 

I can’t explain how much of huge step this is — that he’s letting me write about his struggles. It’s a great leap into the right direction for him. Being open about this illness is hard to do. PTSD is difficult to watch a loved one go through, but it’s twice as hard to be the one living with it every day.

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When Getting Help Is Anxiety-Inducing

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The human brain is a fascinating organ. Despite being the boss of the central nervous system, the brain lacks pain receptors. Am I wrong in thinking this implies that the brain never feels pain? I don’t know about you, but to me that feels a tiny bit greedy of the brain. I personally am in daily distress due to a chemical imbalance in my brain, yet my brain feels no pain. See? Fascinating.

I bring up the topic of the brain because I recently had a visit with a new psychiatrist for medicine management. Medicine, along with weekly talk therapy, helps to keep me from becoming a permanent victim of my controlling brain.

Sometimes, however, visiting a new doctor can be a very anxiety-inducing experience in and of itself.  It is a necessary evil, but I, like many people, have a very difficult time talking about myself. The idea of discussing the reasons for my PTSD-induced nightmares makes me want to cover my eyes and yell, “You can’t see me!” I learned this coping technique from my 3-year-old. I’m still working through the details, but it seems like a solid method.

The new psychiatrist invited me into his office for what would be a 90-minute intake appointment. He wasted absolutely no time in asking the hard questions:

“Do you ever hurt yourself?”

“How is your anger?”

“How was your childhood?”

“Would you say your agitation with your children at times would lead to you harming them?”

The physical symptoms of panic flooded me as I struggled to respond to his questions. My mouth was dry and it became hard to swallow. I know he asked these things for a purpose. There are reasons he needed to ask me if I knew the day of the week and if I could name the last three presidents. But I became so overwhelmed with emotion and anxiety it was almost impossible to speak. It was as if the entire session was one huge trigger for my PTSD and was some sort of exposure therapy. Really unwanted, crappy, exposure therapy.

It’s hard to be vulnerable to another person and expose those things in life that I perceive as ugliness. Recently, however, I think I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that if I don’t speak about these things with the people trying to help me, I will never take ownership of my PTSD, OCD and anxiety. They will continue to rear their ugly heads and try to remind me time and again that they are in control. Not me. And if they are in control, I will likely never make any progress at all.

In the end, I made it through the appointment. I wasn’t judged. I was treated kindly and with respect. And ultimately, I was given the continued opportunity to receive proper treatment so I don’t have to spend the rest of my life submissive to my mental health demons.

Reaching out for help and making that first phone call can be so intimidating. I have found Psychology Today a useful resource in finding help for myself and my family. We all deserve the opportunity to feel better. Yes, even you.

Image via Thinkstock.

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