Anniversary dates can remind us of life transitions that then trigger PTSD symptoms and behaviors. Just like certain smells, sounds, and locations can be PTSD triggers, a meaningful anniversary date can trigger PTSD. Frequently, these anniversary dates represent a moment of transition.
Before the event we were one person, after the transition event we are changed, we are partially transformed into someone else. In some cases we can hold onto our identity, in other cases the PTSD-Identity takes a deeper hold on our soul.
In some ways the transitions represent a loss of innocence, the loss of a notion of fairness in the world, a loss of the belief that the grown-ups are smart, in control, and wise.
These transitions can affect individuals, communities, and even countries (Pearl Harbor and 9-11 each serve as sharp demarcations of before and after in the USA…remember how before 9-11 you could get to the airport, buy a ticket with cash and no ID, and be on the plane inside of 30 minutes? That doesn’t happen anymore!).
Ecstatic Events, Demarcations
These transitions can serve as ecstatic events. These ecstatic events can change who we are either in a positive way or a negative way. These ecstatic events mark a boundary point, a before and after point, in our lives as individuals.
Not every traumatic event causes an ecstatic change of being, but, alas, some do.
Anniversary dates of specific traumatic events, often with a component of physical violence within them, can include the following:
- killing someone
- being wounded or injured
- surviving sexual assault
- surviving molestation
- witnessing traumatic events
- being tortured
- inflicting torture
- watching daytime television
These types of events often for the demarcation line of our transition from being who we were before and after a particular event.
Frequently, the day will be the anniversary date of some obvious traumatic event as listed above. Yet, it can also be a date where a specific traumatic event did not occur, but represents the transition from one state of being to another state of being.
Some examples of transitions that can be trigger-producing anniversary dates, that may or may not include a physical violence component, include the following:
- recalled to active duty from civilian life
- transition from healthy to sick
- being told you are terminally ill
- employment to unemployment
- financially stable to bankrupt
- termination of a relationship, e.g., getting served with divorce papers, or a subpoena
- transition from military to civilian life
- from functional to disabled, whether physically, mentally, or spiritually
- losing a loved one
- losing a dear friend
My own life changed significantly as I transitioned from being a person who was physically strong, independently mobile, and capable to being someone who is now crippled and almost immobile.
But Wait! If You Order Now, We’ll Affect Others As Well!
Your life transitions can also affect others, including those who are close to you and also with strangers.
My transition to total disability ended up affecting how people viewed me, my wife, and our existence as a married couple. We found out at one point that the mover and shakers in our parish thought my wife was “only a house wife who took care of her disabled veteran husband.”
They tried to define my wife, put her in a box, as “only a housewife,” and did not wish to acknowledge that she also was a professor of theology who knew more about liturgy than anyone else in the building (my wife’s PhD. makes my doctorate look like a diploma from middle school!).
Being “only a housewife” is in itself a noble vocation, but women can also be called to other vocations and valued for those as well. We discovered that some people, including the parish priest, reinterpreted my wife’s existence solely through my own existence as a crippled guy.
Last year, my throat surgeries were successful. My throat no longer spontaneously swells up and blocks my airway, but at times I still suddenly lose my voice. When that happens it is amazing how people treat me as they realize I am mute and cannot talk. When I am mute, some folks assume I am also deaf and try to communicate with me through writing or sign language.
Others have assumed I am mentally impaired and withdraw from me because they think I am retarded and somehow contagious (when I grew up the word “retarded” was not a pejorative. I admit that when store clerks leave me alone because they think I am retarded it does save me from some inane conversation…with every curse a blessing?).
As I jabbered on about above, our individual transitions can affect our relationships with others, including complete strangers.
Transitions Are Not Always Negative and Painful
Granted, most people do not seek me out or visit the PTSD Spirituality website because of the good things that happen in their lives. Yet, joy can itself be ecstatic and part of a healthy transition from one state of being to another. For many of us, our wedding is a transition event, an ecstatic event which transformed us into someone better than who we were before (Your mileage may vary).
It is important to remember that similar dynamics can affect us when something good happens to us. But instead of affecting us negatively, they can amplify the positive, the healthy. Indeed, positive, life-affirming events can be moments of healthy transition.
There are many types of positive transitions, which include the following:
- for Christians any of the sacraments, e.g., baptism
- completing a marathon
- learning how to make art, write, play music
- learning how to talk and walk after a stroke
- realizing that we can overcome adversity, disadvantages, disabilities, and still live a healthy life in an unhealthy world
- making a formal, ritualized commitment to God, e.g., holy orders, Eucharist, or confession
The above is not an exhaustive list of positive transitions. And, it is worth noting that some of these positive moments can be perverted to something cruel and unhealthy, e.g., a cruel and abusive spouse. When one of these ecstatic, healthy celebrations is perverted into unhealthiness we feel the pain more deeply than some other run of the mill injustice. If my wife were to say I was worthless, it would cut me very deeply and hurt a lot more than if some stranger were to say it (Lucky me, she has never said that to me).
We often give too little credit and attention to the positive transitions in our lives. Part of living a healthy life in the face of adversity is to acknowledge that there are at least some positive things in our lives and to not let the negative absorb all of our attention and way of life.
Where To From Here?
Usually we don’t need too much discussion about how to handle life’s healthier transitions. Frequently we may not even consciously think about it because it just seems natural to make some of these progressions throughout our lives.
Yet, some of the negative transitions affect us if we want them to or not. Traumatic intrusive memories attack us and make our bodies and sometimes our minds feel like we are experiencing the horrible events all over again.
At times when I have been assaulted by intrusive traumatic memories my body begins to react as it re-experiences the terror. The paradox is that sometimes while this is happening my intellect understands what is happening but is unable to stop it. I feel really stupid and sometimes guilty when that happens. I know something intellectually in my mind, but my body’s memory is the one that takes control for a while. It is just another one of those stupid “Joys of PTSD” we go through.
In my next exciting essay I will jabber on about how we can endeavor to rehabilitate some of these traumatic anniversary dates so that we can be less vulnerable to intrusive memories that trigger PTSD.
Semper Pax, Dr. Z
P.S. This essay started out just fine. Like most of the writing I inflict on people it was intended to be short. It ended up being longer, not shorter. It also churned up some of my own memories, some good, some not so good. August is a month with several transition anniversaries for me. Some memories are voluntary, others are intrusive and come if I like it or not. Some of today’s writing amplifies my negative, intrusive memories. It all comes at a cost, I suppose. Usually it’s worth it in spite of the tremors that show up.
P.S. S. The sunflower got done in by the squirrels. Lucky for me, a couple others are starting to bloom!