Over the course of my journey with mental health problems (my whole life but only 15 years since I saw a doctor for the first time), I’ve been diagnosed by various doctors with the following mental health problems: OCD, Anxiety, ADD, Depression, Bi-Polar II, and just recently, PTSD. This is NOT to say that I necessarily have all of these issues, as any decent doctor will admit that diagnosing mental health issues is a moving target. Even the best doctors in the field can never be entirely sure what diagnosis someone’s symptoms mean. As my doctor says, “I treat symptoms, not diagnoses.” I appreciate her honesty.
So the PTSD diagnosis came from my trip to the Amen Clinic to have my brain scanned…not that they know what to do with the pictures of my brain, but hey, us Type-A folks need to feel like we’re making progress, ya know. Through the conversations, tests, and scans, the Amen Clinic doctor added a new diagnosis (should I call it a “guess” instead?) to my profile: PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
Hmmmm. I’ve never been to war or robbed at gunpoint or left alone with a drunk clown…In other words, I’m not sure exactly how I could have PTSD as my life is largely trauma free, other than the fucked up brain. Then again, as I’ve researched PTSD, I’ve come to realize that the actual traumatic event isn’t even necessary. What matters is how one responds to his/her environment.
Example: Baseball practice.
As a child, I was mortally afraid I would be abandoned by my parents – obsessively afraid might be a more apt description. Because of OCD, when I was left anywhere by my parents, I immediately began to obsess about whether they would return or not. I watched the clock as I imagined how it would all go down: Everyone else’s parents would gradually come for them; the adults who were supposed to wait until everyone was picked up would need to leave for some reason, reassuring me as they left me waiting alone, “they’ll be here soon, I’m sure. Gotta run! See you next time.” Then I would wait and wait and wait, growing increasingly terrified that my worst nightmare had come true. In the coming days and weeks, no one would believe my story and help me find my family. Instead, I’d become truly homeless, truly alone. (Yes, I’m well aware this is/was illogical. What, are your fears all entirely warranted? Don’t be all judgy, please.)
For some reason, this fear was particularly acute at baseball practice. It was so bad, in fact, that I remember the year I quit playing baseball. The decision wasn’t an easy one because I really loved playing baseball. But the torment of practice – the lead-up; the drop-off filled with questions about when and where my parents return would happen; the inability to pay attention to anything during practice because of the scenes running through my head; the terror that increased when my parents weren’t the first or second or third parents to retrieve their child; the holding back or hiding of tears that would make me look like a sissy to the coach and the other kids…the all-consuming relief when they finally arrived; the shame I felt when I assumed that they could see right through me and must be thinking, “Were you seriously afraid…AGAIN!!!…that we wouldn’t come back?!”; the internal promise that that would be the last time I let my brain torture me like that; and then, the next day, the dread of next week’s practice would begin, unceasing, until I saw my parents’ car returning for me the following week, and the few moments of relief would begin again. Oh, and the shame.
So after a few years of trying to quit being such a damn baby, I gave up and decided that simply quitting baseball would be the simplest solution. I made something up about why I wanted to quit that sounded more credible (cue the obsessive fears of having told a lie and being damned to hell) than “because practice scares the shit out of me,” and I never played organized baseball again because the trauma of going to practice.
Wait. There it is: Trauma. Not the kind that everyone would see as trauma, like surviving a landmine explosion that leaves the people on either side of a soldier dead. But here’s what I’ve come to learn as I’ve studied this: Like beauty, trauma is in the eye of the beholder.
If someone is traumatized by the Slinky that chased him down the stairs as a child, who am I to judge him for his refusal to drive within a mile of a Toys R Us? If we’re all honest, we all have irrational fears. But some are more traumatic than others thanks to the way our various brains process them. All that matters is that the person with PTSD experienced something as traumatic.
(Amusing side note and a true story: I once had a friend who was so petrified of cockroaches that she stayed with her parents (this was a grown woman) after waking up in the middle of the night to something tickling her face. It could’ve been her hair or her sheets, but because it also could have been a roach, off she raced to her parents’ house where she would be safe from the trauma of roaches. Supposedly.)
Funny, no? Unless you’re the one whose terrified of something that others don’t give any thought to.
As I’ve pondered it, I’ve realized that I don’t have PTSD, I have PTsSD: Post Traumas Stress Disorder. There’s no singular trauma that caused this doctor to diagnose me with PTSD, in other words. My traumas were the small sort that an overly frightened child experienced as he went to baseball practice. Oh, and school, and Sunday school, and friends’ birthday parties, and well, just about anyplace that didn’t involve his parents’ presence.
Itsy bitsy teensy weensy daily, hourly, minute-ly, second-ly, baby traumas that raised my antennae to high alert. All. The. Time.
And there you have one of the key components of PTSD: hyper-vigilance. Like a soldier who can never feel at peace because that landmine went off when he wasn’t paying attention, so if he just pays attention ALLTHETIME he’ll avoid the next landmine, I, too, pay attention allthetime because the things I’m afraid of can “explode” out of the jack-in-the-box at any moment. I live on high alert for indications that people might abandon me as a friend, that I might get fired, that my children might die suddenly…that something atrocious WILL happen if I’m not alert. It’s sort of like a superstition that tells me, “Tim, it’s the people who don’t pay attention to whom disaster happens. Keep paying attention and you’ll ward off the horrific TRAUMA through your vigilance. But you’d damn well better stay vigilant. OR ELSE!”
So because of all this, I’m trying a new and very funky form of trauma therapy: EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). Here’s how it works: I bring to mind a specific traumatic moment from my past and a therapist moves his finger back and forth while I am supposed to “track” his finger AND keep the trauma in mind. That’s it. I think of a trauma and move my eyes, and I pay $150 an hour for it, too.
As crazy as it sounds, it’s a highly researched and promising new form of trauma therapy. The current theory is that the eye movement has a similar effect in our brains as REM (not the band, the Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. For whatever reason, moving our eyes back and forth triggers something in the brain that helps it process information in a healthy way. Feel free to Google it if you think I’ve been hoodwinked by a snake-oil salesman into expensive “therapy” sessions that will do nothing more than leave me with tired eye muscles. It may not work for me, but it’s certainly a growing form of therapy in a field that needs to make some progress quickly! I’ll write a future post or two about EMDR’s impact, but for now, as always, it’s nice to have a semblance of hope that something might actually help fix my brain. We shall see.
At the end of the day, the reality is that we all have irrational fears and “baby traumas” in our lives, so I don’t write this to complain or to prove how badly my brain functions. It’s just been eye-opening for me to take note of how hyper-vigilant I am, and thus how “on track” this new diagnosis might well be. And since writing about things helps me to process them, I share this with you who might be encouraged by my over-sharing ways. Mostly, I write because it helps me (yes, I’m selfish like that). And because it might help someone else (this part makes me feel better about myself). Whatever the reason these sorts of burdens are placed on various shoulders (I’m the farthest thing one could be from a “God-gave-me-this-struggle-so-I-can-help-others” person…happy to share the flaws in that way of thinking with you in a different conversation), perhaps my attempts to process my own confusing existence can be of help to you or someone you know.
Finally, let’s have some fun with our fears…
I’m hesitant to put this out there for fear (irrational?!) that no one will respond, but I think it could be both amusing and relieving to other readers if some of you would share your irrational fears. If you’re up for it, post a comment with your irrational fear. Feel free to use a pseudonym if that helps you get past your irrational fear of responding to this post for everyone in the world to see, thus causing you to become a Monica Lewinsky-like pariah whose only hope for a future job is to write a memoir about what life in hiding is like and what possessed you to do something so foolish as to put your irrational fear on the internet in such a cavalier manner.
But really, I can say with 37% certainty that you won’t regret it as much as Monica regrets her indiscretions.
(Scroll down and take the poll)
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