Thursday, February 16, 2012
I'm just going to come out and say it, right off the bat: I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I don't suffer with it. It is not a part of my daily life, or even really part of my identity - it is not debilitating. But it's there. I'm going to attempt to describe some of my experiences of it, in hopes of reducing my own sense of stigma around it, and perhaps reducing whatever real stigma exists.
So here goes.
Every time I hear sirens, my thoughts go immediately to the day Mom died.
Being in traffic trying to let an ambulance - or, worse, a firetruck - pass gets my heart racing, and I cannot pull over far enough or fast enough. It all comes back: the panic I felt when the firetruck turned the wrong way; the questioning of whether they could figure out where we were or how to get back; finally sprinting after them; nausea and gagging after running, panicked and on an empty stomach; not knowing whether we were too late; seeing Mom laying on the kitchen floor, unconscious; standing in the yard watching them put her in an ambulance; riding to the hospital and not knowing whether she was alive or dead, or even whether to hope she was alive or dead (for fear of brain damage).
I have an overwhelming sense of needing to clear a path and make sure that emergency vehicle gets through as quickly as possible. I search my rear-view mirror and pull over immediately whenever I hear sirens.
I know that trigger. If I feel like I'm not completely mentally "here," I repeat to myself where I am, what year it is, and what I am doing. ("I'm gripping a steering wheel. I have two kids. I am 31 years old. Mom has been dead for 17 years. I'm driving in Bloomington. It is 2012.") It passes quickly.
I have had two flashbacks/dissociations/I-don't-know-what-the-proper-term-is that were concerning (because, I'm sorry to say, they made me dangerous), so I sought help.
It was July of 2007. I would find out within a week or so that I was pregnant with Bean. I was playing in a wind ensemble (the high-brow term for a band a la band geeks). We were playing an outdoor concert. The wind ensemble was set up in the fire lane/drop-off loop of a performing arts center and the audience was set up on the lawn in front.
As we finished our second-to-last piece and got ready to play our Star Wars finale, an audience member told the conductor that a doctor was needed.
A woman was unconscious in her seat.
We sat there for awhile. Someone lowered her to the ground. I became nauseous.
It seemed to take a long long time for a campus police officer to show up. They had called 9-1-1.
We were in the fire lane. I was just trying to hold myself together. How were they going to get this woman out, if we were blocking the firelane?!? No one in the band knew me. The Beast hadn't attended. A firetruck pulled in to the firelane, an ambulance pulled in behind.
I was trying not to hyperventilate. Somebody say something. Somebody make the band move. Make way for the emergency vehicles. Somebody realize we are blocking the fire lane!
Finally they took the audience member away on a gurney. She was conscious. Embarrassed. It didn't matter.
Somehow I played Star Wars without vomiting in my flute or getting up and running away. I then packed up my flute as quickly as I could and went (drove) home. I got home and was sobbing and blathering unintelligibly.
It took a bit for The Beast to get me calmed down enough to even understand what had happened.
The Other Flashback
When Bean was several months old, I was driving home with him in the backseat and a firetruck with sirens blaring was coming up behind us. People were having a hard time getting out of the way.
It wasn't until I pulled onto our road that I realized I had not "been there" (consciously in my head) since. Thank goodness for the good ol' reptile brain that got us home safely, but of course it was not ok that this had happened.
And so I saw a counselor. Reminding myself where I am (out loud - yes, I look and sound a little batty) keeps me totally there until the vague sense of panic subsides. Sometimes I talk to Bean about ho-hum things or ask him to talk to me. It is generally very undramatic.
The Awesome Flashback (or, how running is my therapy)I'm told these reactions are part of my nervous system - they're like a reflex. Sirens flip a panic switch, even though I am not in danger (though I am often thinking that someone is in need of that emergency help...which deepens my anxiety).
Seeing as my trigger is sirens, and it is a stronger trigger if I see the emergency vehicle, stronger still if it is a firetruck, and the strongest if I feel they are somehow stuck, the car is an unfortunately common place for triggers. But now I realize what is happening and I have my trusty tool that diffuses the whole thing pretty quickly.
But one morning this fall, I noted I was having a flashback and I embraced it. It was the first time it has happened on a run, and it was incredible.
I was out in an old neighborhood with street parking on its already-narrow streets. A block over, I heard sirens. I spotted the firetruck. I immediately went into panic mode: these streets are too narrow for cars to easily move out of the way.
At first my new reflex was to describe what I was doing and my surroundings. But I started with "I'm running in a neighborhood." Whew. New trigger.
Now I'm running in a neighborhood just like I ran in our neighborhood after that firetruck. I'm so slow. I was always slow. I will be too late. Mom will die. It is my fault. ::cue survivor's guilt::
I was in two places at once, and somehow cognizant of it. The conversation in my head was like 13-year-old me was being comforted by 30-year-old me. 30-year-old me said, "you are not slow now. You are not that weak, awkward kid anymore. You are strong. You are fast. You feel great out here. And she is still dead. You cannot save her by running fast."
I let myself have the flashback. I could almost describe it as "pretending" I was there again. But it was more like the dramatized flashbacks you see in movies (especially because I was physically moving in the same way as the flashback)...but with my current self narrating.
I felt lighter afterward. I almost blogged about it, but I have been slow to talk about this unique and stigmatized element of my life...especially after some reactions I got to admitting I deal with what I think is a very normal part of motherhood. But it was an empowering moment! (As was that previous entry, by the way.)
I know that I have many friends who deal with PTSD, anxiety disorders, and other types and aspects of mental illness. They all seem to manifest differently for different people - none of us is the same, none of our triggers are the same. Some find a daily impact on their lives, others are sometimes blindsided by it. Some of us take medication (I have gone on and off medication several times since Mom died). Some of us don't.
I could go on and on about the variations in experience - all just to be clear that I am sharing my experience here and no one else's. Nor am I saying my way has been the right or wrong way to cope - with the experience or with my coping mechanisms themselves.