Sunday, June 1, 2014

Trauma


Dear Reader: I write to better understand my experiences of life; I share with the hope that my words will touch something inside you, and together we will remember that we all walk through life with love and loss, joy and sorrow, hope and despair, faith and uncertainty.

NOTE: In this post I write in detail about the symptoms of PTSD.

This post is dedicated to all of those who walk courageously and silently through life with PTSD.

June 15 marks one year since I started my blog. The ranger chronicles started – well, when they started, back in 2004. But the decision to make a public blog was a decision I woke up with one morning, or came home from work with one evening, I can’t recall which. But within a couple hours of that decision my first blog post was online.

At first my topics were the things in my life today that I struggle with, and how everything today is filtered through the lens of my PTSD – which stems from my experiences as a park ranger. Then I decided I was ready to start telling that story, the story of becoming and being a park ranger. But it occurs to me that I have a responsibility here, and that is to advocate for those who have PTSD. And the best way for me to do that is to describe what it is to have PTSD, from my perspective.

Except for those who come back from military combat, most sufferers of PTSD are not known by others to be suffering. I recall listening to a program (I think it was on This American Life, and would be grateful to anyone who can lead me back to it!) that talked about the students of Columbine High School who were there in 1999 during the mass shooting, and who are now in the work force, many of whom suffer from PTSD. This isn’t on their resume; their employers are unlikely to have a clue that they attended Columbine or that they suffer from trauma. But for many of them it impacts their every day. I was touched by this story, thinking about the many walking wounded in this country, walking in silence and secrecy and shame.

All of us are traumatized by events in life. What distinguishes “being traumatized” from “post-traumatic stress” is whether the trauma becomes stuck, whether the body is able to process it and recover, or not. If not, in various ways the moment of that trauma is continuously relived every day after.

Whether someone processes and recovers, or becomes stuck in the trauma, is not related to how horrible the trauma was. You cannot ask, "why does this vet have PTSD while that vet does not?" Some amazing discoveries are being made in the research of PTSD today, but the answer to that question is not only very complex, to a large degree it is still a mystery.

Students who were at Columbine HS in 1999 are an extreme example, as are military vets. Less extreme but just as impacted are people who haven’t been able to process the trauma from physical, sexual or emotional abuse; a car accident or other extreme physical injury, health issue or disease; losing a loved one; and many experiences that to a child are frightening and incomprehensible.

Can PTSD be cured? My therapist tells me it can be, as do other experts whose books I’m reading and whose techniques I’ve been practicing. It isn’t so much that I whole-heartedly believe them, but I am putting enough faith in their faith to try until there is a time that either it works, or I am convinced that it cannot.

And this I know: I will never be the same person. As it is when any of us go through any major life event, we can never go back, we can never regain our innocence. “Welcome to the big girls’ club,” one friend told me after I had my miscarriage.” People whose lives have been touched by cancer never look at the world the same again. But I continue to go to therapy and try recommended strategies because I hope to rid myself of the insidious nature of PTSD, the way it hijacks my life every day, the way it routinely prevents me from doing the things that I believe would make my life fuller and more joyful.

So what is it like walking around with PTSD? Many of the symptoms are prevalent among different people. But I’ve noticed that symptoms are somewhat individual; and I often feel like I’m no different with PTSD, it’s just like all my individual neuroses and personal tender spots on crack. There have been times that my symptoms were severe for months at a time; they are far better now thanks to therapy, personal practice and medication, and the worst symptoms now tend to be sporadic rather than chronic. I know this is a long list, but I think it’s important to convey how extremely impactful and debilitating PTSD is. If someone trusts you enough to tell you they have PTSD they are telling you that they face some or most of these symptoms, some or most of the time:

  • Inability to enter into or maintain commitments of any kind. Are you kidding? People ask me to commit to anything and I look at them as if they’re insane, then run away fast. Since I started my healing path about 2 ½ years ago I made these three commitments: do my absolute best to get myself to work, go to therapy even if it means eating beans and rice, and don’t drink alcohol. In this time I have only been able to add one thing to this list: do my best to be there for the young people in my life (son, daughter-in-law-to-be, nieces and nephews. Can anyone provide a better term for these lovely people?).
  • Easily overwhelmed even by routine tasks. Things like taking a shower, preparing food for myself, or doing the dishes at times are so overwhelming I break down in tears contemplating any of them – and simply can’t do them. In the early days after starting my healing I realized that as the weekend neared if my To Do list started to grow, I would become so overwhelmed by Friday night that I would crawl into bed and not get out of it until it was time to go to work Monday morning. I realized that the To Do list had to go. Entirely. I had to talk myself through it: If I don’t clean the house, do my laundry, buy groceries, prepare food, it will still be ok. That strategy has been essential. My house? Not so awesome.
  • I’m wildly triggered by certain world events. The tragedies that are particularly disturbing are any that involve shootings, any involving attacks on law enforcement officers, anything involving children, and any accidents resulting in large loss of life. I’ve learned that if I even catch a hint of these news stories, it’s too late – and I could lose an evening, a series of evenings, or a weekend mourning and obsessing over the lost souls, unable to function.
  • Dizzy, disoriented, shaking hands, brain fog – as if I were drunk. Which of course leads to feeling very self-conscious, like everyone is going to assume I am drunk,
  • No resilience. Time off, down time, never rejuvenate me. Never, ever feel able to refill my energy or stamina. Always just on the verge of collapse.
  • Absolutely no patience. Immediately roused to indignation and anger, or tears.
  • When my anxiety is triggered my symptoms escalate immediately (blood pressure, dizziness, brain fog), and afterwards subside at a glacial pace (can take days or even weeks).
  • If I am taking a walk and see someone (even a mom with a child) walking towards me I instantly become hyper vigilant and can’t breath until they pass.
  • If someone is walking behind me I become so agitated I cannot stand it, and have to let them pass ahead of me.
  • If I am wakened in the middle of the night by a noise (even those I hear routinely), I immediately try to determine the cause: was that gunshots? Is that the sound of people fighting? And the follow-up question: do I need to respond? Before I can fall back asleep I have to reassure myself that I no longer have a job where it is my responsibility to respond to middle-of-the-night emergencies.
  • Absolute inability to maintain a balanced friendship. Friendships include give-and-take, expectations, continuity, and commitments (see above on commitments). Several years ago I counted four people as close friends of the kind I could and did talk to about anything (usually on the phone due to proximity), whom I'd known for decades. The greatest casualty of my PTSD has been the loss of these friendships. Three of these four have quit our friendship, and the fourth has suggested that we forego phone calls in favor of emails until a time when we can regain better footing in our friendship. I can understand that I do not give what is needed in an equal friendship; but that of course does not make it hurt less.
  • Inability to have any expectations placed on me. Someone wants me to return a call or email? It drives me crazy with indignation and frustration.
  • Completely incapable of enduring interpersonal “conflict,” which can include friendly discussion and debate. If there is disagreement and I have an opinion or preference, I cannot be a part of it. If I try my blood pressure sky rockets, I start hearing a roaring in my ears, and the dizziness sets in.
  • Extreme difficulty holding down a job. It was rather disastrous to my finances that my PTSD took hold right along with the downturn in our economy. I walked away from several jobs in succession at the one time in my lifetime that good jobs were hardest to come by. The only thing that kept my butt in my chair when I started temping a couple years ago was the hard, cold realization that this mundane, low-paying temp job was my last stop before living out of my pickup.
  • Significantly reduced ability for small talk or schmoozing. While many folks disdain cultivating these skills, they can be helpful in making the workplace more hospitable. I find myself often unable to do so, and I believe I come across as a bit hot and cold. By this I mean I'm less able to finesse my interactions. If I am even a little bit flustered, irritated or overwhelmed my responses come out blunt or rude. While I don’t mind that to some extent, I have noticed that coworkers have responded very negatively to this – which makes me think I don’t realize my own "strength."
  • For the most part, talking about any of my rangering experiences is not a casual conversation. During times that I am feeling especially strong I can talk about the lighter aspects of it: toilet cleaning miseries, naked campers, and wildlife sightings. But for the most part any verbal discussion of my rangering days or its repercussions triggers a trauma response.
  • Chronic migraines, sinus infections, muscle and joint pain. My MD actually thinks these could all be linked. Poor sleep due to anxiety and nightmares can certainly lead to migraines and muscle and joint pain. I don’t remember where the sinus infections fit in, but I’m working on that.
  • I have chronic nightmares. When I was a ranger they fell into one of two themes. The first was every possible iteration of bad guys jumping out from behind trees, and I was the only one who could stop them. I actually usually managed to subdue them which is pretty awesome, but still they were exhausting and stressful. The other was innumerable accidents involving loss of life and me reluctantly being the first responder. Since, the themes have diversified enormously and I won’t go into them. Many are so disturbing I can't imagine how my brain came up with them.


I know my therapist wishes I would think of it another way, but for all this time I can’t help but feel that a part of me died that day on the highway, the day the man with the gold wedding band on his finger died.

Ever since, I walk more closely to death. In fact it is in this attribute where I find the most hope for redemption. I can hope for the time when I fully integrate all that has happened, and come out the other end having made a peace with death; perhaps then I can serve others in a society that has a completely diseased relationship to death.


And as ambivalent as I am about this, I can’t help but wonder if my forced exodus from the external world into the internal will ultimately also benefit me. External pursuits are rarely as authentic as internal ones.

A friend who recently became a mom, and who lost her sister two years ago, remarked,
“The more my heart opens up with such joy to my daughter, the more I touch the tender parts which still ache for my sister.”
                       - Christy

I found her realization so poignant. As I walk more closely to death, my heart is also more open to those in my life, and for whatever reason it points most true towards those young people I have written about many times. If the trauma in an instant ripped away my years of carefully built up protections, the result is both good and bad: it is bad in that it happened too quickly and I am vulnerable and unprepared, taking refuge from a world too real and too much for me; but good because I am no longer able to hide from the truth of Love and Death, nor do I want to.

But … the gritty truth is, PTSD is a disability. Navigating the world, mundane daily tasks, can be enormous challenges – and others are not able to see or understand. Even family, even friends of twenty years, have not been able to grasp these changes in me – and I have not been able to verbalize it to them.

So it only seems a fair use of this blog to advocate for those suffering from post-trauma, and to shed light on their world so that others might better understand and support them.


It is an act of courage for us every day to get out of bed, shower, forage for food, and leave the relative comfort and predictability of home to head out and face the world.




Dear Reader, please consider posting your comments and questions below. I would love to hear from you! Please let your friends know about my blog. And thank you for visiting!

5 comments:

  1. Kjerstin, I just wanted to say thank you for having the courage to write all this. It's a beautiful and heartbreaking testament to PTSD and how misunderstood it is. I lived a short time with it myself and send you much strength and patience for yourself. You can do this. Best, Nicole

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    1. Nicole, thank you so much. It is good to hear from people who have recovered from PTSD. I think it is far, far more pervasive than we realize. Every one of us who puts up his or her hand, makes it easier for the next one. You've made it easier for me. Thanks for the support and encouragement.

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    2. :) I'm glad to be a part of it. For a while I didn't want to admit it may have been PTSD because it didn't "look like" what I thought PTSD would look like, and I was embarrassed because it wasn't like I was a soldier or anything. But I had the misfortune to live with a roommate for a short time who was severely mentally ill with a history of violence, and having my physical safety under threat for that short time was apparently enough. No one knew what to do or say when I would admit what was happening, so I had to keep it to myself or make people "uncomfortable." I learned my lesson, and now, fuck that. If people get uncomfortable, that's okay - the ones brave enough to face their own fear response are the ones worth keeping around anyway. We're all in this together; I'll say it again: you can do this.

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  2. I am stunned once again. I just felt like I was reading my own thoughts or my feelings I have never really had the right words to explain them. Like, how did I forget I really wrote them down. Amazing! Brings my inner reality closer to the surface. Beautiful and eye opening.

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    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to share. I'm glad it struck a chord.

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