PTSD: To hell and back

Last updated 05:00 17/06/2013
A LONELY TIME: With PTSD you go to hell and back, you discover the world hasn't changed with you.

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It's 2.30am on a Friday morning and I've just woken up standing naked inside my garden hedge tapping a urinating drunkard on the shoulder.

In the confusion between sleep and full consciousness, the garden-waterer nearly kills himself getting out of my front yard. All I can think of is how tired I'm going to be tomorrow after this sleepwalking episode.

I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It makes me highly-sensitive to anything out of the ordinary around me and, for 20 years, I had absolutely no idea I had it.

Normally thought of as the preserve of the combat soldier or the emergency response worker, it is actually very common. It can be set off by an accident, bullying, natural disaster, disease, living for long periods under extreme stress or poverty, and witnessing death. Christchurch citizens are dealing with all of these.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a significant involuntary reaction by the body and mind to a significant life event/s that changes how the sufferer sees or interacts with the world.

If you come from Christchurch and you hear a dark rumble, do you suddenly pause and listen intently? Do you glance for the safety of a doorway, or feel ready to move away from buildings? Chances are you may have it in one form or another.

And it's perfectly natural.

Most of us exist in a cocoon of self-security with a belief that if we are good, kind or considerate then we'll live a life worthy of living; that we matter and our lives are somehow important.

Mike Cole, a combat veteran and writer, says PTSD is what happens when all that is stripped away.

"It is the curtain pulled back, the deep and thematic realisation that life is fungible, that death is capricious and sudden... It is the shaking realisation that love cannot protect you, and even worse, that you cannot protect those you love. It is the final surrendering of the myth that, if you are decent enough, ethical enough, skilled enough, you'll be spared.

"PTSD is what happens when you realise that your survival will be determined by something as random as the moment you bent over to tie your shoelace."

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Most of us in Christchurch know a version of this cold dread as 'Ole Shaky'.

Symptoms of PTSD are as unique as the individuals who suffer from it due to their separate experiences and circumstances.

Here are a few anecdotes:

* From survivors of an accident and a father/mother duo that had a child with cancer: lack of sleep, extreme paranoia, mood swings, I'm quick to take offence, I will get up in the middle of the night to double check the locks and make sure the kids are tucked up, I get flashbacks to my accident.

* From a professional businesswoman who survived a bullying work environment: drinking heavily at the end of the day to numb out the anxiety, desire to go home and hide in my bed, stabbing heart pains at the thought of my old manager, random black outs at the most inappropriate times, stabbing pains in my stomach, covered in a sweat, wanting to avoid crowded bars, and situations where I may be unable to quickly bolt home.

* A bully victim, ex-services, homeless for a time: heightened vigilance, recurring nightmares, insomnia, heavy drinking to assist sleep, repression of everyday memory, vivid anger at bearing witness to maltreatment of others, avoidance of crowds, social ineptitude, personal security at restaurants (sitting with back to wall), disregard of personal safety and health when it comes to aiding others, a completely empty social scene with online friends only and a self-imposed hermitage.

There's a real sense of loneliness with PTSD because after you go to hell and back you discover the world hasn't changed with you. Subsequently, suicide rates are astronomical. This is because the person has no idea what is happening to themselves, only that they are miserable and unable to explain how they're feeling.

The good news is that there are people all around you who already know how it can be fought.

A big key to coping is exercise and communication. Most tell me that they feel better when they partake in physical exertion of some kind. It releases the tension in the body from being on alert for so long. Best of all, it destroys the loneliness and brings with it acceptance and pride. Survivors are awesome people, inspirational and worthy of admiration. They have lessons in their stories won by the hardest roads and their words have gravitas.

Personally, I find confronting my fear works wonders: I'm terrified of falling, so I hunt possums by hand without ropes on the crumbling cliffs and bluffs of the Port Hills.

If I survive I feel like I've earned another day. Facing danger and fear gives me worth and I sleep better at night afterwards. It's extreme and stupid, but it brings me peace.

PTSD is the badge worn by a survivor that can appear years after the event and should be accepted not with shame or stigma, but with pride.

The final word should be left to a friend who found her way out of the mess and leads a successful life in Australia:

"By working through and being able to communicate with friends about this I have not only started to feel less of a freak, but also gained more understanding of what PTSD and anxiety actually is - something that is not in your head, but an actual reaction to a stressful time in one's life which can have long consequences."

If you think you've been under a lot of prolonged stress, that little things spark unpleasant memories or reactions, that you can't sleep or have recurring nightmares, avoid things you never had issues with before, then there's a possibility that you should do a little Googling and reading.


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