My appointment with a neuropsychologist is scheduled three weeks out—another three weeks; there’s a lot of waiting throughout this process. In the meantime, I’m asked to fill out a new patient intake form accompanying a four-page questionnaire.
I’m in the waiting room when a man of slight build, reddish-brown hair, and a face full of freckles walks up and introduces himself. “Olivia? I’m doctor Sigh. It’s nice to meet you,” he says and offers his hand. “Would you come this way?”
We enter his office and I see a sign on his desk that reads, “Just call me Psy.” I smile and say, “Oh, that’s how it’s spelled.”
“Yes. I deal with a lot of adolescents. This makes things easier.” He says with humor.
“So, Olivia, how can I help you?”
For the better part of an hour, I bring Psy up to date on the last few years, my relationship with my husband, the onset of my symptoms, the appointments with other specialists, the tests I’ve undergone, what Casey has said, and my hypothesis.
“From the answers you provide on the questionnaire, what you describe, and I observe, I’d say you’re suffering from post-traumatic stress.”
“Post-traumatic stress? PTSD?”
“Yes. I’d like to schedule another appointment for you to come in for a more in-depth evaluation if you’re interested.”
“Yes. I would. My counselor said that too. But I don’t understand how I can have post-traumatic stress. It doesn’t seem right. It feels more physiological than psychological.”
“You’re correct. PTSD is a physiological and psychological wound. We associate post-traumatic stress with veterans, those who’ve experienced a horrific traumatic event. But the accumulative effects of chronic stress have the same physiological and psychological impact. In your case, living in fear, uncertainty over a long period of time—psychological—impacts our physiology. Your cells literally change under the stress. The body produces higher levels of adrenaline that affects sleep and the nervous system. It lowers our immune response to illness. So, you’re right. It’s both. The source of your PTSD—emotional, psychological abuse—hadn’t been recognized until a short time ago. We in the psychology fields have been aware of it for some time, but it’s just now getting the recognition and management it deserves in mainstream medicine. What you’re experiencing are classic symptoms: nightmares, flashbacks, cognitive impairment, and difficulty focusing and concentrating. These are stress-related symptoms. Fatigue?”
The diagnosis is nothing I could have imagined, but I have a sense of relief leaving Pys’ office. I also feel validated; there is a connection between the stress and my nervous system. I’m also embarrassed and uncomfortable. PTSD? I’m not a war veteran. I am not a victim of a violent crime. I am not a child who suffered abuse. I haven’t suffered to the extent others have and don’t feel the finding is warranted. I haven’t earned it?
Back on my computer, I do more research this time on post-traumatic stress. What I find helps me to understand where I am and what I’m dealing with. One book in particular I order right away, The Trauma Tool Kit: Healing PTSD from the Inside Out, by Susan Pease Banitt, LCSW, and dive into its pages as soon as it arrives. I devour the first chapter and then put it down. It’s still difficult to hold focus and concentrate. After a brief reprieve, I turn to specific chapters. Flashbacks. Nightmares. Triggers. I find suggestions for grounding when overwhelmed by them. The book is extremely helpful, and use it as the title suggests, as one of my tools to heal from the inside out.
Massage therapy remains an essential tool. Monthly treatment keeps the tension in my neck and upper back to a minimum thus lessening the periods of light-headedness and brain fog due to disc degeneration. Plus, it’s therapeutic for overall health and feels wonderful.
Counseling with Casey, continues.
My diet consists of fresh produce, vegetables, fruits, seeds. White meat, red on occasion. No processed foods. No gluten. Low carbohydrates.
Life stressors are kept to a minimum which meant letting go of family. It’s no longer an option for me to struggle with drama and chaos. It’s impossible to do so and heal. “Let go.” .
Yoga a few times a week helps keep me centered.
Meditation is a daily practice and but in practice find that meditation is not limited to sitting cross-legged on the floor in silence. Meditation is also getting lost in my garden, washing the dishes, observing nature, any activity that brings me peace.
My days are short rising around 8:00 a.m. to take care of Wendell, have my coffee, and journal, and meditate. Dress by ten. I choose a task for the day either in the house or in the yard. Focus and energy last for about twenty minutes after which I sit and rest. After twenty to thirty minutes, I get up and do more. It’s a cycle—one for which I don’t particularly care but work with what I have. In the yard I weed, plant, move loam or mow the lawn. In the house I vacuum, do laundry, and dust. I might sort through a still unpacked box or two. By one o’clock I’m done for the day. I shower and rest on the couch, watch television and get up when I need to for Wendell or myself. I’m in bed by nine. This is life now.
What Living with PTSD has Brought Me
Three years ago, I couldn’t have imagined where’d I’d be today. I remain faithful to my calendar, still monitor my activity, and able to get more done even if it’s in inches. A day at a time.
Visiting with my kids remains my priority. I still don’t drive distances, but that’s okay. Carley drives the hour from her home to mine. Joss lives in town. Bev lives one town over. Rainie’s studio is close by. I venture out to visit them when I can.
Everything else is accomplished as I’m able. I run and errand, when I’m done, I gauge my energy. Should I try another? Some days I surprise myself and complete many. Other days I stop after one. I no longer worry about what doesn’t get finished. Everything will eventually get done.
I woke this morning with a heart full of gratitude and thoughts about what I’ve gained. As much as PTSD has taken from me, I think about what I’ve achieved and write in my journal.
What Living with PTSD has Brought Me
PTSD has taken a lot from me: Energy, concentration, focus and as a result, the ability to hold a job. It has diminished my capacity to socialize, to trust, to drive any distance. The list goes on. I loved my career. I loved being a strategic planner. I am not there anymore. At sixty-something one might think I don’t need to be. But I envy those who at my age have the capacity to work at their careers and have the option to do so. I still wish to be productive after all.
For all this disorder has taken from me, I’ve learned some things that I wouldn't have without it.
Priorities: I’ve learned in no uncertain terms what my priorities are and the importance of setting them. First and foremost, my kids, their health and happiness.
I’ve learned that not only can’t I do it all, I was never meant to do it all. That crazy whirlwind of a person, the stressed out have-to-get-it-all-done-because-everyone’s-depending-on-me personality is not even a consideration today. First because I can’t do it. But, in my healing I learn I was never meant to. We are meant to choose and choose wisely. Today what I choose I chose with my heart.
Manipulation: PTSD has honed my senses for detecting controlling and manipulating personalities. I can spot them instantly and I call them when I see them—light years away from the person who made excuses for everyone. Phony, insincere, manipulative—they have a similar scent, and my BS meter tweaks off the chart when nearby. Most of the time I simply turn and walk away. I don’t feel a need to explain myself anymore—not to anyone, not even to myself. If I’m unable to walk away I go into passive mode to get through the onslaught of BS, then walk away when I’m able and dust myself off. It’s the times when I doubted myself and made excuses that got me into trouble—charm is a subtle manipulator. You don’t know you're over your head until it’s too late. Today if my meter is tweaking. I trust it. I walk away. It’s that simple.
Finiteness of life: PTSD has given me a sense of urgency about my life, my identity, and my boundaries. It’s all finite. My time and energy are not limitless. They are priceless. I refuse to allow anybody into my space who would suck energy from me or introduce chaos back into my life. If I come across a person who can push my buttons, I see it, and I bring myself back to center. After all I can’t live in a vacuum. If I could I think I would.
Nature: PTSD has given me a greater appreciation of nature. There is so much downtime with this condition and during my downtime I sit and admire nature. I sit outside surrounded by her and I watch her from the windows inside my home. So much so that I’ve become acquainted with her cycles going predictably from one season to another. Spring is rejuvenation. Summer is full bloom. Fall is reflection. Winter is rest. At times she suddenly erupts with a force that is daunting. Kinda like me. But she’s still beautiful.
I share my journaling with women PTSD support groups. The replies are positive and one of the nicest, “I hope someday I can get where you are.”— If I can help another along the way, it helps me too. This is quite a road.