Shhh don’t say PTSD

Reconstruction by Genae Vanek

Watching Mama Mia seems like a safe place to hang out with your girlfriend while trying to reemerge back into society.  Of course, during the movie, there’s an intense mother-daughter scene that had me blubbering uncontrollably. I was a bit mortified at first, I didn’t have a tissue, my friend felt horrible, but I recovered with a wet sleeve and we enjoyed the rest of the movie. I have realized that sitting in a group of people I normally would socialize with, I feel like the odd one out.  I think about recently passing by a patient on chemo medication that had lost her hair and how even though she is beautiful, I know she feels uncomfortable in her expensive wig and carefully drawn on eyebrows.  I feel like I am trying to impersonate a normal person, one that isn’t filled with loss.

Hyper-arousal, not what I thought it meant, it’s a term for being easily triggered    I have recently asked people standing around the nursing station to stop talking about death.  For 15min I had three people talking about shootings, the Holocaust, and other tragedies until I had to ask them to stop.  A few days later. during a social gathering at my house, the Halloween conversation about historic mental hospitals had my teeth set on edge.   I just had to politely ask for the conversation to stop.  It’s unconfortable, but you have to speak up if conversations around you are triggering. It won’t be this way forever.

I work in a large hospital, I pass hundreds of people coming and going.  I wonder how many people feel like I do?  How many people have lost a child or a spouse? I look up the word trigger on my phone.  Trigger, a small device that releases a spring or a catch and so sets off a mechanism.  It also is a cause in an event, the synonym is to provoke.   I then look up PTSD, yep, I could fit in that category but we are going to avoid that thought right now.  Oh, crap, that’s a symptom of PTSP avoidance.  So if you can’t avoid your triggers what are you supposed to do about them?

On Sunday a Hispanic woman, I believe new to our church, began wailing at the invitational.  I had never heard wailing before, and it caused me to have almost a physical reaction.  I starte crying along with her.  Her pain was more than I could handle.  I didn’t know if I should console her or leave the room.  After talking with a few people with a similar ethnic background, I realized it is an accepted cultural reaction to feeling overcome with emotion.  I could avoid the women, I could avoid my church, but I think knowing your triggers and what can set off emotions is half the battle.  I will go and I can at least brace myself for that known trigger.  We have to fight the urge to narrow our world to a smaller tiny bubble to withdrawal inside of.  How can I “Be the change I want to see in the world” if I spend it on my couch with my puggle?  It is very tempting.  He’s really cute and snuggly.


Guilt is part of PTSD.  It is common to overestimate how much control you had over a situation and blame yourself for a traumatic event.  A few months after my daughter passed I was given a very vivid dream about choking on change.  I woke up and was mad at God or my daughter for giving it to me it was very realistic.  What kind of vivid horrible dream was that?  As I was talking to my sister about the dream, she instantly said, it’s because you couldn’t change anything.   I now hold that message close to my heart.  (I am also thankful I didn’t have anymore nightmares like it.  Nightmares and insomnia can be part of PTSD.) I still believe we need to reach out and help others with mental health needs and learn warning signs of severe depression, but the would have, should have, those are the real thoughts that will seal my fate to a life of despair.  I cannot live in those thoughts.  What if I had not been on a mission trip to Peru, what if my daughter had been the one to receive a full ride to George Fox University?  Her grades were better than our friend’s daughter that just received one.   The truth is God and my daughter now know that I would have done anything to prevent being in this spot and spending my life letting guilt consume me is not what she would have wanted for me.

We live in this world of stigma.  I have been guilty of it.   We can’t help but wonder when we see someone lose a child to sickness for example, what they could have done to prevent it.  Could they have got to the hospital sooner, find a different doctor, what would we have done differently.  This coping mechanism is to give ourselves a false sense of security that it won’t ever happen to us.  In this process of looking at other people, we secretly judge each other.  This won’t happen to us we are……. fill in the blank.  But bad things happen and we need to stop rationalizing why it happened to them and not us, placing a stigma on each other and placing blame on each other.

Repression and distraction seem to be another game we play trying to move forward.  We want to not withdraw into our own world, but distracting ourselves to the point we cannot think about our loss isn’t healthy either.  I keep telling myself I am doing the right thing for myself as a trudge off to another grief class.  I do it more for my family and my sweet friend taking me. They need me present in this world so I have to do the work now.  I know on the long days I am distracted at work I feel my grief hit me like a load of bricks when the days are over.  Distraction can be helpful, but what you set aside is still always there.  Even if you try to become numb to it.  It’s like foot fungus, you can ignore it, but once you talk your sock off, it’s there stinky and smelly waiting for you to deal with it!

Another sign of PTSD is physical pain.  My youngest daughter ended up in Physical Therapy months after her sister passed with intense back pain.  The muscles in her back had tightened to where she couldn’t move.   A few months later another friend of mine lost her son in a similar fashion.   Her daughter’s back, who had just lost a brother, did almost the same thing as my daughters.  It would seize into muscle spasms.   The trauma of any kind can manifest into physical pain.  This pain is real. Muscles can tense, migraines form from stress, fatigue comes on from emotional exhaustion.  Someone  going through trauma in their life is expending more energy just to do daily tasks.  This is most likely why it takes three times as long to accomplish a task. Plus concentration can become very difficult   I lost my keys while holding them.    Sleep deprivation plagues most people recovering from a severe loss. Side note, Power sleep, an herbal supplement works better than melatonin alone.

Irritability seems to be the most common theme amongst people recovering from a traumatic loss. Our fuses are short and we have no patience for what now seems like it has no purpose and is a waste of time.  I sat in a meeting for days dicussing the color of patient hats.  I could feel myself wiggling around.  I was losing it sitting there discussing the same thing over and over.   I decided I needed a stress ball or fidget spinner next time.  I also like to sit and color when I’m anxious.  I thank my girlfriend that recently gave me a new coloring book, but most administrators in a meeting would not appreciate me pulling out my adult coloring book and markers.  My boss actually asked me if I had an issue.  I just sheepishly smiled.  Nope.







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