Control, PTSD, & Scarlett O’Hara

I’m back. It’s been a bit. I’m going to say that I was on vacation. A really, really long vacation. Here we go.

I live with PTSD. That’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for those of you who don’t live and breathe mental illness. I do a lot of public speaking on mental illness and I’ve found that most people still think it’s only effecting combat veterans. I wish I had a polite way to express how wrong (and horrifying) that thinking is.

The truth is I used to think the same thing. When a psychiatric hospital doctor first probed my past and suggested my symptoms were PTSD, I was shocked. But, as it turns out, it’s a disease linked to trauma. It’s not picky about what kind of trauma. In my case, I lived with emotional, physical, and sexual abuse as a child and into adulthood. I can’t recall when the abuse started. It was always there. It lasted until I was almost 30 when I cut ties with all toxic influences and started rebuilding.

The two symptoms of PTSD that I find to be the most problematic are nightmares and exaggerated startle reflex.

Sometimes I’m shocked at my ability to normalize things that are not normal at all. The nightmares were constant. They involved the toxic people in my life taunting me in some way. My volatile mother screaming at me. My ex-boyfriend laughing at me while in my bed with a women with whom he had cheated. I would wake from these nightmares, which I politely classified as bad dreams, shaken and agitated. What was worse was that I couldn’t shake that feeling of unease throughout the rest of my day. No matter what I did, a little toxic cloud followed me around.

My nightmares became so severe they impaired my sleep. I would wake every few hours in a panic. Even when I did sleep, I never felt rested. Anyone I shared a bed with reported that I was a restless sleeper. I tossed and turned and sometimes even failed. I’ve punched more than one bedmate.

My startle reflex has been a problem for years but I always just classified myself as jumpy. A sudden, sharp noise would always illicit a screech from me. And I’d be left emotionally clinging to the ceiling like a cartoon cat. That alone might not be considered all that odd. For me, however, the aftermath is miserable. My muscles seize and are slow to relax, if they relax at all. I’m left agitated and anxious. Those feelings stay with me, sometimes for the rest of the day.

In PTSD the central nervous system (the nerves of the brain and spine that control everything) runs hot all the time. A person without PTSD  could be startled by a loud noise, have a little response, and go on with their day. Since the person with PTSD has an inflamed CNS, their response to that noise is heightened and the CNS remains heightened keeping them alert for further danger. That’s the bottom line. In the person with PTSD, their body has been primed to danger and is working overtime to be ready for anything.

While I appreciate that my brain is trying to keep me safe, I would very much like to be able to open a can of Pillsbury Doughboy Biscuits without screaming and ruining the rest of my day. Yeah, I’ve got big goals.

It’s hard for me that my symptoms effect the people around me. The Bearded Gentleman is probably the person who takes the most flak. He’s developed this habit of making noises when he comes into the house or into a room where I’m not looking in his direction. We shout out the word “Moo” a lot around here. It’s a sort of demented safe word that keeps me from loosing it on the regular.

I think the symptom most people think of when we talk about PTSD is flashbacks. It’s really unfortunate that the only way popular media has found to show flashbacks is as a sort of visual hallucination. For me, my flashbacks only happen under times of extreme stress. That stress typically has a direct connection to my trauma. My flashbacks mostly happen in the form of a body memory. That means that I experience, in my body, the sensations I had during the trauma. It has to do with feelings but also things like muscle pain, chest tightness, and dizziness.

I do take a fair amount of medication to help regulate my deraigned CNS. My startle reflex is calmer than it used to be. It’s still far from the average. Because of medication, I also no longer remember my dreams so they don’t haunt me. I’m sure I still have them. The Bearded Gentleman consistently reports that I still toss, turn, and occasionally flail and talk. Therapy also has been important. I’ve done cognitive behavioral therapy for ages. In the past year I began seeing a therapist skilled in dialectical behavioral therapy. Whereas CBT is “Why is this happening?”, DBT is a “What is one simple thing do we can do right now?” approach. Both are incredibly helpful in different ways.

I think anyone who lives with a chronic illness has frustration. There are elements that can be managed but true control is an illusion. And it’s often aggravating to have something so important be out of my control. I suppose there’s a life lesson there. It’s mastery of being at peace with not being in control. I’m not there yet. What was it Scarlett O’Hara said? “Tomorrow is another day.”

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