I want to start this article by clearing up a nasty rumor about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD does not have to be combat related. PTSD is not something that only military members experience. Without going into the DSM-V criteria of PTSD (because that is not what this is about) it basically involves experiencing something traumatic, where there is a threat to life or safety. There are also specific symptoms that accompany the experience. Avoidance, always on alert, not liking crowds (these are a small few and not all).
After working as a military social worker for 8 years there are a few things that I have encountered regarding PTSD which fuel my passion today to continue helping people. The first is working with individuals who are sitting in front of me, in pain and anguish, suffering for years with PTSD. Many times they arrived at my office sleep deprived, angry, dealing with relationship strain, and something was spiraling out of control at that very moment. I knew that they had barriers. Stigma. The warrior ethos. Time. I also knew that they did not need to suffer because I had seen so many people get BETTER when they were at their worst.
The other thing that I was confronted with on a fairly often basis was this: Informing a person that they were dealing with PTSD and their response being, “but I don’t look like someone who has PTSD”.
Wow. Powerful, right? Well what does PTSD “look like”? Is it the homeless vet asking for assistance at the corner light? Is it the alcoholic at the bar talking about how much they endured? Actually, PTSD could look like one of your friends who went through a sexual assault. It could look like a family member who had a house fire and lost everything. It could look like the neighbor down the street who got in a car wreck and watched as a body was pulled from the other vehicle.
It could be your sister, daughter, friend, wife, mother. It could look like me; because I have PTSD.
However, I had no idea. There was a point in my life where I felt like my head was barely above water. My biggest fear was that if I told someone how bad I was struggling, I would lose my job (I’m a therapist!) and my kids (I was going through a horrible custody battle). I was holding my life together by a thread and ironically the only thing keeping me going was helping others. People in my life knew my stressors, but no one ever asked if I was okay. Therapists are supposed to be okay, right?
It is no fault but my own that people didn’t know I was struggling. If we don’t tell anyone we need help, then how can we expect people to read our mind? Also the motivation to get better lies within. The first time I told someone I was struggling was my primary doctor. He was awesome. I remember sitting in his office and knowing I needed help with sleep and mood, but so SCARED I would lose my job. He made me feel human, and he also listened. He did for me what I did for others. I still didn’t think I had PTSD, I just felt that I was struggling with “stress”.
About a year later, I had a consultation for an unrelated issue with another doctor. In that consultation he started asking me questions no one else had asked me. It was more about my functioning and how I was “coping” with “stress”. Well in that visit he said to me, “You have PTSD. You know this, right?”. I didn’t have an answer. He pointed out to me all the things I was doing, and how they were efforts to control safety or seek safety. I was unable to see it for myself. I didn’t need a label, but understanding what was going on… was freeing.
What does PTSD look like? Me. I too had barriers to seeking care. I minimized my experience and didn’t think that was what I was dealing with. Do I continue to struggle because I have PTSD? No. I have been able to seek help and because of my own experience I also have a deeper understanding of what barriers and issues that others face.
My message in this article is this: Don’t wait to ask people if they are okay. Don’t wait to ask for help. Finally, don’t discount that the face of PTSD can be any one of us.
To all the men and women who have trusted me in their healing; thank you. Your strength has helped shape me into who I am today. Keep using your voice.
If you or someone you love is dealing with PTSD here are some resources:
Resources for military members, families, and vets: Real Warriors
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
PTSD apps: look up PTSD Coach and Breathe to Relax (both are evidence-based).