by Melanie Anderson
Over the years in my work supporting people, I have seen the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) frequently in referral packets and case files. I have researched the topic to include it in a training on how to respond to people when they are in crisis. I have read many articles and stories about PTSD in the news and the frequent connection to soldiers returning from conflict. I remember learning about the diagnosis of PTSD and where to find it in the DSM in college. I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the condition until recently when I discovered most of what I thought I knew was WRONG.
I recently discovered someone close to me has endured significant trauma. It was not until I witnessed the effects of Post Traumatic Stress first hand that I grasped the hold it can take on a person’s entire being, hijacking their identity. I thought PTSD was about an event that happened in the past and secretly wondered why people were unable to simply move on. I understand now that the trauma that causes PTSD does not stay in the past; it exists in the present. And telling someone with PTSD to just let it go is like telling someone who is drowning to just swim.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. People with PTSD may re-experience the traumatic event in the form of flashbacks, bad dreams and/or frightening thoughts. PTSD may cause people to stay away from places, events or objects that are reminders of the traumatic experience and may avoid related thoughts or feelings. A trigger is the connection between the conscious mind and a buried painful memory. PTSD may cause reactivity and hyper-sensitivity that looks like tension and being on edge, startling easily, having difficulty sleeping or having angry outbursts. PTSD can affect a person’s cognition and mood resulting in negative thoughts, distorted feelings and loss of interest in enjoyable activities.
Trauma may mean to some a car accident and to others abuse and neglect. Perhaps to you it means the sudden loss of a loved one, the struggle of addiction or being in a dangerous circumstance. There are also traumas like being bullied, infidelity, ongoing financial stress or ending a relationship. These events affect people differently depending on our nervous system, beliefs, perceptions and expectations. Logically I knew these events could have an impact on a person but I had no idea the aftermath that could result. Traumatic events overwhelm our ability to cope. I’ve watched this in the person I support with PTSD and it is heart wrenching. Just when the person seems to finally be in a good place and we both start to breathe and hope, one small trigger can send them spiraling down again.
Supporting someone with PTSD has brought to light some surprising elements and exposed misconceptions and bias associated with the condition. There is significant stigma associated with the diagnosis of PTSD. It seems like a large number of people believe PTSD is not truly a significant condition and that the person has control and could get better if they wanted to. There can be a direct connection between PTSD and devastatingly low self-esteem. I’ve witnessed this myself. The person I support will crumble and say “I’m sorry” so many times that I just ache for them. Pre-trauma, my go-to comfort move was a hug or a touch but that is not always welcomed now. In fact, during heightened anxiety, my touch can actually startle them and an attempt at a hug can result in them feeling cornered. I have learned to give space even though instinctively I want to be close and try to fix it. I am learning to let them lead.
PTSD can cause a sort of mental fog in its victims. Imagine you are doing a big presentation at work. You have prepared and practiced; you put the time in, did the work and now you are ready to present. Then someone in the room asks a challenging question that triggers you and suddenly you find yourself scrambling for the right words. You can no longer remember the order for your presentation. You can’t make sense of the notes you spent hours writing; it’s like they are written in another language. You draw a complete blank. You now appear as though you completely slacked off. A subject discussion which is normally your specialty is now incomprehensible. I consider myself to be a patient person but I have had to work at controlling my frustration and finding empathy when this mental fog wafts in and takes hold. People with PTSD experience a whole other level of exhaustion. It could be from the frequent lack of sleep but the person I support is still tired even when they had a good night’s sleep. There can be a perceived lack of motivation. It is not laziness; it’s exhaustion from fighting through every single day.
I used to label PTSD as a mental illness and now I see it more as a psychological injury. Supporting someone on their road to recovery is challenging and both the traumatic event that happened to them and the experience of being there as they try to put their life back together has changed me forever. People with PTSD are both fragile and strong at the same time. This is beautiful. I now feel honored to be perceived as safe enough to walk alongside them.