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.

Setting Fire to the List

Those lists of mine? They exclude too.

I like lists. They’re my comfort zone. I like checking the box, marking through the words, finishing a task and clearly stating the thing. Whatever a list is for, I like it. They’re also a crutch for me and they get in my way.

I still use to-do lists. I find that if I don’t I’m not as motivated or I forget. Since I’m a performance-oriented human, I dearly love to cross an item off my to-do list. I knocked out my entire list today and you’d think I’d found buried treasure. If I make a list of the things I want to get done in a specific amount of time (I’ve finally accepted I only write lists for that day and only write what I can reasonably accomplish that day), there’s some measure of sense to it. Do I have a work deadline? Meet the deadline. Do I need to wash clothes? Do that. Oh, haven’t made Grandma’s Christmas stocking yet, I’ll get that done tonight. If I have trouble fitting in yoga I write it down too. I even wrote down to bring my trees in the house (potted citrus and avocados that do not like the cold) to make sure I didn’t forget to do that today.

But lists are by their nature limited and exclusive. What happens when it’s not on the list? My favorite tool becomes a trap of sorts. Let me illustrate.

How many times have you heard a girl say she has a list of things she’s looking for in a guy, and the first thing on the list is that he’s tall? What the hell does that have to do with anything? The average height for an American male is approximately 5′-10″, and they declined to provide me with the standard deviation, but I’m guessing there is a lot less above 6′-0″ and a lot more below 5′-10″. And I’m not sure why it matters, because that’s something most people can’t do anything about. What else is on your list?

More importantly, what isn’t on your list?

When I was in design school I was the last year before design tools turned over from manual to digital. The process of design, which is limited by one’s ability to manipulate the communication tool used, became very limited by the steep software learning curve. The class two years after us couldn’t design a roof to save their lives because the software didn’t automatically draw a roof for the buildings they designed, and they usually left roofs till last, meaning they put no time into them. Their designs were shit, not because they lacked ability but because they were relying on a tool that excluded so much. Those lists of mine? They exclude too. They almost always exclude me time, things that bring me joy, spending time with people I like, things that will improve my well being and things that will help me be much happier as I knock out all of the things on the list.

I don’t usually do New Year’s resolutions, but I might need to reconsider how I make lists and why I do it in the first place, and the timing is working out to make that change in the new year. And no, I’m not putting that on a list.

Starting to Feel My Strength

What has been interesting about this short break is that instead of feeling weak or fat or lazy or other self-critical feelings about my unplanned pause, I felt stronger.

It’s such a good feeling to come out of a PTSD episode (I don’t even know what to call it, so let’s go with that). At the same time my brain started to let off I finished a work deadline with time to spare and some good news about being exempt from a state review. I also got an extra part of the project completed for now and was pleasant in my response to a client rep who leans heavily on an attorney I’ve never met – nor have I agreed to work with. So. Much. Relief.

After pounding out the miles for the last few weeks I hit a wall physically as well as mentally, and I haven’t exercised much in a few days. I just couldn’t. To compare, I’m working out about 12 hours a week on average. So far this week I’m at 3 hours, about half of normal. And that’s ok, because my body said it needed to rest, and I listened for once.

All of this the day before my brother has his next surgery, which will change the family dynamic and schedule once again as we transition to supporting him. Talk about timing! But my brain knows, doesn’t it? Time to get it back together, and time to get back to hitting my carefully-set Fitbit goals. The little tyrant tends to control me.

What has been interesting about this short break is that instead of feeling weak or fat or lazy or other self-critical feelings about my unplanned pause, I felt stronger. I’ve lost 3 lbs in as many days (ok but I did stop eating sugar after that Friday meltdown), I can see more tone to my body and I am willing to be more physical – rather than just walking, I’m ready to start tackling trails, hopping around, on and over rocks and tree roots in a way that is much more challenging than what I have been doing all year to rack up miles.

I watched the intro videos to a power yoga series (I really like DoYouYoga and have found the membership to be well worth it) and my first thought of watching this trim and muscular woman hop into a handstand and switch kick into Warrior I was no freaking way can I do this. I’m 30 lbs overweight, and I don’t have a lot of the body strength it takes to do this kind of cool yoga stuff.

Yet.

I also couldn’t run part of a trail, I also couldn’t get my weight down, I also couldn’t find healthy ways to cope with anxiety, I also couldn’t be a successful business owner, I also couldn’t drive again, I also couldn’t love that hard again, I also couldn’t be comfortable in groups, I also couldn’t focus that long, I also couldn’t grow a garden. Three beautiful avocado trees and a boatload of herbs and citrus later, yes I can.

Maybe I can’t do it yet, but starting to feel my strength is making me think yes, I will.