“Many suffering from PTSD don’t understand their symptoms, which can be very severe and easily mistaken for permanent mental illness.” -Belleruth Naparstek, Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal
Part 2 of 3
Last week, just in time for pulling this article together,I happened to catch an episode of a popular TV drama, “Madam Secretary.” That episode happened to be about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and it presented PTSD* with an accuracy I found pleasantly surprising.
It touched on several issues I’d been wrestling with writing about, including PTSD among women, PTSD at work (a focus of my next column) and the destruction that can come when PTSD is ignored.
What the show got right. The title character, who had witnessed a violent assassination, seemed unable to sleep at night or to slow down during the day. She felt guilty for having survived when her trusted bodyguard didn’t. She had vivid flashbacks of the event, including being trapped under the bodyguard’s corpse. She was unable to look away from her son’s violent video game. She shook her head “no” as she answered a question “yes.” Her skin was flaccid, her eyes darted and her shoulders rolled forward. She lashed out at others, often inappropriately (and once with serious consequences). Perhaps most poignantly, she avoided discussion and eye contact with those who cared most about her.
And those were just the highlights! (Or should I say low lights?)
Why this rang true to me. As a former Marine Corps captain, I’ve met many PTSD survivors. As an MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) practitioner, I’ve worked professionally with several of them. Finally—and this is the part I wrestled most with writing about—I’ve been there. I knew PTSD’s symptoms well from having had them.
Yes, I myself went through PTSD. That’s hard for me to admit—for many reasons. For one thing, my trauma wasn’t combat-related. It wasn’t even physically violent. So even once I realized I had the symptoms of PTSD, I resisted the label—as many non-military sufferers do.
(As someone said to me, “Saying you have PTSD when you haven’t been to war feels like disrespecting our troops—like you’re fraudulently taking a Purple Heart.”)
But, as covered in my last column, many non-vets do experience PTSD. About 8% of all Americans do: far more than serve in our military. And more than half of these people are women. Root traumas for either gender can be criminal violence, long-term abuse, an accident, illness or even the loss of a loved one. Knowing that this can happen, and what it looks like, can save someone’s life.
My story. In my case, the precipitating trauma was my son-in-law’s PTSD-related suicide after his combat service in Iraq.
I know that sounds bizarre. How could I be traumatized by my son-in-law’s suffering? How selfish that sounds! Of course, the loss was fundamentally my daughter’s, her children’s, and his family’s. And that story is theirs to tell. For now, my daughter has encouraged me to tell mine, in hopes of helping others understand PTSD’s scope.
My story starts as my stories always used to: I meant to fix things! I was the “mama bear”: ferocious, invincible. I was a winner, a problem-solver. I was a Marine, dammit! Forward march! (Or, as we Marines say, “HOO-rah!”)
To put it mildly, my usual approach didn’t go well. Yes, my daughter healed, but only through time and her own inner strength. As for my part, the harder I tried to help, the more distant she seemed—and the more helpless I felt.
After a difficult year, my sweet girl and her two children left Seattle, where we had all lived, for a new home in California. I realized only then that something was terribly wrong with me.
My feelings of failure were overwhelming—as a mother, as a veteran, as a corporate VP and—most shockingly to me—as a meditation practitioner, yoga instructor and exercise enthusiast. Everything I thought I knew, everything I thought I was, seemed meaningless.
For months, I slept only fitfully. I had vertigo and panic attacks. I lived in terror of the proverbial “other shoe” dropping—that is, some new trauma striking my kids. I felt wild mood swings and energy surges, too: alternating between exhaustion and “pedal to the metal” intensity. I walked obsessively—3 times a day, 2 miles at a time—to try to regulate those surges. (I later learned that PTSD disrupts the body’s neural network—that is, its electrical system—causing many people to experience bodily “power surges” and “brown-outs.”)
Inevitably, I crashed, big time. Shortly after, I had my first of two life-changing epiphanies. I read “Full Catastrophe Living” by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the Western pioneer of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. From page 1, I realized that this approach was unique and powerful. Within a year, I enrolled in the world-famous MBSR training program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. And little by little, after time, study and practice:
I. Got. Better.
But I didn’t get better just through study and effort, although both certainly helped. My second life-changing moment came when, defenses down, I confessed to an old friend that I felt I was on a cliff’s edge. Gently, he asked me, “What is one little thing you can do to help someone today?”
That simple question stunned me and, in doing so, flipped my perception. Suddenly, I was seeking merely to help, not to fix. I was thinking small, not enormous. I realized what it meant to be fully present in the here and now—the essence of mindfulness. It felt good. I felt good. Something inside me shifted distinctly. And my home stretch of healing began.
Today, I’m thrilled to say, my daughter is happy, remarried, and expecting a new baby. Her two older children are healthy and eager to meet their new sibling. And we are all close. Things really can get better.
What I learned. PTSD can be gotten through, but it can’t be powered through. The more we try to fight it, the more we imprison ourselves in fight mode. And although acknowledging the problem is vital, letting it overwhelm us is harmful. That’s where mindfulness helps. It guides our attention to now: to this breath; this ground we stand, sit or lie on; this moment in which we’re alive. And one moment at a time, it helps us get through–and go on.
If you think you may have, or know someone who has, PTSD, this exercise may be helpful. It’s probably not a quick fix (as I doubt such things exist for PTSD) but it can be very calming and mind-opening.
Next week, in Part 3 of this PTSD series, I’ll talk about treatment options and PTSD in the workplace.
As always, I welcome your feedback and individual stories. Your thoughts are appreciated in the comments section of my website.
*To be precise, I’m not sure the term “PTSD” was even used in this episode, titled “Face the Nation.” But the symptoms were unmistakable in Tea Leoni’s pitch-perfect performance, which you can catch online at Hulu or CBS.com.