One morning I went out for pancakes and ended up sharing a booth wall with an energetic gentleman and his family. While waiting for my food to arrive, I couldn’t help but listen in on his table. He had lots of opinions and was telling stories when one of his family members asked: “So, what happened at work?”
The conversation died. After a full minute, he finally responded. “Jerry, threw me under the bus with the whole PTSD thing.”
Silence from the table.
“He really messed up the car I was working on and I was getting so pissed, and he was all up in my face saying, ‘What, are you going to have an episode?!’ Sure, I know I get heated and it’s hard to control that, but I he didn’t have to throw it in my face like that.”
A younger man at the table put his hand on his shoulder “you know that guy’s a jerk, don’t let him get to you.”
“I know. It’s just not fair, because I know they took his side,” was the last thing I heard on the matter.
The truth about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is that no definition of it excludes anyone from experiencing it. Even the US Government Department of Veteran Affairs has chosen to simply post the definition directly from the DSM-V without any sort of asterisk or simplification for those not serving in the military. No one is shielded and even indirect trauma (such as simply hearing about a loved one being hurt) can cause its onset.
Veterans in the United States are marked as having the highest risk for receiving the diagnosis but have remained severely undertreated for decades. Veteran’s Affairs estimates that of those who have seen combat, about 11-20% will experience PTSD symptoms in a year. Soldiers often remain quiet to avoid scaring their family, as well as appearing weak, as emotions are often associated with lack of strength in our culture. Those who do seek help likely do so only if they can be certain about their anonymity. There are animal researchers, psychologists and the aforementioned department fighting for more preventative measures to be taken to end the epidemic.
So, when there is such a lack of attention for those who put their lives on the line to protect mine, I felt guilty asking for any help myself. What I did instead, was attempt to just pretend it wasn’t a problem that I was spontaneously bursting into tears or losing track of my thought mid-sentence, or waking up in a cold sweat after reliving my worst fears in my dreams.
Sure, I had read about how children with traumatic pasts are likely to have PTSD later in their lives, but I just couldn’t believe that applied to me. I kept thinking that people with that diagnosis were usually resilient, brave, and most likely had gone through war. They were not small, blonde, white girls who sit on the floor rocking back and forth, crying until their eyes are dry. They would have been through worse and done better.
No part of me wanted to recognize that perhaps I would feel stronger and more in control if I chose to confront the fear. And was absolutely against acknowledging that my childhood was not typical, for that would create a domino effect that would force me to re-learn all of the emotional lessons I had learned up to that point.
I would have to learn how people should speak to each other, and how to celebrate a holiday in a way that didn’t involve drinking too much, and how parents could manage anger without throwing their children against a wall. And I was not ready to confront any of those memories more than I already had to in flashbacks.
All of this is doesn’t sound easy, but it seemed simpler than admitting that there was a problem with how I processed the chaotic jumble of my memories. Accepting the issue would also require me to accept the social judgment and stigma that goes with mental illness, and I was holding on by a thread trying to fit in as it was.
Any time I dipped my toe to test the waters of social sympathy, someone would remind me to never speak ill of my parents. Or that I would see it differently once I had kids of my own. My favorite would take my sharing with them as a time to measure up against me. As though we were competing for the title of “most miserable”. There were some who just dismissed me as someone clearly lacking proper self-judgment. If none of that sounds appealing to you (and I should hope it doesn’t), then you might understand why I chose instead to push aside my feelings and only let them out at home, where no one could see, after spending the day cracking my teeth smiling.
The National PTSD Foundation estimates that as much as 7.8 percent of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. The current data also shows that women suffer at double the rate as men.
But data alone is not going to help me convince my roommate I am not dangerous when I am experiencing a flashback, just as it will not convince a soldier to go talk to someone when they have nightmares after returning home. Like most mental illnesses, we don’t talk about PTSD in a productive, non-derogatory way outside of the mental health support social media community.
A huge reason flashbacks are so painful is that they are reminders of how helpless you felt in the moment the memory was introduced, and by how little control you have as it reappears. It’s hard to distinguish reality from a memory. It makes you question the accuracy of other memories you have stored.
Thanks to therapy and mindfulness I learned ways to help me return to the present moment faster. Yes, I willingly went back and re-lived some of the worst moments of my life, but I decided when that would happen. And once I had fully moved through the moment and learned which emotions were forcing my mind to re-live that it over and over again, I could move on. I learned how to recognize a flashback compared to reality, I learned what triggered it, and I learned why I couldn’t let it go.
This actually is more a form of control than pretending nothing is going on. When you pretend it's not real, you're vulnerable to having the thoughts you so dutifully shoved away resurfacing at the drop of any remotely related trigger.
Only recently did I regain this control, finally letting go of certain points in my life. It’s not that I never have episodes, but they're much less frequent and I am better prepared for them --they're happening on my terms.
My call is anyone who is suffering to come forward and start the discussion. I imagine it will be much easier for more veterans to opt to receive care if they see other men and women, who are well spoken and great citizens, doing so with confiedence. Like with everything else, setting an example of self-care is a great place to start.