Monday, March 9, 2009
PTSD: A Civilian Shares Her Own Story in Order to Help Veterans
Guest blogger Michele Rosenthal generously shares her own PTSD story here in order to help others. She blogs and runs an ongoing, free healing PTSD workshop. Contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is scheduled to be the guest on YourMilitaryLife.com on June 17th.
A “classic” PTSD story
I admit it, I’m a civilian, but don’t let that fool you. My experience of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) proves that, while our traumas are all individual, the PTSD experience is incredibly universal. It began this way:
When I was 13 I survived a rare, life-threatening allergy to a medication. Basically, I turned into a burn patient overnight, head to toe. It was 1981. Only one year prior in 1980 PTSD was finally recognized as a legitimate psychological condition. This helped raise awareness and resources for vets everywhere; it did little to tip people off that civilians can experience PTSD, too.
When I was finally released from the hospital I went home and got on with the business of living. I knew I had been changed, that something about me had fundamentally altered. But I didn’t know how or why or when to communicate this to anyone. I could barely understand it myself. I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain it and, truthfully, I didn’t want to.
Silence, I thought, was better for us all. So I hid the evidence of my trauma metamorphosis. I plunged back into life and didn’t tell anyone about the flashbacks that frequently occurred. I didn’t breathe a word about the nightmares or the insomnia that set in the minute I hit the sack. I didn’t want people to think I was a freak, so I didn’t mention how often I felt cloaked in a fog, as if the real world was very far away and unreal. As if I existed outside of the moment and hovered over it observing everything from afar.
No, I thought it was better not to speak about the fact that I no longer had a grip on whom I was, had been or should be, or that my mind uncontrollably drifted back to fragments of the past. I didn’t want anyone to think I couldn’t cope. I didn’t want anyone to think I was weak or unheroic.
In silence I lived in constant fear, cutoff from the present moment, my family and friends. I sank into a depressed isolation. I had trouble focusing, especially during interactions with others. I became easily enraged and antagonistic. Within a few years I was extremely anorectic, too, as I strove to control my environment so that I felt safe. I took all the survival coping mechanisms I’d ever learned or could devise and put them in place to protect me.
My family, of course, wasn’t fooled by my attempts to go it alone. They reached out and forced me to seek counseling. Two problems with this: 1) you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped; 2) the counselors didn’t know what to do with me.
No one recognized that I struggled with classic symptoms of PTSD. Twenty-five years went by while I descended into such a horrible, chronic and extreme PTSD stupor that my body, not just my mind, was debilitated. I developed advanced fibromyalgia, osteoporosis, inanition and organ malfunction. My hair fell out. I was nearly wild with sleep-deprivation. This is what happens when PTSD goes undiagnosed. It takes over a life and renders it almost unlivable.
Hope at the end of the tunnel
But this doesn’t have to be the way PTSD progresses. It’s now 2009. In the past 28 years what’s known about PTSD and how to heal it has progressed immensely.
Three years ago I was finally diagnosed. The turning point in my healing came when I finally began to talk about what I was experiencing and to reach out for help.
Most importantly, it began when I decided I wanted to be healed. When I finally admitted how distorted my life had become I made a promise to myself: I was not going to live the rest of my life in this warped PTSD agony.
I went on a healing rampage and consecutively entered psychotherapy, cognitive behavior therapy and information processing therapy. I talked. I cried. I learned to recognize triggers and modify my behavior. I tried Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy, Emotional Freedom Technique, Tappas Accupressure Technique and Thought Field Therapy.
For some people who experience PTSD one therapy – or a combination of these therapies – is enough. For me, however, while each of these components made me a little stronger and closer to health by alleviating the severity of my symptoms, they did not eradicate or free me from them.
Finally, I struck out on my own path. I decided in order to reconnect with myself in the present it was necessary to stop defining myself in terms of the past. Just as a whole identity is not “soldier” or “veteran” my whole identity was not “survivor.” It was necessary to develop a new perspective; I set out to deliberately construct a post-trauma identity.
Rediscovering who we are
In order to heal PTSD we need to rediscover who we are outside of our traumatic experience. Getting involved with rebuilding our lives – and doing so in ways that make us feel purpose and joy – heals the psyche from the inside out. More than that, it returns to us the power that trauma and PTSD so easily steal away. We don’t have to control our immediate environments to be healthy and safe. What we need is to enlarge our positive participation in the world; the stronger we make that effort the more healing we achieve.
Today, I’m into my second year of being 100% PTSD-free. I advocate for PTSD awareness, education, treatment and healing. Part of this effort is writing a healing PTSD blog, Parasites of the Mind. Through the blog I’ve had contact with several vets and we’ve been surprised by the many parallels in our PTSD experiences.
Recently I corresponded with a Gulf War vet. I asked his opinion of the most important aspects of diagnosis and healing combat PTSD. His prescription for relief sounded a lot like mine: 1) accept you are not the person you were before; 2) recognize you need help; 3) reach out for support (in the VA, online and in-person groups, plus find a good therapist); 4) be willing to move forward. [On the practical side, he also advised the collection of 1 – 3 copies of medical records before discharge, and later, joining the Disabled American Veterans, which appoints a National Service Officer to handle each case.]
There’s a terrific PTSD site run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: National Center for PTSD that has much useful and empowering information and resources. If you, your comrades or your military loved one exhibits any PTSD symptoms, don’t wait 25 years before getting diagnosed. Begin today to reclaim yourself, your world and your future. Healing is heroic.
Phyllis Zimbler Miller is the author of MRS. LIEUTENANT: A SHARON GOLD NOVEL and the co-author of the Jewish holiday book SEASONS FOR CELEBRATION. She also blogs at PZ the Do-Gooder Scrooge and Operation Support Jews in the Military, and she is the co-host of the BlogTalkRadio show Your Military Life. Her company Miller Mosaic LLC builds call-to-action websites for book authors and small businesses.
Visit the site of Mrs. Lieutenant: A Sharon Gold Novel.