“Everyone has untold stories of pain and sadness that make them love and live a little differently than you do. Stop judging, instead try to understand.” -Author unknown
Okay, here goes: I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and have not been able to work in any kind of real capacity since last year. There, I said it. Done. I needed to say it out loud because I have not been honest with some people and that has taken a toll on me. In the last year, amongst the many things I have learned about the brain and how it works is that keeping secrets is mentally exhausting. Right now, I need my energy to work on recovering from PTSD, finding my new normal, and getting back to work.
My PTSD exists because my brain stays in a state of relentless war, of constant hyperactivity, always in “fight or flight” mode. In a news article I once read, PTSD patients described their lives as living in a constant and exaggerated “fight or flight” response that leads to intense restlessness, hyper vigilance, rage, despair, an inability to focus and suicidal thoughts. That describes me, with some symptoms stronger than others, depending upon the day.
For my Facebook friends, the reality is that many things I post have a link to the recovery work I am doing. You might have noticed I started engaging again on Facebook last November. At that time, I felt myself drifting away from people, from society as a whole, wanting to be by myself in some secluded small town on Northern Vancouver Island, away from all my perceptions of danger. However, that would have been counter productive for my recovery. I would have shrunk myself into a smaller and smaller world until just going outside would have been a struggle. I have seen this happen to people and knew that I needed to counter this urge. So I got back onto social media, participating in other people’s lives and sharing mine. I also sought help through a local military Peer Support Group, forcing myself to talk about PTSD with others and finding strength in doing that.
One of the realities of PTSD for me is that my body quickly builds up adrenaline, a naturally occurring hormone. Sitting still can be impossible at times and I feel the need to move quickly, run, or just do anything. For me, this build up also impedes functions such as reading and comprehending. I get rid of the adrenaline by doing vigorous or long walks and hikes 3-4 times a week. When done, I am tired, at times exhausted, but I always feel better. Once, a few years ago, a good friend remarked how he noticed that I could not sit still and kept getting up to do little things all the time. A couple of years ago, I would cycle to work very early in the morning, about an hour or so commute, and then a short while after arriving, I’d be in the gym for another hour or so. At the end of the day, I would cycle home. If I still didn't feel right, I would go to the gym again that night, otherwise sleep would be elusive. I now understand what was going on with me then. It was the adrenaline and I was responding to it by constantly moving.
Focussing is problematic. As my brain constantly scans the environment for threats, it becomes very hard to focus on anything for any length of time. I counter this by forcing myself to do activities which require my complete attention. Taking pictures ensures that my focus goes down through a lens, not elsewhere. While walking or hiking in places where there are less people, my interest in on my immediate environment; the birds, the wind, sounds of my footsteps, and the dabbling of streams. I start to notice things: metal sticking out of the ground, a lone flower, the height of trees, the way rays of light play on objects, or how the sun casts a shadow. When I do this, I reduce my scanning and increase my focus.
The video below is an example of that need for strenuous activity. You can hear me encouraging myself on, breathing heavily and pushing up the mountainside. At the top, you hear me panting hard, but then working to control my breathing, slowing myself down, gaining control.
Writing short stories is another focus mechanism. I must work on details and flow in order to produce an effective and interesting story. When I return to a convoluted, in-cohesive or going-nowhere story, I know my focus wasn't where it needed to be. As well, my ability or inability to write is a gauge of my mental state. When I can’t write, it means, for me, that my brain is in overdrive and does not have any more capacity. This can go on for weeks at a time, with me just struggling to get through the days and nights. When I feel the creativity coming back, that means I am in a better mental state. Even then, there are many times when I write a paragraph and go back over it, only to find it missing entire phrases. It is like my brain jumped over areas to reach the end. As I write more, this is happening less often.
Getting out around town makes me face some fears. Being in crowds has me on edge, clenching my fists, thinking about striking first before someone strikes me, locating gaps in crowds and identifying exit routes. It is almost like a movie scene as the main character scrambles through thoughts to escape danger. Driving, while getting better, is hard on me. Once, while in the car explaining to my daughter how my body reacts to PTSD, my heart started racing, my hands clenched the steering wheel tightly and I became panicky. A car was passing on the left, completely normally, but I had visions of a suicide bomber. This feeling happens frequently, most of the time subconsciously. I only realize it when my jaw and neck hurt from the sustained straining I had done during the drive.
Reading books is another great tool for me. If I can remember what I read, that is progress. Quite often, there are times when I just can’t follow the story. In those times, my mind is elsewhere, wandering around or lost in some place. The breathing and meditation exercises I do daily have taught me how to slowly bring my mind back to the present, but it is a constant struggle.
As you can imagine, keeping myself calm in the face of living day-to-day can be tedious. There are times when I feel like breaking down and crying for no apparent reason. It takes a lot of energy to keep that in check. Throw in the COVID pandemic and some days are just too much. Those days which I struggle to get out of bed, the TV becomes my friend.
This is my reality. Don’t feel sorry for me. Don’t judge me based on your ideas or views of PTSD and how it should affect people. Do understand that I would not change a thing in my life. All the experiences, some of them life-threatening, made me who I am today. The military, whose work and deployments are the reason for my PTSD, has ironically also been the source for the disciple and resiliency I need to get through this. There is no blame to be laid at their feet.
So, my story is out and that weight is off my shoulders. Thanks for taking the time to read about PTSD and me.