Mention the acronym “PTSD” and most people picture a suicidal combat vet balancing on the thin, dangerous edge of violence and ruin. Maybe he’s already hurt himself or others. It is a crisis situation. Obvious and immediate. While this extreme and emergent scenario is a real possibility, it is just one of an infinite number of ways this disorder can play out and certainly not the most common. The human experience consists of mostly “post-traumatic stress” in one form or another. There is a spectrum of dysfunction endemic to simply being alive in today’s world.
I’m sure several missions from my decade in the US Navy (not to mention the drunken adventures on liberty) made my PTSD more intense or longer-lasting, but the roots go all the way back to my earliest days. The way my mom describes it now, the initial trigger was likely inadvertent though unavoidable. Had she not left me at six-months old to stay with my dad’s family and go help him move their stuff down the Alaskan-Canadian Highway to Middleton, Wisconsin, there’s no telling what might have happened. Dad was always a sad sort of dude with no common sense to accompany his winning smile and native intelligence. He spent most of his 61 years reeling from one self-created crisis to the next.
Turns out we weren’t so different after all, a startling realization for me at this late date. I suspect my dad also suffered from severe PTSD given the life he lived and the way he acted in response to stress and ambiguity. Part of my own healing process has involved digging back through my memories to find the center of my distress, the source of my disease. That’s what PTSD is when all is said and done. A disease of the mind and soul that can definitely be mitigated and oftentimes cured. I’m going for the latter.
The bar on “curing” myself is high but not insurmountable. I’m lucky enough to have a tight cadre of family and friends willing to help, loving me unconditionally and never presuming to judge what I’m going through. I’m not alone, however lonely I might feel. I have reason to believe that whatever localized jags of sadness and guilt will continue to go away as quickly and unexpectedly as they arrived. I’m learning to detect the physical symptoms that always come ahead of psychological deflection. I can now actively calm my beating heart, send the surging adrenaline to my brain and more logically assess the “crisis” situation. Then I react.
It’s hard to describe my sense of relief, not being held hostage by emotion. No longer being held prisoner by a lifetime of autonomic reactions to external stimuli that invariably made things so much worse than whatever I rose up to fight would have been had I simply let it wash over me. Waves always recede. I’ve spent more time and energy fixing the fallout from my thoughtlessness than it would have taken to be more deliberate and reasonable approach in the first place. Measure twice, cut once. Slow is fast. I’m adjusting my filters. Tweaking my operating system. Freeing myself from a dark past that can’t be changed to embrace a bright future not yet written.
An ongoing step in my self-help strategy is to make amends, reaching back person by person and apologize wherever and whenever I can for wrongs both big and small. The list is actually much shorter than I imagined going into the process. The sad fact of the matter is the vast majority of people I harmed or annoyed are lost to the sands of time. The best I can do is acknowledge the karmic debt and forgive myself for being emotionally stunted. Where I do have access to someone I’ve wronged in the past, these words will be spoken aloud where possible or written down where not.
This sort of intense personal growth must seem terribly messy from the outside. Chaotic, emotionally-charged and lacking any real direction. I’ll admit numerous challenges have been difficult to overcome. I wasn’t going to change nearly fifty years of destructive conditioning overnight or without a significant amount of pain. Change is possible though. I can literally feel it each time I don’t react physically to external triggers. Each one of these small victories adds up to finally winning this terrible war, marching back home to ticker-tape parades and enjoying a family picnic with the ones I love. An “ordinary world” is within my reach at long last.
To all my fellow humans still suffering under the weight of this disease, I am here to report that it’s never too late to find a new beginning. Never too late to be honest with yourself and those closest to you in an effort to make yourself well again. It won’t be easy, but it can be done and is beyond worth it. You got this. Turn to.