I wrote this post so that those without PTSD can begin to understand and so that those with PTSD know that someone else has been there before. I do not have PTSD any longer. WARNING: MAY BE TRIGGERING.
I wake up groggy, with remnants of a bad night’s sleep still clinging to me. I don’t want to go back to sleep, but I’m not sure I can face the day either. I cannot remember my dreams, but I know they weren’t good. Last night I didn’t yell in a nightmare and disrupt my husband’s badly needed sleep. That, at least is good. I cannot remember the last time sleep felt refreshing. Now it feels like another form of deprivation, another instrument of suffering, another of the myriad losses of PTSD. I wonder if I will ever have a good night’s sleep again.
My joints and gut ache as they do every day now as I push myself up to sit on the side of my bed. If I don’t move slowly I risk dizziness. Lately my body doesn’t seem to know where it is in space. I have bruises that I don’t remember getting from bumping into doorways, edges of tables and chairs. It’s like having the PMS clumsies all the time. The bruises don’t hurt though. On the contrary, I hardly feel them. It’s the pain inside that absorbs all my attention. I breathe, attempting, without success to ground myself before beginning my day.
My kids are waiting for breakfast and a ride to school so I need to get a move on. Every day my prayer is the same. Please let me be a good mother. Help me protect them from what I am going through. Give me the strength to do what I need to and I will deal with my PTSD later. It doesn’t always help, and guilt over bad mommy moments is a constant companion these days.
Mornings are particularly bad with PTSD. It is as if someone has gone through my sensory system and turned up all the knobs to high. Light stabs my eyeballs making me squint with pain. Sounds are amplified as if I am in an echo chamber. Internal feelings and emotions can rev to highs and lows with no warning. I keep a very zen environment. The kids know not to talk too loud, bang their plates or scrape their forks. My husband is encouraged to leave the kitchen without cleaning it because the running water sounds like white noise in my head. We keep the lights low. I never know how bad it is going to be and they don’t either. Fortunately, my kids are not morning people either. They move slowly and quietly. I worry that I’ve become too controlling, but the stakes are too high to do anything different.
I’ve tried to explain what it is like to live in this body now to my very calm, stoic Lutheran raised midwestern husband. If there is a superpower for nerves of steel, he has it. My husband deals with life and death in his cath lab on a daily basis. He works in the space of millimeters for hours on end to open blocked hearts when his patients’ only alternative is life threatening surgery or certain death. He has not experienced PTSD or any mental affliction. His mental health and stability is both an asset and a hazard in our relationship. Sometimes I just need him to lose it on my behalf, to show that he really, really gets it.
I explain to him that on bad days I feel like I have ground glass running throughout my nervous system with sharp jaggedy edges. I explain how triggers make me want to jump out of my skin and how that jump is always accompanied by intense emotion, either a tornado of disintegrating rage, or fear or both. I explain how I know what some of my triggers are, but that every day, as I work through my healing in therapy, new ones are popping out and that we can both be caught off guard. I want him to understand that the constant flow of adrenaline makes me look alert and energized on the outside but that inside I feel exhausted. Wired and tired is how I put it. The foot is full throttle on the gas pedal, but the car is stuck in neutral. (I look for good manly analogies.) I explain that I need him to not react to my irritation and anger, to not take it personally, that it is only the PTSD rearing its ugly head. He nods his head with understanding, but the next time he does take it personally. And why wouldn’t he? Another source of guilt and rage for me. And a source of fragility for our marriage, a marriage that has always been strong. Is PTSD going to take this away from me too?
Normally couples can make up with physical intimacy. But even the least little bit of this comfort is now denied me. When the PTSD first hit, even hugging through two layers of flannel pajamas made me nauseous and dizzy. That initial shock has settled into a distant sort of numbness. I hug out of habit, but I can’t really feel it. I can’t feel my connection to myself or to him. The only connection that is safe for me is the kids. Thank goodness I can still feel my love for them. I realize that it is possible that my husband has become a trigger. But I’m not sure. Is it him? Or is it the trigger? Is our marriage viable? I have no idea, and I have to live with that uncertainty for months, and so does he. I decide not to decide until I have progressed in my healing.
After everyone leaves for the day, I face hours alone, just me and my PTSD. I am both relieved and terrified. Some days are better than others. Some days I have therapy with the shaman therapist. He is helpful and powerful, and there is no state he cannot bring me out of. I am very, very lucky to have him as a resource. Still, there are many hours to fill.
With PTSD I am never really happy. I miss simple happiness. I miss joy. I take my dogs on a walk and watch them run with abandon, big wild dog joy grins on their faces. On a good day, my insides feel like a grey, shadowless Portland winter day, flat and featureless. On a bad day, a howling storm is raging that threatens to obliterate me. Unless I am in the bleakest place I will myself to do my job as mother and housemaker: cook something, clean something, pay something. Self-care and hygiene is no longer a natural act, but something that must be chosen and willed every day. When I am in the darkest states, I curl up for hours on the sofa waiting for my next therapy appointment.
Fortunately, I did not just fall off the turnip truck. I have had a lot of training and life experience. I can meditate. I can do breathing exercises. I can walk (until I have a very bad skiing accident, but that is another story). I know by virtue of my age and therapy that this too shall pass, that there is no way I can stay in this state forever, that I am working actively on my healing. Sometimes this helps, and sometimes it really doesn’t.
PTSD taunts me with loneliness. If I had cancer, or some other major medical illness, if I were a victim of a current crime or in a car accident or had something visibly wrong with me, people would know. People would sympathize, maybe bring over a casserole, send a card, check in with me or take me to lunch. But nobody knows. I cannot talk about my disability because to talk about it makes me feel much, much worse. Talking about it makes my head spin and my stomach want to retch. Even if I could stand to see the look on people’s face when I tried to talk about my condition, most of them, like my good husband, would not really understand. They might nod their heads politely and say that time heals all wounds, or that I should be grateful for what I have now. I might have to kill them for that. Or myself. So I remain silent and withdraw unnoticed. I go to school events, put on a brave face and then crawl into bed exhausted.
If I am lucky I make it through the day without any major triggers. But it feels like walking daily through a mine field. At the end of the day I lose myself briefly in spending time with my happy amazing kids. I manage to stay focused on them and their needs until their bedtime. But then I am used up and collapse on the sofa exhausted. I have nothing left for my spouse. I try to look back over my day and find one thing to feel good about. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I just want to hurt myself. I watch these moods come and go with the experienced eye of a therapist and meditator. It doesn’t mean it’s easy though.
I have no idea how people make it through without the level of support that I have, and then I realize that many of them don’t make it.
Bedtime comes, and with it, intense dread. I used to love bedtime. I couldn’t wait to snuggle down into flannel sheets, cozy up to my hubbie and drift off feeling our warm connection. Now we sleep on the edges of the bed. I tell him I love him, but please don’t touch me. Trained doctor that he is, he falls asleep instantly. I am left with the final battle of the day.
Sometimes I can fall asleep easily sometimes I can’t. But I never stay asleep. Every 90 minutes like clockwork, my mind and body pop out of sleep. It is exhausting. REM sleep is where our bodies process intense emotion and memories. I think about how waking people up before REM sleep is a torture that can result in psychosis. As I slip into the dream state the nightmares come. They are bad. Sometimes they are screaming and striking out in my sleep bad. But more often I wake up before I can even have them, a new conditioned response that is out of my control. I meditate. I do yoga to relax and start over. I read. Sometimes these things help and sometimes they do not.
I don’t know if tomorrow will be any better, but I hope it will. And when I can’t hope I endure.