She closed the door and fell back against it breathing a heavy sigh of relief. Her sister and three children had just left after a two day visit and endless pressuring about her choice to skip the annual family Christmas gathering this year. The wreath she’d thrown up two days ago while she ran through the house Christmas-izing scratched at her ear.
Heaven forbid her sister report back to her parents that she was completely against Christmas this year and “not functioning well.” She wasn’t exactly against Christmas, in fact she thought she may just leave the decorations up. She was just tired, constantly overwhelmed lately and just so easily irritated, it was like she had been injecting shards of glass into her veins and they were catching on every little thing. Fragile. That was the word she was looking for. She was fragile this year. Christmas didn’t go well last year and right now, she was not coping very well at all. She just couldn’t face a crowd of happy faces in the state she was in.
She’d grinned and bore it for way too long now, this year she just did not have the energy to paste on the smile, walk through the hell of Christmas travelling and endure the relentless versions of “Why don’t we see you around anymore?” or for those family members who never kept in touch asking, “So, how’s work going?”
Uggh. Thinking up excuses on the spot was exhausting for her. The truth? She’d been diagnosed with PTSD and after only partial treatment her employer had let her go. Truth was, she spent her days struggling to keep her head above water and relying completely on her husband for support…and 2 years had already passed. The honest to God truth? Her family denied her diagnosis and was still expecting her to just snap out of the “funk” she was in and head back to work. In their opinion, “Those damned therapists don’t know what they’re talking about, you’re not crazy! You don’t need them, you just need to come home and rest up for a few months.” Her arguing that she in fact wasn’t “crazy” that she had an “injury” and not a “mental illness” fell on deaf ears. It most certainly would not be miraculously cured by living under the same roof as her overbearing mother again.
She knew her mother meant well but the last thing she needed was to have another meltdown in front of 20 friends and family members while having her mother whisk her away into another room, calling excuses over her shoulder. “Oh, she’s just jet-lagged, Oh dear, you’re exhausted, you need some rest.” and then giving her the third degree behind closed doors, “You need to snap out of this, I’m tired of having to watch you do this to yourself. In front of the Carmicheals too! Pull yourself together and come back down to apologize.”
She remembered the incident as clear as if it had happened yesterday. She, bent over hyperventilating because her cousin had decided to bring a fresh rabbit and plop it proudly, in all of its raw, disgusting, fleshy form on the dining table, and then her mother, sternly telling her to shape up!? She and her husband had flown back home the next day making up some excuse about his being called in to work.
The rabbit was enough of a reminder of the woman she’d seen hacked to bits in the hotel room that day three years earlier, that her body just started to react on it’s own. First came the shaking in her belly and she tried to head it off by breathing deeply and looking in toward the kitchen. Then came the tightening of her chest as she tried to contain the images of that day which began to flood into her mind. Then the hyperventilating and the tears and then the sobs as her tea cup crashed onto the floor of the parlor.
She’d stood up, poised to run from the room, but to where she hadn’t a clue. Everyone was staring at her in horror. How dare she make a scene, right? Mom swooped in then and steered her out of the room. Heaven forbid the appearance of the perfect family be shattered by the “crazy” daughter.
She placed her hand on her head and breathed in deeply expanding her belly and feeling the tension in her body. She pursed her lips and let it out slowly, feeling the tightness release from her muscles. The plastic wreath continued to scratch at her ear and she swiped at it, suddenly agitated. Down the hall her cellphone vibrated. It was probably her husband, Allan, calling to see if her sister and “the brood”, as he called them, had left yet. She reached behind her head and took down the wreath, letting it simply fall to the floor. She’d get it later, she reasoned, right now she just needed to calm her nervous system. It had been a long two days.She took immense pride in the fact that she’d held herself together, if only by the skin of her teeth. Her body felt tense, tight and uncomfortable.
She closed her eyes and drank in the silence of the house. The distant hum of the furnace, the dripping sound from the fishtank; all of the sounds that are supposed to be. Everything was right again in that moment; as it should be. She breathed deeply into her belly again and out slowly feeling the tension fall from her.
She thought then of her mother and how proud she used to be to tell anyone who would listen, “This is my daughter, she graduated medical school, she works for the Coroner’s office.” It was never lost on her that her mother had subtly left out that she wasn’t exactly a doctor. What she really was, was a medical school graduate who had decided not to practice medicine, instead turning her expertise toward death investigations and taking a position with a friend, the county coroner. It was 18 long years of witnessing untold trauma and brutality but she loved what she did. Seeing the slight tinge of relief mixed with the anguish on the faces of families when they learned what exactly had befallen their loved ones, finally having the answers they wanted, that was what made it worth while. Each death was a puzzle that she solved for people to ease their minds so their hearts could begin the long journey toward healing. She was good with them.
Maybe that’s why it had happened to her. Maybe she’d cared too much. No one will ever know why it happened to her that day, all she knew is that it did and it wouldn’t let go. Her boss, her “friend”, gave her six months to get her head together”on his dime”; he handed her the card of a psychiatrist colleague and said he’d give her a call in six months. When he did call back, it was with an excuse, they were really backlogged on cases, they needed to get some files moving…he’d had a chat with Stan, the psychiatrist over lunch…they had a new trainee coming on board…it would be for the best if she sought employment elsewhere, maybe in a new field, like research. Her letter of termination followed a few days later and she retreated into herself, going into a sort of cocoon phase in her room for months as her poor husband screamed and cried and smashed things trying to force her back to life.
She’d eventually come out of her room but mostly to save face, Mom had demanded it. Mom had called Stan and ordered him to set her right, “put her in one of those retreat centers or something, I’ll pay. Don’t you doctors have those for when you get a nervous break?” Uggh, Mom, always about appearances but too self absorbed to take the time to understand. The treatment was another six months. It was horrific. Drugs that didn’t help, nightmares that didn’t end, sleep meds that didn’t work, reliving that day in narrative over and over and over in minute detail, it was like beating a dead horse. She spent her nights pacing, afraid to sleep and her days afraid of being awake.
One morning a massage therapist came in; something about the tiny room, the calming scents, the relaxing music had her feeling safe in her own skin for the first time in about a year. Another week they invited a yoga instructor in, she stretched, breathed and suddenly found herself overwhelmed but instead of berating her, the instructor had encouraged her to release the emotion that she said was “being held in her muscles”. They never covered that in physiology classes.The yoga instructor taught her how to be grounded in her own experience of the world, to understand the transience of our moments and how important it was to live in those moments, to be mindful of them and appreciate them for what they granted us with.
In two months of yoga and massage, she had begun to feel more free from the things her mind chose to focus on. She began having fewer nightmares. She felt that she was the one in control of her life again- for the most part.
It was a hard learning curve but she gradually came to accept the PTSD symptoms as part of her new experience of the world and understood her necessity to minimize the stress in her life. She knew she could never go back to the person she used to be, that person no longer existed, instead, there was this person, the one who was easily overwhelmed with noise, with visitors, with crowds, with reminders. The one who shook to her core at surprises, nearly jumping out of her own skin. The one who’d had her blinders removed.The one who fully understood the true nature of the evil that exists in the world because she had walked so closely with it for so many years. Those things change you. When you walk daily with death, seeing what it sees, knowing what it knows, you begin to understand your own mortality and the fragility of life itself. You become well acquainted with evil and the places it lurks. You can’t hold onto that for so long without it changing how you need to approach life.
She could feel her tension falling away from her. The coolness of the front door pressed into her back. She looked around the room and spoke into the silence, “I am here. I am safe. There is no one else to look after, only me. I am calm. I am centered. I am Me.” She inhaled deeply again and exhaled slowly through pursed lips.
Her phone vibrated again. She knew the impact of the visit would come in the hours that followed. This was routine now, she accepted it for what it was, a necessity. Her body would need to let go at it’s own pace. She may experience a crying jag, sudden shaking or perhaps bouts of disconnected anxiety flooding through her. “This is simply how the body now lets go of stress.” She will have to gently remind herself, “I have PTSD, this is how the body and mind release now. I am not superhuman. This is the legacy of my injured brain. This is perfectly normal.”
She moved away from the grounding of the cool front door and felt glad that she could get back to her daily recovery routine. For two whole days her serenity had been interrupted. She spoke aloud again, “Hello, house. It’s so nice to have you back all to myself again. Let’s be silent together for a while, shall we?” With that she made her way to the livingroom, sat down on her yoga mat, placed her hands on her knees and closing her eyes continued with her deep breathing, focusing only on the flow of her breath. The worries and pressure about missing Christmas would have to wait, Allan’s reply would have to wait, for in this moment, there was nothing but her, the mat, the room and the peaceful necessity of her routine.
*** Author’s note: As per usual, very rough draft, open to critique and suggestions for revisions.
Routine is very important in the life of a person with PTSD. Routine provides a sense of control over one’s experience, it can be calming, enhancing to a person’s self confidence and empowering. Restoring a sense of control in one’s life is important to maintaining the progression toward healing the symptoms of trauma. Thus when routines are interrupted it can generate internal chaos, anxiety symptoms, agitation, ease to frustration or anger and it can lower the stress thresholds, making hyperarousal to trauma reminders more frequent. When one is not coping quite well, the pressure to perform for others, be it attendance at social functions or family gatherings, can place a lot of undue strain on an already overwhelmed nervous system. It is important to understand how your loved one with PTSD is coping and refrain from pressuring them to attend social functions, this is never more true than during the holiday season. Instead, it is important to support them in their decisions, perhaps work on compromises and understand that having PTSD is not a choice they make, it is merely an injury they’ve sustained and must cope with however inconvenient it may seem.
Wishing everyone peace during this, most stressful of seasons.***