June was PTSD Awareness Month. Let’s acknowledge this condition even outside of its respective commemorative month.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) starts in the mind. Memories, emotions, nightmares, fears, and other subconscious creatures run amok the synapses, neurons, chemicals, hormones and other physical aspects of the brain.
I am not a medical professional. I’m writing this because a friend confided in me that she was having difficulty finding compassion for a co-worker (I’ll call him Tom) who was in a car accident. His left arm was crushed and amputated and he was later diagnosed with PTSD:
“I just don’t get it, he’s happily married, has a newborn son, is good looking, and is right-handed for God’s sake. He needs to get over it and come back to work. Soldiers in battle who lose both legs are the ones who have PTSD. I think he’s just trying to get more disability insurance.”
He may be committing insurance fraud. I don’t know her co-worker.
But I do know a few things about PTSD and would like to stop the misunderstanding, and hopefully, the condemnation. (If you need more medical insight on PTSD, click here to find information from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s website.)
Instead of addressing the man’s physical handicap, I’m going shed some light on PTSD by looking at my friend’s statement:
1. “I just don’t get it…”
PTSD is an individual’s reaction to a traumatic event and that’s why you’ll probably never fully ‘get it’. Three people who experience the same tragedy may handle it very differently. I’ll give three examples, but there are many more!
One person may talk about it willingly. He comes to terms with the pain and sorrow by talking and feeling the support and love of those around him. He feels safe, moves past the event, and eventually doesn’t need to discuss it as much. Be patient with this person and let him ‘talk it out’ as often as needed.
Another person may be overcome by the pain and sorrow. She may be shocked – numb even – as she quietly processes the ordeal. This person needs time and space and a lot of support when she opens up. She then, hopefully, is able to move on and find pleasure in life again. Let this person know you are there for her whenever needed – and then be there for her.
And the third person, my PTSD example, is sucked into a state of anxiety that you can’t possibly ‘get’ unless you actually experienced PTSD. This third person suddenly exists in a reality where those subconscious creatures I talked about earlier seep into consciousness at very inopportune times. These ‘intrusive thoughts’ are unwelcomed and can be terrifying.
The next time you want to understand but just can’t – be grateful you’re not in this person’s head and give him a break.
2. “…he’s happily married, has a newborn son, is good-looking, and is right-handed, for God’s sake.”
PTSD numbs the mind to things that were once enjoyed and appreciated. Like depression, PTSD sucks enjoyment out of life. That’s what separates those who ‘can’t understand’ from those actually suffering from PTSD. Someone who is ‘down’, having a ‘mental health day’, or hesitant about starting something new can shake off the depressed feeling, wake up the next day, and start again. By definition, people suffering from PTSD/depression/anxiety can’t.
Because Tom is happily married, has a reason to live because of his newborn son, is good looking, and has a right hand to continue building his life – but still can’t show up for work – makes me think he does have PTSD. With all the goodness surrounding him everyday, he still can’t function.
3. “He needs to get over it and come back to work.”
Getting up and going to work gives us a feeling of accomplishment, reason for living, and the ability to pay bills while saving for vacations and retirement. We all complain about work, endure bad bosses, lazy co-workers, and engage in deadline warfare. But, we still get up and go to work. If we’re honest, we’re grateful to have a job that pays for our services. If you aren’t grateful, get yourself another job. You deserve to look into it for your own mental health!
The fact that Tom can’t get back to work is another red flag. Before the accident, my friend would tell me wonderful stories about her job’s tight-knit community. She often talked about Tom and how his wife would hang out with everyone after hours! Tom even organized some of the get-togethers in town.
Yes, he does have to come back to work. The fact that he can’t and is seeking professional help is a tribute to his sense of self. Just conjecture on my part, but I bet his wife is behind getting the professional help for him. Thank God he has her in his corner.
4. “Soldiers in battle who lose both legs are the ones who have PTSD.”
God bless our soldiers and the pain, sorrow, and loss they experienced. That they’re not all walking around with PTSD proves how individualized trauma is. Two soldiers, one loses his arm, the other loses both legs and his eyesight. The first is diagnosed with PTSD and struggles every day to free his mind and emotions from intrusive nightmares. The second struggles with physical hardships, but without PTSD’s mental torment, his resilience soars. Because PTSD isn’t breathing down his neck, the second soldier moves on from the trauma and establishes a new reason for living. Horror rained down, but he can still see that life is good.
I’d like to think the second soldier doesn’t judge too harshly the mental struggles of the other. I’m sure he wants to tell him to ‘buck up’ and all that. But really, deep down, I’m sure he’s thankful he’s not tormented by PTSD and can get on with his life.
PTSD is something not wished on another.
I was diagnosed with PTSD after the birth of my stillborn son. Though my traumatic event was very different from a soldier at war, the symptoms are similar: insomnia, irritability, inability to concentrate, easily startled, suicidal ideology, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, avoidance, and overwhelming guilt or shame.
It’s not how you or I think a person should react to a traumatic event. It’s what was going on in the person’s mind before, during, and after the event.
5. “I think he’s just trying to get more disability insurance.”
As I said before, ‘He may be.’
But how can we know for sure?
I do know PTSD is treatable. PTSD sufferers need to be believed, and helped. The fact that Tom is searching for help means he is very brave. Not many people are strong enough to open up about all the craziness going on in their mind.
More people should.
So, give anyone struggling with mental health problems a break. The stigma involved with acceptance is as difficult to shoulder as the diagnosis itself. They should be praised, supported, championed even. They realized they needed help and were brave, strong, and humble enough to ask for it.
And that’s the way mental health is treated.
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