Many people in my circle would probably be surprised to know that I have PTSD. They would be surprised at its ferocity and how hard I have had to work to have a semblance of normality. It hasn’t been easy! There was years of involuntary shaking when the telephone rang or someone knocked at the door. I would have to talk myself into venturing to the letterbox. I rarely went out alone. I can suffer flashbacks pretty easily, especially in social settings. You are out of your comfort zone and when a “red zone” topic comes up in conversation, I can literally feel my body tense and my brain react. I will sometimes feel welded to the seat, unable to move and get away. Sometimes I look placid and I smile. I have covered up my terror with gulps of wine, but when I get home, the horror hits. It can take weeks to get my equilibrium back. When a group of people start talking about the horror in the news and such, I usually think “there goes two weeks of sleep.”
I began to think that there had to be a better way than to nurse a flute of champagne (well, actually several), to take away my discomfort. There had to be a better way than to stay glued to my seat, listening to horrifying opinions on deeply upsetting topics.
Here is how I cope.
1. Remembering that I am here, not there. I have a little piece of paper that I pull out of my purse. You are here, not there, it reads. I find it deeply assuring when I am feeling myself pulled back into the trauma of the past.
2. I will immediately excuse myself. Whether that be from a conversation or a shop where music is being played that reminds me of the past. I will find a quiet area (usually the bathroom), and concentrate on my breathing.
3. I will watch my diet. Grabbing crackers and dips at a party will not do. A balanced diet is necessary. When I was at my worst, it was found I wasn’t absorbing B12 and needed shots. The difference was quite incredible. Bananas and other foods high in the amino acid Tryptophan are also helpful.
4. I am allowed to state that I am uncomfortable. If the people are unaware, I am allowed to state what my past looked like.
5. I need to have adequate rest. The PTSD (which involves nightmares, flashbacks and panic attacks), escalates if I am rushing from one thing to another.
6. On certain dates, I need space. I wont commit to anything on the anniversary of my fall, for instance. It is a time of reflection, grief and also celebration that I survived. It is a deeply personal time.
7. I take a bottle of Rescue Remedy and lavender essential oil with me in my bag. The act of sniffing them -or putting the Rescue Remedy on my tongue- snaps me back to the present.
8. I carry a photo of my daughter with me and take it out and look at her smiling face. The joy contained in the picture helps me to centre. It could be a picture of a pet. Whatever helps you.
9. I wont over-imbibe. The crash that comes afterward emotionally is devastating.
10. I can leave. Wow! I now give myself permission to leave! If the vibe is going South and the conversation is awful, I can leave.
It is a hard thing to live with. Sometimes the past can seem clearer than now. Every detail is etched into my memory, and doesn’t fade with time. Sights, sounds, smells, touch and taste can take me back. No wonder it happens a fair bit! The most important thing is that I show myself kindness. I need regular time to myself to process what I am feeling, and what I have heard. In a week, people can talk about murder, sexual abuse, child abduction, and crime movies/novels many times over. It sticks to my skin, like they have gone mad with a labeller. I go out to nature and breathe. I need silence to oppose the noise in my mind.
I had an experience the other day, whilst visiting a school on the other side of our city. I saw a lady sitting by herself. Her eyes showed abject terror, her body language stiff and self-protective. She was waiting to pick up her kids. I sat with her, and we started talking. She talked about a man from her childhood, a member of her family. “He was too friendly,” she whispered. Her eyes met mine. She knew I knew and I knew that she knew that I knew. I told her how sorry I was. So very sorry. I hope she is treated kindly in her adult life. You don’t “get over” some experiences, but you can live beautifully despite them.