Storm Warnings and PTSD

by Elouise

Empty_supermarket_shelves_before_Hurricane_Sandy,_Montgomery,_NY

sky darkens
clouds thicken
squirrels panic
birds gorge
breath freezes
cold bites
wind gusts
grocery shelves empty

Storm warnings. Do you know the signs of what’s coming when the storm is called PTSD? I’m surrounded by people living with PTSD every day. Each of us is affected by PTSD even though we may not personally have this disorder.

I’ve never been in the military or hunted down and terrorized in open warfare. Yet I live with PTSD connected to early childhood and teenage trauma at home. It began erupting in the 1980s. I was in my 40s.

Not every abused child ends up with PTSD. Each child has a different personality, a different internal wiring system. A different level of sensitivity. A different support network or lack thereof.

Some don’t bear scars forever, some do. Especially when abuse begins early and continues through childhood and teenage years.

The body remembers what the mind or ritualistic behavior tries to forget or block out. When PTSD breaks out, friends or strangers are perceived as threatening enemies. Bodily systems kick into fight or flight mode. The past becomes a present threat. Old feelings and even old smells and sounds become vivid and terrifyingly present.

It doesn’t matter how reasonable or unreasonable I am just before the storm erupts in my body. Something triggers it, and adrenalin floods my body. I’m in fight or flight mode.

It also doesn’t matter how many lists of warning signs I study. It’s great information. Yet it’s useless if I can’t recognize and respond to signs in my body that warn me I’m vulnerable to losing control.

Taking care of myself means taking my warning signs seriously instead of soldiering on. I was taught to soldier on no matter what. I wasn’t taught to take care of myself emotionally, or how to cherish myself and get my basic safety and survival needs met.

Imagine this scenario. I’m a mature, adult woman, in my 40s. I’ve just gone into panic mode. This is what it looks like:

  • Harming myself more than anyone else, blood pressure probably soaring
  • Flipping out, drowning in panic and anxiety, heart beating furiously trying to jump out of my chest
  • Weeping and raging uncontrollably and without a clear reason
  • Gasping for air because I can’t breathe through my sobs and stuffed-up nose
  • Running to my bedroom, slamming the door shut and wailing in despair
  • Finally (!) opening my dresser drawer to retrieve my handwritten list of things to do first, then second, then….

These days, it doesn’t happen very often. In retrospect, many attacks were connected to D. It took a while, but I finally got it: D is not my enemy. D is D!

D is also not ‘just like my father.’ He is not the embodiment of my worst fears about men. And he is not out to ‘get me’ or, God forbid, break my will.

I know. D isn’t perfect. Yet this is about my wellbeing. I’m not just capable of hurting D, I’m vulnerable to the damage I inflict on myself.

My quick, easy Al-Anon test is my best friend when I need to head off a possible anxiety attack. It isn’t easy to stop the negative energy once it gets going. This test works when I choose to stop everything and take it.

H.A.L.T. Am I . . .

  • Hungry? Eat something! Anything!
  • Angry? Admit it, name it—even though I might be wrong about the true target of my anger.
  • Lonely? Talk about it with someone, or talk to God or myself in my private journal. Tell the truth!
  • Tired? Rest or take a nap; do deep breathing while I’m at it!

The more alphabet letters in my ‘stew,’ the more vulnerable I am to harming myself and others. Including D, my best ally and oldest friend.

Have you had experiences with PTSD, or with friends who have it? What have you learned? What questions do you have? I don’t have all the answers. But someone else might.

Thanks for reading!

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 20 January 2016
Photo from commons.wickimedia.com
Empty grocery store shelves before Hurricane Sandy