Does it ever seem to you that certain kinds of things keep repeating in your life? It does to me. It perhaps explains why the biggest trauma in my life occurred so early – it wasn’t a good thing, but I learned a lot and have been able to help others navigate similar treacherous waters. Perhaps a few examples . . .
I’ve posted before about the fact that my father died when I was 12 years old. He was 36. I am now 20 years older than he ever got to be. On this Father’s Day, I wonder what my daddy would have looked like at 56 or 76. I will never know.
It was a sudden, unexpected death from a blood clot that lodged in his heart. Medical information in 1964 was far less extensive. My father was a heavy smoker. He had phlebitis following a minor surgical procedure that they had thought was totally resolved. Obviously not. Obviously there was a small clot floating around. We know today that smoking thickens the blood – giving that small clot a lovely place to grow until it was too large to pass through his heart. He died on my bed while I waited outside for the ambulance with my sister. I never slept in that bed again. My sister and I were moved into the room and bed my parents had shared — my mother slept in our old bed, where my father had died.
I was a wreck. I was “Daddy’s Girl.” I looked like my father, had talents like my father, sounded like my father – and now he was gone. The first few days were so hard, they took me home from the wake. I couldn’t stop crying. It was probably a “nervous breakdown,” though in those days no one thought those kinds of things happened to kids. In the weeks ahead, I silently suffered the “stages of grief” alone. Sure, my mother said to talk to her about anything, but if I talked about my father, she got so upset, it was useless. Why should I make anyone other than myself hurt? There was no counseling then. I dealt with my post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as it is now known, on my own. At first I cried all the time and felt angry that everyone else’s life was the same but mine wasn’t. Then I pulled away. I built huge walls to keep my feelings in so no one could touch them – and they could not touch anyone either. I became stoic. I became the “strong one.” Gratefully, two things happened that saved my life. The first, a possible miracle which I posted about before, was that God reached into my life with a dream that promised protection from pain. It was recurring and I didn’t understand it at first … or second … or third – it was a recurring dream. Then one day, walking across my college campus 5 years later, God must have gotten tired of reruns. The explanation of the dream suddenly was there. I can’t describe it as anything less than a revelation. God would never let anything like that hurt me that badly again. I never did have that dream again! Of course, understanding the dream and believing it were two different things. The latter took time – it wasn’t until I was in my mid 20’s that I finally began to really trust it. God has not disappointed me.
The second thing that saved my life was a book my mother had read and thought I might find interesting. It was The Power of Positive Thinking by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale (a preacher and clergyman, not an MD). He used positive affirmations in conjunction with New Testament Biblical phrases to reinforce the ability of God to do anything in our lives. For example, “I can do all things through Christ, which strengthens me.” or “If God is for us, who can be against us.” It may have been rote and even trite, but it worked. I now understand why: WE BELIEVE WHAT WE TELL OURSELVES. Psychologists have agreed and many other disciplines, even theology, use positive affirmations. One of my favorites quotes lately is “All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think, we become.” (Buddha)
I have managed my PTSD pretty well with these tools. It doesn’t remove the pain of the event, but it does make it more manageable. Time helps, too, if you have made efforts to use the tools. It’s never gone, but it does get further out on the horizon. Obviously, the further away a threat is, the less we have to fear it.
So how is this a theme?
Now I have an old friend who has PTSD because of a traumatic incident that occurred over 20 years ago. I didn’t see it at first. I was hurt by some things my friend did and said. Then suddenly, while walking on the treadmill (which seems to be where I make contact with my intuition and distant memories lately), I saw it as plain as day. Or maybe it was God getting tired of reruns a lot sooner this time. I saw it was not just that my friend was upset or hurt by something, it was PTSD. Sometimes I wish these things came together even faster than they do. It would avoid a lot of pain. I guess there really is no way to avoid pain in human life, is there?
My friend has pushed me away and is resisting my support. That, of course, won’t get me to forget about it or stop offering support. I’ve been there. I know how important having a safe place is. Since I obviously can’t force my friend to do anything, I will have to continue what I have begun to do — offer support and pray. One of the things I pray for is that my experiences can have some benefit to my friend.
If you don’t know the difference between regular stress and post traumatic stress disorder, here are the symptoms that the National Institute of Mental Health division of the National Institutes of Health uses:
PTSD can cause many symptoms. These symptoms can be grouped into three categories:
1. Re-experiencing symptoms:
- Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating
- Bad dreams
- Frightening thoughts.
Re-experiencing symptoms may cause problems in a person’s everyday routine. They can start from the person’s own thoughts and feelings. Words, objects, or situations that are reminders of the event can also trigger re-experiencing.
2. Avoidance symptoms:
- Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the experience
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Feeling strong guilt, depression, or worry
- Losing interest in activities that were enjoyable in the past
- Having trouble remembering the dangerous event.
Things that remind a person of the traumatic event can trigger avoidance symptoms. These symptoms may cause a person to change his or her personal routine. For example, after a bad car accident, a person who usually drives may avoid driving or riding in a car.
3. Hyper-arousal symptoms:
- Being easily startled
- Feeling tense or “on edge”
- Having difficulty sleeping, and/or having angry outbursts.
Hyper-arousal symptoms are usually constant, instead of being triggered by things that remind one of the traumatic event. They can make the person feel stressed and angry. These symptoms may make it hard to do daily tasks, such as sleeping, eating, or concentrating.
It’s natural to have some of these symptoms after a dangerous event. Sometimes people have very serious symptoms that go away after a few weeks. This is called acute stress disorder, or ASD. When the symptoms last more than a few weeks and become an ongoing problem, they might be PTSD. Some people with PTSD don’t show any symptoms for weeks or months.
If you want to find more information, here are some links that may be helpful:
If you care about someone who has symptoms that indicate PTSD, it will be difficult for you as well. Helping will take persistence, patience, love and strength.
As someone who has been on both sides of PTSD, I can tell you that even if you don’t think your efforts are appreciated by the person you love who has PTSD, they are. And if you are the one with PTSD, you really do appreciate the love and support, even when you think or say you don’t.
After all, we all need to know we are loved and supported, even if we don’t have PTSD.