Written By: Ann-Marita
It’s a common theme in movies and on TV. A war veteran who jumps at loud, sudden noises, and attacks an innocent person, confusing them with a perpetrator from the past. Yes, this describes a person who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. What many people seem to be unaware of, though, is that PTSD also affects survivors of other types of trauma that are not related to combat. Rape victims, accident survivors, survivors of physical and psychological abuse, to mention a few. According to The National Center for PTSD, more than 7% of Americans will have PTSD at some point in their lives.
Myself, I fall into the “physical/psychological abuse” category, and I’ve been living with Complex PTSD for years, from—among other things—an abusive relationship. About a month ago, I was at an event where fireworks were set off right near where I happened to be standing, and the sudden, unexpected bang made me yell out loud, crouch down, and nearly throw myself on the ground, seeking cover.
As you probably understand, these types of reactions can kind of cramp your style when attempting to rebuild your social life following the traumatic event. Other people will usually either think you’re nuts, get slightly frightened of you, or simply freeze, eyes darting from side to side, while they’re trying to figure out how to handle the situation.
A person who suffers from PTSD or C-PTSD will most often do their best to integrate back into society’s norms, but once they’ve had a few episodes like the aforementioned, they might end up feeling like freaks and retreat back into their safety zone.
PTSD is also not just about being in chronic “Fight-or-flight” mode and being easily startled or hyper-vigilant. It’s much more complex than that. (As if that in itself is not complex enough.) The National Institute of Mental Health mentions these following symptoms as signs of PTSD:
- Frightening thoughts
- Avoidance behavior (Staying away from places or objects that might remind them of the traumatic experience.)
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Guilt, depression or worry
- Losing interest in activities they used to enjoy pre-trauma
- Trouble remembering the event
- Feeling tense
- Difficulty sleeping
- Angry outbursts
- Negative thoughts about oneself or the world
- Isolation or detachment from family and friends
- Substance abuse
In short, a person who survives a traumatic experience and develops PTSD is not the same person they were pre-trauma. This is something family members, friends, and co-workers tend to have a hard time accepting. Any PTSD sufferer will have heard some or all of the following statements at some point during their recovery process:
“You just need to get out there and get back to your life again!”
“This happened so long ago! You need to let it go and move on.”
“You’re still talking about this? Why are you torturing yourself?”
“I miss the old you. I hardly recognize you anymore.”
“You’re being completely irrational.”
A survivor of domestic violence might hear the following more specific statements from well-meaning people:
“The person who abused you is [in prison/in a different state/dead/insert other non-present status], so why are you still afraid they’re gonna show up here?”
“By living this way, you’re letting your abuser win. This is exactly what they wanted.”
“You need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get out there and meet some new people.”
“You gotta get back on the horse, it’s the only way.”
“You’re wallowing in your misery. I love you, and I can’t watch you do this to yourself anymore. You’re gonna stop this. Now.”
Here’s a piece if advice to onlookers. Tough love does not work on a PTSD sufferer. It’s actually a pretty surefire way to make them retreat further into their shell. I know your heart is in the right place, but here’s the thing: A PTSD sufferer is not “doing this to themselves”. They’re not consciously making the decision to make their own life a living hell, and in turn affecting yours. Believe me, if I could control my trigger reactions, I would have done so a long time ago. If I could simply let go of my fear, anxiety, depression and negative thought patterns, they would already have been dropped like a sack of old clothes. I want to live my life to the fullest again, I want to feel excited about the things I always loved to do. I want to “get out there” and reconnect with people. And I can bet you anything that the person you know with PTSD feels the exact same way.
So what can you do to help, you ask?
I can’t speak for everyone, obviously. Every single situation, trauma and person is different. A person who is suffering from PTSD following a bad car accident might need you to sit in the car with them as they drive slow circles around an empty parking lot, in an attempt to get used to driving again. Someone who was brutally attacked by a burglar might need to feel that it’s OK to call you if they wake up from a weird noise in the middle of the night. And so on. Above all, if you want to truly be someone they can rely on and trust: Be attentive. Don’t judge. Listen. Even if you’ve heard the story many times before. Give hugs if they’re wanted. And don’t force hugs if the person is unable to handle physical contact. (And if the latter is the case, don’t be offended. It has absolutely nothing to do with you. Unless, of course, you’re somehow connected to their traumatic experience.) Some people who suffer from PTSD might not want to talk about it at all. They might just need to be sitting in silence with another human being present in order to find their way back to some resemblance of normalcy. In that case, be that human being if you can. Always remember, try your best not to let their pain hurt you. And—unless you have suffered from PTSD yourself, don’t attempt to understand how they’re feeling using your own logic. You can’t.
To use myself as an example, what I’ve always needed the most from people who cared about me, is this:
Feeling like I’ve been heard. That I’m able to tell a story—that for whatever reason has bubbled up to the surface—without feeling ashamed, judged, or cut off—mid-story or emotionally speaking. If a sound, smell, song, or circumstance triggers an irrational response in me or a memory that I’m reliving again at that moment, I just need someone to take the time to sit down with me and listen. No matter how far-fetched the connection to the triggering factor seems to be, no matter if the triggered memory is 30 years old or something I’ve already told you about before, no matter if you’re not able to understand why this particular trigger is currently affecting me this way—it just is.
Remember, PTSD has no expiration date. It can show up years after the traumatic event. And unfortunately, some sufferers live with PTSD for the rest of their lives. I’m no psychotherapist, but my humble opinion is that shame and fear of judgment perpetuates the issue and further bolts the door to recovery shut. Let’s let communication seep through the cracks around that door. And let’s work on patience. Attentiveness. Community support. These things could mean a world of difference to a person whose world has grown increasingly smaller as they’ve been trying to protect themselves against a threat that—to you—is invisible.