Let me start out by saying that I do *NOT* have PTSD though I know many that do. I do *NOT* know personally how it feels to live with the characteristics and symptoms often associated with PTSD, but I can empathize. In researching PTSD, to come up with something to talk about as I started to write this post, I read stories that allowed me to feel what the symptoms of PTSD may look like. This is what I hope you can take away, a clearer understanding what PTSD looks and feels like for those that live with it, and then you are able to better empathize with the bearer of this burden.
First, know that PTSD can happen to anyone, it is like the body and mind get stuck in the fight-or-flight mode. However, for the sake of this conversation we are referring to those that have combat related PTSD. A few differences that might occur between a combat PTSD patient and any other person living with PTSD is that typically the veteran had to live through the caustic situation for extending periods of time, often the event recurring; leaving the veteran with a sense of a “new normal,” this “normal” isn’t what society at large would judge as “normal.” PTSD looks different in each individual—symptoms can range from slight to severe.
Hyper-arousal: Any sight, sound, odor, taste, touch that is reminiscent of the trauma takes you back, back to the time and place of the initial “event.” You can’t control this- it is subconscious. Your heart is racing, you are sweaty, and your hands are clammy. Others don’t understand how the sound and/or smell of fireworks can do this to you- but to you it sounds too familiar, it smells too recent.
Hypervigilance: Imagine that every time you walked out your door the newspaper boy hit you in the head with the newspaper, every single time. Inevitably you would become conditioned to believe that any time you walked out any door you might be hit on the head. So in an effort to minimize this from happening you begin to reschedule your day- making sure to only leave wherever you are after the mornings end. When you do leave, if there is anyone walking past, you begin to yell and scream at them; even if they had no ill will toward you- that’s beyond the point- this isn’t about “them” this is about how you keep you safe. Now magnify this- it isn’t a newspaper but a bullet, shrapnel or a RPG.
Flashbacks: Every time you close your eyes you are back “there”- back to the “event.” It is like it is happening again; you can hear the sounds, and voices. You can see with vivid detail the images; feel what you were touching. It is real, there is no distinction between this reality and the reality that you lived through. Anything can bring you back to this place; the place you have been forever trying to never return to, but never wanted to leave- believing your mission wasn’t done.
Trouble Sleeping: Now imagine that every time you close your eyes to sleep, those flashbacks again invade your mind; in the form of nightmares. This disrupts your sleep and you’d rather stay up all night busying your mind than succumb to the inevitability of being taken to a day and place that you left with your body, but that has held hostage your mind. Because of your unwillingness to give attention to the unwanted, subconscious memories that creep into your mind in the midnight hours, you can’t function to “normal” capacity during the day. Those around you say you are “unmotivated,” and “lazy.”
Uncontrollable thoughts: Let’s practice something. Write down your favorite food, and now for the rest of the time you are reading try not to think about your favorite food and every time you do have a thought of your favorite food write down a tally mark…When a person is dealing with PTSD memories sneak into their mind like a sick game of hide-and-seek. Unfortunately, it also happens the more they try to “forget” the more the memories seek them out; like a kid and the “cookie jar.
Survivors Guilt: Those that have served for our country have volunteered to protect those that they love, and the land that they patriotically call home. While doing so the service member has formed bonds with those around them; other service members. We often hear veterans talk about their “brothers,” and “sisters;” those that have also chosen to fight. Survivor’s guilt comes into play when those around you die or are critically wounded, and you are left seemingly unscathed. Why not you, why them?
Keep in mind that this is only a snippet of the emotions that someone dealing with PTSD may encounter. Some of the other characteristics are: self-destructive behaviors, substance abuse, withdrawing and detaching, hopelessness and despair.
The good news is that PTSD now has a name. For far too long PTSD wasn’t identified, or it was marginalized. PTSD is manageable, and those that live with it can have a sense of hope. For them, and their families, it means work. Counseling, therapy and possibly medication can help. They must be reminded that they are *NOT* like Humpty Dumpty; they can be put together again- they and those around them have to learn to live within their “new normal.” And you, especially if you are a caregiver, must also learn to take care of you; because you have to be well taken care of in order to effectively assist in caring for those around you.
P.S. How many times did you think about your favorite food?
Founder, Military Spouses of Strength