I have suffered with complex PTSD in silence for over 30 years. After years of suffering and self-sabotage, I reached out for help.
Understanding People With PTSD
I am writing this article mostly to help those of you with someone in your life who struggles with prevailing episodes of PTSD. Hopefully, what I write here will inform you of their struggle so that you can empathize with them—as opposed to merely sympathizing with them or, worse yet, getting angry with them because you don't understand what may have triggered their behavior.
What PTSD Feels Like for Me
An Alter Ego
PTSD is like an alter ego that pokes its head up often at the most inopportune moments. No, I don’t mean to say it’s like schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder, but it can make a somewhat simple person into a pretty complicated one—quickly and without warning.
A Monkey on My Back
It's like I have a proverbial “monkey on my back." Think of your worst addiction, and think of when you feel an intense craving or urge come on. That is what PTSD feels like to me.
For me and many PTSD sufferers I've talked to, PTSD makes us feel trapped. Although we might wear a confident face when we are out in public, it's oftentimes a mask we put on to ensure that no one gets in our way or challenges us (which can prompt us to go into fight-or-flight mode. Deep down inside, we constantly second-guess everything we do. Over time, once we start getting used to a person, we will be able to put on an air of ease, even when our minds are screaming to get out, and our hearts are pounding out of our chest.
These analogies may not fully describe the experience of all PTSD sufferers, but I hope that by sharing how it affects me, you can get a better understanding of how PTSD can affect someone's life.
My Traumatic Experiences
I've had many life-altering traumatic experiences throughout my life—both in my military life and post-military life (of over 30 years). Most of these experiences had to do with death and being brought to the "Doorstep of Death." From my understanding, it’s the multitude of incidents that makes my PTSD complex, hence the diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD).
The most difficult part for me is not really being able to put my finger on what my triggers are, and it is the same for many other sufferers as well.
Nine times out of ten, grocery shopping is a normal affair. But that tenth time can get very touchy for me. I would have to leave in a panic to remove myself from the area—the enclosed space of the store. This has become enough of a problem that I have sometimes changed my entire routine just to be able to complete my grocery shopping.
What triggered the panic? I haven't a single clue. It could have been the perfume or cologne someone was wearing. It could have been standing in the checkout line and feeling like I was blocked in with no escape. It could have been the mannerisms of someone in line or the cashier’s demeanor while dealing with the customer ahead of me. The thing is that my trigger is an unknown for me. All I know is I have to escape, and my fight-or-flight response kicks in. I know fighting is not acceptable, so I look for ways to get out.
The Struggles I Have With PTSD
For those PTSD sufferers who have experienced a similar feeling of panic but, in the moment, don't recognize that fighting or lashing out is not appropriate, I send my heartfelt sorrow. They may hurt an innocent bystander, either physically or verbally—usually over trivial things. You may blame the person for acting inappropriately, but it's important to understand that oftentimes the panic is out of their control. As I've mentioned, it is like an alter ego. A monkey on my back. An affliction that is difficult to control.
Breakdown in Communication
Conversations with people I don't know well can be very challenging, to say the least. I have a tough time understanding what they are trying to say. Thankfully, through the use of an exercise my doctors and therapists have taught me, I have learned how to ask for clarification by saying something like, “I hear you, but I am not sure I understand what you are saying. Here’s what I heard. Is that correct?” I have also learned to wait patiently for a response.
I know that this can sometimes be very irritating for someone who normally doesn't like to repeat themselves. However, I've found that most people I've interacted with appreciate that I took the time to make sure they were understood correctly. It certainly helps me out a lot. And although it sounds simple, it has actually taken me a lot of practice to be confident that this will help me avoid any misunderstandings.
If they do squabble about my repetition of their words, I have found that it's not worth my time to continue the conversation. In my experience, walking away usually signals to them that maybe they should be more patient with the process. But if not, then so be it; I just walk away and try to forget. However, I have to be careful not to make a habit of this because in doing so, I may be left without the information I need to get things done.
This is even more difficult when discussing personal or controversial topics—especially with people I am close with. Most people I know who suffer from PTSD will shut down halfway through a conversation if their partner becomes offended by their repetition of every sentence. Oftentimes, this results in one or both parties feeling unsatisfied with the outcome.
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What you should understand is that during these personal discussions, both parties often wear their emotions on their sleeves. Sometimes, the discussion gets heated, and snide remarks are made—and they can be taken literally and become quite destructive to the relationship if left unaddressed.
In all of my relationships (with friends, family, and my partner), we have worked for several years to get everyone to understand my struggle with communication. Now they know that if they see me posturing in an uncomfortable manner, or showing a displeased or lost expression, they will try to take the time to ask me, "What did you hear? How did you perceive what I said?" It does not always work as planned, but at least we all know what page we might be leaving the discussion on.
Trust is fragile enough without the added complexity of PTSD. Like many other PTSD sufferers I have met, I want to have control over all situations. I have been working for two years to just try to let go and give some credence to trust. In my own experiences, trust is a huge thing, and I do not give it out very easily. But day by day, I am getting better at giving up some control to others.
What you need to understand is that the lack of trust is usually not personal; it's more of a defense mechanism for many PTSD sufferers and certainly for myself. By putting my trust in others, I am opening myself to disappointment and hurt—and I will turn that hurt inward, isolate myself from others, and punish myself.
We Do Everything We Can to Stay in Our Comfort Zone
Some of us tend to live in our own little bubbles. We only surround ourselves with people who we know will allow us to live in our comfort zones and not judge us. New situations and places put us in a "defensive mode," as I call it. We will be uncomfortable and have our guards up. We will look for ways to tactfully remove ourselves and find a place where we feel we have more control. This can be as simple as stepping outside, retreating to a corner of the room, or backing ourselves to the nearest wall.
It’s not to say that no one with PTSD is pleasant to be around or that we won't talk to people around us. It just means that our conversations may be cut short—to the point where it may even come off as rude—especially with those we are not familiar with. Basically, we tend to look for an escape in most social situations unless something necessitates us being there. Outside of our "safety capsule," we are not willing to give more than the bare minimum.
Loss of Time (And I Don't Mean Constantly Being Late)
Losing time is a constant worry in my life. The other day, I was asked if consistently being late to work qualifies as losing time. No. This isn't the loss of time I am referring to. What I am referring to are the lapses in time—when you can remember what happened during a period of time—due to episodes of panic.
I have lost hours and even days—sometimes consecutively over the span of several days. I've found it to be both scary and problematic for me. I have come home from an appointment, taken a nap, and experienced a nightmare that triggered an episode spanning several days. I have literally woken up to a sink totally full of dishes with no memory of ever eating or preparing food.
This is especially problematic when living with other people, particularly a significant other. Forgetting an argument or an arrangement you had can definitely lead to misunderstanding. They may think that you are dodging responsibility and using "loss of time" as an excuse. In the worst-case scenario, the other person may even try to take advantage of this and try to guilt you into doing things for them.
Understand that during these episodes, PTSD sufferers are not themselves, and they likely won't remember what occurred during the episode.
Food for Thought
Not all PTSD sufferers experience these struggles. In fact, there are many who live through a trauma and never display any of these symptoms. But the point I want to make is that many of us struggle with communication and trust, and we often struggle in silence, keeping everything to ourselves. And yes, we just have to put up with coming across as a jerk because we don't feel comfortable with letting our guard down and opening ourselves up to others.
Understand that this is due to traumas we've suffered in the past and the fear that it will happen again; that if we begin to trust someone, they may betray our trust and hurt us.
Please give grace to yourself and others who may be suffering from PTSD and experiencing these struggles. I am sure it is not their intention to hurt anyone, but if they do cross the line, it is okay to explain to them what they did wrong. Be good to yourselves.
Great Resources to Better Understand What Life With PTSD Is Like
When Someone You Love Suffers From Posttraumatic Stress by Claudia Zayfert, Ph.D and Jason C. DeViva, Ph.D.
I enjoyed reading this book and found it to be a great way to share the experiences and struggles of a PTSD/CPTSD sufferer. Whenever I get a new housemate, I always encourage them to take this book from the shelf of my library and read it. I have found that it helps give them more insight into what I struggle with, which helps them better understand and relate to me. The authors explain PTSD triggers better than I can in this article.
Fight Not Flight: The Key to Stopping Anxiety by Boyd Brent
This is a great tool to help someone work through anxiety and prevent it from causing problems in the future. I often reach for it when I am experiencing anxiety to help me stay grounded and get a better grasp of reality.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2019 Gary