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5 Insider Truths Sarah Palin Should Know About PTSD

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Sarah Palin’s assertion that her son’s domestic violence is a natural result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), has lead many PTSD sufferers to speak out against this stereotype. People with this sometimes crippling disorder are often seen as unstable and violent, and this is beyond unfair to the many brave people who suffer in silence.

• What is PTSD?

I’ve experienced PTSD, and I invite this chance to tell the truth about the experience. Palin’s comments didn’t touch on all these points, but there are some misconceptions I would like to clear up for everyone.

1. We are not all veterans or war survivors, though many of us are.

PTSD is more commonly thought of as a debilitating injury experienced by soldiers who endured unimaginable experiences in war zones. This absolutely holds true, and a large portion of PTSD survivors are veterans or civilian survivors of war. That said, there are many other causes of PTSD that are not typically discussed. Rape and sexual assault survivors, both adults and children, frequently get PTSD. Survivors of near death experiences, such as muggings, beatings, robberies, kidnappings or animal attacks also get PTSD. I will not dive deep into my own experiences, but my life was threatened by a college classmate over an extended period of time to the point where it was necessary to lock my doors, involve campus security and eventually transfer to another school. The result was PTSD, which was debilitating for a year and gradually eased over five. Possibly the PTSD suffered by veterans was more intense than mine, but I can vouch for the “realness” of my condition.

2. PTSD is physical and chemical, not purely emotional. We are not simply “scared” or “unhinged.”

One truth most can intimately understand is that our bodies “make our emotions real.” We know we’re in love because our hearts race and our stomachs dive. We know we’re angry when our hands shake and our cheeks heat. And we know fear because we feel fear. The shaky, racy, paralyzing, deep thought bypassing, reactive fear that evolution gave us so that we could flee from bears or saber toothed cats when the situation was dire. Now imagine you genuinely felt that fear sensation all the time. Intellectually, you might know that there was nothing to fear, but your body could never feel calm. The hyper-vigilant heart racing blood-curdling fear makes you think you’re never safe.

This was my life with PTSD.  For months I couldn’t work, sit still, relax my muscles, concentrate, take my mind off my past trauma or truly sleep through a night. I was tense and exhausted and likely seemed crazy to others, but my body was simply stuck in the behaviors that helped it to survive. In other words, PTSD is simply going through the motions of protecting your life when they’re no longer necessary. It’s not craziness; it’s your body needing time to release its white knuckled grip on the metaphorical gun you were holding during the actual shootout.

3. The concept of “nightmare” takes on a whole new meaning.

Imagine a body running survival and fear chemicals 24/7. Then, that body finally collapses into an exhausted sleep. Those are going to be dreams that put Freddy Krueger to shame. Add in physical body changes, and these nightmares can be traumatic experiences in their own right. When I was experiencing PTSD, the chemicals that typically hold a person’s body in place during a dream released. During the nightmares, full of threats, chases, the macabre face of my attacker and blood, I would sit up screaming, swearing, throwing myself around, looking for things to throw upon awakening, etc. I insisted that people knock on my locked door and loudly identify themselves before entering if they needed me while I was asleep.

4. There are ways to make the world less triggered for us.

A person getting little sleep with a body full of fear chemicals will startle easily. I would gently ask people to approach me verbally before touching me and to enter my eye line rather than sneak up behind me. This is good advice when a loved one has PTSD. Avoidance of situations, places, objects or people that remind a person of the trauma is also common. I was unable to speak to my attacker, see pictures of her or go to my old college campus for years after I developed PTSD, and frankly the way I saw it, why make a bad situation worse for myself?

I think this last point is the most important, so please believe that:

5. In spite of our PTSD, we are not dangerous or violent in most cases.

I cannot stress enough that there was nothing dangerous about me when I was experiencing PTSD! I was more worried about potential threats than my loved ones were. I gently gave people advice on approaching me. I slept alone until I felt ready to have a roommate or significant other, and though I was never actually violent coming out of my night terrors, I locked my doors until I was 100 percent sure. Nothing about the condition of PTSD kept me from being a person capable of concern for others. To defend violence or abuse as a natural part of the PTSD experience is to overlook the majority of people who have PTSD who are non-violent, but suffering. We trust our brave veterans with our lives every day while they defend our country. Why assume that they morph into mindless, violent abusers when they return home?

I hope this piece has played a part in building empathy for people suffering with PTSD, and that we can all speak out against the lie that veterans and assault victims are dangerous people.

Originally published: January 23, 2016
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