I am your typical avid music-lover. I have a soundtrack for every mood I experience and more soundtracks for every twist, turn, and phase in my life. Regardless, I find that most playlists I create somehow end up a song or two from the great Nina Simone thrown in there. So, this morning on my way to work, I’m doing the usual skimming through my daily playlist and the song “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” came on. It’s always been one of my favorites because of how closely I can relate. I know some people believe the song is about the Civil Rights Movement and others believe it symbolizes Nina Simone’s career. But, for me, personally, the song has always exemplified my life with PTSD. Living with PTSD, I also live with the feeling of being misunderstood. I have moments where I feel different from everyone else. I feel like I react to things differently. And because of that, the rest of the world doesn’t “get” me.
For example, I have the typical “arousal and reactivity” symptoms. In other words, I have an exaggerated or heightened startle response. Honestly, typing those words out, it doesn’t seem that bad. But, believe me, it is an absolute nightmare to live with. I don’t just get a little startled; my body automatically goes into panic mode. My heart starts pounding and my palms start sweating. My mind feels fuzzy, as if my brain went on an instant vacation. Sometimes, my ears rings. Most of the time, I jump or twitch and sometimes let out a shriek. (I find this extremely embarrassing when this happens in public.) And this can happen for any little thing. Loud sounds set me off, such as a dog barking, a car back firing, a balloon popping, a horn blowing, or even thunder. Anything fast moving or unexpected sets me off too. (Believe me, when I say that I stay far away from horror movies.)
One time, my wife and I went to her friend’s house for dinner. And this was not only my first time going to this friend’s house, it was my first time meeting her, as well. On the ride there, I had to know if she had a dog. Why? Because if there is a dog, especially one I am unfamiliar with, there is a higher risk of me being startled. And with this being my first time meeting the friend, I did not want to be “on edge.” Well, it turns out she did have a dog. And thus, the anxiety began. When we first got to the house, the friend opened the door to greet us and the dog came charging to meet the newcomers. Luckily, the dog was friendly. However, something running full-speed towards me, was enough to get my heart pounding. I think I was able to appear calm and collected, though. But that greeting helped keep the anxiety going strong. We went inside and while the outward part of me was being friendly and social, the inward part of me was freaking out. I tried to discreetly observe the dog for my own personal startle risk-assessment purposes. I needed to know if it was a jumper or would stay clear of us. I also needed to know if it was the kind of dog that barked a lot because those unexpected sounds get me the worst. (I would have been mortified if the dog barked, and I not only jumped but also went into panic mode in front of a new person.) Lucky again, the dog was a fairly quiet one. We went to the dining room to eat dinner. The entire time, I had to be aware of where the dog was in the room lest there be any surprises. Each time it went under the table, my heart would drop. I was terrified of the dog coming up to me from underneath the table because not being able to see it happen, would catch me off guard and startle me. The dog did stay away. However, there was one instance, the dog walked past me and brushed my leg. Needless to say, being already on edge, I was startled. I jumped. My heart started to pound. My ears started to ring. However, I do not think anyone noticed besides the jump because I have gotten pretty good at hiding what’s happening in inside me. (Or at least, I think I have.) But that sent my anxiety on high alert. Not knowing if the dog would brush past again, I became hyper aware of my legs. I found it extremely difficult to hold a conversation out loud with people as my inner thoughts were dominating my mind. After dinner, we all headed to the sitting room. My wife started to tease the dog with a toy. The dog began to play-growl. As we continued to talk with her friend, inside I was screaming at my wife to stop. I was anxious that the play growls would eventually turn into barks. And if it did, I know I would not be able to control my reaction to the noise. However, thankfully, she did stop and there were no major issues to report from that dinner. I need to emphasize, though, I was not scared of the dog itself. What caused the anxiety, was knowing that at any minute the dog could bark or unexpectedly touch me. And if that happened, I could not control my physical reaction. Therefore, something, as simple as a meal over a new friend’s house, became extremely stressful event for me.
On a different note, I’ve gone to other people’s houses that have had dogs that were more vocal. And each time there was a bark, I would automatically jump. And I’ve had people make comments about it. I’ve had people say after I’ve been startled, “The dog isn’t going to hurt you,” as if that would change my reaction. I’ve had people say, “It’s just a dog. Why do you keep jumping?” I normally don’t go around explaining, “It’s not the dog. It’s actually my reaction to loud noises or something unexpected resulting from PTSD.” So, I have come accustomed to laughing off it. That’s become my way of downplaying things. But these different reactions, have made me feel different from other people. Because it’s not just dogs. I have lived a life consistently one sound, flash of light, or touch away from panic. And oftentimes, because of this, I find myself being misunderstood.
One last thing, to end on a positive note… I have found that when I routinely practice both meditation and mindfulness techniques, over time it has helped make me less edgy. And I have hope, that with continued work, things will continue to get easier.