[trigger warning] PTSD Frozen: Can’t Just ‘Let It Go’

trigger3This speech contains information about sexual assault and violence which may be triggering to survivors.

Do you have a rubber band? Put it on your wrist. Every time you have an intrusive thought that you want to stop, snap it against your wrist. It’s important to do this for every intrusive thought, all the time, because if you only do it every once in a while, the thoughts can become more frequent. More intrusive.

This never worked for me.

I had to keep a rumination journal. A free writing journal that I dove into for three pages in the morning in the middle of a very careful morning routine.

  • 0600 Wake Up and Throw on Clothes and Sneakers
  • 0615 Write Three Pages of Rumination
  • 0645 Go Running
  • 0715 Breakfast and Get Ready For The Day
  • 0800 Work

It was important to get dressed, including sneakers, so that as soon as the writing was done, I could leap out the door and run. Running got the sweat going. Running got the blood pumping. Running made me feel like shit physically, but got those endorphins going that were vital to survival.

Because I had PTSD.

I have PTSD.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

And this is the hardest post I’ve ever written.

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What is PTSD?

PTSD is a disorder that develops in some people who have seen or lived through a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.

It is natural to feel afraid during and after a traumatic situation. Fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to help defend against danger or to avoid it. This “fight-or-flight” response is a healthy reaction meant to protect a person from harm. Nearly everyone will experience a range of reactions after trauma, yet most people recover from initial symptoms naturally.

In the United States military, chaplains are trained to give exposure therapy on the battle field. Because the sooner you deal with the trauma, the more likely you are to avoid chronic symptoms. To avoid PTSD.

There was a side of me that wanted to go completely clinical with this speech. To list the symptoms using the official labels such as reactive, avoidance, cognitive, mood.

But.

My emotions are too much a part of this existence.

And if I cry today or can’t speak or trigger myself, please be patient.

There was a trauma.

I’m not ready to talk about IT.

IT was bad.

IT left me suicidal.

IT left me in the hospital.

IT was really fucking hard to recover from.

But I did.

And I will again.

But.

A couple of weeks ago I was triggered. At a conference. I was in a hotel room. Alone. Without my family. Without my son.

And I wanted to kill myself.

I was immediately thrown back to the original trauma. I wanted to kill myself. I wanted to the pain to end.

But this time, I thought of my son. Instead of running, instead of writing, instead of snapping a rubber band against my wrist, I thought of Sasha.

And it worked.

I was able to calm down enough to ask for help.

I called an old friend and colleague and we dove into some of the weapons of recovery.

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  1. Distraction. Sometimes your brain just needs to be told that the world is normal. That there isn’t an emergency. And you convince your brain by talking about normal things. This can be very difficult at first and needs to be done with someone who understand what you’re going through so that they understand when you lapse back into crying. But when I was almost fully recovered, I could run over to a colleague at work and ask them about a work thing and that was enough to pull my brain back to normalcy.
  2. Food. And sugary drink. After a certain point your physicality can exacerbate the reaction – your blood sugar levels can be low or you might be hungry – and this just makes everything worse. Eating something, anything, can make things Not As Bad. That day I ordered a plain cheese quesidilla and a grilled cheese sandwich and fries and a ginger ale thinking that nothing sounded enticing and I wouldn’t be able to eat a bite. I ate it all.
  3. Recruit Helpers. I decided I should tell my boss and his boss what happened at the conference, but also what happened originally. I was trying to be in an environment where I didn’t have to wonder if they were treating me a certain way because of the trauma but realized that right now I really needed their support. They were incredibly supportive.
  4. Report It. I decided to report it to the OpenStack Foundation per their Code of Conduct. And they were incredible. The entire process was supportive and kind and, most importantly, SAFE. Reporting it can be the hardest part of recovery. And, depending on where you are and what the trauma was, you may not get support to do it. But that’s why I ultimately stepped forward. And why I will again. I want to make it easier for you, should you experience something similar.
  5. Make a Plan. My flight was the next day. I had the phone numbers of many people who understood the situation and would come over at a moment’s notice. I knew I could watch the hell out of streaming television to distract my brain to wait it out until the flight. And when I got back to the Netherlands, I knew the process well enough to take it from there, should the symptoms linger.

And they do.

But they’re weaker every day.

I’m recovering quickly.

“But Rain, what can I do to help.”

I’M SO GLAD YOU ASKED!

If you know someone who is recovering from PTSD, if they’ve told you what they’re going through, it becomes infinitely easier to be that old friend and colleague who came to help me – you can help distract. You can help get food and sugary drinks. You can help them recruit more help and to report it and to make a plan to recovery.

And you can start with asking them, “How can I help?”

It gets infinitely harder if you don’t know they have PTSD or depression or anxiety or suicidal thoughts or a mental or physical illness that you can’t see. Remember the spoons?

In that case, it’s only people who have gone through it themselves that sometimes recognize it in others.

I was sitting at a cafe after PyCon Sweden with several other attendees and one of them made a joking comment about suicide. I went from laughing joyously and engaged to serious and withdrawn in less than a second. And he saw it. He knew.

Immediately.

Because he’s been there, too.

While the others around us talked and laughed he said softly, “Was that a trigger?”

I nodded.

“Sorry.”

I nodded again.

That recognition. That apology. I was able to re engage, to join the conversation much faster than if he hadn’t said anything.

I was truly thankful.

But for tonight, I’d like to pretend you have no personal experience with PTSD. Or depression or anxiety. I’d like to pretend that you’re all healthy, stable individuals who will never need a rubber band or a rumination journal or a carefully gathered arsenal of recovery weapons.

I’d like to pretend that you’ll never need to know how to help a friend because your friends and family will never have PTSD or any other mental illness. That we all live in world without war. Without sexual abuse. Without trauma.

But.

BUT.

Just in case.

Just in case my pretend world doesn’t exist and you find yourself needing to help someone. Or to help yourself.

You’re a little more ready now.

After all.

You’ve got a rubber band.

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