It should be obvious, by now, to most who are reading along with us that the emotional health of our family has been seriously compromised by events of the last months. At the heart of our struggles is the very complicated and difficult reality that Master suffers from PTSD which was engendered by His brutal and frightening contact with our local police, jail, and court.
Everything changed for Him, and hence, for all of us in those days, and nothing we knew (or thought we knew) from before seems to apply anymore. We occasionally get comments or private emails from well-meaning folks – offering advice or counsel or outright direction as to how we ought to proceed. I understand how very difficult it is to watch us struggle and flail and hurt, and I am sure that sense of helplessness and discomfort is what drives people to try and “fix” whatever it is that seems “wrong” with us. Far more helpful, from my perspective (and I can’t speak for the rest of the family), are those who simply sit with us, cheer for all of us, and offer the sort of advice encapsulated in the words of one friend who told me to “keep pouring love on the flames.”
For those who are interested in knowing more about what is known about the disorder, here is a brief primer:
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a medical condition. It is a specific alteration in brain function due to experiencing something real, shocking, and profoundly disturbing. Once the circuits in the brain are affected by the PTSD pattern, a survivor has the following three problems:
- Uncontrollable, Intrusive Memory – Memory is seriously impaired. Not as in amnesia, but in the opposite way: The trauma comes back, bursting into awareness, when it isn't wanted or welcome. This “hot memory” lasts minutes to hours and may be clear or altered, like a dream. The victim may feel entirely out of conscious control and fear they are going crazy. Often the trauma comes back in subtle ways - a fleeting feeling, a vague sense of dis-ease. This may not be terrifying, but when it occurs frequently it changes one's whole sense of being the person they once were. The worst memory symptom is the waking nightmare, the flashback. This is as vivid as reality, and may actually seem like reality.
- Emotional Anesthesia -- A person with PTSD feels like a shadow of their former self. Some say they have no feeling. They are distant and detached. They wish they had more zest for life and they know they disappoint those who want them to be interactive and lively. But the genuine desire to socialize just isn't there. PTSD is not quite the same as depression, but may bring on an episode of depression.
- Anxiety -- PTSD makes a person anxious. The usual pattern includes irritability, impaired concentration, sleep disturbance, being “jumpy” (easily startled), and worried about threats and threatening individuals. This last element of PTSD pattern anxiety is called “hypervigilance.”
So, that is what we are dealing with here. PTSD is a physical condition and it is real.
By definition, PTSD lasts at least a month but the difficult cases last several years.
As partners, T and I are trying to learn, quickly, what we can do that is helpful – and what is not…
- We are learning to ask if He wants a hug, a kiss, a massage – or would it be better if He were left alone?
- We are working to learn how to listen when He just needs to tell someone what He’s experiencing and feeling. I am not as good at this as I should be; becoming angry and defensive when it feels like He is rehashing and blaming me over and over again. It is a personal limitation that I am working to overcome, trying to increase my emotional resilience so I can be an effective listener.
- We are learning to recognize, anticipate, and minimize the situations that create unwanted recollections for Him. Sometimes we see the train coming at us down the tracks at us, but we seem to miss the clues and signals an awful lot of the time. Hopefully, we’ll get better at that as we go along.
- We are learning to believe that His emotional distancing and His rage is not about us. It is hard, in the midst of all of this, not to wonder if He love us. Honestly – there are times, when He is lashing out, full of bitterness and despair, when it is hard not to question whether WE love Him. We are a full blown mess – all of us. We are working to avoid pushing for an answer to the question, “When is He going to get over it?” That question feels urgent at some level. On the other hand, I doubt very much that there is any way to answer that, accurately, from this vantage point.
- We are trying to learn to help by being there without imposing an agenda. “Being there” can be a challenge – His moods are unpredictable and not always pleasant. Sometimes, we are learning, it is enough to just be “in the space” without needing anything from Him -- it is hard to do, and there are no rules.
- We are learning to live with His heightened anxiety. He worries. He imagines enemies everywhere. He believes that “they” are plotting to do Him harm – and given the way things transpired, He has some very real basis for distrust. Walking helps. When we can manage it, humor helps. When He’ll tolerate it, touch helps.
- We are trying to hold each other up. In the field, the partner, friend, or spouse of someone with PTSD is at recognized as being at risk of a condition called “caregiver burden.” Perhaps T and I need professional help as much as He does. We are surely considering that possibility. Mostly, we are working to take care of Him, take care of ourselves, take care of each other.
Whenever one of us reaches the breaking point; whenever one of us feels that it is impossible – that we can’t do it anymore, the other two end up pleading for another day. So far, we’ve managed, at every crisis point, to beg for more time; for just a little bit of patience; for some slight glimmer of hope. It is a scary business. I think we are all afraid. I know we are all tired. We have many months ahead of us – and that will only get us through the “official” and “legally-supervised” part of this. It really does feel like we have to get through that before He (and so we) can begin to heal. Until then, we will hang on. One day. And one day. And one day.
Thank you, all of you, who have so far walked this path with us. Your presence is a great gift.