Calm down. Be quiet. Settle down. What’s wrong with you? Suck it up. Deal with it. Just be normal. These are only a few phrases that those living with PTSD hear both from others as well as within their own minds. But before I get too far into what it is like to live with PSTD allow me to give you a brief introduction to what you will see from Alpaca Roaming for the rest of the month.
June 27th is National PTSD Awareness Day as designated by the US Senate in 2010. In 2014 the Senate declared all of June as PTSD Awareness Month. Although there is an increasing amount of information on PTSD there are still a great deal of misconceptions and gaps in the information chain for those not living with this complicated and misunderstood dis-ease. Why do I type “dis-ease” instead of “disease”? Because for me, while PTSD is a diagnosable clinical disease, the feeling of dis-ease is what makes PTSD so painful. A flashback to the trauma, reoccurring trauma, multiple traumas, triggers, hijacking all come with a feeling of dis-ease in varying intensities. This is why Alpaca Roaming is dedicating the month of June to PTSD awareness with stories from military veterans, health care providers and even a few personal stories.
In this series I have decided to take the lead and offer a portion of my experiences first. First of all, trauma can happen for a multitude of reasons ranging from military service to assault and abuse to natural disasters and more. I start with this because I have a PTSD service dog that I trained myself. He naturally has a calm temperament and I noticed that when I triggered, after separating from my now ex-husband, he would lay down on top of me like he was protecting me. He acted like a compression blanket for anxiety and that’s when I started researching the ability to train my own dog in a working capacity. I am not 100% dependent on him but when we go out in public people practically melt just looking into those liquid eyes and then I am asked in which military branch I served… Well, I tell them, “I didn’t serve, I just married the wrong man.” Some people thank me for my service and I say, “I’ll pass your thanks along to my father who did serve.”
These people are not doing anything wrong. PTSD wasn’t as readily diagnosed until the 1980’s and PTSD awareness started with the military community so naturally people assume I am a veteran based on my dog wearing a “PTSD Dog” harness. Better and more information needs to be circulated to the public. Military veterans living with PTSD and the 22 awareness movement are common knowledge but what do people really know about traumas?
I spoke with a young woman named Garilyn I met last November who recently graduated from Navajo Technical University in New Mexico about her PTSD symptoms. She suffered a fractured neck and a tear in the major artery in her neck in addition to other injuries sustained during a severe car accident nearly four years ago. She was paralyzed for months and spent two years in physical rehabilitation to regain full range of motion in her arm as well as relearning how to walk. Her PTSD mostly manifests in the form of flashbacks and anxiety about driving or riding in a car but told me that she tries to overcome that and continues to live her life. She attributes a great deal of her ability to recover to her supportive family. I too am lucky to have a supportive family. They may not understand a lot of the idiosyncrasies that I share with them but I know they are always there for me and that counts for more than I could ever express.
About five years ago I was diagnosed with Complex PTSD. Some of the criteria that makes for this type of diagnosis are repeat trauma and multiple traumas. A straight diagnosis of PTSD is often a result of a single traumatic experience such as a natural disaster (Hurricane Katrina), severe car accident, single rape crime and more. I initially thought that my PTSD was due to one awful incident and the stress of other “minor” incidents were what made my PTSD more complex. As I worked to unpack what happened other memories or stories told to me by family members turned out to play a role in some of my triggers, and coincidentally, some of my coping tools.
I was born in Caracas Venezuela during a time that the country was at war with itself politically. My parents adopted me when I was just nine weeks old but in those nine weeks of life I was in an orphanage. During that time for every child, very important developmental teachings are being solidified in the mind and body. Fast forward a few months to my fathers orders coming down to move and the result was the three of us living in politically unsettled El Salvador. My mother tells me that she would sing me to sleep with “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” while we could hear bombs and gunfire way off in the distance. It wasn’t close but we could still hear it.
Where am I going with this story you ask? Well, after separating from my ex husband my sleep issues continued but one night I fell asleep watching Archer. I had just started watching it because so many people I worked with raved about it’s hilarity. It was late and once again I couldn’t sleep but this one night I drifted off during a major battle scene in the episode. While gun fire that is not anticipated has made me hit the deck in an instant, this episode of Archer full of gunfire and explosions actually lulled me to sleep! It was like white noise. It took me a while to understand it but basically there is a part of my brain and nervous system that is two years old knowing that I am safe with my parents in our home in El Salvador and these noises in a television program or movie aren’t a threat so they can sometimes be the white noise I need to fall asleep.
Conversely, my body has gone rigid and my heart beat quickens when a car with a bad muffler goes by or a noisy motorcycle speeds by me while I sit on the patio of a coffee shop. Someone slamming the ice machine door shut in the restaurant has started me numerous times. The sudden loud noise shocks my nervous system to an extent but the feeling quickly subsides. These are things that did not bother me before the damage of my marriage but certain triggers that were lying dormant were activated from my experiences in that marriage. This is an example of what has led to my Complex PTSD.
I mention repeat traumas or multiple traumas because unfortunately, there are many people who have endured one or both of these. For me, the trauma of watching a severely depressed husband attempt to give up on life, self harm and self medicate was very difficult. At the time, we lived multiple states away from any friends or family who could be a support system so I decided that as a committed wife, it was my responsibility to do everything to take care of him and help him get well. That meant working doubles five days a week in a restaurant, caring for two dogs, a three bedroom rental house and literally keeping him alive.
That life style took it’s toll to say the least. Over the next three years I endured mental, emotional and verbal abuse from him. We filed for divorce, I moved across the country to start over again including starting my own business. When I decided that part of starting over meant dating again I was assaulted by my date. I stopped dating for several months and in that time I had to leave a job that was stable and that I liked because the new chef couldn’t stop putting his hands on me. Layers of trauma leads to complex PTSD…
I take the time to share the cliff notes version of my experiences not to make myself feel better or to seek attention but rather to bring attention and awareness to the complexities of PTSD. After five years of accepting and learning how to manage my symptoms (side note that this will be a life long learning experience) I am just now publicly speaking about my diagnosis and this issue as a whole. My hope in this mini series of articles is that 1) PTSD awareness is taken more seriously 2) Better and more information keeps being published about this dis-ease 3) Someone or many someones read these articles and comes one step closer to realizing that they are not alone and one step closer to seeking help if they are not seeking it already.
Please, if you or someone you know is suffering with PTSD, anxiety, depression etc… and you feel that you need help I urge you to take a step in that direction. Send a text or call your most trusted friend or family member. Call a crisis help line. Listed below are a couple of numbers but there are so many more both locally, regionally and nationally. Maybe you don’t call right away but at least store the number in your phone or carry it with you on a notecard just in case you have that one really awful day or night and you don’t think you can take anymore. Call the number. Until next week, take care of yourselves. Show yourself and others patience, compassion and empathy. It is what makes us human after all.
Colorado Crisis Services: 1-844-493-8255
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK(8255)