There are three ways a person with PTSD tends to react to life’s challenges:
- fighting them
- running away from them, or
- freezing in shock
It’s pretty animalistic. We are animals after all. PTSD develops when after experiencing a traumatic event a person continues to have these emotional reactions, which normally would go away after some time.
For at least ten years after 2001, I tended to fight. I became unafraid of confrontation. Hypervigilant really. This was no doubt difficult on relationships and I lost friends.
An article on WebMD talks about how a person with PTSD reacts to situations with feelings that may include shock, anger, nervousness, fear, and even guilt:
…these feelings continue and even increase, becoming so strong that they keep the person from living a normal life. People with PTSD have symptoms for longer than one month and cannot function as well as before the event occurred.
Sadly, those with PTSD often lose friends, because these reactions tend to especially hurt those who are closest.
People who had previously been exposed to physical or sexual assault are at the greatest risk of developing PTSD. As a childhood victim of sexual abuse, that risk became my reality.
Before and After
Before PTSD, I would talk to anyone and everyone. Some of my friends used to say that I could talk to a rock. I had friends all over the world, the kind that you stay with when you visited their towns. As time went by, I lost touch with people became increasingly withdrawn.
After learning how PTSD affected everything in my life, I tried desperately to change the behaviors that became my normal over a ten year period. I would constantly try to control situations that seemed chaotic, even as trivial as how the cups were placed in the cupboard. I would be the only one to walk out of meetings at work before they were over because I thought they were pointless. I would scream at loved ones. I got combative with strangers and got thrown out of places.
What I didn’t understand when learning these behaviors were because of PTSD was that things would get worse.
I no longer wanted to react like an animal, but it became the way my brain worked. I was like a dog rescued from abuse that snapped at innocent people. I started avoiding people with whom I felt I might fight. In Brooklyn where a lot of people in the neighborhood knew me, this wasn’t easy. At one point people constantly got on my nerves. Most people in my eyes were petty and had no purpose in life. Within seven months of being diagnosed, I stopped hanging out in the neighborhood and only spent time with close friends and family. I also started showing up to work later and leaving earlier. I worked from home as much as possible.
I tried so hard to change the way my brain functioned that I started losing my ability to concentrate. It was as if my brain had gone from fighting to fleeing to being in shock. My work suffered and I started avoiding co-workers.
The Grace of Friendship
Hurricane Sandy came while traveling. I watched the devastation on CNN. I wondered why the storm had so much coverage on TV until it finally occurred to me how tragic 9-11 was. Back in 2001 and 2002, it bothered me that the terrorist attacks were on the news all the time. With this dawning during the storm and realizing that I was in no shape to help anyone, I decided to leave New York, my home of nearly 40 years.
I thought about two different cities as destinations where I could live anonymously and attempt to heal: Portland, Oregon and San Francisco. Afraid of getting bored in Portland and because there were already 3 friends in the Bay area who knew about my condition, I packed for California. One of those friends also helped me financially since my concentration ability was getting worse, and I had received notice that I would be laid off within a month. How helpful the loan was is another story.
When I left New York, only a handful of people knew. Though New York is an accepting and understanding place, a person with PTSD should be spared from having to explain. Some think that talking about traumatic events can re-traumatize a person. Though I don’t think I am like this, I take precaution.
In San Francisco, I made two more friends who also became great supporters, who have understanding albeit from their own tough lives. They quickly became the kind of people you could call at 3 in the morning if necessary.
If I didn’t have the support of these people and my therapist, I would not have come so far, and definitely would not be writing this blog. Thank you, my friends.
A Safety Zone
Granted, there are people out there who won’t understand PTSD and who will criticize. And they can include family members. It’s impossible to protect oneself from every misunderstanding, so it’s important to set boundaries. My five friends and therapist in San Francisco are the kind of people who I feel safe with, who I am confident won’t cross my boundaries. Recovery would be harder, if not, impossible without them.
As for the people I had known in the past, some have re-entered my life. Of those people, some I choose to stay away from and others I embrace, thankful to have their love.
What is life without relationships?