So, You Have PTSD...

“So, You Have PTSD ...”

“We appreciate that you’ve volunteered to be interviewed by eight students who are in

their second year of medical school and are interested in psychiatry and learning about your

problems. We understand that you have PTSD and we want to hear about your life. This is not

intended to be a therapy session for you, but an informative session for our students. We can

stop at any time you want, and you do not have to answer any question you are uncomfortable

with. Let’s start by introducing ourselves. I’m Dr. Smith (not actual name) and that is Dr. Jones

at the end of the table.”

This was the beginning of an hour of questions by medical students. I had received, via

email, an invitation to be in this session, and replied that I would be glad to do this. I thought

medical students might benefit from hearing first-hand what PTSD is really like, rather than just

reading about it in a book. I commend the medical school for taking this initiative.

Furthermore, I thought that you, as a reader of my blog, might also benefit by reading

my answers to interview questions. If you have PTSD, you might take comfort knowing that

others suffer from similar symptoms. You are not alone, and there is help. If you don’t have

PTSD, you might wonder what it is like for others who do. Perhaps you have friends or relatives

who suffer from this disorder. The questions and answers that follow are what I remember

from the interview.

“So, you have PTSD. Can you tell us about how this developed?”

“I grew up with a very violent and abusive father. He came back from WW II when I was

four years old. Until then I lived with my mother and her parents. My mother went to work in a

war factory and my grandmother took care of me during the day while my mother was at work.

I remember shortly after he came home that I was playing in the sandbox and didn’t want to go

in for supper. He slung me over his shoulder and broke my arm. When my parents took me to

the doctor, they told me to say I fell down the stairs. That was the beginning of having to lie

about my continuing injuries. He beat me many times a week with switches, his belt, shingles,

or hit me with his fists for the smallest infractions. He burned the bottom of my feet with

cigarettes, pulled my hair out in clumps, broke bones in my feet, and pulled out two of my

teeth. He did these kinds of things until I moved out and went to college.

“I never felt safe when he was around as he could, at any moment, inflict pain and

terror, even waking me in the night to make me stand barefoot in the snow. He was a clever

man and thought of many devious ways to torture and torment me.”

“Why didn’t you tell anyone what he was doing to you?”

“I couldn’t because he said he would kill me and my mother and brother if I told

anyone.”

“Didn’t your teachers notice that you had bruises?”

“Sometimes they asked what happened, but I made up stories. It was the 1950’s and

there were no child protective services, no social workers, and when doctors asked what

happened, I always repeated what I was told to say. One time he made me dig my own grave

and shoveled dirt on me, so I believed him when he said he would kill me. Several other times

he really did try to kill me.”

The room was silent for a moment and no one moved, not even a computer stroke or

pen on paper—as if time were suspended while they focused on what I had just said.

“Why do you think he tried to kill you?”

“After my father died, my brother told me that when he was a teenager, he asked my

mother why Dad was so cruel, especially to me. My mom said that Dad never wanted me, that

he wanted her to have an abortion.”

“How did your father treat your brother?”

“Dad treated him about the same as he treated me.”

“What was your relationship with your mother?”

“My mother had MS and was always sick. I had to spend time helping her take care of

my brother, and also do dishes, laundry, cooking, cleaning, and ironing. Looking back, I think

she was just trying to survive. When I talked to her about my father’s violence, she just said that

I should try to do as he wanted, try to please him, be a good girl and stay out of his way. She

made me feel like it was my fault.

By that time, the room was very quiet, several students shook their heads after my last

reply. One young woman was visibly crying, and another had her hands over her eyes. I could

tell many were very uncomfortable, shifting in their chairs, staring at their notepads, and

making grimacing faces. For a moment, no one spoke—it was like they needed a moment to

process what they were hearing. A fleeting thought ran through my mind: These people had

seen hundreds if not thousands of hours of violence on TV programs, on the news, and in

movies. Perhaps they had never had a live person give them such a graphic account of what

had happened to a little girl.

“Did your father drink alcohol?”

“No, just socially.”

“Did you ever resort to drugs or alcohol?”

“No, I knew my Finnish history, that Finnish people have the genetic makeup that may

lead to alcoholism, so I didn’t want to risk that as I had seen other Finnish relatives’ lives ruined

by alcohol.”

“To what do you attribute your survival?”

“Being in therapy from the time I went away to college, meeting the love of my life and

now husband and his family when I was 15, my maternal grandmother’s unconditional love

along with the affection of cousins, aunts and uncles, my girlfriend next door, and being in

touch with nature—the woods, flowers, insects, rabbits, and birds. I took long walks by myself

in our woods and truly communed with nature.

“What kinds of therapy did you have?”

“Probably every kind, from the traditional processing of childhood, to cognitive behavior

therapy, mindfulness-based therapies, and everything in between.

“What was the most effective therapy?”

“EMDR. Have you ever heard of it? It is the standard therapy for soldiers who have

PTSD.”

“No. But we will google it and find out.”

“Before therapy, how did you get through your life as a kid?”

“My girlfriend, the same age, lived next door and was always there to play with, to do

homework with, and spend time with.”

“How could a child help you when she didn’t even know what you were going through?”

“In the 50’s children played outside, spent days out in the woods, rode bikes, went

swimming, ice skating, sledding, and so much more than children do together today. She was

like having a sister who loved me.”

“How do you think that your involvement with your teenage boyfriend helped you?”

“He loved me unconditionally. He was smart, good company, and fun. I felt safe with

him. His family took me under their wing. They were like the family I had always dreamed about

having. Also, I thought my boyfriend would be a good father.

Nevertheless, I was attracted to the “bad boys” in school, the ones that had their

cigarettes rolled up in the sleeves of their t-shirts and were already in trouble with the law. But

I told myself, these guys would not be good fathers.”

“Did you ever take medication for PTSD?”

“No, a doctor prescribed Xanax once, but it didn’t make any difference after taking it for

a while, so I didn’t continue as it made me sleepy.”

“Have you ever been diagnosed with depression?”

“No, I’m just the opposite. I’m a workaholic, always doing many things at once. I’ve been

a teacher, wildlife refuge manager, textbook author, park ranger, and now I am writing a

memoir of my childhood. And this is just a very short list of what I have done. I understand that

when people are told they are worthless and won’t amount to anything, they often feel they

must prove over and over that they are worthy. So, I must ask myself why I am really doing a

particular thing. Am I having fun? Is it rewarding in some way? How?”

“How does PTSD affect you today?”

“Because I have learned so many strategies, I feel like I manage my PTSD very well. I still

occasionally have nightmares, but nothing like it used to be. I can have a PTSD attack if

something surprises me, like a huge noise, something unexpectedly hurting me however

slightly, getting lost when driving the car, or being confronted by an angry large man. I learned

in therapy that my brain was programed for the “fight or flight” response very early in life, so

that I can be in “fight or flight” mode in an instant, even when there is no need to be there.

Just understanding this helps me in a troubling or tense situation.”

“Our hour is up. We want to thank you for your participation today. I’m sure our

students appreciated the opportunity to talk with you.”

I notice that some leaned back in their chairs as if relieved. A few had more color in their

cheeks than when we began—maybe an emotional reaction. Two kept one hand over their

eyebrows shading their eyes as they seemed to continue to make notes. As I glanced around

the room, I saw that some looked directly at me and nodded as if to say, thank you. Others

could not make eye contact but looked out the window or at their notes. Maybe they were

realizing that a career dealing with someone’s trauma would be very difficult.

Linda Lundgren