You’re not crazy. And your anxiety and weariness is real. All too real. You’ve not asked for advice and I’m not going to give any. But I thought you might find it helpful to hear about my own experience of PTSD.
I became good friends with an ‘old soldier’ (literally) who was finally diagnosed with PTSD (as well as bi-polar, OCD and depression), years after the (multiple) traumatic events that caused it. We connected in various ways, first as companions, eventually as friends.
One of the things he (later) told me was profoundly helpful was that I generally accepted his accounts of what he was going through. He told me later that encountering that acceptance of his own way of telling what he was going through was a very rare experience for him. At the time, I was more or less the only person who did that.
Most people, on hearing about his pain, wanted to offer advice (almost never of any use to someone going through the complexities of PTSD, OCD etc). Others wanted to ameliorate his account of how bad things were (very tempting for people who simply can’t imagine that it can be “that bad” — it certainly can!!). And amongst his faith community in particular, others wanted him to trust that God was, I don’t know, healing him or something, in spite of what he was continuously experiencing.
He used to complain about how people in his (Pentecostal) church would be quite happy to recognise a physical ailment, such as a broken leg and to generously accommodate and support people impaired in that way. Yet they seemingly couldn’t bring themselves to recognise the “invisible” reality of what he was enduring. Even though, in many ways, his problems were probably much more debilitating than a broken limb.
So it turned out that simply by hearing and accepting his account(s) of his suffering and trauma brought a measure of succour and support. If I could encourage anyone who finds themselves alongside a person suffering a mental health impairment, it would be to, first of all, accept that person’s account of the reality they are experiencing.
Why? Because that’s the kind of acceptance that we all need. And people suffering mental health impairments need that just as much. Not necessarily any more than others. But certainly not less. To deny them that is a form of “over-standing” — standing over a person and telling them you know better than they do…about themselves and their experiences!! Arghhh! That is the very opposite of “under-standing”. Which is what we do when we stand and provide a measure of uplifting support to someone who’s strength is presently failing.
So, why was my response to my companion different to that of so many others? It certainly wasn’t by design. I think it never occured to me not to believe his account. Indeed it seemed the only appropriate standpoint. If one doesn’t stand where another person is standing, how can one possibly appreciate what they are experiencing? (Yet appreciating it still doesn’t mean one knows what might help. One almost never does.)
I think part of what made the difference is that I found my companion’s opening up about his pain actually gave me permission to acknowledge my own. I’ve never been diagnosed with a clinical condition. But as I listened to and began to understand what he was experiencing, to acknowledge his vulnerabilities and how debilitating they were for him, I found it helped me to acknowledge my own experience of inner pain. Which was something I’d been led to deny the significance of all my life.
Fast forward a number of years to where I am today and I am able to identify in that experience with my PTSD-suffering companion the seeds of a measure of my own healing.
For me that “measure of healing” included learning to listen to my own body, as well as my heart. Something that I’d previously been very poor at. In particular, I discovered a condition identified by psychologist Dr Elaine Aron as “High Sensitivity”, which seemed entirely apt to me (it’s quite possible that I also have elements of ADHD, as well as a definite propensity for depression, but an understanding of high sensitivity unlocked a personal diagnosis that was liberating and empowering.) Around the same time, I also began to research some of the problems with the Western diet and to understand how the human “gut” is a highly significant contributory source of mental health issues.
Each of these things were helpful to me. I mention them because they are part of my story. They might spark something useful in yourself, as you seek to discover greater self-understanding. However, there is another thing that represents what I really wanted to say to you when I began writing.
It is this…
As I began to emerge out of the practically lifelong experience of enduring inner pain that seemed (to me) not to have any particular root, I realised something that I never had before. I realised that the “forces” of anxiety and depression (those I identified as the primary ones that assailed me over the years) were not enemies. They were friends.
I’ll say that again: They were friends. They were “friends” that had sought to protect me when every other resource was depleted. They stepped in, when I got to the end of myself and all the “coping” mechanisms I used to avoid facing (and appropriately responding to) my pain. These “friends” were actually trying to protect me from further harm.
They did this by magnifying the awareness of my pain, so that I eventually had to:
- stop engaging in the merry-go-round of activities that had reduced my capacity to cope,
- acknowledge my pain and
- physically rest— something I generally resented having to do, most of the time.
For years, I resented these “personalities.” I treated them as enemies that were stopping me from functioning effectively. I treated them as the substance of my dis-ease — my lack of at-ease-ness with life. But they were not the reasons for my dis-ease. They were the symptoms. They were the forces that stepped in when other systems were failing to protect me.
If they were the symptoms, what was the root?
It was trauma suffered in childhood. I would venture to suggest that this is a reality that many of us carry into adulthood. We think we’ll “grow out of it” when, sadly, we actually “grow into it” even more, by developing sophisticated coping mechanisms (which are important to keeping us functioning, but they don’t protect us from overextending ourselves.)
When everything else fails to stop us overextending ourselves, forces such as anxiety and depression effectively “step in” to protect us from inflicting further trauma upon our souls.
My own experience is that this can be an authentically liberating realisation. I am now at a point in my own life where I feel that these “friends” feel a bit overprotective. So I acknowledge what they are “telling me” yet reserve the right to make my own decisions! It’s an ongoing journey. You never know when they are going to turn up! But now, instead of treating them as intruders to my life, I sit down (metaphorically speaking) and listen to what they are telling me about myself and my limits. This typically helps me to rest and that usually helps everything else.
I don’t know if any of this is helpful. You may be dealing with a trauma that makes it difficult to reckon or identify with my experiences or perspectives of them. I do know that a couple of other people to whom I’ve shared this insight have found it gave them some useful food for thought. So I simply offer it to you, as is.
And, in the meantime, may I share a simple blessing with you?
May you find surprising peace in your soul,
even in the midst of fear and anxiety
May you find unexpected joy in your journeys,
even in the midst of turmoil and panic
May you find the elusive capacity of rest — and enjoyment of that rest —
even in the midst of whelming emotions.