“Mum… mum… MUM!”
My daughter looks at me impatiently. She has said something that requires a response of some kind. I should know what the right response is, but I don’t. I don’t even know what she has said, or how many times she has said it. Long gone are the days when she babbled at me in toddler language and all I needed to do was smile and nod to appease her. Back then I could fake it. I can’t any more. She requires more of me now, as do all of my children. I try to focus on her words. Around me, there is too much noise. There is too much clutter. There is too much chaos. I am overwhelmed and I feel out of control and it triggers a panic in me. I fight to remain present but I feel the numbness take over. I’m too tired, and I have no fight left in me. It’s too late. Emotionally, I check out. I’m gone.
My daughter sees this. She gives up on trying to talk to me, and walks away. If I had the ability to feel anything at this point, I would be drowning in the guilt of what a failure of a parent I am. But that will come later, when I’ve found my way back from this black void of nothing. Then I will cry tears of sadness for the pieces of me that are missing, and the way that affects the people I love. But for now, I have disconnected. Physically I am present. Emotionally I am no longer there. How long I will be gone for is anybody’s guess. Maybe only moments, often days, sometimes weeks. There’s no telling. However long it takes for me to feel safe enough to surface and be a part of life again.
This is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
And this is my life.
I can’t tell you exactly when I began to realise I suffer from PTSD. Was it the insomnia? The nightmares? The flashbacks? Was it the bouts of rage followed by the chasm of nothingness? Was it the constant numbness and detachment I felt, like I was on the sideline of my life watching but never fully able to participate? The hyper-vigilance? The physical symptoms? Or the crippling anxiety over things that weren’t even real?
I can tell you that has taken me years to piece together, years to understand, and even longer to own. It’s not easy to admit, and it’s even harder to talk about. But the thing is, it needs to be talked about. Because I’m tired of feeling so alone in this. And I know there are others out there who feel the same.
It’s difficult to be a wife, mother of four, daughter, sister and friend, and suffer with PTSD. Because one minute I am here. And the next, I am not. Of all the symptoms of PTSD, this is the one I suffer the most with – what is known as disassociation. Where life simply gets too much for me. Where I feel like there is too much going on, I am too busy, I am too tired, I am too overwhelmed. I feel out of control. It paralyzes me to feel overwhelmed and out of control, to feel there is no clear escape route from the chaos in my mind. It reawakens the traumas of my childhood, when I could not control the things that happened to me, where there was no escape route. And so in order to cope, I disconnect. It is like a switch flicks in my mind, and I am no longer there. I go to where I know it is safe. Because I know that no one can hurt me there.
During those times I slip away from everyone and everything. I lose interest and motivation. The fire inside of me dies away. I stay at home too much and I avoid social events. I do not answer my phone when it rings, nor do I reply to messages. I function on autopilot, meeting the obligatory physical needs of my family, but emotionally I have ceased to exist. I see the confusion it causes in those around me. They do not understand where I have gone, or what they have done wrong. I see the pain it causes to those nearest to me, how they feel pushed away by me. They long to love me, and I am unable to let them in. I can’t. The walls around me are a fortress and they are made to keep people out, to keep people away from the dark places inside of me that reek of shame and are stained with blemish. They were made for solitary confinement, and I find comfort in this penitentiary where I feel such bleak, satiating, nothing.
I want to stay here forever. I want the world to leave me alone. The darkness wraps around me like a heavy blanket and I want to succumb to the weight of it. I cannot be coaxed out, and those that try suffer my wrath. I’m on my time, and I will do this my way.
Eventually, some time later, I begin to feel warmth from the ashes of the fire that never quite went out. I am numb, but I am no longer cold. I look up, and I begin to notice the world again. I see beauty, and I am moved by it. The walls of my fortress begin to crumble. Love and light flood the darkness, and they feel like resuscitation to my heart. The numbness falters, and I begin to feel again. I’m on the road that will lead me back to life. Until the next trigger. But for now, I am back.
PTSD has taken so much from me, but what I grieve most is the inability to be the parent I long to be. Most days we do well. But there are days I cannot connect, days where I am so absent and unaware of what is going on in the lives of my children. I can’t be the fun, energetic, creative, playful parent that they see in other mothers. They ask me to come into their classroom and help – they don’t yet know that that I can get so overwhelmed with anxiety that I can’t leave the house. They don’t yet know what it takes for me to make it to their assemblies, their basketball games and their music lessons. That on those days I am fighting a silent and invisible battle that they can’t see or understand. I am often wrought with feelings of guilt and failure, but I am slowly understanding that if the best you can do is crawl, then that is the best you can do.
I’ve come to accept that PTSD will always be the Achilles heel of my life. I’ve stopped trying to fix myself, cure myself, heal myself, and most importantly, lie to myself that this isn’t a real thing in my life. The research has been done, and shows the long term effects caused by early childhood trauma, especially that which was sustained over long periods of time. Some of these effects include drastic changes to the brain – changes to the hippocampus (learning, memory and the part of the limbic system which controls emotions), the medial prefrontal cortex (long term memory and decision making) and the amygdala (emotions – especially fear detection, emotional behavior and motivation), as well as a complete rewiring of the neural circuits.
The increased levels of cortisol in the body, due to prolonged stress, also impact the brain’s response to inflammation and impair the immune system and the body’s ability to heal. As Debra Wilson, a researcher on PTSD, writes, “Trauma in early childhood predisposes the individual to autoimmune disease later in life.”
Some of you may be cynical of this research, but it’s impossible for me to deny any of these things. They are my reality. I know them to be true.
And whilst there may be no cure, there is awareness and there is understanding. There is healing in coming out from the shadow of our shame and bringing our stories into the light. As we begin to mend ourselves, we begin to mend each other. There is hope in simply knowing we are not alone.
Yes, this is hard for me to write. But I know it is harder to suffer alone and in silence.
And sometimes, all it takes is for one voice to break through the silence to cast light into our darkest places.
May my voice be heard. You are not alone.