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.

Dating with PTSD – Communication Failure

I’m pretty used to doing this by myself, at least that’s a more comfortable place than this new hell. 

The post I wrote yesterday? Ha. Yeah.

I didn’t hear from David for hours yesterday. No response to the text I sent in the morning, no response to the text I sent in the afternoon asking if he was ok. I put all of my energy yesterday into not freaking out, into not assuming that something had happened to him, to one of his family, that he wasn’t massively hungover, that he hadn’t ghosted me…and worst of all, that after WE JUST HAD THIS CONVERSATION, he hadn’t just failed to hear me or failed to care and done exactly what I had asked him – and he had agreed – not to do.

It brought back all of the abuse, all of the manipulation, all of the fear, all of the four years that I lived through absolute hell in a relationship. Merry Christmas to me, those wounds are still there.

On top of that, I had to deliver news to my grandma that made her cry, deal with general family holiday angst around me and advise my brother on asking out a girl he likes (which did not go well, she just wants to be friends, so now my empathetic ass is taking that disappointment on as well).

I was already a Xanax in when I did hear from him. He’d left his phone at a friend’s the night before and it was dead when he got it back, so I finally hear from him when he got it charged. Did I want to talk?

No. I didn’t want to talk. Ever.

I did talk, last night I told you exactly what will violently drag up horrible pain for me, and that is exactly what you did the next day. You keep telling me you understand, but your words don’t mean shit. Words are empty, they’re hollow, they have no meaning without action, and your actions made it quite clear that I’m not a good fit for you.

I don’t have anyone walking with me in this. I don’t have anyone that I can let in to where the past hurts the most to help me stare it in the face and tell it I’m no longer a prisoner. PTSD doesn’t go away, it doesn’t have a cure, it doesn’t have an end. Do I want to talk? I barely fucking know what to say to myself, much less to you. I am dragging up all kinds of new hurt by dating again, by letting someone in, and there is a reason I have done this by myself for so long. You make it worse. I asked you not to, and you made it worse.

I did talk last night. I kept calm, I didn’t blame, I tried really hard to say how I felt without losing my cool. I tried to say what I need. I was also on Xanax so who even knows. We’d had plans to meet up, and those had been blown to hell, and I really didn’t want to see or talk to him until after Christmas.

The guy who put me here in the first place? He loved to wreck Christmas for me. So this happening so close to Christmas was just another layer of pain.

Did I mention I got Christmas gifts from my stalker yesterday too? That pushed me over into a profanity-laced screaming episode about…everyone.

This morning I was the first to reach out again. I let David know I still wasn’t ok. He made it about him, asking, “Still me?” “Let’s maybe say the situation.” Because I am not wanting to assign blame to him when it was something that just happened. I called him after church and he was on his way to help his brother. Again, not available.

I can’t fix this one. I don’t want to. I’m trying so hard to not let one mishap wreck a relationship that has been so good up to this point, but I needed to see more from him. I needed to see that he understood enough to try to reassure me that he’s there. But he isn’t, and since I’m pretty used to doing this by myself, at least that’s a more comfortable place than this new hell.

Thankful

Practicing gratitude does a lot for mental health.

I woke up in the middle of the night with searing pain in my tension spot. I have a place near my right shoulder in my trapezoid muscle that seizes up when I am really tense. It feels like the muscle is being ripped out. Fun times, right? I had just finished a REM cycle and had had a nap yesterday, so I ended up being awake for about an hour, which was plenty long enough to slap a Tiger Balm patch on it and consider just getting up already.

I went back to sleep.

I previously wrote about living with near constant physical and emotional pain. It can be hard to be thankful, but gratitude is so necessary to a good life. A friend asked me yesterday how I deal with it all. I do exactly what I was doing yesterday – serve other people and meet their needs. I mixed dressing (not stuffing cause it was in pans, not in birds), filled to-go boxes, made friends and delivered meals to elderly members of the community. I sat with a woman who cried because she is lonely, having lost her husband about this time last year. They were married for 74 years. I offered to come back to see her and bring some friends, and she accepted.

I got so much more out of that than I gave.

I met a woman who also has PTSD, who works with veterans because it helps her to be around people who get it. She, too, is a survivor of sexual assault, and she, too, knows the incredibly stupid things people say when you open up about an experience others don’t understand. That connection was such a blessing, and we plan to get to know each other better. She is surprised I am still here. I’m thankful someone recognizes the hell.

Client’s Brother (I really love ridiculous nicknames so that will be hard to change if this goes forward) asked me out, and we’ve been talking in the meantime. He invited me to lunch and a brewery on Sunday, and I countered with my commitment to make wall art to sell to support an orphanage. He offered to help with that instead and said the brewery could wait. I’ve been clear about having PTSD, that crafting is with some bonkers 20-ish church kids, he knows I have a stalker because stalker emailed me yesterday to wish me and my family a Happy Thanksgiving (ugh) and so far the date is still on. I’m not used to people just rolling with me. I’m also not used to standing on a position of join me or don’t, this is what I’m doing regardless, because this is what I want.

So many reasons to be thankful, not in spite of, but in the midst of.

Bone Deep and Mind Breaking

‘Tis the season for joint pain.

Pain, you make me a believer.

I’m a summer girl, if for no other reason than hot weather doesn’t cause me joint pain. I inherited the family curse of old bones in a young body, and I can sit around with mature members of society and chat aches and pains with the best of them. They never believe someone my age can know how they feel, but since I can predict weather changes based on my elbows and hands and predict the overnight temps based on my knees, they eventually come around to accepting me as one of the wise. Or at least one of the chronically inflamed.

Add the prospect of months of constant deep joint pain to my neurological disorders and you get someone who hates winter. Me.

I finally broke again yesterday. I hit my limit of stress and went over the edge into nausea, dizziness and headache. Am I getting sick? No. I have PTSD, and the stress overload I’ve experienced in the last two weeks sent me over the edge again. The nausea is not completely new, the dizziness was. Thankfully I was able to hold it together to work with a couple of clients, and my mom and my brother kindly drove me where I needed to go. I was not about to drive in that state. Could I? Yes. Was that the best thing for me and everyone else on the road? No.

It would have been better if, when I got off work and got my hair cut, then grabbed some crafting supplies for a project I’m working on for a charitable organization, I had popped a Xanax and gone to bed. Just be done with the day and the stress and sleep it off. But I am so determined to not let the negative part of my brain control my life. So I texted a friend to see if I could catch a ride with her to Bible study and she gracefully didn’t hesitate. That support network? It’s everything on the days I can’t.

I took my knitting because it helps me stay present in group discussions, and knitted my way through tackling Jonathan Edwards’ writings on Charity. It was challenging, and it was good. The woman who hosts us in her home had made a spiced tea and cookies, and she has such a calm, loving presence. Toward the end we shared prayer requests, and I opened up about my struggles, about trying to come to terms with my new normal, that there are always barriers to living the life I want to live, that I have realized I will never be healed and I will live with this for the rest of my time on earth.

I live in pain. Every waking moment is hell because I have no hope that this life will ever be what I want, that what has happened to my brain will subside and I can live free from the demons in my head. I expressed that, and was received with love. One of the women in our group said that what I was saying was exactly her daughter’s experience. I found so much comfort in that, that someone understood. Those that didn’t understand met me with love and compassion.

That moment of vulnerability? It opened up so much love for me. It added women to my circle and to my team in struggling against and with what I’ve been dealt. I have gotten really ignorant responses from church people about my condition and what I do to try to heal. Last night was not that, and I was so comforted.

It is so fucking hard to be vulnerable when the person you were is ripped out of your hands and you’re trying to find your way again. But damn is it sometimes worth it.

And Client’s Brother messaged me all evening, showing a lot more interest than I expected.

When you live with chronic pain it can be hard to be thankful. But today I am so, so thankful.

I Just Got My Ass Kicked, And I Deserved It

I made a light-hearted social media post this morning about getting coffee and bagels from a local joint in spite of the “hurricane”, which hasn’t actually hit my area yet with anything bust a bit of rain and wind. I was watching a lot of local businesses say they were going to be closed today out of panic over conditions that weren’t happening, and as a staunch supporter of entrepreneurs and local business I was happy to promote a new coffee truck that had creatively figured out how to keep customers out of the rain and in good supply of coffee and bagels, which happen to be my favorite coffee and bagels ever, THE END.

A friend who is from one of the coastal areas most affected by Hurricane Harvey was upset enough about what I said to tell me what she thought about my insensitive post and relate all the hell her family and friends are going through.

Did I mean it like that? No. Did I make reference to anywhere other than my own town? No. Did I mention harm or coastal areas or make any lame “thoughts and well wishes for those affected” statements? Nope. I told my local friends to not be pussies and go support a local business that couldn’t afford a major hit on a Saturday.

That was not the point. The point is I inadvertently hurt someone with my cavalier statement, and she was friend enough to call me out on it. I was friend enough to not be defensive, but to explain my perspective, acknowledge she was fair in kicking my ass and I immediately changed my post. It didn’t matter that I didn’t mean to, it mattered that what I said upset her and maybe other people. She didn’t call me out publicly, she texted me. We had a sincere dialogue about it, she understood and admitted she may have reacted a bit strongly, and I corrected what I had said wrongly in her eyes. We both walked away in agreement, satisfied and committed to a friendship that has lasted over a decade.

I want that from my friendships, and I want that from myself. I don’t want to get defensive when someone tells me I’ve done wrong, I don’t want to deflect a rebuke, I want to have the maturity and humility to say yes, I am sorry, how can I make that right? I have heard so much refusal to take responsibility lately, and I’m glad I’ve learned from it rather than participate in it. I’m glad I got my ass kicked. I’m glad I have a friend who was willing to kick it.