Letters to Linda – PTSD Basics

Here are some things I wish I had known earlier:

Welcome to hell.

That feels like the real welcome. PTSD is hell. It’s worse if you don’t have information about it, support for your experience or can see a way out. It’s standard-issue to feel trapped and unable to escape. Not only can doors seem closed, they can seem to not exist at all. And that’s why it’s hell. It is really hard to have hope when you first come to understand that you have PTSD.

It doesn’t always show itself at first. It took me two years to get diagnosed, and until then I had no idea what was wrong with me, I just knew I either needed to get help or I was going to move to Canada. That’s not a joke, I was checking into travel when someone opened a door for me. And that is the beautiful thing about this experience, and something worth holding onto: people will open the doors that you couldn’t even see.

I hope these letters give you comfort and encouragement. I hope that my experience helps you reclaim yourself because you have more information, and you have someone who understands. So here are some things I wish I had known earlier:

  • You are not crazy. It feels like you are, yes, but what you have is a diagnosable condition from trauma. Your brain has an injury that needs to heal, and that does not make you crazy, it makes you absolutely deserving of love, support and healing.
  • Not all PTSD looks the same. If comparison is the root of envy, it is also the root of you being really unsure if you even have PTSD. Humans are unique and our neurologic response to trauma is unique. Just because you don’t have the symptoms on a list on the internet or because you don’t think your experience with trauma was “as bad as someone else” doesn’t mean that you are any more or less, it means that there is good reason for addressing your experience and needs, not someone else’s.
  • You can heal. In a lot of ways this can feel like a life sentence, and it is. There is so much damage from negative thoughts and behaviors that come from PTSD, especially if your trauma experience is not addressed for years after it happens. But there is always hope! It takes work, and it’s hard, but you can heal. It starts with believing that you can, and I certainly believe you can, because I’ve been there.
  • Give yourself some space to heal. If you had a broken arm, you would have gone to the doctor, had your arm repaired, be in a cast, possibly had surgery and have a timeline of several weeks to heal. Then you would get your cast off and still have time to rebuild strength in your arm and get it back to full use. If you didn’t get medical help very soon after your arm broke, your arm might heal in a way that made it hard to use, or very painful. Our brains aren’t very different! The big difference is that we often can’t see when our brains break, so they are much harder to get help for, and, unlike a broken arm, brain trauma can have a lot of shame with it, so it can be really hard to talk about and get help for. And that’s ok, because you didn’t know. Don’t beat yourself up, rather acknowledge that you didn’t know, and now that you do you can start the healing process.
  • There is not a timeline. This is not school or work. There are no deadlines or requirements, this is all at your pace. You get to decide what you’re comfortable with and what kind of progress you want to make. For me, it has take two years to get stable, to understand my trauma and my experience to the point that when I have severe anxiety or flashbacks or triggers I can deal with them in a healthy, healing way rather than a negative, harmful way. I still have a lot of work to do, and as I heal, I am finding more trauma I wasn’t aware of. Not fun! But I have accepted this is a process that does not have a timeline or expectations, it’s a journey at my own pace. The more effort I put into healing, the faster I heal, and the more I put off taking care of myself, the less progress I make. That also means I get to take breaks when I get tired of this whole thing or if I get busy with other things in life. When I have the motivation and space, I can really dig into re-wiring my brain.
  • Start with acknowledgement. PTSD can have so many lies. Anxiety is a lie, depression is a lie – there are so many things your brain will tell you that aren’t true. However, that experience is very real, and very valid. All it takes to start on the path to healing is to recognize what’s going on. If you are experiencing anxiety, acknowledge it. If you have a trigger experience, acknowledge it. If you are drained and exhausted, acknowledge it. If you can’t deal with groups today, acknowledge it. If you are in fight mode, acknowledge it. If you feel like you are stuck, acknowledge it. For me this was the hardest and easiest step to take. “I acknowledge that I have a lot of anxiety right now.” may seem silly or pointless, but recognizing what you feel and pausing to acknowledge it is actually a very powerful step forward. When you recognize negative experiences, you can address them. Start there.

Restoring Through A Slow Day

In thinking about my usual impatience, speed through life and refusal to pause and enjoy…anything…(I even eat fast), I’ve been thinking about what I could do to balance that a bit.

The chasm between anxiety and sleep was wide last night. Sometimes I can’t make it stop, hence the Xanax, which still took 20 minutes to kick in because I took the lowest dose I could. Breathing, body awareness, addressing my fears with rational answers…it all resulted in tears and increasing pain. Usually means I’ve been triggered, and mastering triggers without chemical intervention is likely to be a long road for me. It’s really disappointing to start doing restorative things for myself and three days or so in have another round of severe anxiety, but as I said yesterday, sleep acts as a reset and I am back at it today, determined to stay the course.

Which brings me to my intention for today – a Slow Day.

In thinking about my usual impatience, speed through life and refusal to pause and enjoy…anything…(I even eat fast), I’ve been thinking about what I could do to balance that a bit. Even on my “days off” I have a separate list of things to accomplish that I blow through so that I can get it all done. Days off aren’t for rest, they’re for getting done the things I didn’t have time to get done while running around at high speed the other days.

This can hardly be beneficial for me.

Slow Day is an intention to set aside one day a month to be in no hurry to do anything. There will be no pressure to perform, no to-do list, no doing anything that I find disagreeable, lots of laying around, lots of slow drinking and slow eating and slow reading (I read fast too, no surprise there) and maybe some slow hiking or walking or yoga. There will be sleeping in and early to bed and maybe some knitting or coloring or other calming activity. Maybe brunch out, because is there anything slower than brunch?

Slow Day seems a good foray into slowing down generally. Slowing my mind, slowing my body, resting, restoring and taking time to meditate (a practice which still escapes me because I don’t slow down long enough to do it.) I will hopefully learn a lot from Slow Day and gain some balance to my crazy. I’ve had a lot more creative energy and problem-solving ability the last few days, so something is working. My resting heart rate is still high, but that’s an indicator not necessarily a goal at the moment.

In the middle of this I am still transitioning off of meds. I am one week into a three week process to taper off the antidepressant I have been on for two years, and some of this may be my body adjusting to the lower dose of chemicals. I’ll just have to wait that one out. Overall I think it’s a really good choice for me, just having a few hiccups on the way. But it got me to Slow Day, so even the hard things give me a reason to be grateful.

Dating With PTSD – Communication

Telling how I feel and what I need is another trigger, because doing that previously got me another round of abuse. 

I am dating an incredible human who is accepting of my traumatic experiences and who is willing to listen (patiently) while I try to work out the things that trigger me. One of my challenges is that I don’t know what will trigger me or when, or how badly. I can’t predict my anxiety levels or what will make me want to push him away, what will violently drag up fear or what will be a small raising of my eyebrow.

Part of the trauma that broke my brain was an abusive relationship that I was in for four years. The first two years he was abusive and manipulative, the last two he was unbelievably cruel. I was in a horrible car wreck at the end of year two, after I had moved away but we were still talking. I had no idea I had PTSD, I had no idea why I couldn’t let go of him, and he took every bit of shame over what he had done to me and my near-death to emotionally beat the shit out of me, again and again and again.

He was a broken person not looking to heal. He nearly broke me. I still have a lot of scars, and it feels like I am now having to pull them back open to heal correctly.

He used communication as a weapon. He would not respond, not give me straight answers, not let me know what was going on or what to expect, because as long as I couldn’t get my feet under me in the relationship I had no way to access control. Post-car wreck I spent two years unknowingly creating negative neuron response pathways in my brain. It is taking a long time to repair those, and because I don’t even know what they all are, I keep stumbling upon them.

For example, David and I were texting, and I didn’t get a response back at one point. It wasn’t critical, and rational brain wouldn’t have thought much of it. I knew he was busy and I had my own things to do, and if I did have a rational brain I would have just checked in with him later. However, that drop in the conversation hit a neuron pathway that remembered that this is a negative thing, that when this happens I am going to get hurt, that when he doesn’t respond it’s a reason to panic and fear the worst. It snuck up on me before I could figure out what was happening, and a few hours later when we did start texting again it took very little (he was telling me what he’d been up to, a positive experience for me in normal conditions) to set me off on a severe trigger.

I don’t want to lash out or start a fight or make accusations when this happens. It isn’t David’s fault, it has very little to do with him and he doesn’t know. I don’t even know until it happens, then I am scrambling to understand why the hell I just had this deeply negative response to a circumstance that feels like it should be no big deal. Then I have to – in the middle of a fear-riddled experience for me – be completely vulnerable and ask for space and understanding while I sort out what’s happening. Telling how I feel and what I need is another trigger, because doing that previously got me another round of abuse.

I am so, so thankful that David was accepting, accommodating and that he listened once I got to a place that I understood what had happened. I needed to have a safe space to work through what had happened, and once I did, once I did a bit of reprogramming, I realized that for the first time I made it through a major trigger event without Xanax. Pretty amazing.

For those of us who live in the hell of PTSD, we need that safe space to process, to try to understand what is going on and to have you listen openly and without trying to tell us what our experience is. Our experience is hard enough for us to understand and deal with. When you add a partner to the mix, it’s a challenge to open up and let you know what’s going on. A challenge I’m slowly discovering is worth it.

Yeah, No, Still a Dick

The truth can be a challenging thing.

So I have a friend who I suspect may have undiagnosed Autism Spectrum Disorder. My business partner is on the spectrum as was not diagnosed until adulthood, so I have some degree of familiarity with the behaviors and challenges of the disorder, which I don’t even like to call that because our brains are just such complex things and are all very different.

This, however, if you read my previous post, has come to my attention and consideration because my friend’t behavior is often odd, and occasionally borderline lunacy. She drove an hour to a town and back with a full car of people with her left leg hanging out the driver’s window, foot propped on the mirror, because, as she has told me, “It’s more comfortable that way.”

No, it is not, and you are a lunatic. How no one in the car made her stop is beyond me, but her behaviors are so over the top so often that no one else seems to know what to do with her. She also has yet to take responsibility for ANYTHING. If she were the youngest in this friend group, whatever, live and learn, but no, she is the second oldest behind me, and her nonsense has started to generate quite a bit of talk behind her back.

If I’m right, she could really benefit from learning about why emotional connections and relationships are challenging for her, and why, as she has told me, she’s never really had friends. As a defense she refuses to wear makeup, insists she doesn’t have a mirror in her house (false but one could believe she doesn’t use it to any advantage), she declared that the restaurant yesterday didn’t have a fork and ate her slice of pie with a knife, including licking said knife (plenty of forks and one arrived on her plate with her pie), she insisted on picking up and driving everyone she could there and back (I had other engagements and drove myself, thus maintaining my sanity), she brought a frozen pie into the restaurant for the girls who are gluten-free, who then declared they couldn’t eat anything off the menu then ate everyone’s leftover fries and failed to tip our very patient waitress, she spent seven minutes processing her pie selection out loud, and barely talked to me at church today because the guy she dumped sat next to me. She tends to sulk when she isn’t good at our pickup games (she’s not a very good athlete nor is she athletic and doesn’t embrace it), and no one cares or notices that she sits out and sulks because we’re all busy having a good time, which is the point. I notice though.

Do I tell her my suspicions?

That was just a small piece of what I pretty much deal with from her 7 days a week. It’s either in person or via text, and I just don’t get it, unless she has an undiagnosed condition and has never recognized that something may not be quite right – hence all of this. She tends to mirror people she perceives as being well-liked, but the execution is often terrible. I think a lot of her over the top behavior and verbal disdain toward social etiquette and norms is because she’s uncomfortable and unsure, and because she wants people to like her but doesn’t know how.

Do I tell her? Or do I just let it go? And if I do tell her, how the hell do I start that conversation?

 

How Not To Be A Dick

Just kidding, I have no idea.

The level of social nonsense in my life has appeared to reach a fever pitch. I only have fight response, not flight response, and no, I can’t just “ignore it” or “leave it alone” because anxiety doesn’t do that.

From Facebook: “I don’t celebrate Halloween and literally can’t make eye contact with anyone in costume at work today. I am, however, grateful for treats from Rhonda” (complete with pic of Halloween treats).

If you eat the treats, you’re celebrating, you hypocrite.

I play a pickup game at public tennis courts on Wednesday nights. One of the girls brought her brother’s Rotweiler for the second week in a row. Dogs aren’t allowed on the courts, and this dog bites. She makes excuses for the dog rather than acknowledging that the behavior is not acceptable. Leave the dog – and yourself – at home.

Actually, that resulted in me reminding everyone via group chat to close gates behind them, announce scores, and leave pets and children at home. This is an adult competitive sport, not daycare/petcare. And if a dog bites me I will likely go into full fight mode and you will be horrified.

Plans to head out to a massive corn maze tomorrow and get pie at a well-known restaurant after with a group of friends. Restaurant doesn’t do gluten-free pie, some in the group are gluten-free. The friend who I suspect has undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder (and am trying to figure out how gently suggest she might think about being evaluated) just texted me a pic of a frozen dairy-free, gluten-free cheesecake-ish dessert and said we could take it to the restaurant for the people who can’t eat pie.

NO. YOU DO NOT BRING OUTSIDE FOOD INTO RESTAURANTS. WHO RAISED YOU??? THEY AGREED TO GO KNOWING THEY COULDN’T EAT THE PIE, LEAVE IT ALONE. ARE YOU GOING TO LEAVE IT IN A HOT CAR ALL DAY??? YAY THAT IS DELICIOUS.

My family says I overreact. Yep, I have PTSD. This is my reality. No flight, only fight. It’s exhausting.