What PTSD Isn’t
I hear it all the time.
You have such a great life now! You should be happy.
It’s in the past, stop dragging it around.
You have a new home and a kind husband now, why can’t you let go?
Let me explain something- PTSD is not a condition of ungratefulness. I do not have PTSD because I fail to recognize and appreciate how beautiful my life currently is. PTSD is not me dwelling in the past, it’s the past dwelling in me. It’s not a choice I made. I didn’t wake up one day and say, gee, I think I’d really enjoy having intrusive memories flood my brain in an endless loop for days on end. Or, hey, it would be great if I could still be having nightmares four years after moving and starting a new life! And it surely isn’t something I do, or talk about, for attention. I don’t even like attention, I like to be left alone. Alone so I don’t have to hear every condescending comment and piece of well-intentioned-but-useless advice.
PTSD can come from many different circumstances. Domestic abuse and sexual assault are causes. Witnessing something horrible, like an accident or tragedy can cause it. And of course, all the sights and experiences that military personnel endure can cause it too. I haven’t met a single person from any of those situations who was ungrateful. If you were homeless, and now you have a home, you haven’t been cursed with PTSD because you aren’t grateful enough for the roof over your head. You have PTSD because trauma physically alters the pathways in your brain. You have PTSD because your brain has been stuck in fight-or-flight for so long that it automatically goes there first now, instead of as a last resort. You have PTSD because your amygdala pretty much runs your entire brain now.
If someone would care to explain how being grateful can re-wire my neural pathways, I will surely listen. But as feel-good as it is to give the advice “just think positive!” it just doesn’t work that way, not with this. I don’t have PTSD because I’m not grateful to be alive. I am. I don’t have it because I don’t love my new life, my husband, my children, my home. I adore my family and our life together. PTSD does not mean I’m never happy. It means that in the midst of a happy day out with my family, a comment, or even just a loud noise, can send my mind into a tailspin of intrusive memories that I cannot stop. In that moment my mind and body revert immediately to fight-or-flight. It means that mid-conversation I can suddenly forget what I was saying and lose focus. I have to fight through the images of the past flooding my brain to find my train of thought again, and sometimes I can’t. It means I jump every time I hear a loud sound, and then all my brain can think about is when is that sound going to happen again. I have to be prepared, or at least my brain thinks so. In your experience, it’s just a loose screen door banging in the wind. In my experience, very bad things happen after a door slams. Yes, even four years later I think that way, and in reality that cautiousness will probably never leave me. No, it’s not fair that I want to curl into a ball and cover my ears any time my husband raises his voice. No, I’m not somehow confused or unsure of how absolutely wonderful and kind my husband is. It’s just the way my brain reacts, all on its own. I fight it as much as I can. It’s exhausting. Sometimes I win, sometimes my brain does. All I can hope for is that one day I win more often.
The sad thing is, the people who make such comments to me, inferring that I’m ungrateful, believe that they are supportive of mental illness. They don’t realize that their support is superficial, and in our society, I can’t blame them for that. Everything that we’re presented with makes it appear that there are simple solutions. If a child is hungry, we must find a way to feed them. Then the child will be ok. No one mentions the life-long impact hunger can have on a person emotionally. Ensuring that a child has a decent meal at school helps, but it isn’t everything. That child needs so much more support than a full belly can provide. A sexual assault victim needs more than to see their attacker jailed. A homeless person needs a house, but they also need compassion and understanding. A returning veteran needs more consideration than just avoiding fireworks in their neighborhood. We are not ungrateful for our meal, our home, our very lives, but PTSD is not that easy to fix. If it was, none of us would suffer. Not me, not my young daughter, no one. And no one would ever need therapy. Children wouldn’t need to learn to express themselves after years of quieting their hungry cries, or watching their mama treated badly. Veterans would come home happy to be alive, and that would be that. And I would be able to live my wonderful new life without my trauma haunting me.
Until then, I’m not going to stop talking about it. I’m not going to stop advocating for therapy, in all it’s forms, and services for people facing trauma. Mental health will never be a problem to be solved. It’s too complex for that. It’s a journey. And if my journey can help someone, anyone, have more empathy for others with PTSD or mental illness, then I will drag myself down this path. But please, please don’t mistake my talking about it for being ungrateful. That isn’t it at all.