This past week I got a text from a survivor about 3am asking me to please call. I have texted and spoken with this person on a number of occasions and I know the story and it is not pretty.
When I saw the text the next morning and contacted this person, they apologized for “bothering” me and said they had had a bad nightmare which felt very real. They asked if this was normal and if it happens to other people. Did it ever happen to me?
Again, I’m not a therapist, but knowing the history in this case, I suggested that it may be PTSD and asked if they were being seen by someone who they could talk to about what was going on. They said they have been treated for this condition (PTSD) for awhile, but needed reassurance that they were not “crazy”. Did this happen to everyone?
I said that they had been through a lot and that I felt that perhaps the extent of suffering correlated to the trauma experienced by someone. That would make sense to me. And most likely too, how that person was able to process and handle that trauma….or even if they had buried emotions in order to function day to day.
The survivor thanked me and I am sure I will hear from them again when the fear becomes overwhelming and they need reassurance.
Dreams seem to be one way we process our thoughts and fears. I sometimes have vivid dreams, and I have recurring dreams, but nothing as frightening as what this person is experiencing.
But PTSD can show up uninvited at any time. I was relaxing and watching “Downton Abbey” this week, and one of the main characters said “Try not to miss me” to someone. It was a man saying it to a romantic interest. And it took me right back to when I worked at the Diocese and my boss would say that to me before he left. I don’t consciously think about him often, but there it was, just under the surface. And if he shows up in my dreams, he is always in the next room or in another part of a building…..not seen, but just lurking around.
I don’t think of myself as having PTSD. But perhaps we all do in some way. It is said that our bodies hold memories and that our brain forgets nothing. Smells can trigger memories and we most likely all get deja va. It may depend upon the strength of the trigger or the memory…..but perhaps nothing we’ve experienced is ever truly gone from our memory….whether physical, emotional, or mental.
For Christmas this past year, my friend and I got my mother one of those Legacy box things where you pick out three VCR tapes from years past and send them in to be kept forever on disc.
When the first batch came back, we were showing her how to put them in her computer in order to watch them. Watching them, it was like no time at all had passed. There were my relatives at the table for Thanksgiving. People who have been gone over 20 years there like yesterday. Hearing their voices again….well, I don’t need to tell anyone how that felt.
But then there was another clip…..one of my parents having lunch with my dad’s sister and his elderly cousin. The only one still living is my mom. This had to be back in the early 90’s as my dad was still getting around well and his cousin passed away in 1997.
But as I watched, instead of feeling warm fuzzies, I began to grow tense and my breath became shallow. It was not a conscious reaction. My body was just reacting to the scene in front of me. It was my dad. The way he was talking. I knew the tone of his voice and exactly what it meant. He was drinking. And I could even tell that it seemed as if he was on his second drink. I mean, I knew. How did I know that? This was 25 years ago and I hadn’t been there and yet, my body was telling me to be on guard as if my life was being threatened at this moment.
I said last week that after my son was born, I felt I needed to get out of the house. I remember one night in particular when I knew I could not keep my son there.
When my dad drank, he was never physically violent. But from as far back as I can remember, he would yell and be scary and say the worst things to my mother.
As I grew older, I began to realize the pattern….didn’t make it any less pleasant, but I knew that my dad would huff and puff and then in about an hour, peter down and shut himself in his room away from everyone. Still unpleasant. Still palpable tension in the house. Still afraid to make a noise or do anything to make him come back out of the room, but things settled down to where they once again were not so scary.
So….as I grew older, I felt the same feelings as I had as a child, but was able to understand the risks.
However, one night, while my baby slept in the next room, my father went into one of his tirades against my mother. This night, he began to throw things out of their closet, all the while saying that he had a gun somewhere he had hidden in the back. This was a new one, and I wasn’t quite sure if he actually had a gun or not. All the time he was throwing things out of his closet, his voice became growling and threatening and it was as if someone else was inside of him.
He was talking about killing my mother when he found the gun.
Of course, this time, like all of the others, it was just talk and he ended up throwing his stuff back into the closet and went to bed. But it was upsetting and something I did not want my son having to live with as I had as a child.
My parents ended up taking care of my boys when I went to work and they were actually very good with them and my boys were very close to them.
As far as I know, an episode such as that only happened once in front of my children as I walked in on my dad watching tv with my boys and threatening to chop up my mother with an ax.
I looked him in the eye and I told him I never wanted to hear him talk that way in front of my kids ever again and I took my kids and left.
I know that he realized what he had done. For a good week, I would not go into the house and my mother handed me the children at the front door. He did end up apologizing….and to my knowledge never again did anything like that in front of my kids. To me, yes….but not in front of them.
But to this day, when my father has been gone twelve years. When I love him and I miss him and when I thought how wonderful it would be to be able to see him and to hear his voice once again…..all the love in the my heart could not stop my body from automatically responding with the fear of the child who did not understand what was happening.
No amount of reasoning could change the emotional and physical response I felt that day watching my dad on that video. Everything….of all those feelings returned. The feelings of hypervigilance, the wanting to pretend it wasn’t really happening so that nobody else would know and it would be a family secret, the feelings that were never discussed, and being told that it was nothing and that I was making a big deal out of nothing.
Our bodies and our minds remember. And we may go on and be fine and we may push our untidy feelings that cause problems under the rug as we may have been trained to do. And we may have learned not to respect our own feelings or that our feelings are wrong and that having them is what makes problems with other people. And perhaps we can function that way very nicely for some time.
That is until something triggers a memory, or for some reason we find we cannot stop shaking and don’t feel safe going outside anymore, or nightmares make it impossible to feel safe enough to go to sleep, or we feel vulnerable and avoid getting close to others, or something else.
Sometimes it’s very clear what is going on. You wake up in sweat after dreaming that a group of priests are trying to kill you.
And sometimes you don’t realize it exists until something triggers a memory and your physical and emotional reaction alerts you to something you never knew still affected you.
No, my friend, you are not crazy.