Cynics tend to scoff at PTSD. Stuff that goes on in people's brains isn't visible; so it must not be real, right? We must just be making it up...or being overly dramatic...or too sensitive...or seeking attention.
I see comments such as those on social media. They're hurtful. Because I'm here to tell you: PTSD is very, VERY real.
I didn't have it before knowing Thomas Maffei. I wasn't hyper-vigilant about the behavior of men. I didn't scare easily from relationships. I didn't startle easily at loud voices or noises. I didn't flinch at a car backfiring.
I didn't cover my ears and curl up in a ball sobbing when I heard fireworks.
I do now. This past 4th of July, I was sitting alone in my house in the early evening. My kids were at our next door neighbor's/friend's house. We were planning to go to the fireworks in town, but it was raining. I thought it was a good time to relax, have some alone time that I rarely get. I sat back on the couch, stretched out my legs and scrolled through Facebook.
Then I heard POP-POP-POP!! It sounded very close.
Next thing I knew, I had my hands over my ears and I was curled into the corner of the couch in the fetal position. I burst into uncontrollable sobbing. I couldn't breathe.
It's weird. Logically, in my head, I knew I was safe and not back in that apartment with bullets flying through my body. But the pop sounds from fireworks in the neighborhood caught me off-guard and my body reacted. I think it was because 1) I was alone and 2) it was the same number of pops. It took me to that moment of sheer terror--that he really had shot a gun. That I was going to die.
I texted my friend next door and she came over to calm me down. She just kept telling me that I was safe, over and over again. It took a little while but I did settle down.
The worst part about PTSD is that you just never know when or what will trigger you. I didn't expect to be melting down on the 4th of July. I LOVE 4th of July!!! At least I used to. I actually do believe that I can be at a fireworks event and watch them and be ok because my brain understands what it is seeing. The pops from those fireworks were unexpected and I didn't see them--only heard. I'm also triggered by people's behavior, particularly men. Tone of voice is a big one. Being pushy is another one. It's not that I sob every time something triggers me. There are varying degrees. Certain behavior tends to make me put my guard up and go numb.
I tend to be "heavier" than I used to be.
To my friends, family, acquaintances, and anyone else who knew me pre-shooting: I truly do understand that you miss the "old Kate." I know you want to see me go back to "normal." You want my Facebook posts to go back to funny and lighthearted snippets of my life, my beloved someecards, Onion articles--the humor that made me me. You may not want to see the heavy domestic and gun violence stuff. It's a painful reminder that you almost lost me, and that I'm far from the "old Kate" you once knew.
Please understand that I am healing the best way I know how. I know I'm not the same as I was before the shooting.
I don't know how anyone could possibly be the same after a murder attempt.
I found a great list from Heal My PTSD about understanding those with PTSD. I highly recommend anyone who loves someone who survived trauma to commit this list to memory.
#1 – Knowledge is power. Understanding the process of a triggering event, the psychic reaction to trauma, the warning signs and symptoms of PTSD, and available treatment options for PTSD allows you to help recognize, support and guide your PTSD loved one toward diagnosis, treatment and healing.
We need you to be clearheaded, pulled together and informed.
#2 – Trauma changes us. After trauma we want to believe —as do you—that life can return to the way it was; that we can continue as who we were. This is not how it works. Trauma leaves a huge and indelible impact on the soul. It is not possible to endure trauma and not experience a psychic shift.
Expect us to be changed. Accept our need to evolve. Support us on this journey.
#3 – PTSD hijacks our identity. One of the largest problems with PTSD is that it takes over our entire view of ourselves. We no longer see clearly. We no longer see the world as we experienced it before trauma. Now every moment is dangerous, unpredictable and threatening.
Gently remind us and offer opportunities to engage in an identity outside of trauma and PTSD.
#4 – We are no longer grounded in our true selves. In light of trauma our real selves retreat and a coping self emerges to keep us safe.
Believe in us; our true selves still exist, even if they are momentarily buried.
#5 – We cannot help how we behave. Since we are operating on a sort of autopilot we are not always in control. PTSD is an exaggerated state of survival mode. We experience emotions that frighten and overwhelm us. We act out accordingly in defense of those feelings we cannot control.
Be patient with us; we often cannot stop the anger, tears or other disruptive behaviors that are so difficult for you to endure.
#6 – We cannot be logical. Since our perspective is driven by fear we don’t always think straight, nor do we always accept the advice of those who do.
Keep reaching out, even when your words don’t seem to reach us. You never know when we will think of something you said and it will comfort, guide, soothe or inspire us.
#7 – We cannot just ‘get over it.’ From the outside it’s easy to imagine a certain amount of time passes and memories fade and trauma gets relegated to the history of a life. Unfortunately, with PTSD nothing fades. Our bodies will not let us forget. Because of surging chemicals that reinforce every memory, we cannot walk away from the past anymore than you can walk away from us.
Honor our struggle to make peace with events. Do not rush us. Trying to speed our recovery will only make us cling to it more.
#8 – We’re not in denial—we’re coping! It takes a tremendous effort to live with PTSD. Even if we don’t admit it, we know there’s something wrong. When you approach us and we deny there’s a problem that’s really code for, “I’m doing the best I can.” Taking the actions you suggest would require too much energy, dividing focus from what is holding us together. Sometimes, simply getting up and continuing our daily routine is the biggest step toward recovery we make.
Alleviate our stress by giving us a safe space in which we can find support.
#9 – We do not hate you. Contrary to the ways we might behave when you intervene, somewhere inside we do know that you are not the source of the problem. Unfortunately, in the moment we may use your face as PTSD’s image. Since we cannot directly address our PTSD issues sometimes it’s easier to address you.
Continue to approach us. We need you to!
#10 - Your presence matters. PTSD creates a great sense of isolation. In our post-traumatic state, it makes a difference to know that there are people who will stand by us. It matters that although we lash out, don’t respond and are not ourselves, you are still there, no matter what.
Don’t give up, we’re doing our best.
Love and Support for Kate Ranta and Family