PTSD Spirituality: With No Wall Behind Me

I am actually a bit amazed with myself just now. Why? At the risk of hubris, and underwhelming any reader who has not lived with PTSD personally or cared about someone with PTSD, here is today’s big achievement in my own PTSD healing journey:

Not With My Back to the Wall
As I write this I am sitting in a coffee shop. I usually try to go out once a week, by myself, and drink a cup of coffee among strangers. I try to immerse myself in reading or writing.

My weekly forays have a few goals:

  • Last at least thirty minutes without PTSD hyper-alertness overwhelming me.
  • Not allow other people’s noise, jostling, movement, and/or rudeness to ignite my (mostly) dormant anger.
  • Not allow my heightened sense of physical vulnerability to result in clenching my jaws so tightly as to break an already cracked tooth.

I have not managed to do this outing every week this year, but it is my working plan. Usually, I do manage to last at least thirty minutes and at other times have even lasted an hour…Gadzooks! It’s not exactly on par with completing an Ironman Triathlon, but I have learned to take my victories where I find them.

Okay…so far, so good!

Sitting that Extra Mile! Go Team!
But WAIT! If you order now, we will throw in a singular new achievement for this week’s coffee shop foray at no extra charge!  I can’t walk an extra mile (I mean, c’mon, I can barely walk for five minutes in a row…must keep realistic about some things!), but today I can sit an extra mile, so to speak.

I am currently sitting in a coffee shop without my back to the wall! I am sure there is a wall back there somewhere, but it is not touching my back or my chair. People are actually walking behind me, some making noise as they go.

And, even worse from a PTSD point of view, some people moving behind me are trying to be quiet.

When I am with the handful of people I trust I can sit this way because I know they got my back, or as one of my friends who served a couple of tours in Iraq puts it, “I got your Six.”

I cannot remember the last time I sat in the middle of a coffee shop or restaurant amongst strangers with no one to cover my back. It is kind of exhilarating and scary all at the same time…it is also producing some hyper-alertness stress that I am bleeding off by writing this narration.

The writing process can help me bend the focus of my mind and body away from those people moving behind me. It is kind of like trying to pry two steel plates welded together apart with a curling iron…what a strange image, your mileage may vary.

And, the cherry on top of today’s foray into the wilds of a Milwaukee coffee shop is that I even got up once from typing into this Samsung Chromebook (Samsung should send me a dollar for that shameless product placement on my part) and got a coffee refill without feeling so anxious that I had to pack everything up and carrying it with me and then find a place to sit and get going all over again. This act of not packing up and carrying all my gear has certainly amplified my sense of vulnerability and has rendered me even more nervous than usual when I am out and about. Not packing up all my gear means that I experienced heightened vulnerability in two locations at the same time: First, myself; and Second, my gear. But, I managed it and made it back without too much added stress.

Granted, as I walked over to get my coffee refill, only four or five meters physically separated me from my gear. Four or five meters to people who possess no clue about PTSD will seem like nothing. To me, it felt like I was way past the wire, at night, hearing dogs growl, and me with no weapon and no one covering my back.

For people who remain ignorant about PTSD, what I wrote above will come across as no big deal and some may wonder how I can be such a coward. Yet, for those who have danced with the PTSD Dragon, well they understand why my heartbeat is elevated just now and why I am sweating so much in an air-conditioned coffee shop. I feel as if I have been running sprints without the sometimes euphoric rush of sustained physical exertion.

Reclaiming My Life an Inch at a Time
Our PTSD seeks to cripple us in so many ways: physically, psychologically, and spiritually. So far, today, while it is indeed stressing me, my PTSD is not succeeding in destroying me. Today I experienced I can push back against the PTSD and get a little more, another inch, of my own life, my own identity back. I doubt I would be able to do this every day on demand, but now I do know that I can do it sometimes. That’s progress, that’s a touch more healing, it is a realization of hope and a reason to keep hope alive for myself and others.

Someone new just came into the coffee shop…with a crying baby…another one of my PTSD triggers…time to take that last swallow of coffee, declare victory, and leave.

Don’t give up your hope. There will be good days and bad days. And there will be the especially good days where we seize back some of our authentic identity from PTSD, maybe only an inch at a time. As we accumulate those inches they teach us that the bad days are not the new normal; we need never surrender to them.

Those newly explored inches reconfirm that our image is not the cruddy sludge of PTSD, but that we contain the Imago Dei, the Image of God. Our lives and the lives of those around us are created in the image and likeness of God (See Genesis 1). That gives us eternal worth and value no matter what. It justifies our hope.

Crying baby…gotta run (metaphorically)!! Semper Pax, Dr. Z


  1. John Boller says:

    Dr Z I am 60 yrs old and just now spectacular ptsd but not sure as I don’t want to make an excuse for my behavior. Watched my Dad die in a dust explosion when I was 17, thought I had it handled although many times when sick have dreams and seen over again. Also had outbursts of unexplained anger over the years mostly directed at my wife who has put up with me.Recently I have been fighting high blood pressure and thought heart although that seems to be ok, at the same time black angry feelings . A week ago I picked a one sided fight with my wife and scared her so much she left me a text that she was leaving for a few days , in my anger I took it that she was done with me. I decided I had no reason to live and planned a suicide that would look like an accident so not to be so bad on my kids although they are now adults. But I couldn’t sleep that night and for some reason I got up at 3 in the morning and gathered up my life insurance policies and sent my wife where they were. When she woke that morning she called the sheriff’s and thanks to God they sent a good man .I am ok now although scared that this could happen again and confused how it could happen so many years later. Trying to find answers could it be pstd or am I just going nuts. I find your articls comforting. Also the way you write do you think pstd Is a demon of Satan. Thanks for your writing

    • Hi John, I am very glad you are still alive … you get victory points for that! So do your wife and the good man the sheriff sent.
      Seeing your Dad killed in a dust explosion when you were age seventeen is something a rational person never truly gets over. That is like an amputation where you eventually learn how to function without the arm, but you are still left with a missing arm. If anyone ever starts prattling on about getting over it or getting closure, they really don’t get how trauma has ripples and sometimes those ripples get over our head for a moment or two. Life is better for us between the waves, between the ripples, but the ripples will occasionally come and try to drown us.
      I recently spoke to a man whose brother was killed in Vietnam in 1967. He started weeping and said he thought he was over it. We are never truly over it.His weeping is an indication of his love for his brother and the pain of his loss. The capacity for both joy and grief is part of what makes us human. We may learn to live without the physical presence of someone we love and we can learn to not be permanently debilitated by it. But we are not ever called to forget them or just “get over” them. There is no time limit on mourning, loss, or love. So … no, you are not nuts.
      The PTSD can hits us continuously or in waves years after we have survived the initial onslaughts. Often, as we grow older, the worst of the PTSD can be more cyclical and even predictable (as we learn more about it and ourselves). It is quite possible to thrive and have good relationships, even though we have PTSD, after we learn how to understand it and how we are affected by it.
      Ideally, you should have some conversations with your wife about what you think triggers you and why. She should also be able to offer her own observations as to what she thinks triggers you. None of this conversation should be judgemental or condemnatory, rather, it is an observational conversation where you will be able to start finding your vulnerabilities and also a chance to seek more joy and creativity in life.
      You asked about demonology: I often depict PTSD as an anthropomorphized entity. Many New Testament exorcism stories can be understood more fully this way. While I am not (on most days, at least) ready to say PTSD is a demon (I have no desire to give it that much stature), I am convinced that like human beings it has a spiritual as well as a physical component. I am also convinced that while PTSD is an awful experience, it is not a death sentence. We can have PTSD, and still learn how to thrive and enjoy life, be able to love and not be controlled by anger. We are never without hope.
      Semper Pax, Dr. Z

      • Hi Dr. Z! If I may, I would like to add perhaps another option for John that also helped me. I took a 6-session Anger Management class through my health insurance, and it helped some with the PTSD anger. It comes in handy when I am out in public with techniques to use. I still struggle with outbursts when extremely threatened, but the anger management helps a lot with the more standard nuisances. John, hang in there, it does get better with a lot of work (and some good meds). You’re not alone. 🙂

        • Hi Harry,
          An excellent option.
          As we both know, PTSD amplifies anger like a magnifying glass on tinder. Any techniques to help keep the lens out of direct sight of a hot sun can help keep the anger fires from burning out of control.
          Semper Pax, Dr. Z

          • John Boller says:

            Thank you for your insights going this morning to visit with a pastor, he’s an older man and has been a hospital Chaplin and currently sheriff’s Chaplin .Don’t know him well but what I do I respect. Hope he has knowledge delt with things like this before. Also I agree with not giving the devil credit was just wondering. Thanks again for your insight kind of helps writing. I quess it’s as my wife says when you bring your troubles in the open they loose power over you

          • John, I hope you have a great meeting. Another great resource is the National Center for PTSD, which is from the VA. See, you’re not alone at all! I hope you will be at least encouraged at your meeting today! All my best from Escondido CA. 🙂

          • John Boller says:

            Thank you

      • John Boller says:

        Thank you

  2. “I can push back against the PTSD and get a little more, another inch, of my own life, my own identity back.” Good job and thanks for sharing this and that the bad days are not the new normal. I need this reminder, and I can say that it is a joy to find activity in areas of life that become possible and confirm our patience. My brother in law shared this one with me–Mile by mile, it’s a trial; yard by yard, it’s hard; but inch by inch, it’s a cinch. Thanks as always.

    • Thank you, Josh. And thanks also to your brother-in-law. Not every day is a smashing victory for us, but we can seek out the small victories which will take us further in our healing. Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  3. This touched my heart on so many levels. We do indeed need to celebrate the little triumphs and the building of confidence once again. I am grateful for your inspiration, for your humor, for your courage – reminding me of the importance of taking some risks in order to grow.

    • You are right: The risks of the little triumphs can help lead us to growth and even greater triumphs…triumphs that validate the value of our lives and the lives of others. Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  4. Love this post. Know exactly what you mean. Yes, it IS a victory. I was anxious just reading about it :).

    • The more I write about things, the better I am able to defend myself from them. A journal, a diary, art, music, whatever we use, can help sustain us and protect us. Just dealing with it in writing (for me) can be plenty stressful, but it also has the hope and potential to help with the healing. Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  5. justdraftn says:

    DrZ, since reading your blog, I have really been aware of my triggers
    (dog barking is the worst) and being congnizant when my PTSD
    identiy takes over. I was furloughed these past two weeks.
    During the first week I had things to do away from home. So I could
    escape from the barking. The first part of this week, I had work at home
    duties. I had to be home at the cpu. When the dog barking started,
    I immediately confronted my PTSD idenity. I kept telling it you are only
    in my mind. You are only fear created from the past. I stood my ground.
    It was very uncomfortable but I did it. I did it.
    Learning what my PTSD idenity is, from you, is changing my life.
    I am starting to recognize I am a totally different person…..not pretty.
    “..cruddy sludge” is correct.
    A few “newly explored inches” indeed. Hope.
    Thanks! justdraftn

    • Inch by inch we can scrape off some of the sludge. The problems, triggers, and symptoms of PTSD remain real, but with more information and knowledge at least we don’t have to feel like both of our hands are constantly tied behind our back. We never have to get up. We are both realistic enough to know that it is not pleasant or easy, but we also know we always have real hope. Semper pax, Dr. Z

  6. Harry Martin says:

    I *loved* this blog (and chuckled many a time). I had my appointment with my psychologist today and told her how refreshing it was to read someone else understanding how many mini “triumphs” we can chart.

    We went out to a restaurant 3 nights ago. The dining room was empty and I was thankful, but then an older couple was seated in the booth directly next to ours. It took about 10-15 minutes, but I was able to ratchet back the anxiety to tolerable levels.

    Again, thank you for a fun, interesting and enlightening post. … And congratulations. (Oh and by the way, screaming kids are a big trig for me, too) 🙂

    • Hi Harry, Taking our mini-triumphs wherever we can, that’s us. Congratulations on surviving through the folks in the next booth. I am glad your partner was there to watch your back and help you get past it. Stay Well, Welcome Home. Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  7. Syan (sharn) says:

    Bright blessings to you Dr. Z!
    So much of the activity in your post is familiar to me. Like movie background music. You know you’ve heard the tune before, but you’re not sure where. I have clients who experience some of what you describe in the café only their challenge is at the grocery store, or on public transportation. Thank you for being my “canary in the coalmine;” another indicator that it is indeed true I am thriving beyond PTSD. Thank you for helping me reaffirm why I work with clients with PTSD. So I can now be what someone once was for me; someone who had “my six”, who loved me, and counseled me all the way home.

    • Thank you for reading the essay. Thank you for choosing to stay alive. And, thank you for helping others to stay alive as we each in turn walk through our own valleys of the shadow of death and into the light. Semper Pax, Dr. Z

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