I can’t work on my Valor project right now. In order to form the analogies for each new part of the story, I have to dig up my past and tear open old wounds and I don’t have it in me right now to willingly bring more pain to myself. I keep a lot inside, sharing my inner-most thoughts and feelings with only a very few people that I trust, but most of my past and the feelings I still experience are not something I share with anyone but God. Until today, that is. He told me I needed to share some things with you. I’m really not sure why, and I’m not very comfortable with expressing these certain things publicly, but I know I can trust that He has a reason. I always tell my kids that if by relating something from my past, I am able to help just one person, it’s worth it. So here I go…
Most people know that I suffer with bouts of depression. Fewer people know that I also suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s nothing I go out of my way to share because most people don’t know what it is, don’t understand it, or just don’t believe in it. It’s one of those things that is extremely difficult to explain, and if you haven’t experienced it on some level, it’s very difficult to understand. So I don’t hold it against anyone who just doesn’t get it, but I hope they can still respect that I’m doing my best to deal with severe trauma and to give me some grace when they see something they don’t understand.
Let’s lay some ground work first by discussing what PTSD is and what causes it. First off, its a real illness. It’s medically diagnosable. There are specific criteria a patient has to meet to be diagnosed with PTSD. It’s a very real fear stemming from previous trauma that manifests itself in many ways: terror, nightmares, flashbacks, uncontrollable scary thoughts, avoiding people or places that remind you of whatever happened, feeling worried, extreme guilt, sadness, feeling alone, difficulty sleeping, edginess, angry outbursts, thoughts of hurting yourself, regressive behavior, inability to speak, stomach problems, headaches, refusing to go places or be around others. These are the most common problems, but there are many more, even for me. PTSD is caused by some sort of severe trauma which could be abuse, a car accident, the sudden and unexpected death of a loved one, war or combat, violent crime, etc. For some it starts right after the incident but for most who suffer from PTSD, the effects don’t manifest for weeks, months, or years afterwards.
Most people will read the above paragraph and think PTSD is no big deal because everyone gets scared at one time or another and that people with PTSD must be incredibly weak to allow themselves to be so affected by fear. What those people don’t comprehend is the way our minds and bodies respond to the memories of the trauma we’ve experienced, apart from the way we think or feel about our fears, and this is where explaining can get difficult. Our bodies have a memory just as our brains do and it’s kind of similar to a reflex action. When we feel something hot, our bodies recoil reflexively. When a person with PTSD experiences a memory or a situation similar to the one that caused the trauma, the body reacts seemingly separately from the mind. It isn’t something we choose…it’s something our bodies do to try to protect.
So now comes the difficult part: writing about how PTSD affects me. I’d like to preface this by telling you straight off that I don’t like discussing it because I feel like a freak. People don’t generally know what it’s like to live with what appears to be irrational fear and tend to look at me like I’m a weirdo. So I do my best to keep it contained and keep myself out of situations that will trigger flashbacks. That being said, I hope you will read my words and have a better empathy for the victims who are suffering – most times in silence – because they are so often judged wrongly by people who don’t understand.
I won’t give details about the abuse I suffered, but I will tell you generally that I was abused in every way possible – physically, mentally, emotionally, sexually. My abuser was sadistic and evil and found enjoyment in causing pain. Because of the heinous and vile acts he perpetrated against me, I found it almost impossible to trust anyone in any form after I escaped him. Physical touch caused flashbacks. Unanticipated touch caused panic attacks. Two years out of the situation, and I still don’t allow just anyone to touch me. Very few can hug me, and I’ve finally gotten to the point that I can shake the hands of strangers without extreme anxiety. If someone touches me and I don’t know it’s coming I feel like I’m going to jump out to my skin. Physically, it causes me to startle, but my heart races and I feel instantaneous terror and the desire to flee. I’m only able to gain control after the reaction.
I find it difficult to be in confined spaces, even to the point that I’ll choose a table over a booth at a restaurant because it’s easier to escape from a table. Loud noises cause panic. Being touched is almost physically painful. Nightmares are terrifying. Sometimes I cannot fall asleep because my abuser is always waiting in that vague, semi-conscious place before sleep takes hold…and I’m literally afraid that if he kills me there, I’ll die here, also. So I have cycles where I won’t sleep for days and then eventually my body will crash from exhaustion.
I carry a lot of anger for what he did, but that anger mostly gets turned inward. Then my thoughts and my mind become very dark and I cannot be around anyone. I hide. And pray. And try to beat the monster inside me back down again. People are always surprised that I like listening to metal, but it helps me to let the anger rise so that I can let go of what I can and subdue the rest. Music, in general, is therapy like no other for me.
I used to fly into a panic at any sound I could not identify. The first few months in our new home — after leaving my abuser — were terrifying. I’d stay awake all night because I was too edgy to relax and fall asleep. Every time an Amish buggy clip-clopped past the house I’d completely lose it because my body reacted before my mind had a chance to say, “Hey, that’s just horse hooves.”
And then there are the memories. Sometimes they are things I remember…and sometimes memories rise up that my brain had previously kept hidden for my own self-preservation. I can’t predict when a memory will cause a flashback, nor can I control the way my body responds. I suppose an example might help you understand a bit better. My abuser liked Kit Kat bars. He didn’t eat them often, so I would buy them for him to please him. He preferred to freeze them before he ate them. One time I bought him some of the candy bars and left them on the kitchen table so he would see them when he came home from work. The next morning they were still on the table, and knowing he had to have seen them, I put them in the freezer so they would be ready whenever he wanted them. Later that day he asked where the candy had gone and I told him I’d put it all in the freezer for him. Before I saw it coming, I was punched across the mouth as he told me that he didn’t ask me to touch them. Fast forward many years and I’m free from him, sitting in a church service with a friend and my sons. The speaker stands at the podium and holds up a Kit Kat bar. It felt like I got sucker-punched. The memory of the abuse started sucking me back and as my mind was leaving the present and regressing, someone at the back of the church slammed the sanctuary door. The loud noise and the Kit Kat bar sent me into a flashback with a panic attack at the same time. I don’t remember leaving the service, but I did, because when my mind surfaced I was in the bathroom hyperventilating and hysterical. One of my boys was in the hallway waiting for me, worried. All I could think of was getting out of there and never going back. As soon as church ended I collected my family and fled, crying all the way home. My friend had no clue what was going on and I was still in too much of a panic to try to explain. At home I basically fell into my daughter’s arms and wept until I could eventually tell her what had happened, although she already knew because she, too, suffers from PTSD. I could never have predicted a reaction like that. I’d seen Kit Kat bars in the store before that and not been sent reeling. Why then? I have no idea, but I suspect it was because my mind decided it was ready to deal with that memory.
Some flashbacks aren’t as traumatic…and some are even more so. There is no forewarning, and no gauge to let me know how intense it’s going to be. If you happen to be near me when it happens, I’m not ignoring you — I no longer even know you are there because I’m not really there — I’m somewhere in my mind trapped in something unimaginable. You can’t talk me down or shake me out of it. All you can do is wait it out and comfort me when it’s over, but chances are I’m not going to allow you to touch me.
I can’t even express what it’s like to carry this all the time, never knowing when it’s going to trigger, or where I’ll be, or what will be happening. The worst part is having it happen in front of anyone who doesn’t know or doesn’t understand. They treat me like I’m a mental case. Although I cannot help the affects of my PTSD, I still feel like a freak. I’m constantly fighting to try to control a monster that I really have no control over. Nonetheless, I get angry at myself for not being able to control it. It’s a horrible cycle to be trapped in.
So what’s the good news in all of this? I suppose it’s that I’m getting better. Time is helping to lessen the frequency of the attacks. Depending on the level of the PTSD, some of the symptoms can be eradicated, but some sufferers have to define recovery as simply functioning effectively with the disorder. I have a feeling that realistically, because of the severity of the trauma I suffered, I’ll be one of the people who learns to function effectively with PTSD. Which means that some day, some way, I’m going to have to find a way to look at myself as something other than a freak who survived. That’s difficult, because all I have to do is take a brief stroll through my head to know I’m not ‘normal’ — at least by society’s standards. Maybe that’s where I need to step back and see myself through my Father’s eyes…but right now I’m not sure what I’d see.
I still don’t know why God asked me to share this with you, but I hope that in some way it helps you to understand someone you may know who’s struggling with post traumatic stress, so that you can love them through it. It’s what we victims and survivors need most – to know we’re loved even though we are struggling to keep our heads above water. And if you still don’t get it, I hope that you can find grace, regardless, and throw a lifeline to the person you know who’s fear is keeping them imprisoned.