PTSD: how we struggle and how to help

PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) makes us hyper-vigilant, which means we are constantly looking for danger. It’s not always conscious. It has become our programming. A sudden, loud noise, like vehicle traffic, a passing airplane or helicopter, or a slamming door sends our mind racing to categorize the potential danger.

Cortisol floods from our brain. Our heart pounds. Our language and reasoning capacities diminish, and we are ancient humans scanning for mortal danger in our surroundings.

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Though our original traumas occurred when we were just starting kindergarten, subsequent traumas helped us see that we were living in a near-perpetual state of hyper-alertness. We were in a fire 28 years ago. No one died. We all might have if we–a group of 18- and 19-year-olds–hadn’t discovered the attic fire at 2AM. One person suffered smoke inhalation and recovered fully. Several weeks after this fire, we realized we couldn’t relax. Months later, we realized we still couldn’t unwind. We couldn’t untense our muscles. We couldn’t draw a deep breath. This was the first time we thought, “Is this PTSD?”

We tried mental health therapy, and it didn’t “solve” the problem because we weren’t in touch with the original traumas or the parts of us that hold them. The fire was a trauma, and, still, dealing with it didn’t decrease our PTSD. Our muscles sometimes get so tight from white-knuckling through our day that we get muscles spasms all over our body. After the fire–for the next six or seven years–the spasms could last for days and weeks–weeks, my God–at a time. It was excruciating and added a layer of anguish on top of the PTSD (and OCD and DID). The spasms have returned after several years of diminished frequency.

Now that we know we have PTSD and OCD and DID, we try to be more self-aware. We try to put ourself in better position to succeed in a day: sleep enough, eat enough, try to be present, use coping and survival strategies, go to therapy five days per week, medicate when necessary. If we have muscled spasms, we must be clenching our body. We should try to consciously relax it.

We live with lots of rules.

This is not great for OCD. Rules can become rigid, illogical, ritualistic. Also, we struggle to remember what to do in what situation. We were driving daughter home, and a muscle car with a custom-loud muffler erupted next to us with our car window open. We freaked out. Our hands went to our ears to block out the noise. Cortisol. You get it. What do we do? Who are we? Where are we? Daughter was amazing. Directed us, had us pull over for 10 minutes, told us we are safe. Amazing girl. We got home, took prescribed medication, pulled down our bedroom shades, hid under the covers and slept for 1.5 hours. Effective? We suppose.

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Nothing about life is simple. We live in a metropolitan area of 3.2 million people. It is noisy We contacted UPS (region office) and asked them to stop honking the horn when they deliver in our neighborhood. They said they would try. Sometimes the driver remembers and doesn’t honk; sometimes he honks. We understand; it’s hard to change a habit in one particular situation. We appreciate that sometimes he doesn’t honk.

We contacted the director of the helicopters that spray the area for mosquitoes, and–angel that he is–he emails us before the helicopters fly, which is so helpful because if when are outside looking at our bird feeders and a helicopter suddenly flies toward us 100 feet over our head, we panic.

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Move to the country? Spouse and children want to stay in the city, where extended family lives, friends live, schools are good, in the only home and neighborhood they’ve known. They are supportive of us in every other way: emotional support, love, encouragement, gentle touch, hugs. They are safe. Moving wouldn’t solve our problems anyway. Wherever we go, there we are. Our problems come with us. Noise triggers are but one bay in the vast sea.

We keep going because that is what we do.

We made it to the grocery store this morning–our first visit in at least 3 weeks. We don’t feel safe out in public. After the muffler trigger the other day, you can understand we are especially sensitive right now.

Why write about this on the blog? If we can write about how we feel or act, we can see how we feel or act. Self-awareness helps us figure out where we are in time and space and helps us try to think what we are supposed to do in a particular situation.

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AC/DC said, “Rock and roll ain’t noise pollution.” Not if you’re playing it at a reasonable volume. Last night, the neighbors three doors down had a live band outside from 7PM-10PM. We were unaware they were going to do this. This is not a common occurrence in our neighborhood. While the noise and bass made us feel very on-edge, we knew it was music (safe) and hoped they would abide by 10PM noise ordinance. We were relieved when they did.

While we were annoyed at the loudness of their party, we also lamented that we have such a diminished sense of community in our society that we don’t even know the life celebrations of a neighbor that would prompt them to have a giant party with live music outside. A generation or two ago, would neighbors know about each other’s milestones: weddings, Bat Mitzvahs, anniversaries? We didn’t begrudge the neighbors their few hours of loud fun. We lamented that community is not as local as it probably once was or could be.

Maybe if we honk our horns a little less often and get outside to talk to the neighbors a little more often, we will all feel a little more at ease.

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