PTSD isn’t fun, but almost everyone has experienced some trauma and retained the effects on their minds and bodies. Another 5.0 earthquake hit last night, shaking my bed and knocking a couple of books off the shelf. As I lay in bed, I found myself automatically pleading with God to stop the earthquake. My mind and body remember the 7.0 earthquake. And if I’m technically accurate, an 8.2 tremor where I was, near the epicenter.
Every time we have a minor tremor, my mind rehearses that quake, sort of a minor flashback. I remember the bookcase rocking from side to side as I tried to keep it from falling onto the mirror. The sound of glass breaking and the roar of the earthquake as I climbed up the mountain and back down again echoes in my mind, if not in my ears. Because this was such an unusual event, it was easy to spot the symptoms of a minor and somewhat temporary PTSD.
Relational trauma is more difficult to identify. The earthquake is sudden and shocking, shaking one’s world for the minute or so that it happens. Relational trauma slowly colors one’s entire life, in the same way that a slow cooker gradually creates a stew or soup whose flavors have slowly blended on the constant, low heat. Unfortunately, when most of the victims leave, just like the soup, they are fully cooked.
I did not recognize that I suffered from PTSD for years after my first marriage to a man that my daughter, with her Ph.D. in psychology, he has been identified as a narcopath. But the symptoms of that twelve-year catastrophe still resonate in my body. Case in point: I’ve had to go through a couple of mindfulness exercises to get this far in post. PTSD looks a little different on everyone.. I can only share how I experience the ramifications of abuse, or at least how the symptoms listed in countless articles manifest for me. The problem with the many articles on the subject is that the vocabulary is limited. A flashback can be a much smaller event than the full-body hallucination that Hollywood portrays in its movies.
This is how I have experienced PTSD. Perhaps one of these sounds familiar to you:
1: I avoid emotional situations, even fictional ones.
Hyperarousal can be defined as an intense experience of thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and physical sensations that result of the traumatic event. For me, I need to have some control over my exposure to highly emotional situations. I read the endings of the books to understand what kind of emotional investment this book will require. As someone who cried for days over the death of a character in a novel, I used to think that I was too sensitive. I’m sensitive, but I can also get hyper-arousal if I’m not careful. Now I know that it wasn’t the character that made me cry so much; my PTSD was triggered.
Lots of practice, inner healing and therapy means I am in a place where I am free to experience my own emotions without fear. I no longer dissociate from myself, at least not as much as I used to. However, I reread the same books because they are comforting friends. I know the tone and sway of its emotional content and can ride its waves with confidence. I can’t watch violence, whether physical or emotional, on screen without paying a price.
2: I always look at everyone’s faces and body language, determining possible enemies.
When I was young, I used to be a people watcher. After all, people are fascinating. But hypervigilance, the state of being overly aware of one’s surroundings, came later. Once, when my eyes were dilated and I couldn’t wear my contact lenses, I panicked. Why? I couldn’t see the expressions on the faces around me. In an abusive relationship, one is always paying close attention to the abuser. After all, any change in mood can mean drastic changes in the emotional climate. Unfortunately, while my reading of the emotional environment is often accurate, sometimes my tendency to be hyperarousal can exaggerate any potential danger.
3: My version of PTSD comes up with some unhealthy self-calming techniques.
Drugs and alcohol are common among those with some degree of PTSD. For me, much of the abuse I endured was centered around finances. Learning to budget and not overspend has been a painful journey for me. My ex kept me and my daughters in extreme poverty for a decade. Poverty, by itself, can be very traumatic. I keep too much food in my freezer. I used to have way too many clothes, although I’ve gotten a lot better at those. My brain is sure that famine is imminent. I struggle with sugar and also overeating. My body and my mind want to make sure that I never miss it again.
4: Sometimes I have to fight to keep my mind on one thing.
PTSD comes with its own version of ADHD. If something goes off, I have to fight to stay tuned. East conversations included sometimes. My daughters laugh at me because sometimes I randomly change the subject. It took me some time to really understand why I did this. After careful observation, I realized that he would make a joke or change the subject to lighten the mood. It’s a way to avoid hyperarousal. Nothing is harder for me than the pain of my children. I have to take it in gradual doses. It’s not because I don’t care. It’s because I care so deeply.
As I was writing this post, I boiled some hard-boiled eggs, changed my clothes, made tea, played Words with Friends, checked my Facebook, bought some Pampered Chef, and stared into space. I can laugh at myself because I see what I’m doing. I’m like a diver. I go in deep and then I have to come out for air. Looking at all these things requires patience with myself. I know my wounds are healing pretty well, but that doesn’t mean they’re fully healed.
5: I become clumsy when shot at.
There. I used the dreaded motivated word. The media and politicians have mocked a word that has a legitimate purpose. Being triggered is not about hurting one’s feelings, or even being offended by an opposing point of view. Instead, PTSD can trigger a reaction that moves throughout the body. One has few options on how it looks and feels. For me, I tend to dissociate. If I’m stressed, I don’t always know immediately. Often, after I’ve hit my head or toe a few times, I begin to realize that Houston, we have a problem.
If our emotions are not safe, we sometimes run away from Dodge. We leave our bodies and float outside of ourselves. If you keep dropping things, misplacing them, or brushing against a sharp corner of a table multiple times, you may be stressed. Take some time to feel the rogue feeling and come home to yourself. Otherwise, you may end up with an injury. I fell down the stairs multiple times and sprained my ankle terribly over and over again while living with my ex. He didn’t physically push me. I didn’t have to.
oops. Another couple rounds of puns after that. Friends, the good news is that PTSD is curable. It is not a personality disorder that is permanent. It’s also not a mood disorder in the sense that you need medication for the rest of your life, although medication can help. It is your mind and body dealing with pain in a very real way. Don’t do what I did and wait a long time to understand why you feel the way you feel and why you do the things you do. Jesus took all of our trauma into his body so that we would not have to be captives of the past. Take time to learn how to give it to Him, whether it’s through mindfulness, EMDR, cognitive behavioral therapy, inner healing, or a combination of all of these.