Living With PTSD – Not Like The Movies

I managed to go to service this morning, for the first time in a long long while. Last week I couldn’t go because I had managed to give myself a concussion, before then it was down to running a temperature, and before then – for many many weeks – it has been due to simply not being up to it; too depressed, too submerged in my life/death battle. And then there’s the PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder. The bane of my life. A big reason for previously mentioned life/death battle.

I feel that a lot of people don’t really understand what post-traumatic stress disorder is. Or, more accurately, they may not be aware of how it affects people. I think that, at least in part, media is responsible for this. People have generally heard of flashbacks as being one of the symptoms of PTSD, and you often come across storylines in which characters suffer from this disorder, and the viewers are treated to an insight into the flashbacks that they experience in a variety of ways. Only, there’s an issue with this: having a flashback isn’t like watching something happening on a film screen. It’s about feelings. About re-experiencing the traumatic event, as if it is happening all over again, and having an emotional response to it. Again and again and again and again.

In the most recent episode of BBC’s Silent Witness, the storyline followed a former soldier suffering from PTSD. It was explained that certain sounds and situation could trigger flashbacks for him. So far so good; this is all true for many people suffering from PTSD. Later on in the program we got to ‘experience’ a flashback alongside the character: he saw a person on the street, it morphed into a flashback person – someone who wasn’t actually there – someone who had been part of the trauma. All of this is fairly accurate, I think, for a lot of people: flashbacks can very well be triggered by someone who looks like someone who was part of the traumatic event, and flashbacks can absolutely cause a person to see someone who isn’t really there. Happens to me all the time.

But then the character talked to someone about his experience of having flashbacks, and when the person listening to him said something along the lines of “That must be really horrible” the character’s reply was “No, it’s OK. It’s actually quite nice.”

And this, to me, is a huge departure from what PTSD sufferers truly deal with. I have yet to meet a single person suffering from PTSD who would describe having flashbacks as ‘nice’. Because the disorder is caused by traumatic experiences, often very extreme ones, you are not likely to have an emotional response which could in any way, shape or form be described as ‘nice’. Having a traumatic experience is not nice, thus, the emotional response will probably not include positive feelings.

Let me illustrate: say your previously wonderful and perfect partner rapes you. Very traumatic, very hard to deal with, extremely emotionally damaging. Let’s say the effects of the experience go so far as to cause you to develop PTSD. You now have flashbacks of the event. This is hardly going to trigger emotions related to the rosy honey-moon period of your relationship. Whilst you may still – in your conscious mind – remember that time when your partner brought home a dozen roses and your favourite chocolates, and the lovely feelings that gave you, those feelings will not be triggered by a flashback to the rape. They just won’t. Those lovely feelings weren’t associated with the rape, and so can’t be triggered by flashbacks to the trauma.

When you have PTSD [as I understand it, and put in layman’s terms] the memories of the trauma are stored in a different part of the brain to where other, ‘normal’, memories are stored, and the response flashbacks produce completely bypass the part of the brain that is responsible for rational thought. Thus, even though some part of you may be aware that the trauma isn’t really happening right now, and most of the time you are able to remember both positive and negative aspects of a relationship [assuming there have been both], because rational thought is taken out of the equation, your emotional response to a flashback will be as if it the trauma had only just happened, and will involve the feelings you either had at the time, or the feelings you may have had to repress at the time in order to survive. It won’t involve feelings related to an entirely different situation.

I mentioned earlier that flashbacks are often caused by triggers. But there is more to it. While a majority of people with PTSD have flashbacks caused by external triggers [sounds, smells etc – things that in one way or another remind them of the trauma], some people – myself included – have flashbacks that are caused primarily by internal triggers. Internal triggers are tricky, because they are difficult to identify. And if you can’t identify triggers, it is almost impossible to avoid them.

For me, personally, it is often a case of one flashback triggering the next, in a continuous chain, and I am just as likely to have flashbacks if I am out having an absolutely fantabulous time ice-skating with my friends, as I am sitting with someone talking about really deep and difficult things. In short, if I’m going to have a flashback, it will happen, regardless of what I am doing, where I am or who I am with.

One of the first things people [professionals in particular, actually] tend to ask is “What do you do to stop the flashbacks from happening?” to which I answer “Nothing”. They will then in one way or another convey to me that I have a very negative and defeatist attitude which isn’t helpful. Or they will suggest that I do something nice and relaxing – light candles, have a bath, listen to music, and so on. So, I tell them, oh, I do all of those things. Because they are very nice things to do. But I will still have the flashback, only I will have it in the bathtub, with the music playing and the candles all around me. I then say “You know when you go to sleep..?” adding a pause to allow the person I am talking to to nod, since this is something everyone has an experience of, before continuing “Well, you know once you are asleep, yeah?” Another nod. “At what point do you choose not to have a nightmare?”  You see, I can’t choose to not have a flashback any more than you can choose not to have a nightmare. No amount of positive thinking or relaxation is going to change it. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, and it simply isn’t caused by a defeatist or negative attitude. I know a million different grounding techniques to help me come out of a flashback, all of which I employ on a daily basis, and I am working very hard at finding ways to cope with the emotions the flashbacks bring out, but there is no way I can stop the flashback from happening in the first place.

I have somewhere between 30 and 40 flashbacks on an average day. On a particularly bad day, when it seems like one flashback triggers the next, I can have over a hundred. That means re-experiencing, re-living – the abuse over a hundred times in a day. It means dealing with the emotional impact a hundred times in a day. To me, the fact that I am still here, in spite of this, is proof that I absolutely do not have a defeatist attitude.

If you would like to know what it is like [for me] to have flashbacks, there is a drawing (What Words Can’t Express – A Visual Representation Of Sexual Abuse Flashbacks) that I posted a number of years ago, trying to visually explain that sense of being in two places at once – the past and the present, simultaneously. I feel pushed to warn, though, that it is somewhat graphic, and could be potentially triggering.

I want to make it clear that I am in no way an expert on PTSD, and what I have written here is based on my own experience of living with flashbacks, and on what others with PTSD have told me. Of course, as with anything, different people react in different ways, and there may very well be PTSD sufferers out there who disagree entirely with my take on what PTSD is like. And that’s OK. I just wanted to offer my view of what it’s like.

 

All the very best,

xx

 

PS. In case you happen to know me, I’ve recently added a little section on the right, appropriately called “For People Who Know Me”. You may want to check that out. Not in any way saying that you can’t check it out even if you don’t know me, it just won’t be all that relevant to you. :)

Looking Back, Moving On & Holding On To Your Dreams

Once again I find myself packing my stuff up; I’m moving on Sunday. All of about thirty metres down the street. So, in many ways, a minor move. I’m moving into a larger room in what, at least on the surface, looks like a nicer flatshare. Hard to know for sure until you’re actually there. I’m looking forward to moving out of this place. It has, without comparison, been the worst place I have ever lived. And I’ve lived in a lot of places, including spending a night on the streets of London, not knowing where to go next..

So, from that point of view, moving is a good thing. And at the same time, I can’t help but thinking that this is not how I had imagined myself living at age 35. My picture looked more along the lines of a nice flat with my man and my three children. I’d be focusing on my writing, maybe having already had a break or two, literary wise.

Instead, here I am, in a rented room. Utterly single, painfully childless, and my writing.. well, I really don’t know what happened there. So, of course there is sadness in the realisation that there is such a discrepancy between what I had been hoping for and what I’ve got. And of course it hurts to not have those things, to know that I was pretty close to all of those things only a few short years ago.

This is not to say I’ve given up on that dream, that picture. I believe it could still happen. Maybe not in the order I had initially imagined, but still recognisable as an altered version of the original image.

I don’t regret the choices I’ve made in the last few years. I think had Dev and I chosen to stay together, knowing that we ultimately wanted different things, well, I don’t think we would still be friends the way we are now. I think bitterness may have started to sprout between us. And I would never want that to happen.

Moving into the therapeutic community a few years ago was a big decision and although I’m not sure it was ever really going to be quite right for me, I do feel that I got something from being there, even though I struggle to put it into words, exactly what. Maybe space to grow? Maybe to appreciate how strong my need for independence is? Maybe realising that I can be accepted for me, even without being the good girl, without having the great job, without being the most responsible one? Even the decision to move out, I believe, was a step in the direction of feeling allowed to say “This is not good enough for me, this is not acceptable to me”.

Going into therapy? Well, that’s probably one of the best things I’ve ever done. Yes, I know – I’ve been in therapy before. Some good, some not so good. But this time around is the first time I’ve felt on a very deep level that it’s time to go that extra step, dig a bit deeper, to not run when things get scary, but to stick with it. That, painful and terrifying as it can be, I want to keep at it, want to look at those bits I am most ashamed of, the ones that are the hardest to own, to accept as my own.

So, although I’m not where I thought I’d be, I think it’s been time well spent, hours well invested. And, as I said earlier, those things that I dreamed of; that I still wish for – they could still happen.

I leave you with a few lines from a Dawson’s Creek era song:

“..I’ve got the greatest admiration
for the way that you got through it
couldn’t ask nobody else to do it
better than you do it

stay you
- that’s the toughest thing to do..”

xx

 

Lyrics from Stay You © Wood

Kill It. Cut It. Use It. – Making Ethical Choices

Sitting here, thinking I really ought to update my blog, yet at the same time not really knowing what I want to write about. I’ve got that feeling where you know there is a lot of stuff buzzing around your brain, yet you can’t quite be still enough to figure out what it is. Thoughts and emotions doing this strange little dance, a bit too quick to really figure it out. So I think I’ll just write whatever comes to mind, and we’ll see where that gets us. [If anywhere!]

Have settled into my new place reasonably well by now. Still hate the shared space, I mean, there’s no getting away from the fact that the bathroom and kitchen are both minging. But I feel OK in my room, don’t actually mind the small size of it much at all.

Bought myself a small fridge the other week, because the ones in the kitchen are kind of icky and way too small for five people. And if my landlord won’t supply us with adequate fridges, I’m just gonna get my own. [It's rated A for energy efficiency, so I don't feel too bad about the extra electricity, since it's about as 'green' as they come]. Also, being fully vegetarian, I just really don’t like the idea of my stuff sharing a shelf with meat based food. Having been vegetarian for quite a few years by now I’m a bit funny about keeping my food separate from meaty stuff. I also have my own pots, pans and crockery which have never been used for meat. This isn’t a bid to keep kosher; I just prefer things this way. I’ve no problem going to people’s house and eating from dishes that have been used for meat, I regularly get vegetarian food from places where they also do non-vegetarian food, but at home I prefer to keep things separate. There’s no logic to it, I’m the first to admit that, but it’s how I like it, so why not?

Been watching “Kill It, Cut It, Use It” on BBC iPlayer this week. For those of you who haven’t seen it it’s a series about how animal by-products are used in things we use every day. I personally think that to a large degree it’s better to use waste products from the meat industry, rather than to just chuck it, and have found it really interesting to learn about how there are animal products in just about everything. I was never a vegetarian because I felt that it’s wrong to kill animals [although I'm all for treating animals with respect] so I’ve no real problem using washing powders, cosmetics etc which contain ingredients derived from animal by-products. That said, if I have one hand cream which states “suitable for vegetarians” and one which doesn’t say either way, I’m much more likely to go for the former. Again, no logic – but it works for me.

What I do take issue with are products made from things where the primary reason for killing the animal was to get the “by-product”. Think ivory and fur etc. Or cosmetics which have been tested on animals. [Still undecided on how I feel about medicines which have been animal tested]. And although my knowledge and understanding of these processes is undeniably limited I do try to make ethical choices when shopping.

There are lots and lots of things that I don’t know about, and reading ingredient listings often feels like trying to read a foreign language – especially with the industry being very very good at masking ingredients – but I try. I try to educate myself, try to do what I can to make good choices, and I guess that’s all I can really do.

At J-Prep someone crowned me “eco-warrior princess” because I would always carry my empty bottles and cans back home with me, to make sure they went in the recycling bin in my borough [it's a very good borough for recycling compared to the one where my shul is], and although my classmates would give me a bit of friendly stick about it, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I know that what I do won’t change the world, but maybe, just maybe it makes a tiny little bit of difference, just the same.

And if you think I’m a bit OTT – well, you should see my sister!

xx

Clip from “Kill It, Cut It, Use It”