Why I'm Annoyed by the Idea of PTSD Awareness Month

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I don’t know why, but for some reason, I’m annoyed by the idea of designating a month for awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Perhaps it’s because this country has been at war for decades, which often subjects thousands of American men and women to atrocities that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Perhaps it’s because we just finished talking about sexual assault and abuse throughout the month of April and how that is one of the most common sources of PTSD outside of combat. Perhaps it’s because I’m feeling vulnerable as I enter my third year in therapy and my third session of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), which is just another tool with which my team of medical professionals is trying to treat my PTSD symptoms.

I’ve done and continue to do talk therapy. I do yoga. I’ve tried medication. I have gone on a survivor retreat. I’ve journaled copiously. I participate actively in a group for sexual abuse survivors. I feel like no matter what I do my symptoms won’t go away and it’s so incredibly frustrating.

You see, every day is PTSD Awareness for me. I’m constantly aware of how exhausted I am from my flashbacks, nightmares and insomnia. I’m hyper aware of the fact that I have seemingly irrational body memories that make me hyper vigilant, dissociate or become overly perfectionistic. I struggle with trust — with even those I truly trust like my husband and my therapist. It’s almost like I have a phobia of trusting people. I know if I allow myself to give into the trust, that safety net will be ripped away from me and I will yet again be left wondering, “What did I do wrong? Why am I not worthy of love? I must be the bad one.”

While I’m not actively suicidal, thoughts of how others would be better off without having to deal with me or of how I could escape the memories that pervade my brain are often there. I don’t want to die but I also wonder how long will this healing journey take and how can I in good conscience take those I love so dearly along this journey with me without hurting them irreparably.

My body and mind feel like a minefield — ready to explode at any moment, destroying everything in its path. Some days are better than others. Some days I cope well, can even feel happiness and contentment. Others I feel like what’s the point? Why am I doing all of this? There’s no hope.

Such is life when you have PTSD. I spent the better part of my life not remembering the abuse that caused my trauma. Then, all of a sudden, it came back like a tidal wave and consumed me. I wish I could return to the perceived bliss of denial. But the truth is, the trauma was always there and it was just waiting for the right moment to surface so I could begin to deal with it.

Now that the moment has arrived, I refuse to stay silent any longer. I’m going to talk about my PTSD and trauma. I’m going to advocate for survivors. I’m going to shed light on those of us who struggle in the shadows while succeeding in the light. So Awareness Months be damned. Every month should be PTSD Awareness until the collective society realizes that many of us aren’t “crazy” or broken or damaged beyond repair. We just have deep, deep wounds that need healing and that require the understanding of others to be able to feel “normal” again. Whatever “normal” is.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

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How I Learned What Therapy for PTSD Is Actually Like

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If you are anything like me, you probably have a preconceived notion of what therapy for PTSD entails. TV and movies had provided me a very specific imagine that I blame for my lack of enthusiasm towards the subject. I pictured an old brown vinyl lounger where I would nervously lay. The room would be dimly lit with some faint ambient music playing in the background to set your mind at ease. The doctor would be well-put-together, wearing a tweed jacket with suede elbow patches and tiny glasses and the end of his nose. He would sit next to me in a squeaky office chair with his legs crossed. And I don’t know, maybe even have some accent.

He would then administer the Rorschach Inkblot Test in which I would say every image reminded me of a woman’s vagina, ask me if I was breastfed, write some things down on his clipboard and book me in for another session. And as soon as I left, he would secretly contact my employer and tell them I would never be able to return to work as a firefighter.

So yes, I had a very specific image of what I thought therapy entailed. But once again, I was wrong! In the beginning, I was so nervous before each meeting that I would throw up, and on more than one occasion, too. We had to arrive one hour early, so I could have plenty of time to pace around the building. By the way, I can tell you where all the standpipe connections are to not only my doctor’s building, but the surrounding ones also.

Therapy was nothing like I thought it was going to be. In the first few meetings, my therapist and I didn’t seem to talk about anything in particular. We talked about the weather, little dogs, NASCAR and how messed up the U.S election was — you know everyday chitchat. I know she loves Tim Horton’s iced coffee, is a fast reader and is extremely passionate about what she does. To be honest, I can’t even remember when we “officially” started any “real” therapy, or at least not that I noticed. I mean, we talked about what she does and why, we talked about emergency services in general and how difficult it is for humans to be continuously exposed to constant levels of trauma. Little did I know, but my therapist was hard at work the whole time.

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She never directly asked how I felt about stuff. She didn’t ask me to write a journal or keep a chart of my feelings. I’m sure that approach may be effective with other people, but she certainly understands her clientele. If anything, it felt more like a casual conversation between old pals. And before I knew it, we were talking about the odd thing here and there, and you know, a few calls that had bothered me. No big deal, just chatting!

After I understood how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) works, I began to understand why the symptoms exist. My therapist explained it to me like this: Emergency service workers face high rates of PTSD. Think about it. People typically choose to become an emergency responder because they are an extremely compassionate individual who wants to help people. This same highly empathetic individual is continuously exposed to trauma, tragedy, danger, violence and incredible risk. Naturally, this is bound to take a toll on that individual. How can it not? So rather than look at PTSD as a weakness or a sign of softness, think of it as a normal, common and an expected result of your line of work. It’s to be expected!

Eventually, signs and symptoms of PTSD can start to pile up. The behavior of PTSD happens when an individual doesn’t know how to put those memories and experiences away neatly. Nobody can erase a memory, but we can learn how to organize them, so they don’t bog us down. And that’s where your psychologist can help. I learned this is how I can beat PTSD. For me, I simply have to put my shit away neatly. Let me use a garage for an example. When that garage is a cluttered mess, you can’t find shit. It’s a pain just to look for one little thing. You trip all over stuff and start to get pissed off. Now if that garage is tidied up, all that aggravation is avoided. You love hanging out in your garage, as a matter of fact, you invite the neighbors over just so you can stand around in your clean garage, marveling at the whole thing. You get my point.

So why is it that PTSD doesn’t affect everyone? Why is it that some people seem to breeze through their career? You know the ones that seem to make this happen. Nothing seems to bother them. They are always happy, happy! Not a care in the world! Are they stronger, or more resilient? No, not necessarily. Maybe they just know how to put their stuff away better than others. Every once in a while, they might drop the ball and their garage might get a little cluttered, but I believe just as long as you can stay on top of it, you’re good. Remember, everyone is different. We all have our own coping skills and mechanisms and the same thing doesn’t work for everyone.

I’m sure you can see why I feel I won the lotto with my therapist. She is not only my doctor, but I consider her a friend, too. I truly believe she saved my life. So, two big thumbs up to her!

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8 Things I Want My Boss to Know as an Employee With C-PTSD

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Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) is an absolutely horrendous daily battle. C-PTSD is formed as the result of repeated and ongoing trauma. It looks different for everyone. For me, it looks like frequent flashbacks and panic attacks, episodes of dissociation (or feeling completely out of it, numb and disconnected), overwhelming tsunamis of depression and crushing anxiety. After a day of fighting this, I go to bed exhausted, only to have my mind and body relive every trauma it has experienced as I fall asleep, in nightmares, and as soon as I wake up.

C-PTSD makes every day into a war zone, and it makes basic life functioning difficult. My struggle is getting better with lots of therapy and huge amounts of medication, but it is still a fight. In the middle of all of this, I do manage to be a productive and functioning adult, hold down steady employment, have a social life, and work part-time on my Master’s degree. That said, sometimes life is excruciatingly difficult

These are eight things I want to say to my boss about my life with C-PTSD in the hopes of greater understanding.

1. I did not choose this, and I do not want this.

I know it frustrates you when I have to leave early, or when I call in without much explanation other than the vague, “I’m really not feeling well.” I know you are confused by the combination of the fact that I am productive and get my work done, but that I also struggle to stay at my cubicle for 40 hours a week. Trust me: as much as it frustrates you, it infuriates me. I would give and do anything for my brain to work right. I would do anything to erase the past. I can’t though, and so I have to do the best I can. I do not want for this to be my reality, but it is and so I am determined to not let it hold me back.

2. What you see is not the whole picture.

You see someone who is productive most of the time and works hard. You see someone who is capable. You also see someone who is jumpy, nervous, anxious, downcast, and at times sporadic with her attendance. You see someone who goes from working incredibly hard one day to needing to take a medical leave the next. What you do not see is what goes on behind the pictures. You don’t see that I’m so exhausted because I’ve just spent 20 minutes in the stairwell trying to get a hold of a panic attack, or that I’m groggy because of the calming medication I just had to take. You don’t see that I am easily startled because every noise sends my brain into “red alert.” You don’t see that I am worn out from the simple weight of living, and that I come and do my best anyways.

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3. I handle almost all of my issues outside of work.

I wish you could know how hard I work to keep my struggles from affecting my job. Twice a week I go to therapy with a psychiatrist, but in order to keep that outside of work hours, it means I have to meet with her at 7 a.m. Sometimes reprocessing my trauma in therapy is so brutal that by the time I get to work it feels like I have already worked a full day, and my brain and body are exhausted from the effort. This means that functioning for a full 8.5-hour day of work can take the rest of my energy, making basic life things like cleaning and grocery shopping impossible. There are a lot of other management items that come with this, like filling my prescriptions, taking my meds on time and being careful to make sure I’m nurturing my body.

4. Everything feels like a threat.

I am always tired because my body feels like it has to fight. Staying at work is almost unbearable sometimes as my brain perceives every noise, every movement, every voice, every interaction as a threat. My nervous system is perpetually in a state of hyper-vigilance, looking for where the next threat will come from. Every time I hear someone or something unexpected, I have to consciously remind myself that I’m not about to be attacked.

5. When I need time off, I really need time off.

This may seem like a strange statement, but the fact my brain and body are constantly dealing with this is exhausting. Sometimes leaving a few hours early or taking a leave for a few days is what I have to do in order to keep this from getting worse.

6. I am doing my best, and fairly well given this situation.

I can be engaged and productive in a meeting while also having a flashback or feeling dissociated. I can work hard and fast and accomplish everything on my workload and some things from other people’s workload and do it well. My disorders do not define me and I refuse to let them limit my life. They just mean that sometimes I might have to take an unconventional approach to getting things done.

7. This is getting better.

I wish you could see where I was a year ago, or two years before that, or three years before that. I have come so far and am proud of my healing and growth. It’s an ongoing fight to make it through, but I am learning and growing and finding ways to heal every day.

8. I can do even better with your help.

Compassion, grace, understanding, reassurance, support … these things all help me feel grounded and safe. They make me more productive overall. Sometimes, I may even need you to help me think outside of the box on how to accomplish everything productively. Disability accommodations go a long way towards helping me succeed. Working from home from time to time may allow my brain to reset itself while also allowing me to accomplish my workload. More than anything, your understanding that I am trying my very best and your flexibility for when I need to be creative with things like my work schedule allow me to grow, succeed and thrive as your employee.

I treasure this job and working with you, and am doing my best to make it through. Your support allows me to be successful, so please, help me to succeed in everything I’m doing.

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My Experience With Complex PTSD: A Poem

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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is like a snake that never leaves

It coils itself around my body taking control

Sometimes I don’t realize it’s there until it’s crushing my soul

The pain is debilitating and the guilt and fear

I do everything to tell myself it’ll be better in a week or month or year

If I could just stay in the present today right now right here

But in this moment when everything feels so overwhelming

When I’m curled up in a ball and I feel like nothing can help me at all

My body shakes and my mind races

The memories take me back to all the people and all the places

That broke my heart and fractured my mind

And healing is just a thing I think I will never find

Out of broken hopes and broken limbs

I’d always choose the latter

But when it comes right down to it

None of that seems to matter

I am restless and I’m exhausted

I am hopeful but I am haunted

Every breath I breathe is sharp

Every heartbeat I feel is dull

I am completely drained of life

And of death, I am completely full

I have to shine a light

I have to tell my story

Yet sharing all this darkness seems like it might be the end of me

I try to comprehend how I could have survived this gore and horror

When simply recalling it all

Seems to have much more power

My mind betrays me because I don’t just see, I feel the memory

all of a sudden I’m right back in it

I have fallen down a rabbit hole where a lifetime goes by

But it’s only been a minute

When I come back the world is different than it was before

And there’s a new layer of pain

That I just can’t ignore

But underneath the weight of debilitating devastation

there’s a thread of strength that keeps fighting without hesitation

I will push on, push through every prison

I will climb every mountain

I will fight for my freedom like it is my mission

I will hold onto the truth

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And tear down the lies

I will ring the neck of this beast

Until this diseased snake finally dies

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Is It Possible to Let Go of the Past When You Have PTSD?

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Today I was assured that it is OK to let go of the past. What? Wait, let go of the past? But the past makes me who I am now, and that might not be a great reference for my past — I’m battered and bruised emotionally, and I’d wager fairly heavily medicated. But I think the point was mostly that I need to recognize the painful things that have happened to me — the trauma and hurt, the powerlessness I have felt — does not have to imprison and hurt me on a daily basis now.

This afternoon I’ve grappled with the thought of “letting go” and what that means for me. If I am being truthful with myself, I could admit I am a willing captive to my past — I believe I deserve to be treated poorly, to serve other people’s needs regardless of how that impacts me. Demanding more for myself and my future makes me feel guilty and selfish, and that is more uncomfortable than the ache in my chest from the nightmares and memories.

As I’ve spent some time bartering with myself to find a balance between self-preservation and selfishness, I have come to the following conclusions:

To let go does not mean I stop caring; it means I understand the difference between those who deserve my care and those who demand it.

To let go does not mean I need to trust everyone; it means it is OK to let safe people in and be vulnerable with them.

To let go does not mean I am admitting I am powerless; it means I recognise that the situation was outside of my control.

To let go does not mean I am to blame; it means I accept I am unable to control others’ actions or change the past.

To let go does not mean I do not regret the past; it means I am willing to heal and live in the present.

All of the above tells me it is OK to let go of the pain and to let go of the past does not mean it is no longer a part of me. It means I deserve to move on with my life; it means I get to anticipate a happier future where I am not victimized, but instead am strong enough to advocate for my own needs to be heard and met. It means that instead of being voiceless and frozen when faced with those who are only interested in making themselves happy, I can learn I am worthy of the same consideration they are giving to themselves.

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I only wish it was as easy to truly believe these things in my heart, but making the logical connection is a start. For all my life, I have felt inadequate and hopeless. I have lived believing it was my destiny to appease others at my own detriment, best to do what people want voluntarily before they demand or take it from me.

Letting go does not mean I am accepting the horrible actions of others; it only means I am admitting that I am worthy of love and acceptance.

Follow this journey on The Art of Broken.

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Self-Doubt: My Self-Esteem's Unwanted House-Guest

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A  familiar knock on my self-esteem’s door seems to happen when I’m making a big change, taking a risk, sharing my writing, speaking in front of groups or I have accepted another layer of learning to live with the limitations of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

I would like to say that self-doubt comes uninvited to my self-esteem’s house during these transition times, but that wouldn’t be honest. I don’t believe Mr. Doubt (as I call it) would come calling unless it was invited. It may be unwanted, but since it arrived with hat in hand, I ask it to come in for tea and tell me what it thinks of me.

Outwardly, to others, it appears I have no problems learning, growing, changing, taking risks, writing books, writing articles, speaking in front of groups about living with PTSD and working very, very hard on living with the deficits that plague my mental health. Outwardly, I look strong and determined.

I am strong and determined … but as self-doubt sips its tea and begins to play the old tapes and drones the familiar chants of “you’re not good enough, not worthy, not well enough, smart enough, you’re a poser” and lists all the reasons I shouldn’t try or that I should give up, fear and rejection hang in the air between us.

Some days I listen, with respect, compassion and a loving ear because I know self-doubt doesn’t come uninvited. But, there are other days when I’m tired or triggered and have a lot of symptoms, that I can feel the sinister dark-dread begin to blacken and shred the self-esteem I have worked so hard to foster. The grasp of my thinly-held mantra — that my inner beauty, strength, talent and goodness far outweigh any deficits I may have — begins to fade as self-doubt tries to extend tea-time into a meal and a nap.

I’ve eventually heard enough, felt enough and acknowledge this is a pattern. Self-doubt comes when I’m on a precipice and I can choose to entertain it longer or thank it for the visit, tell it we’re done and show it the door.

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As soon as it’s gone, it’s easier to take control of my internal thoughts about myself and how I’m navigating the world around me. I give myself room to breathe, change, grow, share my experiences with others and emerge from the shadows of shame I feel living with PTSD. It’s not comfortable a lot of the time, but that isn’t because I’m a terrible (fill in the old tapes) person. It is simply because that is where I am at this time in my life.

As this bout of self-doubt fades onto a distant shore, I understand I may hear this familiar knock on my door again, and if I do I’ll invite it in for a cup of tea and listen with a loving compassionate ear. For, I know, self-doubt does not come uninvited.

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