The soul cannot forgive until it
is restored to wholeness and health.
In the absence of love - how can one forgive?

With an abundance of love, starting with one's self,
forgiveness becomes a viable opportunity.
-Nancy Richards

Thursday, February 7, 2008

PTSD and Me

For me this is a very vulnerable post, but I also think it is an important one. Dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was another significant aspect of my recovery from abuse.

For many years, my PTSD went undiagnosed. I didn’t understand the origins of many powerful and terrifying feelings. Even after diagnosis, I didn’t know I was experiencing PTSD until after the symptoms went away. Learning to identify my feelings of terror and impending doom as PTSD - while I was experiencing them - helped my healing process tremendously.

During young adulthood, my PTSD episodes were extremely dramatic. They quite literally threw me back to the past – seeing before me people, places, and terrifying events from my childhood, rather than the innocuous event in the present. I remember one flashback where I instinctively leaped wildly over a porch railing, down a small embankment and landed with a thud in the soft dirt of the ground beneath.

These imaginary episodes were swift, violent, and ended as quickly as they started. They left me shaken and confused.

When I was in my thirties, although my PTSD was not as dramatic as before, it was more unnerving, harder to identify, and lasted for longer periods.
A puzzling aspect to these episodes was that I no longer saw the events from the past. The incidents were in the present; yet, I unknowingly felt the events from the past. This gave me confusing messages that were not easy to decipher.

Fortunately, my therapist diagnosed me with PTSD and I began the process of understanding how to cope with these episodes. My counselor told me that when we have an adult experience that unconsciously reminds us of a traumatic childhood event, we become “triggered” and terrified because of unresolved childhood feelings. This is very confusing because the “little one” in us (whose life did feel threatened) believes their survival is at stake, yet the adult is confused because they know that nothing is happening that will cause their demise. So, it sometimes felt like my survival was at stake, but I didn't know how to calm my nerves and “prevent my demise” because nothing in the present seemed to be a life threatening event. My therapist told me that when I am terrified, I should place my feet firmly on the floor, take deep breaths and really “feel” the present, while calling on images of someone safe - offering my inner child the safety she never received. I spent many years placing new comforting images on top of the old terrifying images, in essence reprogramming my sense of safety in the world.

I think the most frightening ways PTSD manifested itself at this point was in my "intimate" relationship. If I was hurt, and my partner didn't recognize my hurt, I tried frantically to get him to understand. On the adult level, I only knew that I was desperate for him to understand - on the child level, I thought I was going to die if he didn't "get it.” I would keep it up, becoming more and more frantic and agitated until I finally disassociated and never resolved the pain.

After learning to recognize this desperation as PTSD, I’d say to him, “Oh, oh, I am experiencing PTSD! It feels like I am sinking in quicksand! Please lend me a hand because I don’t think I can do this by myself. This is about me - not about you. It feels like my survival is at stake.”

At that point if he did get it - great! If he didn't, I had to leave and reassure myself that I was safe as an adult, and to work at resolving my childhood feelings.

My PTSD also presented itself in the presence of anyone who seemed to have a matriarchal role in my life. A few years ago, I went on a four-day women’s retreat with my aunt and my two daughters. The last night I went to bed feeling “on edge,” experiencing that familiar sense of “impending doom,” as if my world were coming to an end. Shaken by the unknown cause of my fear, I hoped the morning would magically bring solace.

The disappointment of waking up still terrified brought the realization that I was experiencing PTSD. But why?

As we arrived home later that day, I realized, my PTSD was caused by all the time I was spending with my aunt. I was afraid something was going to happen and that she would reject me just as my mother (grandmother, and three brothers) had. The child-me felt like she would not survive the rejection of my only remaining family member (other than my children). On the other hand, the adult me realized this had nothing to do with my aunt or the present, this was about my mother and the past.

For the most part, I did come to terms with my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Occasionally, my mind still convinces me that an unimaginable disaster looms just around the corner. I can spend days living "on edge" with feelings of unknown impending doom until I "shake myself" and remember that my fear is just my companion PTSD. Usually, I recognized my feelings as PTSD right away. In either case, this realization calms my nerves and reminds me that my fear is in the past and that I am safe in the present.


KarenP said...

Thank you for this post. I don't experience PTSD as severe as yours but I do experience it, nonetheless. I very much relate to how it affects relationships and the desperate need for someone to "get it". I felt so sad for you when you described one of your PTSD moments. I'm so glad to know that you are finding healing and restoration even in relationships.

Anonymous said...

I am finding great comfort and peace in all of this information you are sharing - because your experiences are confirming that which I am also suffering from. You have obviusly done an immense amount of work in your recovery and I congratulate you for that. Now you are helping others like me. Your post about PSTD is very helpful. I go through the same exact thing!! Especially the part about being frantic for someone else to "get it"! I have been told by my family (mother, sister, brother) that I am sick and need medication since I began questioning our disfunctional family system in my late teens. I've never taken medication, but beginning around age 20 I now think is when this PSTD really kicked in. It makes me feel crazy, even though I have always believed that I am the only sane one. I am 40 now and just finally became completely alienated from my family 1 1/2 years ago. Oh the pain and anguish this new "stage" of torture has produced. While speaking with my Aunt the other day, she reminded me that this current alienation is now protecting me from further abuse. And here I see your web site confirming that and so many other premises (i just found out about scapegoating last year!!) I, like you, have many supportive people outside of my immediate family that give me great strenghth. But recovery does feel like a never ending process and as such is at times incredibly difficult to endure. I have no hope now for a reconciliation, so I continue to struggle on this journey to heal from my side. It is difficult. I know we all have our burdens to bear (and lessons to learn) in this realm but this estrangement thing is exceptionally cruel. Well, anyway, thank you again for sharing and confirming the difficult realities of family estrangement, as well as your ongoing journey towards healing. God Bless you.

AbuseAndForgiveness said...

Dear Karen and Anonymous,

Thank you for your comments. It does my heart good that the sharing of my recovery is helpful to others. It does seem that many of us with PTSD struggle with the desperate need for others to "get it."

Anonymous - I can really emphasize with your experiences! The pain of estrangement is a profound loss and rejection. I too was labeled as the sick one. I have since learned that in order to protect their own denial, it is very common for family members to tell the person confronting the abuse that they are sick.

When I read "Divorcing a Parent" by Beverly Engels, I found the following comment on page 106 very validating:

It comes under a section titled, "When Siblings View You As the Enemy":

"They may see her as the crazy, neurotic, or troubled one—yet, ironically, this child is often the healthiest and strongest of all. She is the one who had the courage to face the truth about the family, to seek professional help for her problems and to confront her abusers."

As I've said before, with growth comes loss, and eventually greater strength. I'm glad you have supportive people to help you continue to heal.

God Bless you too!

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I will continue to refer to your site and read the book about divorcing ones parents as well. Thank you very much - your words ring true and are completely supportive. Your continued work on your own healing is helping others like me to heal as well. You are a blessing.

AbuseAndForgiveness said...

Thank you!

Angela said...

You've described my experience with PTSD to a "t" pun intended. I have never experienced the more dramatic form that you describe, but I do lose my ability to "reality test" situations in the present, and I struggle with feelings and reactions that are sometimes inappropriate for the current situation. That sense of impending doom is something that tips me off right away now, but I still struggle to get grounded in the present, and it does take much longer for these bouts to abate. This is a great post. Glad I stopped by....

AbuseAndForgiveness said...

Dear Angela,

Thank you for stopping by, and for your comments.

I loved your "You Can Stand Under My Umbrella" post. You write beautifully!

Marj aka Thriver said...

Thank you for submitting this for THE BLOG CARNIVAL AGAINST CHILD ABUSE this month. This is an excellent personal account of PTSD. I can so relate! I hope you will continue to join us for the monthly carnivals!

AbuseAndForgiveness said...

Marj - Thank you for creating the Blog Carnival Against Child Abuse, and for all the work you do in the survivor community!

Boshemia said...

Thank you so much for sharing. I have PTSD and Fibromyalgia which all too often go hand in hand. It can truly be a nightmare.

I have my PTSD under control at this point, I can sleep at night again and have learned to trust those around me to protect me so I don't always have to be on duty.

I will be back to read more, what a wonderful resource. If you don't mind I will add you to my website at since it seems we have similar goals.


Anonymous said...

I am so glad I came across your blog. This is such a help to me at this time in my life. I have had therapy and it helped me in many ways. I had high hopes that it would take the fear away. I go through periods of time where I feel extremely strong and able to take on the world. This week I had a trigger and now I am feeling so distressed. I sometimes do not even know that I am distressed. Lately I feel like doom is just around the corner and I get scared to look in other people eyes, even my own husbands. He is a great man and never has hurt me. It can be so confusing when I am in this place in my mind. I have been questioning if this is normal. Thank you for your courage to open up your lives to us on this courageous journey.

AbuseAndForgiveness said...

You're Welcome Susan!

Thank you for stopping by and for sharing. Yes, I know that feeling of "impending doom."

It is confusing when the past gets mixed up with the present.

I wish you continued healing on your journey!