PTSD—What It’s Like

Ever had stage fright? Levine

I don’t mean the good kind. Where you have some butterflies in your stomach and a bit of a metallic taste in your mouth. Maybe that’s slightly unpleasant but it can also help you focus a little better and in the end it seems to come out all right. The audience applauds, your boss loves the PowerPoint, you rock the guitar riff and even forget yourself in it.

I mean the bad kind, where you throw up.

Have you ever hyperventilated to where your fingers and toes curl up and lose circulation?

If you’ve never had this level of anxiety, take the flutter in your stomach, multiply it by a factor of at least 10, add a pulse around 160, shortness of breath, numbness in your hands and feet (even if you’re not hyperventilating, or aren’t aware that you are), and a feeling of “floodedness,” where the cortisol seems to rise out of your gut, up through your chest, and into your throat and head until you feel like you’re going to pop out of your skin like an overcooked hotdog. Jump out of that skin at every loud, or even medium, noise. Have nightmares every night, if you can sleep at all.

Put your head down between your knees and breathe. Maybe for several hours.

Be grateful you work from home. Hide all this. Become even more stressed out by the effort of hiding it. And for God’s sake, don’t write a blog post about it.

What causes these episodes? That’s the thing. Nothing.

Well, not nothing. Stuff in the past.

“In circumstances where others sense more than a mild threat or even a challenge to be faced, the traumatized person experiences threat, dread and mental/physical listlessness, a kind of paralysis of body and will.”  —Gabor Mate, MD

This isn’t always like me. There have been plenty of times when I had a fight response to challenge. Sometimes, I’ve thrived under stress—graduating double summa cum laude while working 32 hours per week, creating a career out of thin air after my divorce—but other times I’ve collapsed under what’s looked like a lesser load.

For a long time I thought it was over. Medication I was taking for another condition had so well controlled the PTSD symptoms, I practically forgot I had it. Then along came #boulderfire. And several other stressors that simultaneously attacked my baseline sense of my core survival capabilities—home, job, relationship. Whether you want to look at psychoanalytically in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs or new-age-ically in terms of the root chakra (I have lived near Boulder for 29 years), I felt pretty undermined. Even if my house didn’t burn.

When I was little, my alcoholic father, a WWII vet and likely PTSD sufferer himself, would burn through the house, tossing children headfirst into walls.* Yeah, thank you for bringing that up, wildfire.

I’ve been calming down a little, but I’m pretty sure it’s only because I haven’t had as much deadline pressure in the last month or so. My experience is that in the absence of external stress, the symptoms do subside with time. But it can be a vicious cycle: you take better care of yourself and as a result you feel better, so you take on more responsibility—most of us want to be productive—and then you have less time to take care of yourself, and wham, there you are again…

I planned this blog post wanting to talk about the difference between post-traumatic stress, which anyone can have after anything bad, and post-traumatic stress disorder. But apparently there may be more hope for all of us than I thought. There’s some new thinking, as well as some more insight coming out of Peter Levine’s ongoing work, suggesting that PTSD may be more injury than disorder, and more amenable to healing than previously believed. It’s still controversial, but as I said, there’s hope.

In the meantime, this seems to be what I’m in the middle of, so I thought I’d stick my neck out and tell you what it’s like.

 

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*(Re my father’s rage: this type of potential response to combat trauma is discussed with insight here.)

Lucky/Unlucky

I can’t complain, but sometimes I still do…”  –Joe Walsh

 

When I was a kid, I had picture book called Fortunately. As I recall, the character had, fortunately, been invited to a birthday party. Unfortunately, it was on the other side of the country. Fortunately, he had a plane. Unfortunately, it blew up. Fortunately, there was a parachute. Unfortunately, something was wrong with it. Fortunately, there was a haystack on the ground below. Unfortunately, there was a pitchfork sticking out of the haystack. Fortunately, he missed the pitchfork. Unfortunately, he missed the haystack. Fortunately, he landed in the ocean. Unfortunately, there were sharks. Fortunately, he could swim…

In the end, fortunately, the kid wound up safely at the party.

When he was 25, my husband of the time was driving home through Boulder Canyon and was struck head-on by a drunk driver. Fortunately, he was not killed. Unfortunately, he was badly injured. Unfortunately, he was driving my Fiat Spyder and was more badly hurt than he might have been had he been driving our Jeep Wagoneer. Fortunately, the other guy was driving a TR-6, and so my husband was not decapitated. Fortunately, my husband was not driving our Jeep Wagoneer, or he would have had to live with having decapitated the other guy. Unfortunately, he was not wearing his seatbelt, and so his windpipe was nearly crushed when it struck the top of his windshield. Fortunately, he was not wearing his seatbelt, and so he avoided having his legs crushed beyond repair when the engine came into the driver’s compartment. Fortunately, everyone had insurance. Unfortunately, my ex-husband is still in pain and facing surgeries to this day, at 50, from that accident.

It could have been so much worse. Was he lucky that he didn’t die, lucky that there was insurance? Or unlucky that the whole thing occurred in the first place? Lots of people go through life never having to deal with stuff like this.

Recently my house did not burn down in the Fourmile Canyon fire. You bet I thank my lucky stars. But all around me are houses that are for sale, owned by people who really need to sell. I just took mine off the market because it hasn’t sold and wouldn’t be likely to do so over the winter, especially after this fire. After being out of work since last December, my partner had to take a job far away. I’m not sure what’s next for us, all the more so in a real estate market like this.

“You’re lucky your house was safe,” someone said.

I can’t argue with that. I’m glad I don’t have to go through the hassle of replacing everything, especially the more I read about what others are dealing with. But the equity in my house, which I not long ago would have estimated at a decent chunk, isn’t safe. I worked hard for that money, and it was mostly sweat equity, not just market appreciation equity. I didn’t over-leverage my house, by the way. And because I came to the professional world late, after a divorce, it’s pretty much all I had for my retirement. The bank will get its money, when and if it ever sells, but I’m likely to lose mine. There’s no insurance to cover that.

Others I know ARE being foreclosed on. And there’s no insurance to cover that, either.

Who’s lucky in #boulderfire? One thing I’ve learned in my life, though even for me it’s hard to put in practice: try not to go around saying “at least” to others. Well, at least you didn’t die in your car accident (maybe the person had a head injury that changed her life forever). At least you were only evacuated from the fire (maybe someone was evacuated in the middle of chemotherapy treatments and the stress sent him into pneumonia). At least you’re safe (how do you know how the other person defines safe? Maybe she was abused as a child and this is the last straw for her brain wiring).

Recently I hiked with a friend to the top of the Highline in Lefthand Canyon, where I ran into someone who lost his home in the fire. Like many, he’d been away over Labor Day weekend and had been unable to rescue any of his possessions. But, he said, he was “over it now.”

“Really?” I said. “I hear it’s an up and down process for a lot of people.”

“Well, it helps to have had some life experiences to put it in perspective.”

“Where are you from?” I guessed he was East European; he had a Slavic accent, but he had introduced himself as “Pavel,” with the stress on the second syllable, so I knew he wasn’t Russian.

“Czech,” he said. “I spent some time in a refugee camp. When you’ve lost a whole country, and you know you can never go back, a house, well…”

“Still. At some point, you’d think maybe you’ve paid your dues,” I said.

“Well, yeah,” he said.

He pointed out how amazing it was that no one had died in this fire, given its violence and the speed at which it had moved. There were so many close calls. Even most of the pets were saved. “Lucky,” he said.

Yes. Lucky.

And I walked back down the mountain to my unburned, unsold house. What do I know? Perhaps all the right things still will happen for me. Maybe it all is lucky. Just the same, Joe Walsh looped around in my head.

 

fireCR83(1) (iPhone photo by Russell Greene, age 10—top of the Highline/CR 83)