Today was a rough PTSD day. Sometimes that’s the way it is with PTSD, you are fine, fine, fine…until you aren’t. And then you real aren’t! Nights like this I love my medication so hard. Nights like this I don’t even consider the choice of going off psychiatric medication. Nights like this I know that I’ve been staying up too late, not listening to my body, pushing myself further than I can reasonably go, ignoring early warning signs and just generally not trusting my own inner wisdom about what I can handle.
I dropped the kids off with their Dad this morning. That’s always difficult. It always lowers my capacity and PTSD coping bar by easily 50% by 9AM.
I had a difficult phone call at work. Had to support someone around a type of abuse experience that I find triggering. I dealt with it well, but it lowered my capacity bar by another chunk.
I met a friend for coffee this evening. There was a traffic mess and the person was late. While I was waiting, a car with a souped up muffler purposefully back fired it, reving the engine suddenly right in front of me. I was looking at my phone and the loud noise and vibration startled me a LOT. Before my heart stopped racing, the car back fired again. I jumped again. I almost burst into tears. My PTSD coping bar was now at 0-5%.
This level of startle response is NOT a warning sign of PTSD issues for me, it’s one of the clear signs that I’ve been ignoring warning signals for a while. When I feel like crying after being startled in an otherwise safe situation, PTSD is on the scene in a major way. It’s time to get safe, do some grounding, probably get home and away from crowds.
But I didn’t listen. I had plans to see a show later and I knew it was no longer the right choice. The sign said there were “loud noises and flashing lights.” The self aware voice inside me said “Not tonight. This isn’t going to work tonight” but I ignored it. I pushed myself. I tried to be “normal.” I tried to have a full PTSD tank, when it was really running on fumes.
The person I was meeting there was in a different space, relaxed and ready to enjoy the show.
I needed some help to get grounded and attempt the experience.
I didn’t get it.
I was already inside the show. There were strobe type flashing lights which I know can trigger migraines for me. My anxiety got worse. I started to feel trapped and afraid. I didn’t know what to expect and my anxiety was escalating. I knew a panic attack was coming. Generally, there’s a tiny bit of warning before it goes to 100km panic. I have a few moments where I’m thinking clearly enough to know I need to exit. I need to get outside NOW. I need to be outside 5 minutes ago.
I can feel my chest tighten. My breathing is coming faster. I can feel the panic rising and rising like a tsunami wave of fear. I start to walk as fast as I can without running. I don’t know how to get out. I just keep walking forward, sliding past people. Mentally I know that if the tears start before I get outside then I’ll need help to get out. I don’t want to ask a stranger for help. I don’t want to slow down. I know I need to get outside NOW. My chest is painful, the tears are in my eyes. The dizziness is starting. I feel like it’s taking forever to find the door in the darkness. I feel embarrassed. I feel ashamed. I feel afraid.
My hands are on the door, I can see the outside and then I’m out.
I’m hyperventilating now. Walking as fast as I can. Crying and breathing in choked breaths. So dizzy. I want to slow down, catch my breath, but my feet keep going forward. I’m downtown, in the dark, alone. I pick up my phone and dial a friend. He picks up. I’m sobbing now, into the phone not able to speak. He’s asking me what’s wrong. I’m still walking, trying to catch my breath, manage to blurt out “I’m having a panic attack!” He knows I’ll be okay, I’m not in physical danger, just emotional. He speaks in a soothing voice, encouraging me to breathe, until the tears subside enough for me to speak. I’m gradually slowing my breathing now. It’s taking a focused effort, but I’m doing it. My chest hurts so much it feels like it might explode or collapse or both.
I walk around for 20 minutes before I’m calm enough to drive home. The panic subsides but I know it’s only a tiny distance away. I’m not sure if it will stay away, or return, out of control, taking me back down into tears.
I get home safely. Take my pills as soon as I’m in the door. I know that within 45 minutes I’ll feel calmer, so I start typing this as I wait.
I’ve noticed that abelism towards mental illness looks like this:
Folks can understand the triggers I have which are directly linked to the violence. They understand how to be careful with sex. They understand why I can’t fall asleep unless I’m alone. They understand aspects of PTSD. But they don’t REALLY understand. A lot of people don’t understand that any situation where I don’t know what is happening, feel out of control, feel a sense of danger or feel that my environment is too unpredictable can be a trigger and can remind me of the feelings of being abused.
They don’t understand that in the moments when a panic attack is happening, the danger is real to me. Logic doesn’t stop the fear. Intellectual reasoning doesn’t stop the fear. Being impatient with the person doesn’t stop the fear. The only way to stop the fear is to be believed and validated and gently helped through grounding techniques like breathing (or whatever the person finds helpful). Or when it’s really bad, just holding space for the person until the panic attack ends.
In those moments of panic, telling someone to “just calm down” is like telling a person who uses a wheel chair to “just walk.” In those moments of panic, PTSD is a disability. It’s a real physical and physiological reaction based on experienced trauma that has changed a person’s brain. Just as a wheel chair can help some folks with physical limitations get around, grounding skills can be a vehicle to help someone with PTSD get around. Without these skills and coping techniques many things just aren’t accessible or possible.
Someone having a panic attack or flashbacks isn’t doing it on purpose. They aren’t misbehaving. They aren’t lazy or controlling or seeking attention. Their brain is literally misfiring. The person is experiencing a safe situation as an extremely dangerous one. If the panic attack and flashbacks are happening at the same time, the person might not be fully present in the moment, they might be in the past or mentally re-experiencing the time of the original trauma or abuse.
A lot of the time PTSD is an invisible disability. A lot of the time when I tell people I’m not okay or I’m struggling it’s not visible on the outside.
Panic attacks can be visible or invisible. For me the scariest ones are the visible ones, where I know I’m acting erratically, because then I feel shame AND panic. These scary ones are most likely to happen when I’ve missed too much sleep and when I’ve been ignoring early warning signs and pushed myself too far.
Another thing about panic attacks and flashbacks is that when you have them, you start to be afraid of having them again. I’ve learned to live with flashbacks and anxiety, but when I have severe panic attacks with flashbacks the physiological hyper arousal can take 5-7 days to fully diminish.
If someone you know experiences flashbacks or panic attacks, a compassionate response can be extremely beneficial. I know it’s hard to be patient all the time. Nobody is perfect, but your response in these moments of high anxiety can make all the difference. Even if it doesn’t fully relieve the anxiety, it can reduce the guilt and shame and fears of rejection. Some people with PTSD, myself included, have a deeply held internal belief that they are freaks or crazy. Treating someone compassionately can help counteract this negative internal PTSD dialogue.
I’m going to bed. Hopefully I can sleep this off.