I always thought that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) only happened to veterans. So I was surprised two years ago when my entire family was diagnosed with PTSD following an accident. It wasn’t an easy process, but today my children and I are stronger, more resilient people because of our journey.
Here are three important things I want to share about my PTSD experience.
PTSD can happen to anyone who experiences something traumatic
PTSD is a behavioral health condition resulting from trauma such as a natural disaster, act of violence, serious accident or personal assault. It can also happen to anyone who has witnessed such events. In my family’s case, it was surviving a terrible accident in which I pulled my two drowning children out of the water and revived them with the help of a passerby.
“PTSD can happen to anyone, adult or child, and isn’t a sign of weakness,” says Amy Seiders, MDLIVE vice president of product and licensed marriage and family therapist. “Sometimes it’s hard to move forward after something traumatic or scary has happened, especially if the event was long-lasting or you were personally injured.”
PTSD is intense and lasting
Following a traumatic event, it’s normal to feel stress, sadness, anxiety and a range of other emotions for days or even several weeks. But with PTSD, your symptoms can be intense and can persist for months or years. Eventually they can interfere with your normal functioning.
Some of the symptoms my children and I experienced include:
Vivid, uncontrollable memories of the event. My children and I feared and fought sleep, afraid to close our eyes for fear of terrifying nightmares and constant memories in which we felt all the same feelings we experienced at the time of the accident. We couldn’t stop them or shut them out.
Fear and avoidance of anything that reminds us of the event. We still avoid walking or driving past the scene of the accident as much as possible. Last summer, the kids also “forgot” how to swim, so we worked with a swim instructor who specializes in children who have suffered trauma in the water. We can’t watch or listen to a news report about a drowning. Scenes in movies and TV shows that depict drowning are still incredibly upsetting.
Feelings of “detachment.” The PTSD journey is lonely. Few people can identify or have patience with your struggles. My emotions were so overwhelming that eventually my mind just shut them off, and for awhile I was unable to feel any emotions at all. I described this to my therapist as feeling “numb.” I couldn’t explain this to my loved ones, so began pushing them away, which only added to my isolation.
Hyper-arousal. For many months (and, to some extent, still), my kids and I were easily startled and found it difficult to calm down afterwards. Thunderstorms sent us huddling together and shivering until they passed. One day when my boss tapped me on the shoulder at my desk, I sprang up from my chair, spilling coffee everywhere and strewing papers all over the floor. “Never come up behind me like that again!” I shouted angrily, trying to catch my breath.
There is hope
I got the children into therapy as soon as possible after the accident, but it didn’t occur to me that I needed help. Months later, I told a close friend that I didn’t think I’d never be happy again. He urged me to see a therapist.
“If you find that your symptoms are getting in the way of living your best life, reach out to a therapist to start the healing process,” says Seiders. “And pat yourself on the back afterward. Taking that first step takes courage!”
Online therapy isn’t a fit for everyone with PTSD, but it allowed me to work with a therapist from my home at a time when the outside world mostly felt overwhelming and scary. It took over a year, but my children and I can remember and talk about the event without being controlled by it. We’re enjoying life again, and I credit that friend who pushed me into therapy with saving our lives.
There is hope and help after the storm. My children and I are living proof that it’s very possible for you to get better. Start today.