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Why a Harmless Run to Target With My Children Triggered My PTSD


This is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

During a harmless run to Target to look at school supplies, I was startled by the sudden sound of alarms and flashing lights throughout the store. I felt my hands begin to tremble, my legs feeling heavy, my vision becoming blurry. Adrenaline instantaneously coursing through my veins, fight or flight has activated. I know this feeling all too well. I saw two confused and concerned employees on their walkie talkies. They didn’t know, but I waited for a response. Meanwhile, my mind has already scanned the area for a place to run and hide my children, an infant and a six-year-old. Panic is intensifying, knowing I am in the very back of the store, the furthest place from the exit. I was consumed with the thought, “my children will not die today.” I saw the confusion and panic on other patrons faces as alarms and lights continued to sound, further propelling my urge to run, hide, protect. Seemingly primal instincts, but they aren’t.

After finding out Target decided to run a fire alarm test without notifying their staff on a very busy, crowded weekend afternoon, I could breathe. But, it was a little too late. Noticeably, I was in the midst of a full-blown panic attack. Nothing hurt my heart worse than my six-year-old trying to calm me, “Mom, it’s OK. We do this at school.”

This is PTSD. Those of us touched by violence, by trauma— some of us reinforced over a time period, for some of us singular events — we live our lives always looking for the exit, developing escape routes, learning to read faces, behaviors, biological indicators of a potential threat. We are constantly mapping out plans. attempting to stay ahead of a perceived threat before one may even present itself. Our lives are lived in a never-ending cycle of adrenaline. The biological processing of our hippocampus perceives and processes danger in completely different ways than those without PTSD, leaving us feeling misunderstood, ashamed and embarrassed for our actions after a triggering event, like the one I experienced today. It’s hard to explain to anyone on the outside that PTSD is biological and psychological.

Living with PTSD is hard. Today, I had one of those unproductive “why can’t I be normal” days. I have an incredible therapist, undergo exposure, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and take medication. Yet today, I felt failure in my inability to “combat” my PTSD. I’m sad, as an advocate for mental illness and disabled persons, that I feel this way about myself, knowing I would say differently for anyone else. But, I do know it’s in the name of the illness. As I try to convince myself to fall asleep tonight, I will rerun the scenario through my head, wishing I could have reacted, felt, perceived the situation differently, wondering when and if I will ever make it back to Target, adding it to my list of places to avoid. Tonight, I’m feeling sad, disappointed, overwhelmed, and my husband will comfort me as best as he can. Still, I will feel alone, because this illness is so isolating. Tomorrow, I will wake up determined to be more gentle with myself. I will drink my coffee, cook my children’s eggs, and move forward knowing today will not define the rest of my life.

Image via contributor.