When I think of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, I associate it with soldiers who have seen great tragedy in times of war, or people who have been exposed to severe violence and trauma. Our veterans who hear a car backfire and are taken back to a bridge explosion or land mine. Victims of 9-11 who are triggered by smells or smoke that bring them back to that fateful Tuesday morning. I always thought it was an extreme condition that completely debilitated those it touched, rendering all affected essentially incapable of functioning on a daily basis.
I knew what we went through with my youngest daughter during her diagnosis and treatment of cancer was traumatic, but PTSD? No. I didn’t have that. Unlike her, I have no physical scars, my life was never endangered. It was only seven months, and she survived! I didn’t have PTSD. But there was that time a few years ago when my close friend called me from an emergency room in Virginia with her own baby who was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma, and I started shaking and shivering. My ears were ringing and I struggled to find the words to comfort her in those first crucial moments of her devastating diagnosis. I was stammering. I was brought right back to our Monday night on November 4th, 2010. My body took over and I couldn’t control it. I kept thinking, “Pull yourself together, help her, she needs you.” But my body defied my brain. It reacted the same exact way it did when we were told, “Your daughter has cancer.” I went back into a semi-state of shock.
Then there are the multitude of instances, when back in the clinic for blood checks, I hear someone’s pump start beeping and my entire body tenses. I clench my jaw, raise my shoulders and squint my eyes. All slight and possibly not recognizable to an outsider, but it happens.
The most recent and damaging occurrence was this past winter on New Year’s Eve day. The night before, my older daughter had been complaining of neck pain. I had shrugged it off for a few days – telling her she probably slept on her pillow wrong. Until I actually touched her neck where it was sore and felt a massive lump. The same kind of lump my little one had on her neck before she was diagnosed. I instantly had trouble breathing. I was with family and had to keep my composure, but my brain was already at the worst case scenario and my heart was flipping inside of my chest. The next morning at the doctor’s office only made it worse. We saw someone on call who was not our usual pediatrician and as she was feeling her neck, she was doing what can only be described as thinking out loud: “Hmm, I know your sister…she had cancer, right?” At this point, with my daughter sitting on the table feeling and looking horrible and with a doctor and a nurse in the room, it took all of my strength to stay focused and not vomit. Thank God it only turned out to be a horrible case of strep throat that caused swelling in her lymph nodes, but the damage had been done. I left the office, dropped my daughter off at home and found myself wandering aimlessly at the pharmacy waiting for the prescription to be filled. My heart was pounding, I was shivering and I felt numb. That one incident started a downward spiral over the winter where I would have panic attacks at work without warning. My heart would start flipping and I would have trouble catching my breath. I now flinch at noises that would never previously have bothered me, and I’ve developed an eye blinking twitch that happens at random. My dreams intensified and, to be honest, I’ve enjoyed a few too many cocktails. It just so happened that my son’s ASD and anxiety symptoms had spiked around the same time due to some medication adjustments. I figured my stress was a result of that. I didn’t have PTSD. Her ordeal was behind us. It’s been over 5 years. It’s over. Move on.
I recently read a segment on the Humans of New York (HONY) Instagram feed about PTSD. A doctor was featured and speaking about the condition and treatment. His words resonated so deeply and left such an impression. “Trauma causes the brain to malfunction. During a traumatic experience, memories cannot be processed correctly. So a person with PTSD is still carrying those traumatic experiences around in their body. If your nervous system is broken, it needs to be fixed. It’s not weakness, it’s science.” That was my ah-ha moment. I’ve spent years telling myself to get over it. When memories of her diagnosis and treatment pop in my head and I quickly stifle them back down. When I can hear her screams as they pulled an infected Broviac tube out of her chest while she was still awake or when I see visions of when I had to hold her down as they cut out a piece of flesh to biopsy for infection with only a minor topical anesthetic. When I find myself absently staring out my kitchen window and replaying the last few days of October before our lives changed forever. “What did I miss? Why didn’t I see it sooner?” Why I think every bruise, every dark circle, every cough is a recurrence. The trauma is still there and I think I finally recognize that my uncontrollable reactions are not weak, nor preventable. They’re neurological. They are a product of the war we went through. The stigma of treatment and medication required to reset the brain needs to be lifted, both self-imposed and society wide.
As timing would have it, I had a session with my therapist today. I shared my thoughts on the HONY post and finally detailed some of the symptoms I have been experiencing since New Year’s. As I was talking, all of the puzzle pieces were falling into place: the trouble breathing, the heart palpitations, the heightened sensitivity to loud, sudden noises. She told me I likely suffered from Acute Stress Disorder: the development of severe anxiety and other symptoms that occur within a month after a traumatic event. Upon further research at home, I read that in order to be accurately diagnosed with Acute Stress Disorder, diagnosis has to occur within the first month after the trauma, and those who continue to experience symptoms, but go undiagnosed, are often later categorized as having PTSD. The memories of her ordeal had been jolted awake on New Year’s Eve after being silent for all these years. The memories had been stifled and buried deep, and the fleeting moment of fear that we would have to walk that road again brought everything to the surface with a vengeance. After her words, things instantly felt lighter. I felt validated and hopeful. It doesn’t have to stay like this. With medication and, possibly, some form of desensitization therapy, I can find my way back and truly start to put our war behind us.
It took me a long time to get here; acceptance. It is far braver to meet these issues head on, acknowledge the need for support and accept it rather than stay in the dark. Who doesn’t want to be the best version of themselves? For your family, your friends, your significant other, your children. For you.
“PTSD: It’s not the person refusing to let go of the past, but the past refusing to let go of the person.”