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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Never Enough

No matter the warnings

no matter the knowing

now is never a good time

to see loved ones going

 

Yes they may soar free

no more suffering or pain

we take the hurt of knowing

we’ll never see them here again

 

Never enough time to remember

all the things we needed to say

the world darkens in an instant

while we long for just another day

 

Heaven is our hope for them

death makes us all believers

the only way we can make sense

of all life’s too early leavers

 

No matter the comforts we speak

no matter the sooth saying done

longing of the heart never ceases

we just want them back not gone

 

(c) Janni Styles

Snow Squalls

the drifts blow high

smarting eyes cannot see

all those years of memories

connecting you to me

sharp winds breathe life

into weary fallen leaves

whipping hearts about

sorrows hard to relieve

at night you are so gone

the stars hardly shine

morning takes far too long

for these old memories of mine

snow angels we once made

oh why oh why you did you go

all I have left here are

your wings in frozen snow

(c) Janni Styles

 

Surviving Difficult Times: PTSD and Trauma

Many of you already know what I went through these past few years so I will not repeat my entire story. Let me just share with you what I have learned about surviving difficult times including this very recent period of losing my brother in October and my sister in November and the ensuing grief that often chokes me because it is so hard to get used to the world knowing they are no longer in it. Initially I was thrust into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from a physical assault in 2012 (though many believe I was suffering from it long before I walked out of my more than three decades marriage due to the shocks I endured in that relationship). What happens with me since the onset of PTSD is that I can easily be triggered back into the full blown symptoms by life events, losses and abrupt changes to name just a few. Still, I am at a place where I hope to help others with what worked for me as I clawed my way out of the darkness to where I am today. While I still have PTSD it is not as severe as it once was and hinders me less because I have found a few ways to help myself survive difficult times. You or someone you know may appreciate what I have to share with you today.

Surviving Difficult Times:

  1. If you have any people in your life who are negative, critical or even in any small way unfair or abusive, avoid them. If you are struggling to get through a difficult time these types of people can only add to the burdens we are already packing. Yes, we may love or even be related to some of those people but tolerating any criticism or negativity from people we love is often more hurtful than from those we don’t know as well. This only exacerbates the situation we are in. Someone unfairly chastised me royally on a social site for posting a “funny” she obviously disliked. This triggered me and I did answer her but she blocked me. Clearly she is neither safe nor compassionate and blocking me was probably the best favor she could do though at that moment in time it just felt like more abuse. We need safe, loving, healthy, kind-hearted people around us when we are experiencing difficult times. This doesn’t mean you have to end the relationship(s), only that you may need to avoid those insensitive, cantankerous types until you are through the rough patch you find yourself in. Avoidance worked well for me and is still working well for me.
  2. Surround yourself with loving, healthy people wherever possible. From your health care providers to your social circles, clean house as often as need be to ensure that you are being supported by only those who are “safe” with good and kind intentions. Nobody needs ill intending people in their worlds at the best of times but at the worst of times those people can just feel like one more source of aggravation and abuse we simply do not need or deserve. They are also extremely draining, the last thing you need when trying to build yourself back up.
  3. Find your happy place or space. This can look like your own cozy bedroom, a favorite park or an activity you enjoy from reading to running. You choose what it is that makes you feel better and if that is music, baking, camping out, visiting a friend, doing yoga or escaping into a good movie or a book, whatever, it doesn’t matter as long as you have a few moments or, perhaps, hours, away from what is constantly overwhelming you. Retreat as often as you need to into your happy place or happy space. Friends, books and long walks or writing are my go to’s for a break from my personal life challenges. I found it helpful to keep adding to my “safe” go to list as I went along and discovered things that were helpful for me. Often I still prefer to have no stimulation, no noise, no light, and just being still with myself. Somehow it re-energizes me and I am able to get back on the bike of life and pedal my way forward. When everything and everyone “hurts,” finding our happy place or space can take a little time but that’s okay too. Just go gentle on yourself as you find what works best for you.
  4. Tell people what you need. This was the hardest of all for me. Learning to be my own best advocate was fraught with challenges I could not foresee. Once when the bank overcharged me for something I panicked because I did not have enough money for my rent (this was all reversed by the bank and I did have enough for my rent in the end).  Meanwhile, the talks-too-fast clerk kept repeating herself and would not hear any of my questions. I started to cry and the bank manager and security people all came over which made me cry harder. Finally, stuttering severely as I do when PTSD triggered, I was able to tell them I have PTSD and requested a note be put on my file (I wrote the note which said: I have PTSD. Please be kind and patient with me. Sometimes English sounds like gibberish to me if my PTSD is triggered. Please speak slowly and please repeat yourself if I need you to. Thank you.) Nearly five years later that note is still there and the service I get at the bank is impeccable, very considerate and caring. With others I may decline an outing or a visit at the last minute because I just can’t take any stimulation that day. Knowing what we need is half the battle. I spent a lot of time asking myself what do I need because there were moments when I truly did not know. If you can figure out what your needs are, asking others to honor those needs is the best way to take care of ourselves in my opinion. They may not understand why we need what we need but that does not matter. They may never understand. What matters is we know how to take care of our needs to avoid being triggered or overwhelmed by all the things in the world that are out of our control.
  5. Seek professional help. If you have an emotional or mental condition that needs attention don’t try to manage it all by yourself. Talk to your doctor and if you don’t have a doctor, try to tap into your local community services to see if there is a Health Unit or other source of support or help they can guide you to. Trying to manage it all by yourself is not advisable. I do not know where I would be if I had not sought and availed myself of professional help. Going to trauma counselling for two years after I was assaulted not only gave me a safe place and professional people to help me heal but it also gave me many skills I learned from one trauma counselor. Simple exercises like counting my breath or counting the items in a room, anything to distract me from feeling panicked, overwhelmed and unable to cope still help me to this day. Luckily for me, where I live we have some terrific community services and I was able to get help for the legal process of court which took three years and also a lot of emotional support and guidance. Without the help I received I know for sure I would not even be here. Seeking professional help is always wise.
  6. Believe. Believe there is help available for you and don’t give up on trying to find it. Believe there will be better days because as black as this moment may feel, there will be better days eventually. I didn’t think there would ever be better days when I was in the midst of just trying to cope but there were and those then rare days helped me believe there would be more. Believe you deserve the help. None of us deserves to be hurt, lied to, criticized, abused or assaulted in any way, shape or form. When we have been good people and always done the right things in life it is hard to imagine why anyone would want to be so cruel to us for any reason. But some people just are as recently happened to me online and in the real world when I shared the loss of my brother and sister. However much it hurt us, this is not as important as changing what we can for ourselves. We can block/delete online and in person we can leave, move away from or distance ourselves from harmful people and situations that are not good for us. It just takes time, professional help and focused effort to reach the place that is best for ourselves. Believe you deserve the best in life because you do.

These are just a few little things I share today as I work on grieving two of my siblings in three weeks. Of course the loss of my brother and my sister has triggered my PTSD, the panic, the shaking, the loss of sleep, the general sense of being in an unsafe world with unsafe people everywhere. I know if I can lean on my supports and do the six steps above as often as necessary, I will weather this storm of emotional tests, eventually. There is so much more I could add but this is plenty for a blog post, I think.  Please note this list of what worked for me may not work for everyone and that is okay too. I am not a doctor or a professional in the field of trauma. I am just one survivor voice who could not find much that wasn’t academically written on the subject of trauma and PTSD. To that end, I hope to help others who need to hear from someone who has been there and shares her findings, not so much experience as findings because this is what I wanted for myself when surviving my difficult time in life. I wanted to talk to other trauma survivors, hear how they coped, learn coping techniques and I just couldn’t find that kind of basic easy to digest material out there. There was much on how the brain works but it didn’t help me one whit to cope or realize that I would survive this. So far so good, I am here, breathing and sharing.

Questions and your thoughts are always welcome here.

See you next time.

(c) Janni Styles

PTSD: What does being triggered look like?

Trigger Warning!

Triggers for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are as individual as we are. There are a few commonalities from a high startle response to loud, sudden noises  or not recognizing your surroundings even though you are in a familiar place you have known for decades.  What I have learned is that anything at all can be a potential trigger.

Here are a few triggers from various sources as well as some of my own:

  • Hearing a baby cry can trigger tears in me as I panic and think, someone please help that baby right now…
  • Loud voices, yelling and arguing of any sort online or otherwise trigger me severely
  • A childhood sexual abuse survivor cannot stand the sound of loud eating, smacking or slurping
  • A survivor of an abusive marriage cannot take any criticism of any sort from any source without violently shaking
  • People with one track minds who yell me “shut,” cannot or will not hear a word I say set me to stuttering and shaking
  • A man who once led troops cannot step off of his front porch without a reaction that sends him back inside for weeks

What being “triggered” looks like:

  • You may not “see” anything at all, the person may “appear” just fine, most of us do unless the “trigger” does not cease
  • For me, I start shaking and this can grow to full body convulsive tremors if the trigger does not stop or I cannot get away from the trigger
  • If badly triggered, I will start stammering, stuttering like nobody’s business despite being a public speaker and team leader for years
  • I internalize most triggers which means choppy sleep, if any, a return of the relentless terrifying nightmares and extremely high anxiety
  • Fleeing the person, place or thing that caused the trigger is not uncommon for me, getting away is often my own source of relief
  • Profuse sweating happens with me yet I am cold and clammy and I also have difficulty breathing, feel as though I cannot get enough air

These are just a few triggers and a few examples of what being triggered can look like. There are thousands more triggers and, I am sure, just as many responses. For years after the physical assault, I would rock hours away. Anywhere. Doctor’s office, trauma survivor workshop, restaurant, wherever I was I would just start rocking often without even realizing I was doing it at all. Hard to imagine I know. Recently I have started rocking again. This makes sense because I was ill almost the entire month of July, the heat flared my asthma daily and I was ill with heat exhaustion for over two weeks. I am now fighting what I believe to be a misdiagnosed bladder infection which is wearying me severely. When I am not well physically, I “trigger” more easily. Yesterday (August 14, 2017) I was triggered. I hardly slept last night from the abdominal and back pain I’ve had for nearly three weeks now and because I was so anxious from being triggered, no amount of pain killers eased my physical state. PTSD makes us vulnerable to a host of triggers both known and unknown. What I have found is there is an acute lack of understanding from friends and loved ones who do not grasp the disorder and can even trigger us because they don’t want to learn or even try to understand. This is why you will find me writing about PTSD every so often. Educate, educate, educate is all I know to do.

If you or someone you love has PTSD please feel free to share your or their experiences in the hope that, one day, we will not have to explain ourselves any longer but may simply live our lives in peace.

(c) Janni Styles

Tonight I made a Cup of Tea

Tonight I made a cup of tea

Then called someone dear to me

The time passed swiftly, I listened close

A gentle ear was what she needed most

Life grabs us by the throat with incredible hold

Sometimes listening cures as words are told

The tea grew so cold, no rescue for that cup

But I’m glad my two ears lifted someone up

Tomorrow night I might make another cup of tea

And then make another call to another dear to me

(c) Janni Styles