From the Heart of a Mother With PTSD
My daughter looks at me impatiently. She has said something that requires a response of some kind.
I should know what the right response is — but I don’t.
I don’t even know what she has said or how many times she has said it. Long gone are the days when she babbled at me in toddler language and all I needed to do was smile and nod to appease her.
Back then I could fake it, but I can’t anymore.
She requires more of me now, as do all of my children. I try to focus on her words. There is too much noise. There is too much clutter. There is too much chaos. I am overwhelmed, out of control, and it triggers panic in me. I fight to remain present, but I feel the numbness take over. I’m too tired, and I have no fight left in me. It’s too late.
Emotionally, I check out.
My daughter sees this. She gives up on trying to talk to me and walks away. If I had the ability to feel anything at this point, I would be drowning in the guilt from what a failure as a parent I am. But that will come later, when I’ve found my way back from this black void.
Then I will cry tears of sadness for the missing pieces of me and the way it affects the people I love.
For now, I have disconnected from everything. Physically, I am present. Emotionally, I am no longer there. How long I will be gone for is anybody’s guess. Perhaps only moments, often days, and sometimes weeks. There’s no telling for how long.
However long it takes for me to feel safe enough to surface and be part of life again.
This is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
And this is my life.
I can’t tell you exactly when I began to realize I have PTSD. Was it the insomnia? The nightmares? The flashbacks? Was it the bouts of rage followed by the bottomless chasm of nothingness? Was it the constant numbness and detachment I felt? As if I was on the sideline of my life, watching, but never fully able to participate. The hyper-vigilance? The physical symptoms?
Or the crippling anxiety over imagined dangers?
I can tell you that has taken me years to piece this together, to understand, and even longer to own. It’s not easy to admit, but it’s even harder to talk about. And it needs to be talked about. Because I’m tired of feeling so alone in this.
And there are others out there who feel the same.
It’s difficult to be a wife, mother of four, daughter, sister and friend, and have PTSD— one minute I am “here” and the next, I am not.
There are many symptoms of PTSD. I struggle most with what is known as disassociation. Those times when life simply gets to be too much for me. The times I feel like there is too much going on, I am too busy, I am too tired, I am too overwhelmed. I feel out of control. It freezes me, as I can feel there is no escape route from the chaos in my mind.
It reawakens the traumas of my childhood, back when I could not control the things that happened to me, when there truly was no escape. And so, to cope, I disconnect. It is like a switch flipped in my mind, and instantly, I am no longer there.
I go deep inside where I know it is safe. Because there I know no one can hurt me.
During those times, I slip away from everyone and everything. I lose all interest and motivation. The fire inside of me dies. I stay at home too much and avoid social events. I do not answer my phone when it rings nor reply to messages. I function on autopilot, meeting the obligatory physical needs of my family, but emotionally I have ceased to exist.
I see the confusion it causes in those around me. They do not understand where I have gone or what they have done wrong to cause this change. I see the pain it causes those nearest to me and how they feel pushed away by me. They long to love me, and I am unable to let them in. I can’t. The walls around me become a fortress and are made to keep people out, to keep people away from the dark places inside of me, those that reek of shame and are stained with blemish. The walls were built up for solitary confinement, and I find comfort in this penitentiary where I feel bleak, satiating, nothingness.
I want to stay here forever. I want the world to leave me alone. The darkness wraps around me like a heavy blanket, and I want to succumb to the weight of it. I cannot be coaxed out and those who try suffer my wrath. It will take me time, and I can only do this my way.
In time, measured by no clock, I begin to feel warmth of a spark rising from the ashes of that fire. Perhaps it never quite went out. I am numb, but I am no longer cold. I look up above the walls, and I begin to notice the world again. I see beauty, and it moves me. The walls of my fortress begin to crumble. Love and light flood the darkness, and they bring resuscitation to my heart. The numbness falters, and I begin to feel again. I’m on the path that will lead me back up to life.
Until the next trigger. But for now, I am here, I am present once again.
PTSD has taken so much from me, but what I grieve most is the inability to be the parent I long to be. Most days I cope well. But there are days I cannot connect, days where I am so absent and unaware of what is going on in my children’s lives. I can’t be the fun, energetic, creative, playful parent they always see in other mothers. They ask me to come into their classroom and help — they don’t yet understand that I can get so overwhelmed with anxiety that I can’t leave the house. They don’t yet understand what it takes for me to even get to their assemblies, their basketball games or their music lessons.
On those days, I am fighting a silent and invisible battle they can’t see or understand. I am often wrought with waves of guilt and failure, but I am slowly learning if the best you can do is crawl, then that is the best you can do.
I’ve come to accept that PTSD will always be my Achilles’ heel. I’ve stopped trying to “fix” myself, to “cure” myself, heal myself, and, more importantly, to lie to myself that this isn’t a permanent part of my life. As I have found and the research confirms, the long term effects as trauma caused in early childhood, and especially that which was sustained over long periods of time, may never go away.
And while there may be no cure, there is awareness and there is understanding. There is healing in coming out from the shadow of our shame and bringing our stories into the light. As we begin to mend ourselves we can begin to mend each other. There is hope in simply knowing you are not alone.
Yes, this is hard for me to share, but I know it is harder, still, to struggle alone and in silence.
And sometimes all it takes is for one voice to break through the silence to cast light into our darkest places.
You are not alone.
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Thinkstock photo by Kraig Scarbinsky