PTSD Spirituality: Not Morally Deficient, We’re Protective

Is a person with PTSD “morally deficient” if they self-medicate with PTSD-coping behaviors in order to protect others?

Not too long ago a comment was left on the PTSD Spirituality website that got snagged by the spam filter.  The comment is a good one, heartfelt and with meaning.  So I reproduced it below without any of the questionable spam code.  Usually spam is clearly spam, but this may have been a false positive.  The message, however, is relevant so I have cleaned it up and present it below with minimal editing for clarity.

The Comment:

“It is not novel that soldiers with PTSD are self-medicating. We have known for some years that about 80% of PTSD victims will self-medicate with either alcohol or pot to suppress flashbacks. They are not doing this because they are morally deficient; they are trying to protect those around them from the possible violent side effects of their flashbacks. A great effort is being made to get treatment to these soldiers, but unfortunately, one of the symptoms of PTSD is to isolate and refuse help. If you know someone suffering this malady, encourage him or her to seek treatment. PTSD symptoms can be made manageable with the right kind of treatment.”

It is not unusual for those who have survived trauma to cope with the manifestations of PTSD by self-medicating.  While the above comment focused on soldiers, the following applies to not only PTSD from military service, but also to civilian causes such as incest, spousal abuse, clergy abuse, and sexual assault.

Swinging Between Numbness and Hyper-Alertness

One of the extremes PTSD inflicts upon us is numbness.  Our PTSD numbs us to where we cannot feel the good in ourselves or others; we no longer feel alive.  Nothing seems to touch us, move us, or provide us with meaning.  The other extreme, however, is that we feel way too much and suffer from hyper-alertness.  Primary and secondary triggers activate our PTSD, even though we are safe and not at immediate physical risk.  For more on this, see the category page for PTSD and Triggers.

Our hyper-alertness may cause us to physically or verbally lash out as if we are back in the original trauma.  The people around us may get treated as if they are the enemy.

Whether we know that we have PTSD or not, we are usually smart enough to recognize when our symptoms place others at risk.  But, we are not very good at recognizing when our symptoms place us, as individuals, at risk.  As we recognize the possibility of risk to others we may respond in any combination of three ways to try and ensure the physical safety of others.

Self-Medication

Some forms of self-medication include use of marijuana/pot, misuse of prescription medicines, alcohol abuse, thrill-seeking, fighting, pornography, sexual affairs.   Sometimes, not always, these methods will seem to decrease the levels of hyper-alertness (Conversely, these techniques may be employed to try and “Feel Alive” instead of numb and dead to the world).  Any perceived benefit from these behaviors will be fleeting.  The more these acts are committed, the less satisfaction they provide us.

One of the major problems with self-medication is that they do nothing to treat the actual PTSD.  The risks, beyond the questions of legality, are that these means of PTSD self-medication will make the problems worse.  Addictions can develop and relationships get further damaged.  We end up not only with the PTSD soul wound inflicted by the initial traumas, but we also get new problems due to how we have been self-medicating.

Our PTSD self-medication behaviors will often damage the very people we are trying to protect.

Isolation

Sometimes our PTSD can make us so afraid of what we might do to others that we isolate ourselves from the ones we care about and from society in general.  Isolation from others is a common feature of PTSD.  We may be afraid to leave our home because we feel too exposed to snipers, rapists, roadside bombs.  We may fear leaving our homes because we are afraid of how we might “go off” or “snap” on someone.  Or, we may just start crying and trembling due to a PTSD trigger.  In order to keep ourselves from being toxic to others, we may avoid going out in order to protect them.

Regular readers of the PTSD Spirituality website know that two of my PTSD triggers are helicopters and screaming/crying babies.  And, I can’t say I am too enthused about large dogs either given some of my past experiences.  To avoid the possibility of encountering those triggers I avoided going out.  I isolated myself.  This had some short-run value, but did nothing to help me heal from PTSD.

This isolation may feel protective to us.  We may feel we are protecting others.  But, overall, deep isolation will further damage us.  The separation from love and healthy relationships plays into the hands of the PTSD-Identity.  Our isolation from our loved ones will cause them anxiety and harm – instead of protecting them.

Suicide, Manslaughter, Murder

PTSD can seek to compel us to end our lives.  It wants us to give up hope, despair of our own worth, and make all of life feel meaningless.

Some men and women have killed themselves out of despair, afraid they will never get better.  This has also occurred when PTSD-deniers are able to prevent an individual from getting care.

Others may kill themselves out of the fear of what they might do to others.

Lastly, some trauma survivors have been killed in what the courts would call murder or manslaughter.  The reason I include this is because the PTSD-Identity compels some of us to get involved in activities where life is cheap.  In short: If they were not suffering from PTSD, they would not have been in the situation which led to their death.  I am not blaming them for this, I understand the how and why.  Indeed, there are still some fine young people who I mourn that fell into this category.

I lifted the following from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website:

“When you dial 1-800-273-TALK (8255),  you are calling the crisis center in the Lifeline network closest to your location. After you call, you will hear a message saying you have reached the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You will hear hold music while your call is being routed. You will be helped by a skilled, trained crisis worker who will listen to your problems and will tell you about mental health services in your area. Your call is confidential and free.”

If you have any suicidal thoughts, call the number above and seek assistance.  Your life has value and should not be squandered.

Are We Morally Deficient?        

We are not morally deficient if we are engaged in PTSD-coping behaviors that are intended to protect those we care about.  The actions we do, even if we think we are protecting others, may themselves be morally deficient and just cause more harm.

The PTSD soul wound may compel us into unsavory, hurtful behavior.  Do we remain accountable for our behavior?  Yes, we do.  But my task is not so much to judge as to understand and hopefully heal.

Will there be some people who hide behind a claim of PTSD so they can assert they are not accountable for their negative behaviors?  Yes, of course there will be some.  But we all know better than to let a few exceptions inhibit us from feeling compassion for those who suffer from PTSD.

Regardless of the reason I engage in a PTSD-coping behavior that harms myself and others, those actions will usually cause harm.  As we wean ourselves from self-medication there will probably be much left that we need to repent of.  There will be much left for us – and others – to struggle to forgive.  For many of us, this part of the healing journey may be the catalyst to explore God’s love and grace for the rest of our lives.

So How Do We Deal With PTSD Symptoms And Protect Others?

Seek medical care.  While this website focuses on the spiritual dimensions of PTSD, we need to seek medical care for our PTSD and also for the damage our coping behaviors may have caused.  For example, if a person with PTSD drank too much in order to deal with flashbacks and ended up as an alcoholic, then they need care not only for the underlying PTSD, but also their alcoholism.

Engage in healing relationships.  This is often easier said than done.  Given the amount of effort that the PTSD-Identity puts into destroying our loving, healthy relationships, it is pretty clear that such relationships contribute to our healing.

Risk Openness to God. Prayer, attending a Mass or service, even daily walks, exercise, or drawing, can all be forms of openness to God.  It is not my purpose to turn you all into Roman Catholics.  But I can say, that if you can risk being open to God, then your chances of healing have greatly improved.  Stresses, self-medication, isolation, destructive temptations will NOT immediately vanish, but they will be easier to deal with.

Realize it is a Lifelong Journey. Healing from PTSD is a lifelong journey.  The journey is also an opportunity for sanctification.  We risk discovering the sacred value with which God has imbued your life and the life of all others.

Semper Pax, Dr. Z

Comments

  1. “Risk Openness to God.”

    And what when part of your problem is that you walked into his house and couldn’t even get help there?

    I’m angry and feel like I’m a little rant-y, but seriously:

    My father abused me for 32 years. THIRTY TWO YEARS. It only ended because he committed suicide. Yep, I got my PTSD from my old man, who probably got his PTSD from his.

    I started showing signs of PTSD by age 10. I told counselors, police officers and clergy. Every single one of them turned me away, giving excuses why my father was justified or why this was all part of “God’s special plan for me.”

    See, according to the churches that I walked into, God apparently wanted my father to have PTSD, to traumatize my family, to abuse me for 32 years, and then commit suicide. I prayed the entire time. Prayed for anyone to help. Prayed for him to die. Prayed for me to die. Prayed for anything to break the cycle.

    His suicide was 10 years ago, and I am still yet to hear a single parishner from any church tell me, “That was wrong.” Sure, I get lots of, “His plan”, “He wants it that way”, “He’s trying to teach you a lesson (usually patience)”, “He’s using you in a special way. Just wait!” But, “Wrong”? Nope.

    I’m now married to a woman who thinks that being my wife gives her the right to yell at me. We are part of a Catholic ministry group that helps with marriage communications, and even they keep pressuring me to give my wife time to stop screaming at me … while I slide deeper into the pit.

    WTF?

    At least I finally found a counselor (after 20 years of looking!) who can do more than listen while I “talk about my feelings”.

    I keep hearing about opening myself to God, and how I need to go to some 12 step program …

    … and now I’m lost. I turned to God, and the abuse just continues…

    Sorry about my rant.

    • Hello Kieth,
      Allow me to say, What was done to you was wrong. Very wrong.
      So many people have failed you: father, clergy, parishioners, police, and certainly others. They failed you absolutely.
      People who want to fob off your situation and your pain by saying “God’s plan,” or “…using you in a special way,” are suffering from a two-dimensional theology where they are afraid to deal with the real mystery and pain of suffering and the real mystery of God at the same time. While your trauma and mine have different roots, we have both experienced added – unnecessary – pain by the failures of others to risk displaying compassion.
      If it were me, I don’t know I would continue in a marriage communications position at a parish or diocese if I felt my marriage lacked positive communication…but that’s just me.
      Only you can decide if you need a 12-step program. They do a lot of good, but they may not be for everyone.
      In the Old Testament Book of Job, Job is verbally mangled by his spouse and also his three false friends. In the end he becomes even more open to God. Scholars still wrestle with the full meaning of Job, dissertations are still undertaken to attempt a fuller understanding of it. The same holds true for your suffering, and to some extent my own suffering.
      Just because we have false friends like Job, who give him rotten two-dimensional advice, does not cause Job to deny God nor to deny himself.
      Just because I have been given crappy poor, compassion-free, advice by people in my own church, I do not have to deny my own value, self-worth, or assume God does not care…your mileage may vary.
      I am very pleased for you that you have found the right counselor, I know it can take forever to find a good one, same with medical doctors, and especially true of theologians.
      You have value, don’t let others, be they individuals, relations, or institutions ever convince you otherwise.
      What was done to you was wrong. Very wrong.
      Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  2. Dr.z
    I have a problem . I suffer ptsd through the military and it was do a rape but I’m out of the military and my ptsd was trigger by my president of fire company, he was verbally abused me . Was sexually harassing me. Well he started accusing me of a raffle that was taking and was trying to make allegation I made go away. I know I did not do it . I know who did and they were accused to. But I can not remember all of it. I remember bits an piece of what happen to me. I justice but how can I remember what exactly what happen?

    • Thank you for taking the time to visit the website and comment. I don’t know of any way to guarantee full memory recall. In my experience, severe stress and PTSD triggers can make our memories worse and we will not always have the instant recall we would hope for. One thing you might do is try writing down what you do remember. Later on write it down again, not copied, but from memory. While there are no guarantees, after you have tried to remember and write down what happened it is possible you may remember more…if you do, then write that down as well. Unfortunately, PTSD is not friendly to our memory.
      You also mentioned rape while in the military. The military and VA, while not yet perfect, are making a renewed emphasis to help women raped by their fellow American soldiers. I would advise you to seek out the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and ask to speak to a female case officer about your experience. Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  3. angelaofmercy says:

    I read a Newsweek article recently called “Moral Injury”, which recognizes that PTSD is as much about what we do in a situation as much as what ‘they’ do. I hurt somebody. I know I have that capacity.. the beast in me. How do we come to such out of control actions?
    The Newsweek article says that the secular groups want to deal with the guilt by erasing the guilt and saying we were just,, but that’s just going to make us colder killers and torturers. Forgiveness is the key. Also knowing that Rom 8:28 “God works all things for good… ” For excample,, if I have killed a child who is innocent, I feel better knowing that that child is in heaven than to think the child is forever destroyed. Jesus makes all the difference.
    so rather than say ‘morally deficient’,, I prefer ‘morally injured’

    • Hi, I am glad you took the time to visit and leave a comment. Parts of your comment I agree with and other parts I am not so sure about. To be able to do your comment justice I need a bit of time to properly respond…so, as the saying goes, Watch this Space!
      Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  4. Dr Z… you always give me trusted loving advice.. im in so deep … suicide is never an option. Only my faith in God has me surviving. My desire to ease suffering in others heals me.. my pain…is so.. real.. my emotions are exstreem.. but humbly thankful im not numb.. today i trust you. I personally felt..ok fine ill get my high bloodpressur taken care of..(realizing its the evil convincing me “God will heal me”…(long story with every detail intact ofcourse;-)).. and now.. i feel noone is capable of handeling my journey and me trust there advice… i out smart evil.. to beshown.. a bigger and bigger circle of lifes circles /seasons … there are somanny revelations everyday i dident get excided anymore.. untill God took them.. and now im just.. falling behind on writing figuring out witch ones… bla bla..im always so long winded.. im just alot quiter watching lately… so manny planns worked and God depending in me to finish… im finding im safer cleaning house rather than deep study.. and if my flesh cant match my soal… what good am i to anyone my nose in the book (bible).. my preacher preeches get deeper.. i say..im notin going deeperto anymore blind faithi is safe!lol..i interpreted toungs ..caged demons .. and prrdict next weeks sermon.. i readto from the same book chapter,and verse the night before service so as isent”normal” .. i smoke pot to handle my rage.and my..”dalisions”. (Inm not chosen,just obeadent!and want beautiful forand all..cuz ii know what evil is…me)(back to pot)who people try to convince me its ;what my problem is.. evil wants to convince me im better alone.. i hear my “concence” quite loudly and analize each perspectives …perspectives ..all before breakfast.. i go to a bar called the Babylon (ha!ha!).. and bring light.bla bla huggs dr Z huggs

    • And got tipsy twice in2012.. (i dont go to drink..just go where i feel needed)i sip a beer..to not look strange.. im known as canamama.. i will follow someones advice untill it doesent resonate to my soal.. i almost feel i know everything..but know is nothing at all…or if i find it to be a rule of life … it changes and is only the start… i dont want to be consumed by anolizing or flashbacks for analyzing .. i know i more free than most..but that truly makes me a worse prisoner .. oh huggs.. to anyone with ears reading this..huggs

      • Hi Heather,Keeping ourselves open to God is important. Not only God’s “call” where we all wonder what it is we are called to be, what job to have and so forth. But we do best when we are open to the being, the reality of God in and of itself. Even in our worst experiences, we can discover the being of God. As we make our journey we discover more and more the wonderfulness of God as we experience Him in ever more joyful and also evermore painful moments. Like “love” in First Corinthians 13, we find God is ever patient and steadfast. Semper Pax, Dr. Z

Leave a Reply