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Lingering shadows: living with PTSD

When the word post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is mentioned, it’s usually equated with the overwhelming and debilitating symptoms that war veterans and victims of horrific abuse experience.  However, people who live with low-level PTSD often fly under the radar, because their symptoms don’t produce the same degree of heightened response. 

People with low-level PTSD may feel some anger, anxiousness or irritability in response to certain stimuli, have difficulty sleeping (or conversely, sleep more than usual), or feel low around the anniversary of the event.  What they may not usually experience are sudden flashbacks or uncontrollable “hair-trigger” stress responses in response to certain stimuli associated with a full-blown case of PTSD.  People with low-level PTSD feel “off,” but can function adequately without requiring psychiatric care. 

It can be difficult to come to terms with living with low-level PTSD, because others may assume the person should have gotten over the trauma.  The person may feel frustration or anger that she has not yet done so.  Or, she may be surprised to realize the symptoms she’s been experiencing and assumed had a physical origin (i.e., headaches, stomach or back pain) is actually how the body is dealing with PTSD.  The body stores these experiences and like a muscle that responds to certain stimulus, will act out in various ways even though the rational mind may not realize it. 

I sustained a near-fatal hemorrhage following the cesarean birth of my daughter.  It took a long time for me to admit to myself that I was experiencing PTSD.  First of all, I’m in the healing profession and second, the overwhelming response I received from the medical community and many well-meaning people was, “Be grateful that you and your baby are now OK.”  People understand trauma if there is loss of physical function, a loved one or violation of self.  It’s harder to quantify if something good, like the birth of a baby, comes out of a horrifically bad situation. 

It isn’t that I don’t feel grateful.  I do.  I know that I came out on the other side of this a stronger, more spiritually connected person.  It’s led me to advocate for improved maternal health care, something I never would have imagined myself being so passionate about.  But it’s amazing how the body will respond to so many cues, obvious and unrelated, and remind me of how fragile physicality can be.

In the month leading up to my daughter’s birthday,   I’m more fatigued, easily irritated and have difficulty concentrating.  On one hand, I’m excited about her upcoming birthday, but on the other, the memories that surface about my time in the hospital are emotional and tiring.  Naturally, there’s the pressure to make a big deal out of her birthday.  And while I want do that for my daughter, some days I’d rather crawl under a rock and be left alone.  That feeling fills me with tremendous guilt.  Each time I put on my game face and hope that next year is easier. 

I used to fly regularly for business, but I nearly had a panic attack on a trip home from New York last month when the pilot mentioned we might hit some rough air.  About a week later, I was driving down the road and the behavior of drivers ahead of me prompted fears of getting into an accident.  I was gripping the streering wheel tightly while driving on a road I'm on every day!  This level of anxiety was unusual for me and I couldn’t really pinpoint what triggered it. 

Soon after, I was in a session with my acupuncturist.  She asked if I was feeling more anxious than usual, and I replied that I was.  I mentioned the recent anxious responses to being on the plane and while driving.  She inserted a couple of needles, and then said, “Have you been feeling a loss of sense of self lately?”  (The Buddhist in me chuckled, “What self?”)  I let the thought resonate for a moment.  Then, it dawned on me: my anxiety – and my PTSD in general – has been a response to fear of experiencing severe physical injury again.  Death itself is on some level less frightening to me than being in agonizing pain, of suffering and being unable to speak, of being on the edge of darkness.  This is what I experienced when I lost half the blood in my body.  I wasn’t fortunate enough to pass out; I witnessed myself experience the horror of it all. 

Being able to connect to and voice that primal fear out loud has been a relief.  I felt lighter after making that connection.  I’ve done a lot of healing work over the past few years, including Reiki, psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, yoga, meditation and advocacy work. I tried antidepressants, but I was left with flat affect, which feels worse to me than having some actual feelings.  I even wrote about my birth story for the International Cesarean Awareness Network’s blog, which was featured several days after my daughter’s third birthday.

PTSD of any degree doesn’t just go away.  It is imprinted on a cellular level in our bodies, but it doesn’t have to imprison us.  The burden can become easier to carry if sufficient healing work is done to integrate the experience.  I recently came across a great article in the August 2010 issue of Yoga Journal entitled “Warriors at Peace” that features war veterans who have found healing through yoga practice.  In fact, it’s been so effective that the military is offering yoga as part of their recovery program.  I was moved by the statement, “You have to remember that there’s a part of you that’s never been touched by trauma.”  When we do healing work, we rediscover and affirm our essential wholeness.

For those of us living with any form of PTSD, the memories of our trauma linger in the shadows.  The shadows remind me of what it means to be truly alive in a human body and what a miracle it is that I’m still here to be a mother to my little girl.  From a spiritual perspective, suffering and compassion are two sides of the same coin.  It’s our responsibility to acknowledge suffering and express compassion – for ourselves and for those who have lived through trauma.  Only then can we turn away from the shadows and raise our faces to the light.

(Photo credit: Hasted Hunt Kraeutler)

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