Yesterday morning at around 1130 I had to remember some of my memories from when I was in the service. Suffice that there were some good reasons that I had to do this. In the space of 2 to 3 minutes I went from being articulate and able to hold a conversation to being confused, stuttering, and having troubles with my memory. This led to numbness in my limbs, headache, the shakes, fear, and a prolonged weeping, crying jag. Then it got worse.
By 2:00 PM that day I no longer was required to remember certain parts of my life story. But the monster was out of its box and it did not want to go back inside. For the rest of the day I would start crying, start shaking, and swim through memories. Those readers who have PTSD may have had corollary experiences to what I have written above. And, then it continued to get worse. I also had some bad thoughts about how I could just make this all stop immediately: the old Stalking Horse had returned.
Very fortunately, my wife was there for the whole thing. And, another veteran was there as well. My wife has seen this before. It used to be nearly a daily occurrence. I talked with her, held her, she held me, and I managed not to hurt myself. Her presence and understanding (she has a very keen knowledge of PTSD) help to mitigate my sense of shame, failure, and worthlessness.
Throughout the remainder of the day I dealt with more shaking and an intense sense of fear and vulnerability. In the late afternoon I drowsed off and on for half an hour to 45 minutes. Throughout that period of time my sense of reality was intertwined with lying on the sofa in the present and running down a certain road overseas waiting to be shot in my past. Waiting to be shot is not a happy feeling.
Back on Patrol
That evening I could not sleep and I had to keep walking around the house looking out the windows, checking the doors, making sure the stove was turned off: once again I was doing my nightly security checks. PTSD Hypervigilance had kicked in. Every 20-30 minutes, check the perimeter.
I tried to go to bed. I took my sleep medications and my PTSD just laughed at me. I was up and down all night. Sometimes I tried to read. But, I was hard pressed to read two paragraphs in a row and to know what it was that I had just read. Ultimately, I got to sleep around 4:20 AM and woke up to start this day at 8:30 AM.
Today I am a lot better than I was yesterday. I asked my wife for a small blank journal and she acquired one for me right away. I then spent some time writing bullet statements on to the blank pages. For example I wrote,
men were angry with me for not negotiating lower prices on their whores.
This was a memory that has frequently bothered me. Some of our men went to brothels and held initiations for one another. At one of the brothels they hired a 14 year old girl. You can figure out the rest. But many of my men were angry that I would not negotiate lower prices for their whores (I was one of two officers who were trained in the local language. I would help them buy carpets, but not prostitutes).
Even now, remembering and writing that last bit makes me queasy and a touch shaky.
Need to Keep Talking, Keep Weaving the Story
Off and on throughout today my wife and I have talked about how the PTSD got me yet again. She mentioned how I seemed to shake like someone who had just come out of a burning building.
I am grateful that I don’t have to teach today. I would find it very difficult to have to navigate all the social norms of being “outside” and then face a bunch of students. When PTSD memories are ravaging me it can be very difficult to teach. The patience that I usually show a student, if they asked a question that they really should know the answer to already, would not be in abundance today.
My PTSD symptoms include ambiguous anger and lack of tolerance for others, and especially myself. One gets clubbed to the back of the head with that sense of how this should not happen to me, I should be able to take it, not give in, not be affected (in other words not be human!). I myself can become toxic and I’m grateful that I don’t have to be “out there” being toxic to others today.
But, it was important I do something creative and not let memories stew. So I decided to write this. I knew I would have enhanced memories today. By writing, I can help keep them between the lines.
What Did I Do That Worked?
First off I was very fortunate that I did not have to be out amongst people today. But there were other things that I had direct control over and they helped to mitigate the symptoms of my PTSD.
No Self Abuse, No Self-Medicating
I did not self harm through alcohol abuse or other options.
Talk to Someone You Trust
I immediately talked to my wife before I became even more inarticulate.
Not choosing to self-medicate with alcohol or other destructive behaviors, I was freed for the other option to deal with a PTSD episode: Prayer.
I find we choose to self-medicate with abusive behaviors or life-enhancing behaviors.
I need to make the choice of which way I will go: Do I Spiral Up, or Do I Spiral Down?
From time to time, I prayed, or at least I tried to. Often, when in intense pain, shaking, stuttering, or dealing with anger, I cannot articulate the best spoken of prayers. Yet, I did pray.
- “O Lord God, I am really hurting. Lord, hear my prayer.”
- “O God, help me get through this. Lord, hear my prayer.”
- “Oh God, please carry this burden. Lord, hear my prayer.”
- “God, please heal those who suffer in this way. Please bless those who care for them. Lord, hear my prayer.”
Some people I prayed for by name, others I prayed for by their situation. I seem to know a lot of people who are suffering.
Last Place at the Prayer Of The Year Contest
While those prayers above will not win the Prayer Of The Year Contest, they were heartfelt, they were honest, they were true.
Sometimes I may have spoken lines from the Our Father, or the Hail Mary, or some other memorized prayer that is biblically based as those two are. Usually, when I am beset by PTSD, just being able to speak eight or nine coherent words in a row is an accomplishment. But I am grateful to know that God honors the intention as well as the words themselves.
Another, Deeper Sort of Prayer
There was also time engaged in another species of prayer. It is very difficult to describe because it has no words, neither spoken nor mentally thought.
This sort of prayer is a continuous moment of intention and being.
This sort of prayer is simply being opened to the presence of God.
This is the sort of prayer, which in my experience, is known in silence, or a groan, and is experienced in moments of great pain, sorrow, despair, and, ironically, moments of great joy and gladness.
For when our ecstatic experiences are pushing the envelope of who we are, we discover more precisely just who we are, and this leads to experiencing more of God.
Again, in my own experience, this is the sort of prayer, acknowledgment and coexistence with God, that is neither articulated, planned and thought through, nor tapped on demand (because God is not a gumball machine that we can put a quarter in and demand a treat).
If we think we can manipulate or force God to act in a certain way by the number of prayers, rosaries, chants, money donated, etc., then we are really just pagans who try to buy their God’s favor. That attitude has nothing to do with what I am failing to describe here (Why am I failing to fully describe it? Because I am trying to describe a supernatural reality – the Encounter with God – by using natural, mundane language…that’s what makes my prayer so easy for others to criticize.)
This is a sort of prayer where one bathes oneself in the presence of God.
In this sort of prayer we have no expectation, we make no requests or demands…they are unnecessary at this point.
We don’t allow ourselves to fall into the trap of rating God’s faithfulness to us by His pleasing us or fulfilling our wants and requests.
We simply are There, Present, Being, in an Openness to God’s Being.
It is very difficult to describe because it is an experience of God without words – it is Experience.
Your mileage may vary.
What Did This Prayer Do For Me?
Did this prayer heal me of my PTSD and its symptoms? No, it did not. If not, then what, if anything, did this prayer do for me?
It helped me experience community even though my wife was asleep and I was pacing around the house and checking angles of fire.
By praying for myself and for others I experienced the community of God. It meant that at 2:15 AM this morning, while the PTSD wanted me to feel alone, isolated, without hope, I knew better. But it was more than just knowing better, I experienced it. Yes, I was physically alone and hurting, but I was not isolated. As I prayed for others, I was not alone. As others pray for me, I am not alone.
Even though I still hurt and suffered:
In this prayer, I knew, I experienced, that I had value.
While I did not go out looking to suffer on purpose, in the suffering that resulted from having to delve into my PTSD memories, I learn but once again, that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. The essence of me, my worth, my value, was made explicit to me once more in my pain, suffering, and the mixture of who I was back then, and who I am now.
There is a value to the prayers we memorize and there’s a value to the prayer structure that we blend into each of our days. But sometimes we experience our own Garden of Gethsemane and the fruition of that sort of prayer is to lay ourselves out and to admit to and display the vulnerabilities that are part of us. We open up ourselves and we admit to our weakness before God.
While God knows all there is to know of me, PTSD wants me to hide from God, to ultimately deny God. Opening my vulnerabilities to God is a searing, yet Holy moment. Offering my pain, my human condition, to God cauterizes the alienation that PTSD wants to have metastasized throughout my body and soul.
Ironically, admitting to our weakness, our humanness,
we become stronger and closer to God.
In our weakness, our frustration, our vulnerability and sense of shame, we just might realize how much God truly values each and every one of us.
In the Gospel, Jesus says he did not come to heal the healthy but he came for the sick.
Jesus came to heal the sinner. PTSD is a result of sin.
Sins I may have committed and/or sins that others have perpetrated upon me cause alienation, the wounding of our souls.
This realization will not remove PTSD from every aspect of my life, but it can keep me from killing myself.
Right now it is 4:20 PM and I am less than 24 hours out from the worst of yesterday’s PTSD symptoms. I am not miraculously cured, I’m not suddenly symptom free, and tonight could be another hard night of patrolling my house and experiencing insomnia. From time to time, I or my wife (because she needs the freedom to bring this up and talk about it as well) talk about what it is to have PTSD.
Further Healing in the Telling of Both of the Stories
Most of this entry has actually been recited as I learn how to use voice processing software. And just as writing something out by hand is more organic and intense than typing it into a computer, so this session of remembering the last 24 hours and what it means has been rather intense for me. Saying it verbally is as if I were writing everything in bold print and then underlining it.
But, there is healing in the story telling. Dealing with these memories is painful. But just as the stories themselves need to be told, so do the symptoms of the story telling need to be told as well.
Don’t always expect to be able to tell the complete story right off the bat.
That is usually something we work up to.
I spent years drawing pictures, painting, and eventually started writing fiction. I can talk about what it is like to have PTSD. But I still cannot fully verbalize what happened, back then, over there. But artwork and storytelling in multiple forms have helped me to come a long way. There is still much further to go, but I am better off than I was compared to only ten years ago.
The Risks of Telling the Story
There are several risks in telling the story. You can get re-traumatized as I was when I spent a few minutes actively remembering some former events in my life. Those two to three minutes disabled me for more than a day. Thus, one must be careful to have some recovery time planned in to storytelling. Ideally, one should have a supportive, trusted person present if possible. And, like I am doing now, one should then take control and process the resultant trauma by writing about it, talking about it, playing an instrument, knitting, or doing something creative and true. Doing something creative helps keep PTSD at bay.
Other risks are external: More than once, people who are afflicted with Compassion Deficit Disorder have mocked those of us who break the silence of PTSD. If they can keep us silent then we will never heal. And, if they keep us silent they themselves may never heal – and healing is something that they certainly need.
More importantly, our stories need to be told. The stories of our trauma and the stories about our PTSD and our daily struggle to choose life need to be told. Those of us who can risk speaking often find that we speak for many who have been silenced by other people who are in denial or may have inflicted the damage.
Abusive clergy, molesting relatives, disdainful commanders and bureaucrats
want to keep you silent
lest they be held accountable for the results of their actions.
The only way we can heal the PTSD soul wound is to keep expressing, as we are able, how we acquired this wound and how this wound continues to bleed us day in and day out.
So, Should I Post This?
Obviously, if you have hung in there and read this far, then you know I have decided to post this. Just as one thing leads to another, remembering, writing, telling, and sharing the story enables me to heal better. And, it hopefully encourages others to break the silence that is imposed by those who are responsible. In these instances, we must speak truth to power.
The story of how you were traumatized (Yes! You!!) is an important one. If it happened to you, then it has happened to all of us. That is one story that needs to be told. And, the stories of your PTSD struggles and (hopefully) healing need to be shared as well.
PTSD Episodes Can Still Strike Far Down the Road
One of the reasons that I chose to write and post this is so that people will know that even 30 years later you can still be afflicted. In theory, I am one of the PTSD “success stories” because I am much better off than I used to be. In the past I was never able to articulate what happened to me and I was never able to articulate what I was experiencing as the PTSD took hold of me. Now it seems I won’t shut up.
Be aware that you can be triggered into fresh symptoms. There is no guarantee of complete recovery or complete cure. But we can exercise our own “case management” to minimize the damage of ongoing PTSD symptoms. I have been at this for twenty seven years and only in the last few years have I begun to figure this all out.
More Hope Than Ever Before
We now probably know more about PTSD on the medical and theological levels than ever before. Thus, people now do not have to go through the decades of torment and neglect that Korean War and Vietnam Veterans, rape survivors, and clergy abuse survivors, from decades past have had to endure. They have carried our cross for us to some extent.
If you have a “recent” experience and survival of trauma, know that you don’t have to be wrapped in decades of horror. There is every reason to have hope.
PTSD does not have to kill you and ruin every single one of your relationships.
If you are one of the PTSD-Lifers, like me, then know while it will come up and bite you from time to time, it need not totally ruin your life. For me, PTSD combined with my physical disabilities, sharply limits my abilities and opportunities (I know that just my presence, disabled and in pain, causes some people discomfort – I think I remind them of their own mortality).
In spite of PTSD disabilities: Whatever I can still do, then I should strive to do well.
The “Happily Ever After” Moment is Not Realistic.
The story of my last 30 hours does not have a “Happily Ever After” moment.
I used to get suckered into thinking everything had to be perfect. If I prayed and still had PTSD, then it must be all my fault. PTSD can incubate on the built-in frustration that goes with that mistaken attitude. If things didn’t go to perfect, then PTSD would keep telling me that I screwed up (again!) and it attempted to further damage my self-worth. By doing so it tries to further alienate and isolate me.
I don’t expect things to be perfect. They cannot be. Why not?
I live in a sinful, violent, world and I have PTSD.
The “Happy Ending” is when in spite of all that, I daily choose life.
There is no nice soundtrack after surviving another PTSD episode the way there might be at the end of the movie as the credits scroll by. Life goes on. I still suffer from PTSD.
The “upside” of this experience is that I am still alive and able to tell most of the story.
While PTSD’s soul wound can harm me, it does not have to be allowed to destroy me.
I chose life and my story continues.
Every life, every story, has value – especially yours.
Semper Pax, Dr. Z