It’s the middle of the day on a weekday, I don’t remember why it was that I wasn’t at work and my husband was, but for some reason I was home alone. Well, I was alone except for my dogs. I was doing normal things that I would do on a day off, laundry and cleaning and such. As I remember, I was in a good mood, nothing weighing on me or worrying me; nothing bad or upsetting had happened recently to put me on edge. We have a small patio outside our front door with a tall wood fence going around it and a gate that I always lock from the inside when I’m home. The slats of the fence are too close together to see through, either in or out. I was inside doing my thing and I heard a knocking on the gate. Or rather, a normal person would have heard a knocking on the gate, what I heard was someone trying to break down the gate to come in and do God-knows-what to me. So I did what seemed logical to me in the situation. I quickly collected my dogs, ran into the bathroom, and hid in the bathtub until I was sure whoever it was had given up and gone away. After the fact, that doesn’t seem quite so logical. Why didn’t I look outside to see who it was? It could have been a neighbor or a delivery man. It could have been someone trying to sell me something or even the mailman. Who knows? I sure don’t because I was hiding in the freaking bathtub!
That little chain of events happened a couple of years ago. And guess what? I wasn’t drunk when it happened. I was somehow triggered into fight or flight (fleeing to the bathtub counts!), because I suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and sometimes my reactions to things aren’t always as rational as I would like them to be. I don’t know what it was about that day that set me off, it hadn’t happened before and it hasn’t happened since. My husband I joke about it these days, because, well, what else are you gonna do?
When I was diagnosed with PTSD while between my two stints in rehab for alcoholism, I was kind of surprised. I suffered a rape when I was a teenager, and pretty severe physical, verbal and sexual abuse from my ex-husband, but at that time, I thought, like a lot of people, that PTSD was mainly a diagnosis bestowed upon veterans of wars, not us civilians. It turns out that it’s not only combat veterans who suffer from PTSD. According to statistics from the National Center for PTSD, a department of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about 7 or 8% of the non-military population will have PTSD at some point in their lives, and women are more than twice as likely to develop it than men. Who knew? I sure didn’t.
There are lots of ways that PTSD makes itself known, flashbacks, nightmares, negative thoughts, hyper-vigilance, hyper-arousal. I had all of those things to a degree, but for me, the worst of my symptoms were the flashbacks. I could be busy doing something, even working, and BAM they would just hit me out of nowhere. For those of you not familiar with PTSD or flashbacks, it’s not just like a passing thought about something that happened. It’s like your reality has gone back in time and you are living through the trauma again. It’s real. It’s scary. It’s unpredictable. And it’s really hard to turn off. It’s no wonder that many who suffer with PTSD turn to alcohol to try to drown out flashbacks and negative memories. I tried that route, and it worked, until it didn’t. At first it was an easy way to get those thoughts and scenarios out of my mind. I would gladly suffer through a hangover if I could stop the thoughts for a while. That, of course, led to my really extreme alcoholic drinking. That’s when my anger came out. Sufferers of PTSD tend to have anger issues due to suppressing their feelings for so long. I always kept my anger in check unless I was drinking, and then the gloves were off! My little, petite self became a brawler at the drop of a hat. There were times that I fought whomever I was with in complete blackouts. I didn’t even know what happened until I sobered up and was told the next day. It is difficult for me to look back at that. I have accepted that it is part of my past, and I have made amends to those who I can, but it’s still difficult.
The good news about this PTSD thing, is that there are some great treatments for it. I have written about the fact that I take medication to treat my depression and PTSD, and that has made a huge difference in my life. Being properly treated has saved me and I believe it was a huge help in removing my compulsion to drink. I have done, and continue to do, a lot of therapy and step-work about my traumas and while emotional and exhausting, I’ve benefited greatly from it. I also participated in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR). I won’t even try to described what or how it works, but it does!! Here’s how the EMDR Institute Inc. describes it:
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences. Repeated studies show that by using EMDR people can experience the benefits of psychotherapy that once took years to make a difference. It is widely assumed that severe emotional pain requires a long time to heal. EMDR therapy shows that the mind can in fact heal from psychological trauma much as the body recovers from physical trauma. When you cut your hand, your body works to close the wound. If a foreign object or repeated injury irritates the wound, it festers and causes pain. Once the block is removed, healing resumes. EMDR therapy demonstrates that a similar sequence of events occurs with mental processes. The brain’s information processing system naturally moves toward mental health. If the system is blocked or imbalanced by the impact of a disturbing event, the emotional wound festers and can cause intense suffering. Once the block is removed, healing resumes. Using the detailed protocols and procedures learned in EMDR training sessions, clinicians help clients activate their natural healing processes.
You can read more about the specific procedures and what the therapy sessions look like here, if you would like.
What EMDR did for me was take me out of the flashbacks. When I think about the events that triggered my disorder, I no longer feel like it is happening all over again. I recall everything that happened, but I don’t “feel” it. It has turned those memories into just that, memories. I don’t have to live through the physical pain anymore. That’s a miracle.
All of that said, I am clearly not cured! I don’t think that all of my PTSD symptoms will ever be completely gone. I still startle easily, am almost always super-aware of what’s going on around me and I am sometimes quick to become over-stimulated. In restaurants I like to sit with my back against the wall so there aren’t people behind me, and I get nervous when there is someone walking behind me. However, I have learned how to tell when my feelings are rational and when they are irrational, and I try to act accordingly. And, believe it or not, I haven’t felt the need to hide in my bathtub for a long time!
If you, or someone you know is suffering from PTSD, please know that there is help out there, and that the odds are there is treatment that will really improve your quality of life.