That PTSD’s A Bitch.

by Lori Dwyer on April 25, 2012 · 19 comments

It’s so difficult to explain to anyone what it’s like inside my head.

It’s difficult to live in here… articulating it is almost impossible. Especially because I just don’t remember, exactly, really, what it was like Before… back when I reacted normally to situations, when I had could do small talk. Before I became this irrational, broken person who pushes people away because she wants someone to love her so badly.

That’s part of the problem, you see. I walk around feeling normal, thinking I’m normal. Imagine someone flat-lining– that flat line is you, it’s us, it’s everyone… its the status quo. It’s the societal norm, acceptable reactions to common social situations.

And I’m the blip. I’m the massive spike that fills the screen with a mountain, a quick up, a quick down… but a peak in the middle that’s spiked and sharp and screams shrilly, drawing the attention of everyone in the room, scaring people and making them jump.

I don’t realize my reactions are irrational until they’ve passed. Sometimes I can see it, in the reflection of myself in the eyes of the people who love me. But when that happens, when I see my mother distressed by my tears that will not stop, or my best mate shaking his head in a hopeless, sad way when there’s nothing he can say to make it better; I don’t understand. I see their reactions, but they don’t compute. They just confuse me, poke me through my panicked fog– why are the looking at me like that? Can’t they see where I’m coming from?

And then, ten minutes later, once my heart rate has slowed and the shaking tears and heaving breaths have calmed and I’m exhausted, just wanting some strong arms to hold me while I curl up and cry… that’s when I get it. That’s when I look back at myself, at what I’ve just done– cried over someone being two hours late, lost my temper over someone who won’t answer their phone, yelled at someone who’s just trying to tell me the rational truth– and I’m slightly horrified. I’m bewildered and I kick myself and I curse my husband’s name and wonder when the fuck this will stop following me, when this will let me be, let me engage in some normal kind of relationships?

My current fascination with how biological factors effect our everyday lives is, I’m sure, partly an effort to understand myself, to put some kind off leash on my rampant swinging emotions. Post traumatic stress disorder is, in it’s essence, being continually stuck in a state of hyper–attention and hyper–awareness. It’s all your primal instincts not only continually switched on, but working overtime… your natural instinct to scope for danger. The fight or flight reflex. An unidentifiable but palpable sense of potential threat all around you, especially in places that are unfamiliar or overload the senses.

I know a handful of bloggers with PTSD, and a few of them attended DPCon’12. Every one of us cried at some point or another over the 48 hours we spent in Melbourne. Crowds are bad– so many people, so much noise, so many voices at so many different emotional pitches that your primal mind finds it difficult to assess possible threat. People invading your sacred personal space, both physically and with huge personalities that can’t take no as an answer. And the noise… I used to love being immersed in a crowd of people, sucking up their energies, tasting the flavors of their souls. Now, in the After… I’m like a newborn, a baby– too much noise and I become agitated for reasons I can’t quite identify and couldn’t articulate, because maybe there’s no words for it, in our language at least. It’s something sparked in that same base, cro-magnum brain stem functions that kept the human species alive every day thousands of years ago.

The reactions– the re-activeness– that PTSD causes people to express, amplified, would have been reasonable thousands of years when an everyday drama really was continually threatening– a panic reaction when being chased by a sabre–toothed tiger is both understandable and rational. Displaying the same reaction in today’s manicured society, conjuring up a panic attack over a bus running late or someone standing you up on a date or taking a wrong turn in your car- not quite so rational, nor as understandable.

But that’s what happens in severe cases of PTSD. The smoke alarm in your brain has been tripped once, extremely, and for a very real, very valid reason. And after that it can be damaged, as if there’s a circuit in there somewhere that is frayed and smells of burning copper, pulled taught against itself and shrieking “Danger! Danger!”, even when there is none.

Give me something, anything, that runs electrons through that smoke alarm section of my brain… and stand back and watch me burn. If I sense abandonment (everyone I love leaves me, everyone runs away eventually); if my mind thinks it see’s a threat to what little I have left; if I am running late or lost; if something I’m looking forward to falls through and I have to start the waiting again, days before the next event or experience I can look forward to to keep me afloat– anticipation being a process I take relish in if it’s veined with excitement, but it needs the conclusively at the end of it to be a full experience; I work on appreciating the anticipation of an event without having that enjoyment hinged on other peoples reliability- and I fall to pieces.

Any of those things, or others– raised voices; a rope; a humid, sticky afternoon; a half heard conversation between strangers involving ‘What a coward, it’s a dogs way out’– and I become someone I think I know… I become that five year old girl in my mind; in essence a child, ruled by base emotions and the most logical laws of cause, effect and consequence.

I panic. My heart thumps, my palms sweat. I pace aimlessly, planning to do something, anything, to keep myself busy, because in a few hours this will pass and I can sleep and tomorrow is a new day and I might not still feel like this, and find myself unable to concentrate, unable to do anything at all except search for some elusive quality that will make everything ‘better’.

I cry, sob with such veracity that my eyes are nothing but tears, the entire saline content of my body pours out through my optic nerves instead of tiny tear ducts. I phone people who I know will push me away so I can flagellate myself harder, hate myself more. Tunnel vision kicks in and my life is a tiny, lonely, suffocating space; I don’t think to call the people who will actually be able to hold me up because I can’t even see them through the fog, they don’t even occur to me…. and I can’t, not too much, not to people who I am not sure love me unconditionally. Because I’ve risked that before, I’ve taken people on their word and trusted them and shown them every broken,
bleeding piece of me… And for their own preservation, they must turn away.

And that’s just the emotional effects. I can separate them, somewhat– I experience them, but I know they’re not rational. Underneath all of that their is that primal, screaming inner reaction… a base function of the brain. That shouldering, sulfur smelling burnt out circuit that shoots panic hormones into my blood stream, raises my adrenaline to levels that most people will only experience a few times in their lifetime… I get them a few times a week. And I can count the physical effects of them– exhaustion, the dehydration, the feeling of being constantly tense and coiled and prepared to fight or fly or run. And it’s so difficult to talk myself through it- how do you talk your body out of a chemical reaction? Mind over matter, harnessing the power of the psyche to control that leftover neanderthal biological panic that is virtually impossible for people who haven’t experienced it to comprehend.

It makes it difficult for me to have close relationships with most people. It makes small talk a near impossibility. It causes me to be disconnected from my children. It burns out my friends and those closest to me. It’s not only exhausting for me, it’s exhausting for other as well… I am an emotional battery drainer, a succubi, a Rogue.

But at least I know that, and I’m working on it. The hyper–awareness that comes with PTSD can have its advantages… I know how I am. I can almost remember how i used to be, and I can see the difference stretched out between the two. It feels weak, like a cop out, but… I’m doing the best I can. This isn’t primary school, this is reality, and the rules are so different here. The best I can do really isn’t enough to tame me so I’m easy again, companionable, good company that will make you laugh and not get too serious. And that’s OK… it has to be. Because I’m trying. Every day, I’m aware of myself. Every day I work so hard to temper those irrational reactions, to speak sense to myself, to keep it flagged in my conscious day to day activity that I might be overreacting here, that this situation may not be the way my mind perceives it.

I’m exhausted. This is difficult work.

And that five year old repeats her request, politely, please– a gold star, and a smiley face stamp. And someone to hold her hand every now and then, to remind her that monsters are imaginary, and they exist only in our minds.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrea February 5, 2013 at 4:12 pm

I understand so much better now….I recognise it in your writing now, i realise for me its not as extreme but its still there. For me it comes when people tell birth stories, i get the anxious tightness in my chest, I am teleported to hospital rooms, curtains and machines, and I start weeping. My heart races whenever my husband takes bub out for a drive- with worry ill never see them again. I get it so much better now lori, the PTSD thing. Fuck I wish I didn’t.

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Lori Dwyer February 6, 2013 at 12:29 pm

Oh Andrea :( It was only in the After that I realised I had PTSD after my son was born- obviously nothing like now, but it was there. I remember saying to a friend the day after the birth that I felt like I’d been in a ‘traumatic car accident and needed counseling’. I wish someone had picked up on it!
I didn’t address it and it became crippling PND. Are you seeing anyone where you can talk about it as much as you need to? Email me if you like. Massive hugs xxxxxxxx

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Name October 4, 2013 at 5:39 pm

I wish I had replied to this at the time. I did see s

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Andrea October 4, 2013 at 5:54 pm

I wish I had replied to this way back then. I think I have been slowly emerging from that black hole and the screaming in my head this past 18 months. Mostly it’s sunshine these days, but the chronic sleep deprivation and one bad bad night can send things raw and astray. I find it amazing how sleep or the lack can send you into such an irrational overreacting spin.

The crazy thing about having a prem baby (even a healthy one) is that, even with the warning signs ( sustained weeks in hospital on high alert) is that the hospital doesn’t immediately sort out mental health referrals. You cannot come out of that experience and NOT be at risk. It’s bloody stupid.

And coming out the other end of the PND side of the mess, and having the perspective about “the worst year of my life” ( which is awful to say about the first year of your child’s life) there are some amazing things emerging. About parenting, and values and such.

For one thing it has caused me to seriously reevaluate friendships- I no longer put energy in when it’s not returned. It’s too much like holding your hand over a hot flame, mildly standing around waiting and for some stupid reason expecting to not get burned.
So, the friendship circle has slimmed down, and is full of authentic people. And that’s good.

But anyway, I’m glad to be reading about all these lovely changes in your life. It sounds almost like you are in an after the after…

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Miss Pink April 26, 2012 at 9:34 pm

Oh Lori there is so so much I want to say to you. Only you. In hushed private whispered tones with that guilty look like a child who broke mothers best vase and after denying it for ages is finally fessing up.
I probably never will.

You got the rest? ;)

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Miss Pink April 26, 2012 at 9:32 pm

This comment has been removed by the author.

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keeksaz April 26, 2012 at 2:40 am

It's nice to know that someone else understands and gets it. A safe quiet place to heal. My husband just calls me crazy and drags me to the next triggering event. I now know its up to me to create my safe place. It is impossible but I'm doing it.

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Mirne April 26, 2012 at 1:41 am

PTSD is bloody awful.

I used to LOVE concerts. I used to go to 10-15 concerts a year. Small ones, HUGE ones. I loved them all.

My hubbie and I even went to one in Melbourne (reunion tour of Split Enz) when I was nearly 6 months pregnant with our first child. We loved it!!

But then our first child died. And we cancelled concerts which we had booked (Robbie Williams and U2).

Even now, five years from our first loss, and having lost our two sons as well, we don't do concerts. We loathe crowds. I still get completely panicked if we get accidentally stuck in a crowd somewhere.

We expressly avoid going into town when it's busy. We don't go in when the tourists are out (which is most of the time here in Amsterdam).

Crowds make me feel like I can't breathe. And so I panic. And yell at other people. And want to hit them so that they get out of the way. My hubbie feels the same way.

But to survive PTSD (and maybe recover from it to some extent) sometimes you need to keep yourself in a safe place. Away from the stressers. Even though others don't understand.

Pushing yourself out of your safe zone is no way to deal with PTSD. Living with PTSD is learning to survive with it.

((Hugs)) from someone who knows.

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Anonymous April 25, 2012 at 10:46 pm

I haven't been reading this stuff for a while-my thang is work-related and have had lots of assessments by the pros lately to see if I'm for real…
Your words are spot on. Every fibre taut and screaming, ready to run. So much to be wary of. Not much left for the ups and downs of living, is there? Tiring!
Thanks for sharing. Reading this tonight is especially pertinent to me. May you continue your path towards some peace inside xxxxx

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Glowless @ Where's My Glow April 25, 2012 at 10:21 pm

I was going to publish my PTSD story today. Now I feel like I'm copying you. Damn you :P x

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Melissa April 25, 2012 at 9:19 pm

So exhausting. You are doing amazing, though. And I pray that your symptoms lesson and your friends, family and those you come to meet have an abundance of understanding and patience. Keep up the good work, Lori – we're pulling for you. xo

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Something Gorgeous April 25, 2012 at 9:09 pm

Keep talking. You'll get there. G.x

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Caroline April 25, 2012 at 2:57 pm

Sometimes I wish I lived closer so I could come & give u a hug *hugs*
you are a brave & beautiful woman.

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Samantha Mawdsley April 25, 2012 at 1:14 pm

I have C-PTSD stemming from my parents divorce when I was 11. I feel so weak reading this.
Lori. I've told you so many times but I can never say it enough – the bravery, strength and raw honesty you have shown is inspiring. xx

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Spagsy April 25, 2012 at 1:09 pm

The new normal sucks but I hope there is a newer normal just around the bend that allows you to kick this one to the curb. Keep trying and take it one day at a time.
Rah rah from Melbourne

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Debyl1 April 25, 2012 at 10:12 am

The main thing here Lori is like you said…you know,you are working on it and you are trying.
Things can only improve with you so aware and working so hard at it.I feel so proud of you x

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flask April 25, 2012 at 9:47 am

unfortunately there are too many of us who know just what you;re talking about.

take your time and be gentle with yourself, ok?

the new normal sucks.

i'm going to tell you a little story, ok?

a long time ago in another life i was a young schoolteacher with a very angry and misbehaved boy in my class. he did everything he could do to be really obnoxious and make himself hateful.

it we all knew why.

his father had suicided when he was a baby.

and i sat this kid down one day when nobody else was around and i said "look. i know what happened to you and it sucks. you do not need to remind me every day that it suck because i know it and i am never, ever going to forget what happened to you and i would really appreciate it if we could just deal with what's in front of us today and if today you can;t cope that's ok. i will help you best i can but most of all i want you to know that i have not forgotten your pain. ok?"

and he was never meek and mild, but he was sweet to have around and we had that understanding between us.

we developed a new normal.

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Kirsty Lee April 25, 2012 at 9:35 am

Oh babe. Don't know what else to say other than I am hearing you. My PTSD is rife lately. And I so get the "exhausted" feeling. And I too, like you, struggle to remember the 'before'. Tell ya what I'd love to get back to it, whatever it was, cause its gotta be fuckloads better than this!

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Elise April 25, 2012 at 11:00 am

Once again, Lori, you do an excellent job of describing PTSD for you. It sounded A LOT like my husband who, as you know, suffers from combat PTSD. The fact that you're consiously working on it is HUGE. It took my husband a long time to actually give a shit to even try and get better.

It's still a hard road for us, but it has gotten better. And i know it will get better for you too. It won't ever be like it was before, but you'll find a new normal. ((HUGS))

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