Monday, February 10, 2014

Frozen with Fear

It's strange that once you have PTSD, you see it, or at least its potential, everywhere. After the Sandy Hook shooting and after the Boston marathon bombing I had the same thoughts as everyone else: shock, horror, loss, sympathy. But like most other people who have PTSD, I also had another thought: how many of those little kids, how many of those runners, how many of those bystanders, how many of those paramedics, how many of those cops? How many of them were going to end up with PTSD? And as the anniversary of Sandy Hook rolled around, we started to see that not only were there diagnoses of PTSD, but that they were the negative consequences and misunderstandings that so often accompany the diagnosis.

Perhaps after such a large-scale tragedy as Sandy Hook or the Boston Marathon, you would say that is was "normal" or "understandable" for someone with PTSD to feel especially upset or to see parallels between that tragedy and their own. But PTSD doesn't work that way. It's not a fair opponent that obeys agreed-upon rules of engagement. It's a sneaky, patently unfair enemy that strikes whenever and wherever it wants, reminding you just how different you are from everyone else.

I recently took my daughter to see Disney's Frozen with some friends. This trip to the movies was a rare treat. You see, I don't do movie theaters. One of my worst triggers is car crash scenes, and I can't guarantee that I won't see one in a movie. Accidentally watching one in the privacy of my own home, on a 40" TV is one thing; watching one happen larger-than-life in front of a bunch of strangers is Hell on Earth. But since Frozen takes place before cars were even invented, I figured I'd be safe. So after hiding out until the previews were over (because you can never know what the previews have in store and even animated cars crashing or tires squealing freak me the heck out), I settled in to watch Elsa, Anna, Kristoff and Olaf do their thing in the frozen wonderland of Arendelle.

I don't want to give away the movie but let's just say Elsa doesn't have an easy life. She's a bit of a freak and she's probably traumatized her sister more than a just a little bit. So anyway, partway through the movie Elsa has had enough and she goes running off because she doesn't want to hurt anyone anymore.
And then Elsa starts singing.


"A kingdom of isolation and it looks like I'm the queen.
The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside.
Couldn't keep it in, Heaven knows I tried.
Don't let them in, don't let them see.
Be the good girl you always have to be.
Conceal, don't feel, don't let them know.
Well, now they know!"

And suddenly my PTSD reared up in the middle of the movie theater. I wasn't having a panic attack, but I wasn't enjoying the movie any more either because all I could think about was how much Elsa's words sounded like a description of someone with PTSD. You see it everywhere, that pesky PTSD specter. If you take a look at the discussion of the meaning of Elsa's song on Metro Lyrics you'll see that there's all sorts of supposition and speculation as to what she's singing about. And I learned a long time ago (thank you very much Mrs. Shay) that art is a relationship between the creator and the consumer. So it depends on perspective. But that's kind of my point. PTSD changes your perspective; it IS your perspective. So I can't see anything without being shaped and shaded by a single experience five years ago.

And so when I hear those words, what I hear is the struggle of every person with PTSD who is isolated by their disorder, struggling to appear "normal" to their friends and family, because honestly, our friends and family would rather we just "get better already" -- as if that isn't what we want too?

It's sort of ironic
. The only thing that scares me more than some of my triggers is people's reactions. I can have a full-blown panic attack and most people won't even be aware of it. I generally don't scream or fall to the floor or do too many very noticeable things. I have a couple of "tells," depending on what trigger set me off. If it's a siren, I'll cover my ears. If it's car-related, I'm liable to do this weird gesture with my left hand that results in my eyes being covered. But you'll be hard-pressed to really noticed my rapid breathing, my shaking, my staring off into space or any of that stuff. I still look pretty "normal." My daughter is pretty much the only one who can tell with fair regularity that I'm in the midst of an attack.

Sometimes I think that's a good thing. I don't like calling attention to myself when I'm in the middle of a crisis. A couple of times it HAS happened, and it's been hugely embarrassing. I spilled tea on myself on one occasion and this woman actually got out of her car and asked if I needed help. Another time, I was in such bad shape I was clinging to a mailbox, retching. In that case, people just thought I was sick.

But on the other hand, I wonder if somehow I'm doing myself some sort of disservice. If I actually let these attacks be seen for what they are, and all they did to me; if I stopped trying to mitigate them and minimize them, maybe the people around me would stop diminishing my disorder so much. This isn't just me being "a little scared of a siren." This is me being frozen with fear, actually seeing a completely different scene overlaid on top of what everyone else sees, where every bad thing that could possibly happen, IS happening. Where the dog DOES go off his leash and run into the street. Where the guy DOES open his car door into traffic. Where the little girl DOES let go of her mom's hand. Where the car DOES take that corner too fast. I *know* none of it is happening; I'm not hallucinating. But both of these situations are happening, existing side by side, and part of me gets terrified by the part that ends in a bloody carnage. That's what I see EVERY TIME I go outside. EVERY TIME.

So maybe once and a while I should let some people into my world instead of just trembling and saying "I'll be fine."

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