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The Many Faces Of PTSD

Most days, I still don't think that I look much like someone with PTSD. This is an odd thought whenever I interrogate it: I look like myself, my self has PTSD -- ipso facto, if A=B, B=C, then A=C -- I look like someone with PTSD. But it's still hard for me to.
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Most days, I still don't think that I look much like someone with PTSD. This is an odd thought whenever I interrogate it: I look like myself, my self has PTSD -- ipso facto, if A=B, B=C, then A=C -- I look like someone with PTSD. But it's still hard for me to see.

Before the acronym was assigned to me, and sometimes even now, after a few years of conceiving of it as an intrinsic part of me -- the P-T-S and Ds coiling around the G-C-T and As of my DNA strands, I've imagined -- my predominant association was with combat, with Saving Private Ryan. I would think of the scene in The Hurt Locker where the soldier-protagonist stands in a grocery store staring at an endless row of cereal boxes under fluorescent lights, shellshocked, unable to function in a civilian context. I'd think of generic images of withdrawn men, whose rage bubbled under the surface, who lashed out violently at family members who just couldn't understand them.

My perceptions of PTSD were as flawed as they were limited.

This remains the case for most of our society. "Post-traumatic stress" is a phrase that usually only bubbles to the surface of our collective consciousness in the wake of violence -- the massacre at Fort Hood, the mass shooting at the Navy Yard complex in D.C. Our culture is one that, as a whole, is usually only spurred to discuss mental illness at all after an incident involving violent death.

This has a way of conjuring up some damaging connotations -- and they are to all of our detriment. Enter: PTSD Awareness Day, created in 2010 to combat our society's profound trauma illiteracy.

I'd intended to write about this day, the goals of its campaign, in the third person, without any kind of personal narrative. I wanted to address that during any given year, an estimated 8 million to 13 million adults in the U.S. have PTSD, that 8% of all Americans will develop PTSD in their lifetimes, that if you search "post-traumatic stress disorder," a turquoise blue Google sheet pops up in the sidebar, labeling it "very common."

I was going to detail how an estimated one out of every nine women in this country develops PTSD, which is at about twice the rate that it affects men. I'd have mentioned that 70 percent of Americans have an experience that classifies as a "trauma," with 20 percent of those developing post-traumatic stress symptoms. I was going to emphasize how PTSD can certainly be caused by combat, but also by, among other triggers: sexual violence, emotional abuse, natural disasters, harassment, car accidents, chronic illness, experiencing a robbery, being stalked, shootings, neglect, the sudden death of a loved one, discrimination, kidnapping, a family member with addiction or mental health issues -- even witnessing another's trauma or spending prolonged time with someone who has PTSD.

I'd planned to record all this in careful, removed detail.

But then I thought about the difficulty of conceiving of myself as someone with PTSD, how this had interfered with my ability to feel like I'd even deserved treatment -- I'm not a soldier, I'd thought, I haven't been shot, watched a friend be killed. I thought about all the red-eyed research I'd done on trauma -- seeking to understand just how and why it was intent on keeping me from sleep, from feeling anything but high-grade terror, keeping me even, at times, dissociated and separate from my own body. I thought about how many others I'd discovered who shared this sort of diagnostic imposter syndrome, a hesitance to claim a label that felt unearned.

I thought about how absurd it would be to feel like one hadn't earned the discomfort of, say, heartburn -- and then to feel crushing shame and guilt for even thinking that the pain they felt in their stomachs and throats was something worth being treated with any kind of seriousness. I thought about all the veterans who are so often unfairly and harmfully painted as violent, out-of-control abusers who could explode at any moment.

Finally, I thought about how connecting with others is a central facet of PTSD treatment; I started writing in the first person.

PTSD is a natural response to trauma; it's a body's attempt to take care of itself -- as July Westhale has written, what happens when your body "just needs a goddamn second OK" -- that goes a little, to a lot, overboard. And my point, this PTSD Awareness day, is simply that many of our bodies -- millions of our bodies -- react this way.

To showcase just how trauma can and does manifest, The Establishment has compiled a series examining the issue. Far from a comprehensive overview -- especially in a society so fraught with trauma -- it is a drop in the bucket.

But hopefully a few more people will be able to see their reflections in it.


There's No P In My TSD
Sandra Joy Stein

"After six weeks in the neurology unit, the encephalitis affected my son's brain stem, which stopped reliable communication with his heart and lungs. We were transferred to the ICU. Crisis alarms rang. Medical teams ran in. Doctors and nurses took over for my husband, who was already performing CPR. My son thrashed in pain and agitation as his brain withstood his immune system's assault. Doctors told us his prognosis was good, if we could support him through this acute phase via multiple life-sustaining surgeries. The constant beeping, the red crash cart parked outside our door, the stale smell of the doctor's breath as he stood too close to discuss my son's 'death dives' -- I felt nauseous at all times."

Four Survivors On Living With PTSD In The Wake Of Sexual Violence
By Jenna Glatzer, Jonita Davis, Elizabeth DeHoff, Dorri Olds

"Thirty years after it happened, I'm still up until dawn most days, waiting until my nightly watch has ended and it's safe to sleep. Because it happened when I was so young, I never got to know who I might have been without it -- whether I really am a night person, or have just made myself so. Whether or not I would have had such deep battles with depression and anxiety that I've laid waste to every well-intentioned platitude; what doesn't kill you doesn't always make you stronger. Sometimes it just goddamn screws you up, but you keep fighting anyway, rebuilding yourself with found things and whatever sticks -- gluing it all together and screaming when it comes undone again, because you had reinforced it this time and this isn't supposed to happen anymore."

"Rachel Yehuda, one of the leading epigenetics researchers, and her team at Mount Sinai, studies mass trauma survivors and their offspring. Scientific American reports that Yehuda's latest results reveal that 'descendants of people who survived the Holocaust have different stress hormone profiles than their peers, perhaps predisposing them to anxiety disorders.' This supports the old adage I used to hear in the alternative health circles I used to run in, that the unconscious isn't in the mind, rather the body is the unconscious. The body remembers, braces itself, screaming danger in response to a stimulus whose threat has long passed."

"In addition to seeing a psychiatrist and taking antidepressants, I've been in therapy for the last decade. This has been life-changing in helping me confront my feelings and issues surrounding my father's suicide. But although I've come a long way, I know PTSD is something I'll struggle with for the rest of my life. And unless you've experienced it firsthand, helping someone with the disorder can feel like trying to navigate a minefield without a map -- especially given our society's tendency to push people to 'just get over it,' which can make those suffering feel the need to hide what they're going through."

"In her article for the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies, Dr. Winell acknowledges that RTS is very similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. When I speak with her via video call, however, she outlines the differences, telling me that RTS is more comprehensive and 'really destroys your whole approach to life. It's like the rug gets pulled out from under you in every way, because religion defines everything -- it defines who you are, your relationships, your purpose in life, your view of the world, your view of the future, your view of the afterlife. The whole house comes down.'"


Other featured stories related to trauma and PTSD include:

This piece originally appeared on The Establishment, a new multimedia site funded and run by women.