Not long ago, I was on the phone with one of my old Army buddies whom I will call Mary. Our conversation was amazing. We talked about the good parts of life, the bad parts of life, and the struggle with the ‘in-between’ of distinctly different worlds. This is my poor effort to describe the profound challenges that a person faces.
I’m saying this NOT because I expect you to understand, help me, accept me, or even care. I understand this topic is hard for people and few people can relate or understand. Your role for me right now is to listen and do nothing. Believe me, I am taking all the necessary steps to get myself back on track. No intervention or recommendation for resources required. Despite how contradictory that might be, doing nothing and just being here, listening, is enough to provide a judgment-free safe space for me to share. Likewise, this is simply something that I need to ride through. I’ve been here before and I will get through this again. Right now, I can only invite you into a small part of my very complicated life.
I’ve been going through a hard time lately (as I am sure you noticed). I have severe post-traumatic stress (For more information about posttraumatic stress disorder, you can go to https://groundinginnovations.com/index.php/what-is-ptsd/). No, I am not a threat to myself or others. I am just … in a funk. It started about 4 weeks ago after a triggering “event” occurred. The event took me to a dark place that I hadn’t been in or thought about in years. My angry outbursts, me crying at my desk, my avoidant and self-destructive behavior are powerful indicators my internal world is falling apart. I was crumbling on the inside, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. In fact, I didn’t realize how far gone I was until last week when another “event” occurred. I was crying on the inside and on the outside. So, I tell people it is allergies or make excuses to avoid vulnerability. But the truth was, I was a train wreck.
I am generally great at keeping my home life separate from my work life. However, sometimes I fail and fail miserably (that’s usually how it happens. Why fail a little when you can fail all the way right?). Life is manageable when I compartmentalize my life. Keeping my worlds separate comes from years of training and practice. This was an essential skill in raising kids alone, serving in the army or working 2 or 3 jobs and going to school at the same time. It was hard to be a soldier and raise kids at the same time—going to work to be a warrior and come home to be a nurturer. They are opposite worlds that require different and very distinct roles. To manage this, my life has to fit into organized, structured compartments where nothing mixes. My personal life and my ambitions are separate from life at work. At work I have it all together—I’m confident, a straight shooter, competent, fearless, strong, a go-getter, I talk a lot and I talk loudly. At home, I am not this way. When I’m not at work—I’m a squish, softy, romantic. I enjoy my sappy girly TV shows as much as I enjoy my action movies. But at home, I have very little to say—I am shy; I am quiet, introspective, contemplative, and prefer no excitement—in fact, the more mundane and boring the better. When I’m out and about, I can feel emotional, insecure, and scared—to me, the world is a terrifying and dangerous place, full of scary and dangerous people.
The point is—sometimes this doesn’t always work (the compartmentalizing my life). Sometimes my home life bleeds together with my work life. When my worlds unintentionally mix. When these worlds accidentally mix, I turn into an emotional soupy mess. I get frustrated and overwhelmed, which leads to feelings of homelessness, desperation, anger, and remorse. I get angry (mostly at myself) and I screw up (which makes me feel worse) and become a person I don’t like. But I feel the absolute worst feeling is when I hurt the people around me.
PTSD is a part of my life—has been for many years. My aim is to keep it in check (sometimes minute by minute). Most of the time, I’m fine and I function reasonably well. However, sometimes it can have a significant negative impact (i.e., this last month or so). Sometimes I really struggle. It’s easy for me to bury myself in work because it keeps my mind from wandering down roads I shouldn’t. And most of the time I can stop myself from falling down a dark hole. But sometimes—I trip. Sometimes I fall into a hole and it takes time to get out. Sometimes I don’t even know I’m in a hole until after I hurt people (Let me be clear here, PTSD does NOT equal violence. I’m a fiery person but I’m not a violent person).
For people like me, it’s challenging to get through the night—to wash off the nightmares and show up for work every day. Sometimes it can be a difficult transition from a night rocked with nightmares, kicking, screaming or crying in the middle of the night to walking into the office smiling and saying hi to everyone can be very challenging. My brief drive to work is my transition period between my 2 extreme worlds. I live alone and I keep my circle of friends small because I can’t, in my right mind, allow someone to live with my night-terrors, my kicking and screaming in the middle of the night, or live with my moodiness once I’m triggered. I can’t, in my right mind, use someone else as a verbal beating bag. This is just wrong and isn’t fair.
From a social perspective, there are clear disconnections between a person’s behavior and another person’s interpretation. People often mistake certain behaviors as forms of hostility, rejection, or carelessness. I am not saying there isn’t some truth to that. However, I am saying perhaps there is more to the picture. Maybe there is more going on below the surface. Although perception is everything, what if the perception is wrong? What if, what you see at work is a mask to hide a person who has been through a lot and fears hurting another person as much as she fears being hurt by people? What if, beneath the focused workaholic, there is a person that wants to love and be loved but fears vulnerability? What if, beneath the dark gaze across the table, is a person wrestling with two opposite and extreme truths? What if the person sitting in front of you, who ignores you or looks angry at you, is a person who is afraid of being rejected? What if it’s not anger at all? What if it’s fear, loneliness, or sadness? What if, under the driven, go-getter, multitasker, fast learner, abrupt and tactless person, is a person who more often than not struggles to keep it together—hold back all the fear, sadness, loneliness, fatigue and put on a brave face to just deal with the tasks at hand? What if, under a harsh exterior, there is a person who is afraid of vulnerability, loss, and being weak? In the end, people will believe what people believe. I am simply challenging beliefs by asking, what if? What if the perception is wrong?
Posttraumatic stress is a complicated disorder that can be debilitating. It is very common and grossly misunderstood. Many people equate PTSD to abuse, violence and drug and alcohol addictions. Although there are people who do those things who have PTSD—this is simply not a universal truth and I am none of those.
The simplest and most authentic definition of PTSD is an invisible battle scar that can hurt badly—when left untreated, it gets infected and can negatively affect relationships and a person’s quality of life. PTSD scars tell the tales of painful experiences. Scars are the painful reminder of where you’ve been and what you’ve been through. They also signify human strength and tenacity. They are, in their own way, a badge of courage—to go through something insane and horrific and live to talk about it.