PTSD – What it is, and how it can affect your life
PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. (NIMH) It is not a diagnosis that should be taken lightly.
I learned very quickly what PTSD was all about when I experienced an event that completely changed my life. On August 23, 2011, Virginia was hit by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake. This particular quake was felt across more than a dozen U.S. states and in several Canadian provinces, and was felt by more people than any other quake in U.S. history. The last earthquake to hit Virginia this powerful was back in 1897, more than 100 years ago.
At the time, I was living in Fluvanna County, and the area I was living in was approximately 12 miles (as the crow flies) from the epicenter of the earthquake. Needless to say, I wasn’t very far at all. I was living on 25 acres of land, well off of the main road, with no visible neighbors.
I remember this day like it was yesterday. It’s an event I will never forget.
Here’s what happened, exactly as I remember it.
My oldest daughter was home sick, and my youngest hadn’t started preschool yet. My son was at school. I was standing in front of the washing machine starting a load of clothes. It was a normal day, like any other.
Suddenly, I heard this rumbling sound, and the floor under my feet started to shake. I had been through two much smaller earthquakes when I lived in Goochland County, so I knew immediately what was happening. I threw the last piece of clothing into the wash, closed the lid, and ran into the living room where my girls were.
I knew immediately this earthquake was different. I told the girls what was happening, and yelled for them to get outside. As I was heading to the front door, the shaking was intensifying. It was so intense, it almost knocked me down. It took me a moment to get the front door unlocked. I flung it open and my girls and I ran out into the front yard.
We stood there together, facing our house, and I remember my girls asking me when it was going to be over. I kept telling them everything was ok, and it would stop soon. After more than a full minute of shaking and rumbling, everything finally became calm and quiet. We stood there together for a few minutes, just trying to sort out exactly what had just happened.
I made the girls wait outside while I ran into the house and grabbed my cell phone, my keys, and my purse. We then got into my truck, and I called school – I wanted to pick up my son. My phone also started ringing, with friends and family calling to check on us, as they had felt the earthquake too, but knew we were very close to the epicenter. It was scary, chaotic, and completely unnerving.
At first, I didn’t know I wasn’t ok.
Although I was clearly rattled by the event, I thought I would be alright. Our house had very minimal damage, a few small cracks in the walls, some things shaken off of shelves. I tried to get back to my normal routine. At first, it seemed that I was, despite the aftershocks that continued without warning.
As the days and weeks passed, the aftershocks continued. My habits began to change. I became afraid to take showers in my own bathroom. I started taking super fast ones in the kids bathroom, because it was near the back door. At night, I had to have a light on so I could see, in case we needed to get out of the house. When leaving the lamp on became a problem for my now ex-husband, I slept with a flashlight.
Things quickly escalated from there. I started leaving my purse in my truck, so it would already be in there if I needed to leave. Then it got to the point where I could not stay in the house by myself. I would ride around, find somewhere to park, and just sit in my truck. When the kids got home from school, I would sit outside with them until their father got home. I would hear or feel the slightest thing, and immediately go into panic mode, completely freezing up in anticipation of another quake or aftershock.
Those around me were starting to notice my new habits as well. My mind was stuck in a constant state of hypervigilance.
I finally broke.
After several months of trying to get through it on my own, I realized my behavior was out of hand. I broke down and cried, I could not live like this anymore. I felt so alone, no one understood or even tried to understand what I was going through. Not only that, but I couldn’t take being told I was using my behavior as an excuse to be lazy, that I was crazy and acting ridiculous, for one more second.
It was time for me to get some help with whatever this was I was experiencing. I found a therapist in my area, and after explaining my behavior, I finally understood what was happening to me. I was diagnosed with PTSD. She explained that because I already struggled with depression and anxiety, this may have made me more vulnerable compared to others who didn’t. PTSD is, after all, an anxiety disorder.
My therapist explained that I was most definitely not crazy, and I was not alone. What happened was, when the earthquake occurred, it caused an intense amount of fear and stress. Which in turn, caused my body to react to these intense emotions. On top of this happening from the original earthquake, the aftershocks that continued forced me to relive the original event over and over. I couldn’t escape the situation, and my stress and fear continued to escalate.
The combination of all these things are what caused me to develop PTSD symptoms. This is where self awareness can save you. If I hadn’t realized how quickly I was spiraling out of control, and sought help as soon as I did, things could have gotten much worse.
Signs and symptoms of PTSD –
For symptoms to be considered PTSD, they must last more than a month and be severe enough to interfere with functioning in relationships or work.
- Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating
- Bad dreams
- Frightening thoughts
Re-experiencing symptoms may cause problems in a person’s everyday routine. They can start from the person’s own thoughts and feelings. Words, objects, or situations that are reminders of the event can also trigger re-experiencing symptoms.
- Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the experience
- Avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event
Things or situations that remind a person of the traumatic event can trigger avoidance symptoms. These symptoms may cause a person to change his or her personal routine. For example, after a bad car accident, a person who usually drives may avoid driving or riding in a car.
Arousal and reactivity symptoms:
- Being easily startled
- Feeling tense or “on edge”
- Having difficulty sleeping, and/or having angry outbursts
Arousal symptoms are usually constant, instead of being triggered by something that brings back memories of the traumatic event. They can make the person feel stressed and angry. These symptoms may make it hard to do daily tasks, such as sleeping, eating, or concentrating.
Cognition and mood symptoms:
- Trouble remembering key features of the traumatic event
- Negative thoughts about oneself or the world
- Distorted feelings like guilt or blame
- Loss of interest in enjoyable activities
Cognition and mood symptoms can begin or worsen after the traumatic event. These symptoms can make the person feel alienated or detached from friends or family members.
This event changed my life.
A lot has changed in my life since this earthquake. It has been seven years, and I am in a completely different place in my life. While receiving therapy for my PTSD symptoms, not only did I get better, it woke me up to the reality that was my life.
I was in a miserable marriage with someone who did not love or care about me in the way a husband should. My depression and anxiety were being made worse by staying in an unhealthy environment. Eight months after this event, I told him I didn’t want to live like this anymore. It was one of the best decisions I could have made for myself and my kids.
Now, looking back, I consider everything I went through as a “wake up call” to change the way I was living my life. I still have a long way to go, but I know I’ll be alright. We never realize how strong we are, until we are forced to be stronger than we ever thought we could be.