Misconceptions of PTSD

Around June or July I had a visit with a state psychologist associated with DSHS to determine whether or not I was disabled due to emotional and mental health issues. We sat and discussed my experiences as well as mental health history and at one point he inquired: “Are you familiar with PTSD?”

I had read articles and seen television programs about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, much like any one else who was living in a political climate that saw friends returning from serving our country abroad. Certainly some of these articles had indicated that one didn’t need to serve in the military to experience PTSD; but, something about the way in which we view it as a society pre-programmed my response to the psychologist to be: “Yes; but, I’ve never served in the military.”

It was from this psychologist that I learned you didn’t need to be in the military to experience an event or series of events that can lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In fact there is no one kind of ordeal that contributes to development of PTSD. Lists of the varying kinds of traumas that can lead to the development of PTSD are all over the internet and in varying psychology textbooks in addition to other books on the subject. One of the reason the lists are so varied is that in recent years the definition of what PTSD is has grown.

Like many other people I have looked at websites and books trying to find a definition that fits what PTSD is – as it is perceived by psychologists today. Constructing one requires mental fortitude that I lack given my own mental health issues; however, I found one in one of the psychology today blog-entries that I would like to share.

“By it’s most simplest definition, PTSD is brought on by one or a series of terrifying events and results in delayed and prolonged symptoms such as anxiety, depression, withdrawal, suicidal behavior, alcohol and drug abuse and emotional issues….. [It] can also come about by way of an accumulation of many small, individually non-life-threatening-incidents.”

In short – yes. Men and women serving our country are going to be in positions where they will may develop PTSD. However, so might a child who is being bullied and ridiculed through physical and verbal means. So might anyone who has dealt with repetitive physical or mental/emotional abuse over time in a household. Survivors of rape or car accidents or robberies, first response teams to turbulent events, survivors of natural disasters and the like all have been through events that can lead to the development of PTSD.

And at no point in time should a person say, ‘Well they had it worse. So theirs is more severe.’ The point of respecting the emotional experience of another person is that it isn’t something you can compare as each person’s journey through it and experience with it is different and no less real.

The symptoms of PTSD are something I will certainly cover soon. But first I wanted to start with this topic – specifically. In the about section of this blog, the information indicates I was recently diagnosed with PTSD (among other things). I didn’t serve in the military. What could I have possibly experienced that might lead to the development of PTSD?

I decided I would share to provide an example of the different kinds of traumas and/or stressors that can contribute to this particular anxiety disorder.

My great-grandmother’s death and every death in the family that followed always takes me back to this intense fear of non-existence and it keeps me up at nights even now. I have more than once woke up yelling, “I don’t want to die.” Experiencing that. Baring witness to the aftermath left a profound impact on me which I have yet to shake.

My father had a short temper when I was a child and would frequently fly off the handle. Simple spankings turned into manhandling or leaving me with bruises and welts. On one occasion he shoved me so hard I bounced off of a closet door and my head collided with a nightstand. I lost consciousness. When I attempted to leave following that? He pulled me back in and my finger was broken in the process.  On several occasions my mother had to try to pull him off of me to stop.   He didn’t want to hurt me; but, he had no gauge of control over his own anger let alone his own strength.

My father’s temper would result in him screaming frequently. Simple things or statements angered him and when I was young at first I was afraid of doing things like spilling milk or making a mess of my dinner plate.  I was bullied at school repeatedly growing up. In elementary school it started with phrases then with boys picking on me, to the tune of knocking me down to the ground and kicking me. I responded by deciding it was better to beat people up for making fun of me verbally since the only way I knew to get people to stop doing something when I didn’t like it – was to yell at them, hurt them, and scare them.

In Middle School the Bullying continued – only with groups of students calling out jeers of free willy.  It took me to my earliest feelings of hopelessness as opposed to the helplessness I had previously been experiencing.  My weight, though healthy for my height and build at the time, made me a target for teasing that made me feel like I didn’t have a right to exist much less to the voice which I kept struggling to try and use.

The incident with my father that resulted in unconsciousness took place during this time frame.

I had no basis for what normal social interaction was like. And by high school this fact led to me taking actions and acting out in ways for negative attention which only contributed to continued bullying. I was pushed down stairs. Sexually-explicit drawings of me were passed around by a member of the high school football team. My text books and other belongings were repeatedly found covered in excrement in the toilet. People would follow me around repeatedly say things like, “Don’t you hate it when someone thinks they’re talented, but aren’t?” in reference to the one thing that made me happy: singing.

In late middle school or early high school I watched as a member of the Church community to which I belonged, collapsed and died on stage. It took me back to the same place all of the other deaths did. Rescue efforts were as far as I knew, unsuccessful.

I tried to free myself from this fear and constant fatigue from feeling so anxious and depressed by indulging in the use of methamphetamines (Speed). During two and a half year time period of my life people brought a gun into my apartment, pointed it at their head, forced me to talk them out of hurting others and themselves, and this kind of fear or paranoia was something which occurred with great regularity.

When my mother suffered a heart attack because of an abnormal heart rhythm caused by long-term use of Benadryl for allergy problems, I was the first family member to be there in the hospital. I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t feel fear. I couldn’t feel anything. When my father arrived, he was the one doing the feeling for the both of us and the muted emotions allowed me to deflect with humor to try and make him feel better.

And perhaps two or three years later when she passed away unexpectedly – I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t emote. I couldn’t cry at her funeral. All I could feel was uncontrollable anger which I wanted to vent at one of my mother’s sisters. I wasn’t able to cry until after a week had passed, when I got home and spent a weekend crying nigh uncontrollably. After that? After that I stopped feeling any real strong emotion. It took me back to the same place as when my grandmother died unexpectedly at roughly the same age.

My father suffered a major cardiac event in 2010, on the week of the 5th anniversary of my mother’s death. He was rendered forever an invalid. I was getting angry over the little things, lashing out at everything, trying to find ways of coping with it and couldn’t. Because once again, I was back at that same place and felt so very out of control. I couldn’t sleep. The panic attacks were frequent enough and the anxiety severe enough that Trazadone wasn’t helping me sleep at all.

In a nutshell – I get stressed out being around people because I find myself reliving events associated with bullying and being bullied and fears of being hated. I get so exhausted so quickly. I avoid conflict of a real nature.

Before I started on medication in June, I was experiencing quite literally a panic attack a night in addition to the anxiety that prevented me from getting a good night’s sleep. Now – I still deal with anxiety. I still have trouble sleeping. But the severity and the frequency of that has diminished some since the medication regimen began.

Life events of every shape and size can contribute to PTSD. Do not malign another person’s experiences and belittle them by saying that their personal hell was less traumatizing then yours. Every person’s emotional experience and journey is something to be respected.

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