September 17, 2011
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is more common that I had thought. I would never have associated those words with my life. I certainly can understand how someone who has been involved in a war, conflict, or violent event would develop PTSD. And, although I have seen my share of violence, I still did not equate my experience as being something that could lead to PTSD.
I remember being invited to attend a group for teen girls while I was in junior high school. This group was for individuals who were experiencing difficulties at home. I don’t remember how I was chosen. I certainly didn’t think that my home situation was anything abnormal. As far as I knew, my home was “normal.” Obviously, some of the teachers at my school didn’t think so and I was invited to be a part of this group.
After attending only a couple of sessions, I decided that whatever problems I had at home were far less severe than those of the other participants in the group. I stopped attending the group. I had nothing to say compared to what I was hearing. Only now do I realize that this was how I coped. And I realize that these coping strategies are symptoms of PTSD: persistent avoidance and emotional numbing.
Emotional numbing allowed me to ignore the severity of my situation after three major crises arrived on my doorstep within one three month period in 2005. When the first two crises arrived, I was dysfunctional. I could not remember events that I had scheduled, even though remembering a long list of “to do items” is one of my specialties. Friends had often marveled at how I could remember dates and events. While dealing with a marital breakdown and a strike, I could not even remember that a calendar existed, much less what was on it.
The cancer diagnosis that followed shortly after forced me into action. The subsequent treatments meant I had to schedule, keep track of dates, and function beyond the walls of my house. This required a coping skill, and I relied on emotional numbing. When life gets as ludicrous as mine was during that time, there is nothing to do but laugh, and move on.
After I was able to gain more control over my life, I was able to reflect on the experience more realistically. I had the ability to feel the emotions associated with the events. Slowly, I began to realize how difficult my life had truly been. At a certain level, the emotional numbing gave me the ability to deal with the crises. As I allowed my emotions to surface over time, I was able to deal with them. And, subsequently heal from the crises.
Six years later, I am, once again, adopting the coping skills of emotional numbing. This time, I’m also embracing another coping skill from my younger years: persistent avoidance. And, after all these years, I’m finally acknowledging that yes, even though I have never been to war, I, too, am experiencing PTSD. And not for the first time.
My summer started off with a wildfire that burned down part of my town, my house included. This was followed by the loss of my job. Just as in 2005, when I had to deal with a marital breakdown and a strike, I could not function. I was not able to plan or organize. I was living on a day-by-day basis. This time, I didn’t miss appointments. But I certainly didn’t think about them until the day actually arrived. If I was required to have anything ready, this was not done. It was beyond my capabilities. All I could do was “show up.”
Again, just as in 2005 when the cancer diagnosis forced me into action, this time it took another crisis to move me out of the dysfunctional state. I was involved in a vehicle accident. Now I had to deal with life immediately. I could no longer simply exist. I had to function, keep up with the demands, and take care of many details. Once again, I had to move myself beyond the day-to-day business of living. I had to begin planning and organizing again.
This summer echoed the summer of 2005. Three disasters within a three month period. Each one severe enough to devastate and immobilize me. Once gain, the ludicrous nature of my situation allowed me to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Again, I noticed how numb my emotions were at the start of the summer. And, as I move into the autumn, emotions are slowly starting to surface. As I am able to deal with the different emotions, I become aware of another level of awareness. I’m no longer dealing with the immediacy of the crises, such as finding a home and a job. I can start to deal with the next level: rebuilding my house and establishing myself in a new community.
I would not suggest waiting for another crisis or disaster to spur you into action if you are feeling emotionally numb from a traumatic event. Instead, contact a mental health practitioner in your community. For more information on post traumatic stress disorder and acute stress reaction, click on the following links: