My therapist told me I have mild PTSD. I laughed, nodded my head, and informed her that my last therapist told me the same thing.
Growing up, I was aware PTSD existed, but it was a term reserved for conversations about war veterans. I assumed I would never understand nor struggle with living with PTSD, because I was pretty sure I would never go to war.
The truth is, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can affect any person who has endured any trauma. The trauma can range from surviving a natural disaster to surviving a war. It can affect those who have suffered an assault and those who have no memory of ever being assaulted in the first place.
Not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD, but for those of you that have, this is my story.
Two years ago, I ended a marriage due to a violent incident between my husband and I. You can read about it here. It was that evening and those events which traumatized me. The word traumatized sounds melodramatic, but I assure you it is not. If it were anything less than that, I would not experience the symptoms I do today.
One such symptom is a set of “triggers” I now have as a result of the trauma. The trigger symptom does not apply to everyone, but it does apply to me. Also, even if many people have triggers, they manifest in different ways.
One of my triggers relates to hostility and aggression. I am “triggered” when someone behaves in a hostile or aggressive manner. The list of ways this can happen is extensive. I am triggered if someone raises his or her voice toward me. If someone has a caustic tone of voice, or a tone of voice that is biting, sharp, nasty, or harsh, I am typically triggered. If I get the impression someone is angry with me, I am usually triggered. When someone expresses anger in a physical way – pacing angrily, using body language that seems stiff and tense, advancing toward me during the conversation, pointing at me, etc – I am usually triggered. The reactions very on the intensity of the situation.
Sometimes, I have a reaction that is mild. This usually occurs when the person I am watching or talking to is only expressing anger about something else. It makes me uncomfortable to see someone so visibly angry. I am thinking to myself pay very close attention to what is happening. S/he could turn on you at any moment. Have an exit strategy. When I say “turn on you”, what I mean is I am usually waiting for the person who is angry about work/life/family stuff/whatever will stop merely venting and put all of that frustration onto me. This almost never happens, and I can usually manage my emotions fairly easily. I pay attention, check for exits, and try to calm the person down. The last one is most important. Keep the anger (of the opposite person) to a minimum so things don’t escalate.
The next level of intensity would be watching one person treat another person in a hostile or aggressive fashion, in front of me. This would happen if a couple or two friends were fighting in front of me, watching a parent discipline a child, or watching a supervisor correct an employee in frustration. Really, any human being acting this way toward another. My reaction is stronger in these scenarios – I tend to be jittery, anxious, and fearful of what might happen next. I fear for the (supposed) victim of the anger, for being unable to help or stop events from happening if things escalate, and I fear being collateral damage if something were to go wrong. I typically leave the room when this is happening, because what I am seeing has nothing to do with me, and I can walk away from the stimuli that disturbs me.
The most intense reactions come from hostility and aggression directed toward me specifically. If someone raises his or her voice to me, or uses physicality as a means to express anger, or uses a tone I find threatening, I am triggered and the reaction I have is not only disproportionate to the situation, but my behavior is inconsistent with my personality and logical assessment toward what is happening.
First, I’ll explain the reaction itself. All other reactions are milder forms of this, and this is as bad as it gets. There is a flood of adrenaline. My stress response goes into overdrive. My palms sweat, my head buzzes, and I feel chilly all over. My heart races, I find it hard to breathe, and I can’t think clearly. Whatever thoughts I do have are in capital letters (yelling) inside my head, and they tend to follow along these lines:
THREAT. THREAT IS BAD. ANTICIPATE THE WORST. MINIMIZE THE DANGER. MAKE IT STOP. MAKE IT STOP. QUICK – WHAT CAN I DO TO SLOW THIS HURTLING TRAIN DOWN BEFORE THINGS SPIRAL OUT OF CONTROL?
This is obviously a disproportionate response to most scenarios. Someone being angry and pacing across a room, or someone yelling at me because I have hurt their feelings, do not require a stress response as if my life were in danger.
My therapist explained today that during the stress response, we fight, flee, or freeze. I’ve heard the term “fight or flight” response before, meaning that you either fight against what is threatening you or run away. I had never heard the word freeze incorporated into that saying. For people struggling with PTSD, “freeze” becomes as likely as the other two.
When I have this rush of adrenaline, my body goes into overdrive and my mind races, but I am immobile. I am frozen in place, unable to take action, and feel powerless. What’s worse is I don’t even realize I am frozen until after the fact, and it’s certainly not something I am doing on purpose, which is why I say that my behavior is out of character for my personality and logical assessment of the situation.
Here’s a perfect example. A close friend of mine and I were having a conversation recently. During the conversation, I became frustrated at the way she was describing something. I spoke too quickly and came across sounding like an insensitive and non-supportive jerk. Her feelings were hurt, which made her angry. She snapped back and started arguing with me and yelling at me. As she kept talking, she got more worked up. I sat there while she yelled at me for what felt like a very long time (in actuality it can’t have been more than two minutes).
As I listened to her yell, and watched her become more and more agitated, I sat on the couch and didn’t move a muscle. My hands were clasped tightly in my lap and I stared, unblinking, into her eyes. I felt my head buzz and my body go cold. My palms started to sweat and my thoughts were in capital letters. At one point, I remember thinking “If I don’t calm her down she’s going to hit me”.
When she finally took a breath, I used that opportunity to speak to her in a very soft voice. I explained that I was sincerely sorry and I could hear that I had hurt her by the way I spoke. I soothed her with an even tone, and poured every bit of my regret through my eyes into hers. It’s difficult to describe, but in a way, I was trying to make it right as quickly and effectively as possible. I needed to calm her down before she attacked me, without appearing as though that’s what I was doing. In my head, the clock was ticking. I felt I had a narrow window to calm her down.
On the night my marriage ended, I was out of control of the events as they occurred. I did regain some level of control at the very end, but it was a bit of cleverness and luck that saved me. By then, it was too late. I had already endured the very worst of it, and had already experienced a thing I had never felt before: fear.
Lots of things are scary, and lots of stuff can give you an adrenaline rush. But trauma is different from riding a scary roller coaster or watching a horror movie. With those things, the risk is usually artificially inflated. The thrill of a roller coaster is that you might die, but most people understand it’s just for show. The scary movie is stimulating and might catch you by surprise or disturb you in some way, but you know it’s make-believe. Trauma is trauma because your life actually feels in danger. It’s not just your imagination or a structured game.
On the night my marriage ended, I believed my life was in danger. I had never felt that before, and as a result of believing that with every bit of my soul, I have triggers that did not exist before. Before that happened, I did not mind yelling so much. Physicality and anger were a part of my household growing up, in the sense that we had the freedom to be expressive as long as we were respectful. I never felt in any danger, and rarely did those things hurt me or make me feel unsafe. It wasn’t pleasant, but it wasn’t a cause for panic. However, that last experience was different in that things spun wildly out of control.
My therapist also explained to me that it’s not: Step 1 – Stimuli, Step 2 – Emotion. There is a step between one and two that happens so quickly (and unconsciously) that we don’t even realize it’s there. It’s the schema step.
A schema is a mental structure used to organize information and help make quick decisions about the world. Schemas are typically used in uncertain situations. When we don’t know or understand what is happening or what might happen next, we take the information we do have and plug it into the schema machine. Our mind finds the situation or experience that most closely matches it, and fills in the remaining or unknown with statistically likely information.
In my case, a schema might be that anger and hostility lead to violence and danger. I did not feel this way prior to the trauma I experienced. A previous schema might have been that anger and hostility in arguments lead to some form of conflict resolution. But, the trauma changed that schema, in the same way that it changed the way I feel about certain types of men and situations. My therapist explained that part of my treatment plan would include identifying what schemas are already in place, and we will work together to change those attitudes. The schema is the attitude about how the world works, and the emotion comes from the schema itself. Thus, the schema step is the unconscious one in between the stimuli and emotion.
When I say that my behavior is not a representation of my personality or logical assessment of the situation, it means that the intense emotion I have from the stress response causes me to behave in strange ways that I would not otherwise behave. For example, when my close friend became angry and yelled at me, I could have done any number of things. I could have yelled back, argued with her, talked it out loudly, walked out of the room, etc. However, instead, I was completely immobile. I didn’t move an inch or say a word – I barely breathed – and when I had the opportunity to, I spoke in such a way as to reduce the danger by calming her down. My words were genuine and I did feel terrible that she was so upset, but I was more concerned with staying safe.
Prior to the trauma, I probably would have had an all-out argument with her until we got it out of our system. I might have been defensive or showed emotion, I honestly can’t say. I can say that ever since what happened with my husband, I am terrified of confrontation. Whenever one does happen, I want it to be over with as quickly as possible, and I will say anything to calm the other person down, whether it’s true or not.
Situations like these are difficult for me to wrap my head around, because I do not maintain a self-concept of being a submissive human being. As a general rule, I feel in control and empowered. I feel confident that I can handle whatever life throws at me. However, when it comes to these triggers, I often feel as though I am in a free fall, grasping for any opportunity to protect myself from what feels like a life-or-death situation. Later, I feel embarrassed at my inability to participate in what I consider to be “typical” circumstances.
In addition, I am not shy or modest about the parts of me that are fucked up. I speak about them openly, and write about them openly, so most people are aware that I struggle with certain things. As a result, those who love me are careful not to behave in a way to trigger me, and if they do, they always feel terrible. Although this feels practical and sort of like a solution to the problem, I cannot rely on the patience and kindness of others to keep panic and anxiety at bay. In addition, there have been several situations where I found out later that the person couldn’t talk to me or be open with me out of fear that I would get hurt in the process. Sometimes I feel like I’m handing people the kid gloves with which to handle me, or that I am wearing a packing label that says “Fragile – Handle With Care”.
This is a topic about which I know very little. As treatment progresses, I will no doubt gain insight into how my trauma affected me. It is only very recently I have discovered that the PTSD is something that can be fixed. At times I felt irreparably broken, while at others I begrudgingly accepted these new aspects of myself as the “new” me. Now, I understand that although these triggers are installed in me due to the trauma, I can uninstall them through therapy.
I’ll never be someone who hasn’t endured trauma, but with the right tools and support, I can let go of the fear and anxiety that plague my relationship with the world and people in it.