In writing, it always helps me to collect my "thoughts" if I can think of one word or a short phrase that sums up what I plan to dribble over. Let this week's word or short phrase be Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)!
I've been meaning to talk about PTSD for some time. For one thing, there's a lot of it going around. For another, I have caught some.
Last week Jim Page walked into the Real Change office and invited me to a house concert set for the next day. I mentioned that my PTSD might prevent me going. He mentioned back that he himself has Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I'll be getting to that later. But first I want to explain how the Post-kind of TSD can make it hard to do things on the spur of a moment.
Usually I won't go to any event for which I have less than 48 hours to get used to the idea. One time I agreed to go to a community meal with three hours' notice. I found myself waiting in line alone for the dinner to start, with loud conversations battering me from all sides. The ensuing panic attack didn't make me stronger.
People often tell me, "Wes, suck it up. We've all had bad things happen to us in the past. The trick is to put it behind you and get on with your life." These people are sadly misinformed. They think that the panic attacks are caused by dwelling on bad memories, which is wrong. So, as a public service, I will explain what really happens.
First of all, yes, there is the Trauma. Note that it is capitalized. We aren't talking about little t trauma. We ARE talking about the time Mom tried to suffocate me after Dad drove off to leave me to collapse into the pool made by the geyser of blood from my temple. We are NOT talking about dead goldfish or simple corporal punishment, unless there were thousands of screaming goldfish, or unless by simple you mean by the rack or thumbscrews or such.
Big T Trauma isn't just more traumatic than little t trauma. There are qualitative differences. Big T Traumas undermine your worldview and force you to be on your guard for years to come.
After my father nearly killed me, and after my mother tried to, I still had to live with those people! If you can't trust your parents to not try to kill you, you can't trust strangers to not try to kill you, either. So I had to spend years looking over my shoulder, ready to duck.
It's that long period of necessary vigilance that gives rise to most of the unpleasant symptoms of PTSD. By the time you get the diagnosis, you have worn out your vigilance machinery. You have arthritis of the vigilator joints. Your original injuries have more or less ceased to be a factor. Being told to forget about them is useless. You might as well tell me to forget the Hundred Years War. Have done so -- doesn't help.
The phrase "panic attack" adds to the confusion. The "panic" is not in response to any fear. It just is. The disorder is this: That you get the physical symptoms of panic when you KNOW there is nothing to be afraid of. Being told there is nothing to be afraid of, over and over, by well meaning people, when YOU ALREADY KNEW THAT, could result in someone taking someone's head off, tossing a penny in the socket and making a wish. Ha! Get it? Means "well"! I just channeled Shakespeare!
Getting back to Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If you've followed me so far you should understand now that Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder is just as bad as the Post-kind. It's all about being on Orange and Red Alert so long they look Blue to you. Your alert button is broke. Sometimes it doesn't work at all; sometimes it gets stuck.