Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Is it really Invisible?

Trigger Warning – Trigger Warning – Trigger Warning!

Here she goes again, you may be thinking, writing about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. No poetry or short story today because a recent “trigger episode” (not a partner past or present) has me realizing yet again how many people are unaware of what PTSD is or how to deal with it so I am sharing what I can for those who would like to know more about PTSD.

The causes of PTSD are varied. The one common factor is trauma. Two humans can endure the same traumatic experience with one recovering swiftly and the other unable to “shake it” for the rest of their days. There is no time line on recovery. It is as individual as we are.

  • For me it was a brutal physical assault in 2012 by a long time friend who has martial arts
  • For some it can be childhood trauma or sexual abuse
  • For some it can be witnessing horrific events such as war or other catastrophic tragedies

The reactions to being triggered also vary from person to person. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a whole body trauma that can leave a person shaking, having excruciating headaches, nightmares, vomiting and having diarrhea. This is not a complete list of physical symptoms when triggered, we are all different. Some may start having horrible flashbacks of the traumatizing incident(s) all over again, some may grow depressed and withdraw from people or avoid certain places, some may grow angry at everything and everyone, some may feel slammed right back to the time of the incident that caused the PTSD. For me, having several chronic physical health conditions means stress exacerbates those and the stress of being triggered does this, among other things, to me:

  • Since the trigger approximately a week and a half ago I began having nightmares again, filled with extreme terror and menacing images of the person who triggered me
  • Fibromyalgia is really flaring up now, the pain spikes so much higher under stress
  • Diagnosed in my 30’s with the Diverticulosis of “an 85 year old man” which, for me, under stress inevitably becomes diverticulitis meaning abscesses in the out-pouchings through-out my intestines. Not only is the pain horrific but once it flares up, the relentless cramping and flu like symptoms can take weeks to settle. I spend much of my time in the washroom and cannot eat solid food until I heal. Right now I am on baby food again and it is improving but I notice, with aging, this healing is taking longer than it used to

PTSD is, more often than not, invisible. While these pictures are far from pretty, I am sharing them because so many people simply do not even understand PTSD, it is just a word or a condition but they can’t “see it” so it means very little to them. It is my hope these pictures will help create awareness among those who have never had PTSD or those who love someone who has PTSD.

That is my left shoulder in the above photo. I am clawing my shoulders open again. Why can’t I just stop? Because I do not even know I am doing it. I am doing this in my sleep just as I did for the two years immediately after the assault in 2012. I awoke nightly and daily from nightmares with clawed shoulders, bloodied fingernails, bloodied sleepwear and bedding. This happened fairly consistently for two years. You can see the white lines and patches where old claw marks have healed.

Well meaning people can hurt us. While I believe they may mean well with no intention of hurting us, some well-intentioned people may unwittingly trigger us even further by:

  • Making excuses for the abuser(s) instead of making them “accountable” for “their” abuse
  • Pressing you to try things they believe will “fix” you because it worked for them or others
  • Shame blame your condition for the trigger instead of who or what actually triggered it

Nobody should ever be “shame blamed” for being triggered. For years the trauma counsellors said, “It is not your fault.” Over and over and over. They were right. PTSD is NOT our fault. There is a reason why they call it “trigger” and once we understand how it all works, we can better help others who have PTSD. Just be safe, be kind, be gentle. Sounds too simple, doesn’t it? It really is. There is no magic bullet, instant fix or preventing a full blown trigger episode. But being kind, being gentle and being safe is something we are all capable of doing and this can go a long way to helping the triggered person recover. Still, it may not be enough to help. Sometimes there is nothing for a trigger recovery except passing time, using your coping techniques and leaning on your professional health care team to guide you through it.

Seeing is believing for some. This next picture is my right shoulder scarred from those two years of horrific nightmares I was trying to escape. Because I am right handed, my right shoulder is less scarred and thankfully so far this shoulder has not yet been clawed open since those awful two years.

If you know someone with PTSD, just let them be wherever they are. Safety is needed far more than advice. Ask if you can do anything but don’t add to their stress by repeatedly saying what you know worked for yourself or someone else. Those who press us deeper into re-living the trauma might well stand over a terminal cancer patient or a person with dementia yelling: “Stop that!”

  • We are all different. What works for some does not work for others.
  • There is no such thing as a “one size fits all” solution to PTSD
  • Meditation works for some but not for all
  • Cannabis in various forms works for some but not for all
  • Certain types of counselling work better for some than others
  • How we heal or whether we ever do is also not our fault

Again, what works is as individual as we are. Here are a few of my coping techniques and no, they don’t always work but they I just keep on trying as and when I start feeling better:

  • Peace and quiet. I love the quiet especially as a writer but even more so since getting PTSD. That said, it doesn’t have to be total quiet. Listening to a breeze, birdsong or gentle music can be soothing. Sometimes I just need absolute uninterrupted quiet for days after a bad trigger
  • The arts really help me. I find writing therapeutic but also enjoy colouring, drawing, painting, even growing a garden or some flower pots of your favorite plants, just tending these plants leaves me feeling calm and peaceful.
  • Being short of sleep just heightens the effects of a trigger for me and of course, being triggered means I won’t sleep well. I try to avoid medication but sometimes it is the only way to get a good night’s rest. Without rest I find it hard to cope period, never mind during a trigger.
  • Talking to a “safe person” whether a safe friend or a trauma counsellor, sometimes just talking about what triggered us can help us feel better about managing it
  • Good self care. I know it is all too simple to say but even if I don’t feel up to it, I always find something grounding in my personal care routines from choosing healthy food to eat to showering or just giving myself permission to sit quietly doing nothing for as long as I need to. When I find what works best to self soothe that becomes my trigger “go-to.”

Things you may not know about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder:

  • Nobody wants to get PTSD
  • Nobody asks to get PTSD
  • PTSD is not “our” fault. Nobody needs more abuse such as “shame blaming,” the same mental and emotional bullying already responsible for so many suicides in our world. If you don’t know what to say, please just be kind, safe and respectful as in, “I don’t understand what you are going through but please let me know if I can help you in any way.”

 

To all the trauma survivors out there, I understand some of what you must be going through and respect that your trauma is different from mine and that you are different from me. For me it takes a lot of time and gentle living to put myself back together after mental, emotional or physical abuse. Take your time and go gentle on yourself. Sadly, a lot of misinformation exists from the same minds who think we should just “snap out of it” which contributes to errant world responses and it can take a very long time to start feeling better. It can be done with concerted effort and new life patterning but again, even that does not work for everyone. Still, there is always hope that we will find our own way through it, our own comforts and healing practices while we mend our hearts and minds. I have had PTSD for years and I am still learning about it and how to manage it. Some never get any peace or rest from the excruciating effects of PTSD and my heart goes out to those people because I know I am one of the lucky ones.

© Janni Styles

 

 

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Small Comforts

At first there is a pang in your heart, a pang so wrenching you believe it will never go away. You look around and everything reminds you of her. A sea shell she gave you, a note she wrote, a tote bag with angels flying on the sides in a beautiful tan and blue tapestry of olde she completed just for you. You hope she is flying high with the angels but you wish she was still here. Being reminded hurts so much you pack up all the pretty triggers in cardboard boxes. Then you move and rediscover everything she ever gave you as you unpack the boxes in your new apartment. Somehow, in the time that has passed, the hurting has diminished. Looking at her gifts no longer hurts so much. Instead, they become a comfort. You even start saying good morning to them and when you have your bed time camomile tea, she is there with you, surrounding you with her small comforts before you sleep and, perhaps, get lucky enough to be gifted with another dream time visit from her.

(c) Janni Styles

The Lost and the Found

Between the cracks of her broken heart
Where true love should have been living
A man once searched her out for five years
While she settled for another less giving
In time the less giving gave less and less
Her love for him squelched to it’s rightful death
When she learned the other searched five years
She cried her heart right out of breath
You cannot know what you cannot know
You cannot see what you cannot see
And time does not heal all wounds
Mending comes only in breaking free
No use lamenting what might have been
Nor belittling our unknowing selves
We are where we are meant to be
Or we would already be somewhere else
Happiness is better not sought
Just appreciated at it’s true best
When it arrives in our hearts and lives
As a surprise and welcome guest
She moved into the future awaiting her
Knowing regrets have no business with joy
True love showed up when least expected
A love so strong no other can destroy
Of her sojourn into hearts and the broken
She learned life is rife with many a test
By trusting and leaning into blind winds
She found life leads us to what, for us, is best
Bitter hearts show up on human faces
Bitter minds deprive pleasure from all
No use donning either in this, our one life
Heed only the loving, sweet and kind call
Uphill, over glass and through rocky pass
She knows pressing on is all one must do
To find your best, be your best, give your best
And embrace all that is meant just for you

(c) Janni Styles

 

 

Lucky Miss and the Power of Prayer

Recently I survived another health scare. When I say another this is actually the third health scare experience I have had.

Once for five years I was told by doctors I had the “flu again!!!” as a male doctor wrote on the chart in front of me. Finally a work mate suggested I sit my butt in the doctors office and demand tests, telling him I would not leave without them. I did what she suggested. The next day I was having the ordered tests and the day after that I was called back into the doctors office for the results. A chronic condition of diverticulitis was the diagnosis as the male doctor said, “worse than an 85 year old man.” I was 30. But it took five years to get to a diagnosis of a condition that is not so hard to manage as long as you learn what to do for it which I did and still do.

Fast forward to 2007 which was the fifth year of doctor visits for the same condition of abdominal pain/discomfort which all male doctors told me was a “groin pull.” The advice was always to stop exercising for a while and it would go away. I did and it didn’t. I couldn’t even do stairs properly, was doing them one at a time like a little child. I couldn’t walk far. I couldn’t sit comfortably, was always twisted to the side. Finally a female doctor palpated me and her face changed so much I knew something was up. To hospital next day for tests she ordered.

A day later in my then male doctor’s office for the results, I read the results and passed the paper back to him. Did you see what it says, he asked, stabbing the word “cancer” with his pen as he held the paper out to me. Yes, I said, I read it, now what do we do about it? Next day in surgeons office for planned removal of a pineapple size growth they thought cancer. In the midst of this, two teen-aged nieces I had never met phoned and told me they had tickets to fly out and spend three weeks with me so I cancelled the surgery. If it was cancer, this might be the only time I could ever have with them. Surgery was moved to the day before Christmas eve, the first date available after the teen-aged twin’s flight home.

As it happened the growth was not cancerous. My second lucky miss if you ask me. It was a gnarly surgery that went longer than planned because of everything the growth had attached itself to. But I survived and am grateful it was not the “C” word that so cruelly robbed me of both of my parents, one barely over 40 at the time of death. I was in recovery over a year and still had spotting five months later. The surgeon said the only way they could find out why I was still bleeding was to open me up again and they didn’t want to do that. So they didn’t and eventually the bleeding subsided. This was my second lucky miss.

Fast forward to 2017 when I discovered an ugly lump on one of my breasts. Of course every picture on the internet matched the appearance of this lump. I shouldn’t have looked on the internet. If it happens to you, don’t do that. It doesn’t help at all. It didn’t help at all that my male doctor of many years also wanted me to just “wait and see if it would go away.” Can’t you stick a needle in it and get the cells analyzed? I asked. No, he said, let’s just give it a couple of weeks. So I did. No change.

Luckily the next visit to my doctor he was off for surgery himself and a female doctor who was seeing his patients took one look at my lump, asked me how long it was there and ordered two tests for me. I asked her if she could just stick a needle in it and extract some cells for the lab, too, but she wouldn’t. At least she ordered the other tests for me. Still it was a few weeks of waiting before I could get in for the tests the female doctor had put a rush on. My third lucky miss happened when, finally in June 2017, I was given the all clear. “There is absolutely no malignancy in either breast” were the exact words from the doctor’s office.

What I really want to talk about, perhaps more than my three “lucky misses,” is how it felt to be going through these emotional times prior to finding out I was, indeed, a very lucky “Miss.” There is no way to describe exactly the terror that gnaws you awake at night or causes you to burst into tears over the simplest of things. It is just something that happens to you as you try not to think the worst and continue to live your life in a meaningful way when you fear nothing will ever have any real meaning again.

My mind ran to all things conclusive from having to dispose of my entire household to being sick for months as my parents were and how awful it was to watch them being ill and how awful they must have felt in their lucid moments when they didn’t have the strength left to even return a hug. I suppose at that stage you don’t really realize what you look like or what you can’t do, you are just doing what you can. My thoughts ran to suicide because that would mean nobody would be stuck looking after me or seeing me when I could no longer even remember who I was myself.

A survivor of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) from a physical assault in 2012, I found myself triggered into deep depressions and this was exacerbated by moments of sheer panic that the news or results might be the worst. My sleep was so interrupted I was a hair away from crying at all times. Even though I had recently started eating better and lost 15 pounds,  I just didn’t give a damn what I ate or drank or if I ate or drank. Washing my hair just seemed like all too much and if I was dying, what would any of it matter anyway?

Most of all, I felt alone. I know I have a ton of wonderful people in my life who love me but I still felt so alone, there is almost no way I can describe it. People would be talking about everyday issues or arguing the daylights out of some topic on Facebook and I fairly wanted to scream, “Are you all frigging crazy? Don’t you realize none of this crap even matters in the grand scheme of things? How foolhardy can you be with your very own precious life moments you are squandering?”

I had no patience for anything either. Even washing dishes was so irritating I just felt like smashing them all to bits. Nature held the only nurturing I felt at all. Only nature could soothe me with the birdsong and breezes rustling the trees or watching the sunset with a renewed appreciation, even just watching tree bows moving was hypnotic for me. Everything else was so hollow. It was as if I were facing the worst fire of my life yet again with no support because, honestly, how supportive can people be unless they have walked this road of unknown. You look normal. You sound normal. So on they go with daily routines and modes of interaction that really mean nothing to you because you don’t even know if you will be here for your own daily life much longer.

You can’t really talk much about how it feels either because it brings people down. So you clam up and become more silent than ever. Well, that’s what I did. I barely wrote because all I wanted to write was so dark and I knew so many don’t appreciate that, most want sunshiny flowery happy reads and I am not good at the fluffy stuff in life even without going through another cancer scare.

From my own experience as a support worker for victims of violence and as a lay counselor at the rape and trauma center, I recognized the stages of my emotions. From anger to depression to acceptance, I was working my way through the unknowns, the grief you feel at possibly having your life shortened by a disease nobody ever wants to get. I tried to tell myself it was just normal to have all of these emotions and unfamiliar feelings. But it felt anything but normal. With nobody safe to talk about my feelings lest I burden them with things they did not want to hear anyway, I just felt alienated and isolated even though I would see loved ones daily or go about my daily chores, errands and routines. Every stress felt like too much, even small stresses from having to do laundry to a misunderstanding with the landlord or having to be somewhere at a certain time.  I felt like it wasn’t really my own life anymore, as though something had sucked all the goodness out of it and no matter what I did, this feeling did not fully subside until the day the doctor’s office gave me the good news.

You would think the good news would put me right back on track in my life but it had the opposite effect. For a few days I continued to process all of these unforeseen emotions around not having to pack up and donate all my earthly belongings, around not having to suicide out to spare others and at not having the dreaded “C” word after all. It was as if the news did not fully settle into my psyche for three days afterward. Everything still had a surreal tinge to it and I couldn’t quite get my feet on the ground about being so lucky. Again.

I thought of a coworker of my ex’s who, young with little kids of his own, was told his breathing problem was the air conditioning in his truck. A month later he went back to the doctor who still did not send him for any tests. On his third visit a month after that, he was finally sent for tests. The test results were as bad as it gets. He had stage four lung cancer. It was inoperable and one month after that he was dead. I thought of this fine young man and the raw deal he got. It made me so grateful for the female doctor who put a rush on my tests. In my region it can take months or even up to a year to see a specialist. Some family doctors are even booking appointments three and four months ahead as we grope our way through the ongoing shortage of doctors and health care workers. This all left me feeling so grateful for the female doctor who didn’t waste a second.

As the days passed and I managed to get a good night’s sleep, 11 hours straight finally put me on the right track, I realized I had dodged another bullet and was free, free, free as a bird to fly and dip and soar once again. This set me thinking about all the people who sent me healing wishes or prayers and how grateful I was for all of those folks, too.

Years ago when my then mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer my ex (her son) and I set out on a mission to help her heal. My ex and I had read many books on healing and the power of prayer including works by Larry Dossey and Evelyn Monahan as well as many, many others. Having some First Nations family roots also grounded me in the powers of healing. Miracles I witnessed in my own life told me we have angels, guardians and there is always a reason to pray no matter how dire circumstances may seem.  Once when a friend phoned for prayers for a ten year old girl the doctors said had no chance, she would not survive another 24 hours, we started a prayer network and phoned everyone we knew who would join in. There were no cell phones, bulk texting or internet back then or we might have reached further. Still, what we did proved plenty good enough because the girl, to the doctor’s amazement, not only turned totally around in less then 24 hours but is still doing well to this day.

This is just one of many real life healing stories I have witnessed in my life. My mother-in-law believed, too, and I think that was part of why our healing prayers and meditations for her were so successful. Within three weeks of the three of us doing these healing meditations/prayers every single night, my mum-in-law’s sister phoned to say the doctors said the “cancer was gone!” Our joy was short lived, however. Our healing focus had been on the cancer in her head which was now totally gone but we forgot to send healing prayers to her entire body. The cancer reappeared in her lower body and was pronounced inoperable. We three were devastated as you might imagine. Still, I hold onto the successful healing stories because miracles do happen.

I believe I was recently the recipient of such a miracle when I asked everyone I knew for healing prayers or positive vibes, whatever is their “way.” Maya Angelou, bless her heavenly heart, said it best: “Thoughts are things and words have wings.”

Yes, they certainly are and yes, they certainly do.

And I am one very Lucky “Miss.”

Thank you to all who lifted me through this latest health scare. You know who you are, you know what you did and I am eternally grateful for all your healing wishes. Always here for you in any way I can be.

Signed,

Lucky Miss

(c) Janni Styles

Things I learned that may help you or someone you know:

  1. Do not look on the internet for images of cancer if you suspect you may have it. It really does not help and in my case it only heightened the anxiety/emotions around it all for no reason at all because, at the end of the day,  I did not even have it.
  2. Try to find a supportive, soft place to land/talk or whatever you need to do. I didn’t but now wish I had as it would have been so much easier on me to have that safe go to place. Your doctor, a counselor, even a pastor or church mate might help you work through your own emotions and fears.
  3. If a doctor tells you one thing and you suspect another, get a second or even a third opinion. Time is of the essence and any time we waste could alter the outcome of our situation. Also if they want you to “wait and see if it will go away” and you don’t want to wait, that is okay. Ask the doctor to send you for some tests or see another doctor who will.
  4. Don’t give up. This means keep praying, meditating or whatever is your way for a positive outcome. You may think it doesn’t help but it helped me feel better even though I was still frightened of the possible outcome. Ask everyone you know to pray for you. I swear I could feel the “love” of prayer power through this latest challenge I faced. Praying/meditating myself made me feel better even though I was still in quite a lot of fear.
  5. If you think there is another test they can do for you, ask for it. Doctors are usually good at what they do but some can inadvertently overlook things just as we humans often do. It doesn’t hurt to ask for what we need or to ask for a second opinion.
  6. Cry if you must, just let it fly out of you. I kept holding back and holding back when I really needed a good cry. Finally a TV movie (Steel Magnolias which I have seen a thousand times, ok, maybe not a thousand but you know what I mean) set me crying almost the whole two hours. I felt a lot better afterward and knew then just how much emotional angst I had been packing around for weeks.
  7. Try to go easy on those around you. They really cannot understand what you are feeling unless they go through it themselves. So you may find their issues trivial and probably they are compared to your very real and frightening situation but it won’t help you to feel angry at them for it.
  8. Nurture yourself. Whatever this means for you, just take good loving care of you. Listen to the birdsong, visit the shore, turn your phone off, don’t answer your door, avoid negativity of any sort whenever possible and this includes (yes I know I am on it right now 😉 ) the internet, take long leisurely tub soaks or walks amid sunrise/sunset, whatever appeals to you and lifts you out of yourself if only for a few moments.

Clean Laundry

taking in the sheets today the fresh air held me fast

I was in kitchens of my childood my mother standing there

her cold reddenened hands at work hanging and folding

our laundry from the line in cold Ontario air

 

for just a few minutes tonight I forgot where I was

pressing my face into fresh washed sheets

all I could think of was my mother

and precious fresh sheets sleeps

 

as I unraveled the tangled laundry

and hung the damp bedding up to dry

I had a little visit with my mother

and did my best not to cry

 

(it didn’t work)

(c) Janni Styles

Love Enough or Love Undone?

When people say “this”

and then “that” they go do

how do we know if they

really mean “I love you?”

 

Will one morn the words become

“I didn’t really mean that either?”

and wobble you to the core

do you stay for more “word skiver?”

 

Do you run for the hills

or stay for more?

Do you chance taking a chance on

making your own heart more sore?

 

Unwelcome jolts or unkind events

people no longer who you would often defend

do you start again, how do you mend the rents?

or do you sit contemplating on the fence?

 

If word is so easily broken

it could happen to me too

nothing is certain, everything can upend

in just a second or two.

 

One foot ahead of the other I go

trying to find balance in undeserved change

walking ’til I find my peaceful heart again

Now that my love has been rearranged.

(C) Janni Styles

How I help YOU cope with my PTSD

Right after I was physically assaulted years ago I lost my coping skills. I repeat, I lost my coping skills, not my intelligence. You do not suddenly lose your intelligence but you do suddenly lose your coping skills with PTSD. This means it may be harder to access your intellect because your brain is so highly reactive in PTSD mode as I have experienced many, many times since that physical assault.

Once when I arrived at the bank to find funds missing, I was so jolted by it, I could hardly think straight let alone figure out how or why I was short of the money I needed to pay my rent. It took quite some doing and nearly an hour after trying to listen to the young clerk who spoke in that “uber-speed-fast-food-window” lingo. I could not understand a thing she said. The bank manager and security were called when I raised my voice to ask her to stop speaking so fast and burst into tears at the same time. The matter was resolved, the missing money was located and refunded and all was well in the end. But at the time I felt like my brain was banging inside my skull and instead of being treated kindly, I felt like they were all deeming me at fault in spite of the error being theirs in the first place.

What I did to prevent this happening to me again was ask to have a note placed on my file so that any future teller or clerk would be able to read that first before dealing with me. I even wrote out the note for them and the clerk did type it into my file.

The note was simple: “I have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), please speak slowly and clearly and please don’t rush me.”

This has worked very well and even resulted in an older lady asking me about how I cope because her niece has PTSD from a bad car accident. Recently I was putting my bank card away and a sharp pain struck me as I was fighting a sinus infection. I cried “OH!” surprising myself and the kind man who had just served me at the bank. He asked me asked me if he could get me a glass of water. That alone was music to my ears and calmed me because even though I was not in a triggered PTSD episode, he knew what to do and how to help any one who might be.

At every opportunity I try to educate and inform others who may be misjudging a situation where PTSD is evident. Other things I do to reduce the incidence of triggers is go out with a “safe” or “anchor” person, check my surroundings constantly to try to avoid shocks or surprises, get second opinions from my “safe anchor” people to ensure I am not misjudging a situation, try to anticipate as much as possible, always have a plan A, B or C for crowd or large group situations so I can sit where it feels “safest” to me and exit quickly if need be, tell someone safe I need help or to leave and I even hold back tears if I am triggered right out of a building because I try to create the least possible upset to others.

A couple of years ago a friend who also has PTSD suggested I hand out flyers on trauma to people who do not understand it so they can learn instead of compound the situation. This friend educates people whenever she can about trauma because, she said, it is her best coping skill. Today I created my fifth poster on PTSD which follows this piece.

Tomorrow is my mother’s birthday and since she only died a few years ago, the possibility exists that I may be “triggered” into a PTSD episode because of the high emotional levels around these special occasions.  I am hoping not and plan to be with “safe” people the whole day but you just never know. A fragrance, an aroma, a visual or a rack of “Mother” birthday cards could trigger me, it is not always possible to know what a trigger may be. This fifth poster is to help people understand and cope with my PTSD and that of others who are also still surviving with it. First, here is one of the last pictures ever taken of my mom as I prepare myself to try and not cry too much tomorrow:

mom-alone-cropped

Happy Birthday in Heaven, Mom.

 

ptsd-poster5