Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Pleasant purple: soothing the pain of PTSD

Shorts: Reitmans; Shoes: Ecco; Shirt: Be Cool; Sunglasses and hat: thrift; Bangle: vintage; Necklace: from a local boutique; Earrings and ring: Effy
It was a hot day. I had the idea that this hat would shade me from the sun. It didn't, but it did give a retro late 80s/early 90s appeal to my outfit that was kind of fun. 

I doubt this change purse is really Anna Sui, but that's what it says. It looks well against Beau's "garden" which consists of some potted flowers and herbs. He's very proud of his garden.
I set off to meet Beau for a walk. I was feeling anxious and wanted to walk as briskly as I could to burn off stress and excess energy. Of course, my version of "brisk" is other people's version of a sluggish pace. This has not always been the case.

Before my back gave out, I used to exercise for stress relief. I'd regularly jog for about 45 minutes, weight lift for an hour, do a little more cardio on a stair master, and then jog home. That's a grand total of two and a half hours of intense exercise in one go, several times a week. On my "non-exercise" days, I would walk for miles.

I exercised so much that my doctor was concerned about me. So were many of my friends. My doctor tells me that I was underweight.

Yet all this exercise only barely managed my stress, anxiety, and what I called my "terrors." 

You see, I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 

Complex PTSD, to be exact. Complex PTSD develops when a person is exposed to prolonged and repeated trauma which he or she cannot control.  The victim is often a child and the trauma is often inflicted by a care-taker or care-takers. There is no chance of escape.

Those of you who read this blog know that my now crippling back injury was caused by severe child abuse. The abuse was constant, of every conceivable (and inconceivable) type, and far worse than anything most people can even imagine. 

People tell me they can imagine it but they can't. They think they know how bad it was, but they don't until I tell them the details. When I do, I always get the same response: shock that any child can be abused that badly. And even more shock that I am both alive and sane after enduring such horrors.

Expecting someone not to have PTSD after abuse like that is like expecting someone who has just been repeatedly run over by a truck not to have any broken bones.

I have many of the symptoms of PTSD, perhaps the two most troubling being nightmares and panic attacks. The nightmares are ubiquitous, and so much a part of my nights that I can't imagine what it feels like to sleep without them, and to wake without them lingering in my mind and soul.

For years, I managed to keep the panic attacks in almost complete remission through exercise, punishing, intense, grueling exercise. Exercise that would leave me shaking, give me stomach cramps, and make me so hungry I could think of nothing but food. The above photo was taken about ten years ago. This is not me at my thinnest. I had gained weight by this point, simply by dint of being over thirty.

I don't mean to deride what I did to get by. If I were well, I would still be exercising, though hopefully not as much or as compulsively. I enjoyed exercise (up to a point) and I miss it. I was extremely fit and muscular. I ate well. I managed to get three degrees (okay, two degrees and a two year certificate), and build a good career. I did not take drugs or drink to excess, both common refuges for those who have PTSD. I managed to maintain my moral compass, despite having been raised in an amoral environment.

I did the best I could, and it was pretty damned good. It really was.

But then my back gave out, not because of the exercise but despite it. I was in so much pain, it hurt to breathe. I could not walk across the room without being in agony. It took me nine months to be able to walk a block. 

Obviously, I couldn't exercise. I had to find new ways to deal with my PTSD.

The panic attacks came back. 

If you've never had a panic attack, count yourself lucky. Most people end up in the emergency room the first time they have one because the symptoms -- racing heart, complete body sweats, numbs hands and feet, severe dizziness and nausea, terror -- are so severe, it feels like dying. Basically, the nervous system thinks the body is under attack and floods it with adrenaline, readying it for fight or flight.

I'm doing a lot better now, both physically and emotionally, but I'm still disabled and I still have PTSD. And I still have panic attacks.

This day was not a good day. My gut was roiling, as it often does when my stress levels increase. (All kinds of physical symptoms of stress are common to those with PTSD.) 

I found myself on the brink of a panic attack and Beau wisely suggested that we skip the walk and go home and relax.

It worked. I calmed down and felt much better, but spent, drained, and weakened, as one would after been awash with adrenaline.

We decided to go for a gentle walk -- with enjoyment of nature, not briskness and burning energy, as our goal. 

I needed calm and relaxation and I know that nature helps give me that. 

So do other small beauties, like the colour of this bracelet or the pretty lace in my top.

I wasn't sure if seeing this little jacket was good or bad for me. Way back in 1975, when I was four and five and already living in hell, my grandmother embroidered denim shirts a lot like this for everyone in the family (and it's a big family). Mine had little bees and flowers on it and I loved it. Because of Grandma, we were cool, really really cool.

This jacket on this stroller reminded me of my grandmother and of the beautiful shirt she embroidered for me. But, because it reminded me of my childhood, it also reminded me of being abused. That's how life works for those with PTSD; anything can be a "trigger," something that reminds us of the trauma we have endured.

I think this smile is what is called a "wan smile": it's a little watery and uncertain. I couldn't manage much more than that yet. The tightness is gone here, and I think I look prettier as a result, but the sorrow has become visible.

To me, my face in this photo is more authentically me than it is in photos in which I look strong and happy. I sometimes think the authentic me is weak, sad, and emotionally bruised.

But are weakness and sorrow really my authentic self?

All those who know the horrible details of my childhood say the same thing: "You are the strongest person I know." They often add that they would be insane if they'd lived through what I've lived through.

"How stupid," I always think. "If they knew all the pain in me, and how hard it is to do well, they'd know that I'm really very weak. For crying out loud, I am literally crippled by what happened to me! Where's the strength in that?"

But I'm starting to grasp that they know how hard and painful it is for me and that's exactly why they say I'm strong. I'm trying hard to believe them.

And I really am crippled, despite the fact that I look "normal." Here I am reaching for something with which to haul myself up into a standing position. The day to day physical realities of life are not easy for me now.

I really am crippled and I really do have PTSD. The two tragedies of my life derive from the same cause, one over which I had no control and from which I could not escape. 

It's a hard reality to accept: life is not fair. 

But, life is also beautiful. It's the little beauties that have helped me get by. It was so even when I was a tiny child. Those little embroidered bees on my shirt, and a million other little things -- a wonderful book, a cuddly cat, a mountain view -- helped save my life.

By deliberately focusing on such things now, I'm learning to be more gentle on myself. I used to push and push -- with my exercise, my career, my health, my education. As I learned that I needed to find new ways to deal with stress, I learned that one of those ways was to stop pushing myself so hard. Friends had been telling me that for years but I didn't understand. My back giving out forced me to learn that lesson. I had no choice.

So, on this day, after feeling so poorly, I reminded myself to go gently, stay in the shade, move slowly... and, wonder of wonders, I was able to gain some enjoyment from the day, despite my physical pain, despite my emotional pain.

Plus I posed in front of this house as if it was mine. I've always wanted to own this house.

This necklace really opens. It reminds me of a poison vile that a Disney witch might have worn. As a child, I always admired those witches. I wished I had their power and would fantasize that I did; if I had it, I could escape my abusers or, better yet, exact some creative revenge on them. 

I wear a lot of things for my child self: things I was not allowed to own then, things that would have made me feel strong then, and things that have a kind of beauty that would have appealed to me then.

As always, beauty helps me survive and even thrive, in my way. Sometimes it's hard, as if the evil I've known erases the beauty. It's hard to understand that beauty and horror can co-exist in the same world, but it's a paradox I've had to learn to believe in or I just wouldn't have made it and I wouldn't have much to live for now.

And then there's the beauty of Beau. As a joke, he's started calling PTSD "puTUZduh."  If I suddenly jump a mile when a leaf falls beside me, or start worrying that I'm a bad person because I left the cap off the toothpaste, he says, "It's okay. You just have putuzdah." It makes me laugh. And he can say it in public and no-one will know what he's talking about. 

He knows all about my past and its effect on me and is very kind and gentle. 

Maybe sometimes too gentle.

It is a natural impulse for those who love someone who was badly hurt to want to take care of that person. It's like they want to make up for all the pain of the past. But that's not possible. Indeed, it's not even healthy for me to allow myself to be cared for that much.

Above all else, I need to feel like an autonomous adult, and I can't feel that way if someone is taking care of me like I'm still a child. Everyone needs to be taken care of some, but not constantly, and not without it's being reciprocal. I need to take care of Beau too, not just for his sake, but for mine as well.

Whatever power I have, I need to feel it. That power got me far in life, far further than many others with backgrounds like mine. 

I'm learning also to allow myself to feel my weaknesses, but not at the expense of knowing my power.

But I do need to learn that feeling power is not the same as always being on guard. Sometimes I'm like a beaten, cornered dog, lashing out at even those who want to love her.

Glasses: Geek eyewear; Shirt: Old Navy
For Beau's sake, I'm learning to let go of that with people who have proved themselves worth of trust. People like him.

Plus, ain't he handsome? Seriously, look at the colour of those eyes!

As my walk progressed, I even got a little playful in this weird garden full of ... weird stuff. 

... including a weird metal thing that let out such a racket when I touched it, I felt like I was going to get in trouble. The photo of my response gave us both a much needed laugh.

So the day progressed, as days do, and the light began to have that lovely, slanted look it gets.

Beau and I went to our local pub, which is both steps away from his place, and world (or at least city) famous for its huge array of craft beers. 

Beau ordered a sampler set of four. He's a total booze lightweight, even worse than I am, and couldn't finish these four little tasters. On our way home, he felt woozly and asked me why anyone would choose to make himself feel that way for fun. He had to lie down and rest for a bit.

So I got to take care of him the way he'd taken care of me. I also got to laugh at him -- just a tad.

And so the day was salvaged. The bad co-existed with the good, as it always does. I felt tender and bruised but that did not preclude the existence of beauty, and it did not preclude my ability to enjoy life.

If you don't have PTSD, know how hard it is for those who do. If you do have PTSD, know that you too can enjoy life, even if it doesn't always feel possible.

(FYI, I`m spreading this somewhat adulterated joy over at Visible Mondays on Not Dead Yet.)


  1. I know panic attacks. I know them well. I haven't had a full blown one in about a year but they still try to get me. You know how I fight them? By imaging myself tapdancing. Something about imagining the sounds of the taps makes the sensation go away... and of course staying calm. I am so sorry you have to deal with PSTD. I have no idea what that's like. I know people who claim to have but never from something so severe as child abuse. Thanks for sharing this with us. Very informative.

    1. You know what's hilarious? I often dream that I can tap dance. Sometimes it's a soft shoe dance too. What's up with that?

      I find the single most effective tool against panic attacks when I feel one coming (aside from the medicinal ones) is breathing slowly and deeply. If that doesn't stop it, then I just tell myself what's happening (i.e. adrenaline etc) and try to treat it as just a physical thing. It keeps the fear level down.

      Your friends probably do indeed have PTSD but not complex PTSD. Fortunately for them, most treatments that seem to work are for those with this less severe form of it. I've never heard of a treatment that gets rid of complex PTSD but there are many that help to reduce the intensity of the symptoms.

  2. I get it; I have it. I just do what's brave (and sometimes foolish) because now I'M in control, and am responsible for how I act, even when I can't reasonably explain how I feel. If I give in to it they win - and I'll be damned if that's going to happen ;-)


    1. I agree with you mostly. However, I realized that my version of not giving in was pushing myself so hard to do well and "defeat" my abusers that I wasn't actually happy. And my situation is complicated by the fact that my disability was caused by those who abused me. This really does prevent me from doing everything I want to do and feeling (physically) as I want to feel. In this sense, it does sometimes feel like they won and I lost.

  3. Thank you for sharing this deeply personal story. Although as a psychotherapist I hear (too many) stories of abuse and terror, they never fail to shake me up. You're right, there is a lot of ugly and a lot of beauty in this life!

  4. This is the most moving, raw and beautiful post Ive ever read. Im in tears reading this because I am inspired and in awe of your beauty and strength. Im so honored that you decided to share something so deep and personal with us. Beau sounds like a one in a million kind of guy. You two are very lucky to have one another.

    1. Thank-you so much. I seem to make people cry a lot. I don't know if that's good or bad! : ) It did take courage to write this. Yeah, Beau's pretty darned great.

  5. Really appreciated this - the perspective on yourself, and how to be in the world; especially the stuff about feeling your real powerful self, the soft, yet solid and assured power. I feel like I got to know you more through this. xo

  6. As you say, so many of us can't identify completely, but can only imagine. I just wanted to to know that I read your post ... and I'm glad it made you feel better to write it. I do understand that just proximity to the nearest and dearest can make all the difference.
    And the hat, while not particularly useful, is adorable. That's also a great reason to wear it often!

  7. Thank you...this is beautifully written. I have never read someone capture the emotional complexities of C-PTSD as you have. I live life in the shadow of this disorder as well and sometimes capture a ray of sunlight...I used to dissociate quite a lot and felt more at ease in the the freak I thought I was and deserved to be. Now I am not so uncomfortable in the light but need to learn how to not be so afraid anymore. I try to see the beauty of every day and feel it as well. I am a work in progress as we all are to some extent. Thank you for being brave and strong and sharing!

    1. Thank you for your comments. I know I'm not the only one but so many of us do "live in the shadows," in whatever way, that we have trouble finding each other. I'm glad to connect, even in this anonymous way and I'm glad you find something positive in my words.

      I know about dissociation. Sometimes I wish I could dissociate more, like I used to, especially with this chronic pain. I too am a work in progress and I will not lie: it can be terribly terribly difficult to just get through a day. But still, somehow, after all these years, I continue to find life worth living.

  8. Thank you for sharing. Powerful stuff.