Regular readers of this blog and anyone who has read the About me page knows that I have had PTSD and (mostly) recovered. I’m pretty open about it. I hate that there’s a stigma about having PTSD, or any mental illness, when no one asks for it in the first place. At this point in my life, openness has way more to recommend it than shame and secrecy.
It’s actually an injury that affects the whole bodymindheartspirit.
I also posted about PTSD in November, in Getting over trauma and moving on with your life: some core questions. That post focused on the desire to heal, knowing that you have PTSD.
I’ve posted a lot about the trauma releasing exercises, brainwave optimization, shaking medicine, and other topics related to recovering from trauma.
Recently something happened that triggered my memories of what it was like to have undiagnosed PTSD for a long time and the two years of my life that I spent intensely working on becoming whole and reclaiming myself after I was diagnosed. There were still some holes, but I did feel like I got on top of it enough to function fairly well and keep filling in the holes as my awareness of them arose.
This post is about figuring out whether you have PTSD, what it’s like to have it, and how it affects your relationships.
How do you know you have PTSD? There’s an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV, for the current version), a book used by psychiatrists to diagnose mental illness. The official cause of PTSD is this:
PTSD always follows a traumatic event which causes intense fear and/or helplessness in an individual. Typically the symptoms develop shortly after the event, but may take years. The duration for symptoms is at least one month for this diagnosis.
I had thought that the definition included something about violence. The current definition does not. I was wrong about that.
If you’re not sure if what happened to you is considered trauma, here’s a definition of trauma:
an event that is life-threatening or that severely compromises the emotional well-being of an individual or causes intense fear
The common denominator is feeling intense fear. Aka terror or horror. Or “severely compromised emotional well-being.”
If you’re not sure whether you have PTSD, ask yourself whether and when you have experienced intense fear in response to traumatic events or whether something happened to you that severely compromised your emotional well-being.
Of course, sometimes traumatized people may not remember a trauma, which is tricky — in PTSD, the memories of the actual feelings associated with a traumatic event are often suppressed (because they were intensely scary the first time).
Timeline work can be helpful. If in reviewing your life, there’s any event that some would consider to be traumatic or severely compromising to their emotional well-being, even if you don’t remember the actual feeling, you might have PTSD. Read on.
Also, ask yourself whether and when you have experienced a sense of helplessness. When you experienced a traumatic event, did you freeze in terror?
If your answer to one or both of those questions is yes, then you don’t need a psychiatrist to know that you probably have PTSD. However, if you’re still not sure, you can judge by your behavior.
How does having PTSD affect your behavior? People who have been traumatized often have flashbacks, in which something in the present situation triggers an emotional reaction from a past traumatic event. For example, someone may innocuously point a finger at you, and you suddenly feel fear because seeing the pointing finger has triggered the memory of someone else pointing their finger at you while angrily heaping emotional abuse on you. Never mind that the current person is not heaping emotional abuse on you and is in fact startled that their innocent finger has made you feel so visibly afraid.
Your past has kidnapped you emotionally.
I only had one flashback similar to that. The main type of flashback or time distortion that I experienced was regressing back to the age I was when my childhood trauma occurred. Sometimes social situations would make me feel like a child amongst grownups. Mostly I was quiet, but sometimes I would say inappropriately childish, immature things.
I could be talking to someone as a mature woman, and suddenly I became an awkward child again. I didn’t realize I was regressing for a long time. I just thought I was socially awkward. But the age I regressed to was usually 11 years old.
I have so loved that traumatized 11-year-old child, hugged, soothed, and comforted her for all the incomprehensible events she experienced, that she feels integrated and doesn’t pop out like that much any more. When people are baffling to me now, I note it, but it usually doesn’t send me back into childhood any more.
With PTSD, you may also have nightmares. I had them for years. Something terrifying was chasing me, and I couldn’t run fast enough, and I awoke feeling intense fear.
The last such dream related to my original trauma was about 10 years ago, when feeling on high alert, I clearly told a serial killer to put the huge sharp scissors down. By confronting him, I had overcome my helplessness.
In fact, a lot of my recovery was about overcoming helplessness. I imagined riding to my sister’s rescue — on a white horse — and blowing away the killer. It didn’t change the past, but it changed the way my nervous system processed that memory so that I felt empowered.
You may live your life avoiding situations, people, and/or objects that remind you about the event, such as avoiding driving after a serious car accident or avoiding someone who who emotionally abused you or who even just reminds you of them.
Another form of avoidance is that you may experience emotional numbness, which is a way of avoiding yourself. Trauma can make people want to isolate themselves. If you inexplicably regressed when socializing, or got triggered, wouldn’t you want to hide? I spent years of my adult life just working, raising my daughter, going to grad school, and being depressed with no social life to speak of.
Your anxiety levels are higher in general, and you may have a heightened startle response, jumping when you hear a sudden loud noise. (I still do this.) You may have insomnia, trouble concentrating, irritability, anger, hyperarousal.
In my opinion, people can experience anxiety, avoidance, and nightmares without necessarily having PTSD, but having flashbacks is unique to PTSD, as far as I know. If anyone knows different, please comment.
How does PTSD affect relationships? PTSD affects the relationships you value most — intimate relationships, with family, lovers, and close friends. You may be difficult to get close to. You may fear closeness and decide to move on when someone is becoming close, or others may distance themselves from you if you shut down emotionally.
You may have difficulty listening and making cooperative decisions. You may carry a sense of betrayal or grievance into nonabusive relationships. You may be blaming, punitive, passive aggressive, dissociative, cold, insensitive, insulting, under- or overreactive emotionally, and behave in other ways that make you a difficult, frightening, or unpleasant person to relate to. Working out problems may seem impossible.
If you have it, I’m sorry for the suffering you’ve experienced. Really truly sorry you suffered in the first place, and that it continues. Finding out you have PTSD is not fun, but at least you have an explanation for your baffling behavior and can start your journey toward health.
I can only advise you that once you suspect you have it, get counseling as soon as possible. Get counseling as if your life depends on it, because the quality of every day of the rest of your life and the quality of your most valued relationships actually does. Go to the best counselor you can find.
I also recommend brain wave optimization to normalize your brain waves after trauma.
The post-PTSD life, the joy, the friendships and close relationships that await you, the presence, the freedom — I cannot tell you how good life can be.
Go for it. You’re worth it.