Drowning In PTSD, Finding Your Lifeboat
Updated: Feb 16
The signs and symptoms of PTSD can be overwhelming; avoidance, combativeness, insomnia, blame, depression, alcoholism, irritability, rage, numbness, dreams, abuse, guilt, hyper alertness, drug abuse, nightmares, stress, shock, substance abuse, heightened sense of danger, low self-esteem, shutting down, violent outburst and the list goes on. Living with any, most or all of these can make you feel like you are drowning. You feel like you have lost control of your life. You desire a normal life. Living with PTSD day after day has left you exhausted. You have lost yourself. You are ready to run away, but you love them. How do you even begin to take control and stop drowning?
The first and most important step it to make time for you. You cannot survive or give back if your well is empty, PERIOD. Remember the old saying, “You can’t get blood out of a turnip.”? The same is true for you. You cannot give if you do not have anything left to give. I know what you are thinking. I am already doing everything. I am so exhausted. I do not have any time for myself. The kids need me. Work needs me. My house needs to be clean. There are dishes and laundry do. How in the heck am I supposed to make time for me? Just do it. I am not talking about lunch with the girls two days a week or curling up and reading a book from cover to cover. I am talking about setting aside a few minutes a day for you.
I found that getting up a half an hour before my Veteran was the best decision I ever made. I set up the coffee pot the night before. I fix a cup of coffee, take a few minutes to do my daily devotion and then I journal. This half an hour a day has literally saved my life. I was so stressed at one point that I thought about killing myself. I took on all the problems of the world and I wanted out. The next morning, I began having my time. The half an hour has now become more like an hour. I am usually up before my alarm clock. This me time has made all the difference in the world. It has changed my outlook and has allowed me to give more of myself. I am not saying that everyone should get up early, find what works for you. Download a few podcasts on your phone and listen on them on your way to work. Sign up for a daily devotional email. Play music when you take a shower and clear your head, do not think about what anyone else needs just you. I have stopped wearing Bluetooth ear buds and have gone back to the ones with a cord when I need me time. That wire has become a sign that I need some space. It is kind of like my Do Not Disturb Sign.
Once you make time for you finding your spiritual wellbeing is super important. I have found that my faith has helped me in more ways than I can imagine. I know that no matter how alone I feel or how hard I think things are I am not alone. These two things are essential and need to be done before you try anything else. You cannot stop drowning if you cannot get your head above water. I was a lifeguard for many years and the first thing we were taught is if someone is drowning throw them a life ring first, you cannot help anyone if you are both drowning. The same was true in my EMS career. We were always taught that our safety came first and that you cannot help someone if you are hurt or dead. Trust me, it is human nature to help someone without putting you first. The one and only time I did not think about me and my partner first to help someone we had a gun pulled on us. Had the police not shown up when they did there is no doubt in my mind, we would have been dead too. I never went into a scene again that I did not make sure I was taken care of first. The same is true in life, you must come first.
Understanding PTSD and how it effects your Veteran is important, especially when it comes to their triggers. PTSD is not a one size fits all diagnosis. The cause is not the same for any Veteran. The treatment is not the same and the triggers are not the same. Every case is different. That is part of the reason why living with someone with PTSD is so hard. What works for one person may not work for another, further complicating treatment and diagnosis.
As a paramedic for 20 years I have seen things I have seen things that no one should ever see. I have responded to child abuse case, one in which a baby was held over a pot of boiling water and suffered second and third degree burns. I have had a 2-year-old that was blue and not breathing thrown into my arms. I have seen horrific car accidents, that have left mangled bodies thrown on the highway. I have seen two decapitations, numerous gunshot victims and stabbings. I witnessed a family being burned to death in a vehicle and could do nothing but watch because the vehicle was completely engulfed in flames. Gone into houses for a welfare check to find bodies that had been there for days or weeks. As part of the Critical Incident Stress debriefing team, it was my job to help people through these events and ones similar. Many of the first responders could walk away with little or no effects from what they had seen or heard; others were not so lucky. A simple smell, sound or place on the highway would take them to a dark place. I know of one EMT who would avoid an intersection because he worked a wreck there years before. I have my own call that I have carried with me for over 18 years. It was a motorcycle wreck where the driver of the motorcycle had died. It was not a bloody wreck like so many others I have seen, it was raining. What I remember about that day is the rain hitting his wedding ring and bouncing off. It was at that moment I realized how precious life was and how it could change in an instant. Every time I see rain bounce off something gold I go back to that moment. The same is true for our Veterans.
I spoke to a Veteran who was one of the 500 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne stationed at Ft. Bragg. On March 23, 1994 they were in a staging area on the Green Ramp at Pope AFB preparing to board planes for a joint training exercise. A little after 1400 hours there was a in air collision that involved a F-16. When the F-16 crashed on the runway it hit a C-141, puncturing the fuel tank and sending a fireball directly to the area were the paratroopers were staged. The sight and sounds and smells from that event were horrific. Crashing planes scattering debris along the runway. The sounds of an explosion and paratroopers screaming as they were being burned. The smell of burning fuel, clothing, and flesh. Twenty-three people died that day and another 80 were injured. One more died later as a result of his injuries. In total one fifth of the paratroopers were either injured or died. These numbers do not reflect the countless others who will carry that day with them forever; the people who witnessed the event directly, the personnel who responded to the crash and those who treated the patients. The true number of those injured either physically or emotionally at the Green Ramp Incident may never be known. Some of those there may have developed PTSD soon after the event, others may have had signs or symptoms that manifested months or even years later. Still others may not have PTSD from what they experienced that day until something triggers a specific memory. Therefore, PTSD is hard to diagnose, treat and live with. PTSD is not the same for everyone. It is no wonder we feel like we are drowning.
How the heck are we supposed to live with a ghost that shows up when we least expect it? I am not talking about a friendly ghost, like Casper or the ghost that appear in Disney’s Haunted Mansion. I am talking about the Poltergeist kind. The ones so scary, that even Stephen King will not write about them. These ghosts can turn a perfectly wonderful day into a screaming battle, full of hurtful words or thrown objects or tears. I have experienced some of this firsthand and heard so many other’s stories. How do you stop the drowning when you do not even know when you do not even see the storm coming?
Trying to fight a battle coming from what seems like it is coming at you from all directions is nearly impossible. Especially when you are fighting something that you cannot see. It is also hard to fight when it seems like everything is about him. What about you? Remember I told you that you cannot change a person. You can only change how you react to them. Finding a solution that works will help you too. What is you suddenly had a real conversation, that was productive? What is you did not feel so overwhelmed? What if the outburst happened less frequently? Would that make you feel better? Then this is about you too.
Establish your Hard Limits. I am not talking about the 50 Shades of Grey hard limits. I am talking about behaviors that you absolutely cannot live with. Make a list of the things you can no longer live with. These may include mental and or physical abuse (if you are a victim of abuse get help now), rage, fits of anger, yelling, breaking things, not doing anything around the house, yelling at the kids, drinking, or spending too much money. The list is your personal list. No one can tell you what should be on your list. There is no right or wrong to your list so just start writing. You will find over time you will add or remove from the list. I am going to urge you to write them down. Prioritize your list. Once you have your list, I urge you to sit down with your Veteran for a conversation. Make sure you talk to him when he is not in “a place”. Talking to him when you are in the middle of an argument is not going to work.
Before you begin your conversation try to remember that approaching him with a long list will only put him on the defensive. Just pick your top one or two from the list. Trust me, I tried many times to bomb my Veteran with all the things that were bothering me. He instantly shut down. He became defensive. It was not until I really began researching PTSD that I realized that may people who suffer with PTSD have a low self-esteem, so when you approach them with a long list they will feel like they cannot do anything right and just shut down. Why bother if they cannot do anything right? What is the point?
The morning I had decided to have my conversation I can assure you I was scared that approaching this would result in a fight. We both got up and had our coffee, during our second cup I told him I had something I really needed to talk to him about when he had some time. Letting him decide when we had our conversation gave him some control. Again, my research has shown that people with PTSD feel they have little control. After cup of coffee number two he said, “let’s talk”. I had played this conversation over and over in my head since I made the decision to have “the talk”. I really thought I was ready until the moment arrived. Suddenly, I got nervous. How would he react? I knew I had to do this but was it worth it? Would it be different than the other times that I tried to talk to him by just rattling off all the things on my list and not just sticking to my top one? Would we end up in another fight?
I took a deep breath and the conversation began. It did not start the way I had planned it in my head. Instead of saying, “your behavior is driving me crazy and I cannot live with you doing….”. I started by saying that I cannot imagine what he had been through. I do not have any idea and I am not sure that I want to. I told him that was his story and that I was here if he needed me or wanted to share with me. I said, “it did not matter to me what happened or what he did because all of that made him who he is today, and I love you”. I went on to tell him that I cannot imagine what it is like to live with PTSD and the triggers that he has to live with. I think he was shocked that I put him first. I said I was sure some of the things I did triggered him and asked him what was the biggest thing that I did that triggered him. He said when I yelled. I am a yeller and always have been so hearing that me yelling was triggering him was a hard pill to swallow. How in the heck am I going to stop yelling? Then I realized that when we argued, and I yelled I set him off. I told him that I would work on that and that it may take some time. We came up with a plan that if I started to yell or felt myself getting to that point, I would tell him I needed a few minutes to get myself together and would leave the room.
Now it was my turn. I told him that no matter how mad he got he could never put his hands on me in anger. He said he had not done that. I told him that I knew that, but it was one of my fears. I was in an abusive relationship in the past and hearing so many others talk about the abuse they experience scared me. I just never wanted to be put in that situation again.
It is amazing how well this has worked for us. Initially it was hard for me to stop yelling. There are still moments that I yell, but they are fewer and further between and I usually catch myself. We have had many more conversations since that one. Each time we address issues one at a time that had made me feel like I was drowning. It was not until we began having these conversations that I realized there were times when he felt overwhelmed, like he was drowning too. This was the beginning of how we learned to climb into our lifeboat.
I am no longer drowning or hanging on to the edge of one of those rings that as a lifeguard I tossed out to people who were drowning. I am safely in a lifeboat with my Veteran by my side. There are days that the seas are rough. There are days that I want to throw him overboard. There are days that I am sure that he wants to throw me overboard too. There are many more days that the skies are blue, and we are both enjoying the calm seas.