A special post for PTSD Awareness Month
June is PTSD Awareness Month, and yesterday, June 27th, was PTSD Awareness Day. Although I feel annoyed that awareness months only last for one month a year; afterall, those of us with PTSD have to be aware of it nonstop, day-in day-out, I am also grateful that more people are taking the time to learn about the disorder. Combat trauma has headlined the PTSD discussion for years. Physical and sexual assault are finally getting some attention, with natural disasters and emergency workers beginning to get a share of notice as well. We are, however, still in somewhat of a dark age when it comes to emotional factors in PTSD. Earlier this week I posted a two part true story by Genelle Chaconas about how they overcame emotional abuse. Today, I want to discuss post traumatic emotional neglect, and my experiences with it.
We often think of emotional neglect as something which occurs between parents and children, or within marriages, but it can occur within any relationship in which emotional bonding and attention is reasonably expected. For those of us living with PTSD, support is crucial to recovery. When we don’t get the support we need, when we experience post traumatic emotional neglect, we suffer very serious consequences.
Often, emotional neglect is unintended. People are busy. Everyone, mentally ill or not, traumatized or not, experiences stress and disappointment. Although we take pride, as a species, in our empathic abilities, humans are also inherently selfish. It’s part of our survival mechanism. Sometimes emotional neglect is an intended tactic used by abusers, but often it just happens. Friends forget to reach out. Family members get overwhelmed by their disappointed expectations. Stigma takes over. And those of us living with a trauma history fall to the wayside.
This post isn’t about placing blame on anyone. It certainly isn’t about calling out my friends for not “being there” enough for me. I am as much to blame-if not more-for the distance between my friends and I. Even if you see yourself reflected within it, it’s not about being passive aggressive or calling you out. It’s about my feelings, and how emotional neglect and rejection exacerbate trauma symptoms.
When No One Cares Anymore
What it feels like to still be traumatized ten years later
PTSD has no cure. It can be treated. With work, symptoms can be reduced. Remission is possible, and life can become bearable. But I, and anyone who lives with the disorder, will always be traumatized. That is what I think a lot of people have difficulty understanding. It may be common knowledge that PTSD can’t be cured. The majority of people may be able to repeat that statement and even understand it, at least intellectually. In my experience, however, people have much more difficulty applying that knowledge to real actual trauma survivors.
In 2018, a decade will have passed since I ended my abusive relationship and was subsequently diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for the first time. PTSD is not just a mental illness; it’s a mental injury. It is a physical ailment that takes place in the brain, characterized by brain changes in response to overwhelming trauma. A traumatized brain becomes “stuck.” It loses the ability to naturally process events. The “fight or flight” neurochemicals hijack everyday reactions, leading to symptoms like hyper-reactivity, nightmares, flashbacks, and adrenal fatigue. Which means, of course, that when a person has PTSD, she will not only have difficulty engaging with her trauma, but also with processing new stimuli. And that old trauma, the thing ten years ago that caused the injury in the first place? That never gets filed away. It is ever-present; accessed at the slightest trigger, and able to intrude upon the affected person’s thoughts and feelings.
With all of the information available surrounding PTSD, you’d think compassionate care would be abundant for trauma survivors. And for some, it is. But for a lot of us, emotional neglect and malpractice, however unintentional, become routine. Here are the different ways emotional neglect manifests in my life:
The “Just Get Over It” Mentality
I have lost count of how many times I have heard some variation of the phrase, “Just get over it.” My father was a huge proponent of this idea, and it’s part of the reason he and I aren’t on speaking terms. My father was pretty damn direct about his feelings regrading mental illness and the ability to magically self-cure it, but even people who have never told me to “just get over it;” even people who would probably never even think those words, have treated me as though I am shameful, or at the very least: annoying, for still talking about my trauma almost a decade later.
People don’t realize it; they think they are being positive and self-affirming, which is super trendy right now, but when they write things like “let go of negative thoughts and change your life” or “happiness is in your hands-you just have to want it” they are perpetuating the “just get over it mentality.”
“Hold up!,” says Anonymous Reader 963. “I just read that guest post you tweeted the other day! The one you wrote for Skin & Satori? About four ways Buddhism can help you lead a happier life? You totally wrote that shifting into a more positive mindset can have a really big impact on your life..”
You are absolutely right Anonymous Reader 963. I did write that. Meant it too. That is also the basis behind Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which are used to treat PTSD, depression, anxiety, and some personality disorders. We can change our thoughts and help ourselves feel better. Like I said in that article you mentioned, we are a storytelling species; shift the words you use to tell your story, and your story will begin to shift too.
But we can’t “storytell” mental illness or injury out of our lives, and we can’t want ourselves out of depression or PTSD. We can help ourselves with different thoughts; we can’t heal ourselves with magic happy thoughts, and that’s the distinction too many people forget to make. When people roll their eyes and tell a traumatized person to smile or think happier thoughts while she’s having an episode or behavioral relapse, they are delegitimizing her experience, which is a form of gaslighting. Which is a form of abuse. Or at least emotional neglect.
The “detox negative people out of your life” fad
The first time I clearly remember losing a friend to my PTSD was about two, maybe three, years after receiving my diagnosis. She was a DV survivor as well, who had been date raped by her ex just as I had. She’d been luckier than me in that she had been “rescued” from her abuser by the guy she would eventually marry. I expected sympathy from her, and a measure of understanding.
The shame, loneliness, and hopelessness I endured after ending my abusive relationship were unbearable. I contemplated suicide often. I cried almost every day, even in the middle of classes. When I confided my suicidal feelings to my friend, she texted me to say that she couldn’t be my friend anymore. I was too depressed, and too “unwilling” to move past my trauma. Instead of supporting me, she dropped out of my life.
I’m not going to provide examples of every person who has abandoned me. Most of my former friends were far less obvious than the girl I wrote about, and far less honest. Year by year, my friends quietly tip toed out of my life. Some of them said I was simply too angry. Some looked down on me for using drugs, or judged me for not actively parenting my son. Others mocked my depression, labeling it petty or just obnoxious. Too many so-called friends were ready with judgement, but not with support or even helpful suggestions.
PTSD is the manifestation of irreversible brain damage. People often don’t think of it that way because brain damage is usually correlated with cognitive impairment. I’m still smart, but my emotional intelligence is scarred, and emotional intelligence is necessary for assessing social cues or regulating emotional reactivity. My outbursts? They’re a symptom of my PTSD. My drug use? Was an instinctual form of self-medicating my hyperaroused adrenal system.
People deserve to have friendships that make them feel happy and empowered. But people who have been through experiences so aberrant they have irreparable brain damage as a result also deserve a measure of support and compassion. I may have said some shitty things and can sometimes be too quick to speak my mind, but I’ve never ruined anyone. The kinds of things I’ve done, I’ve forgiven in others. Many were not even the kind of thing that needed to be forgiven in the first place. The crime for which I have been most heavily punished has simply been expressing my sadness aloud. You ‘detoxed me,’ but what it amounted to, in my world, was throwing me away. You left me behind to drown alone.
Let me make one thing clear: I am not talking about routine creative rejection, like losing a contest or having a pitch turned down. Those things hurt, yes; I have self-esteem issues and a lot of hope built into my career as a writer. Whenever I hear no, I experience a small personal devastation. But I’m aware that even the best writers hear ‘no’ an inordinate amount, so even though rejection hurts me more than it should, I steel myself for it and keep trying.
What I’m talking about in this category is peer rejection. I have PTSD as the result of domestic violence. You can imagine I’ve done a good measure of self-isolating. I don’t go out with friends much, and I’ve turned down more than my fair share of invitations due to anxiety, triggers, depression.
But creativity is my lifeblood. It really is. I have a creative soul. Ever since childhood I have been a creative, collaborative person. When I was little, I had the inexplicable ability to entice my classmates to forgo recess in order to rehearse Broadway musicals with me. On the occasions that I couldn’t cast anyone in my productions, I put together one woman shows. I had gumpf! I had initiative. Even if people didn’t like me, they believed in me.
Somewhere between teenage motherhood, my PTSD diagnosis, my addiction, and my recent suicide attempt, people stopped believing in me. People pretty much stopped noticing me altogether. Part of my terrifying healing process has been to re-establish myself in the creative world. That has been hard, but I’m on my way, if slowly. I just published my first paid article, and even if it was just fun fluff, that felt great. What I didn’t think would be half as hard as it has been, is garnering the support of my peers.
I have experienced peer rejection in a lot of creative avenues. I just deleted four paragraphs about it. I know your attention span is limited; people don’t come to blogs for novels. So I’m just going to leave the most recent example.
My Off-Fridays project. Every other week I get a little stab in my heart when I put up my link-up party and watch the week eek by with little participation. I know that sounds small to most, but in my world, it’s the biggest social outreach I’ve done in a long time. It has basically become my “show me a sign that my creative dreams matter in this world;” my prayer to the creative muses, or whatever. And it’s feeling more and more like my cry is being ridiculed.
I have to actively remind myself that people aren’t maliciously forgetting. That the reason people say they’ll join then don’t, or ignore my calls for submissions even when I tag them, or add a link one week and then never come back isn’t because they don’t give a shit about me. They’re just forgetting. They’re just forgetting.
But the truth is, this failure to launch does mean people don’t give a shit about me. I intentionally picked a project that would be easy; you take sixty seconds to add a link from something you’ve already created; sometime in the next two weeks you read and share or comment on a couple other posts in your niche, which every serious blogger should be doing anyway. I intentionally created a project that would benefit others as much as myself; yes a successful link-up would drive mad traffic to my blog, but also to the participants’ blogs, and the link-library aspect of it extends that potential outbound traffic indefinitely, with no extra work on the participants’ behalves.
I know it’s not a malicious apathy towards my creativity. The people who could participate in this but choose not to are just bypassing something they see on the internet. They don’t realize how important it is to me, or they just figure someone who is more emotionally invested in me will make sure to help me out. The problem is, there’s nobody to fill those shoes. When everybody says “someone else will do this for her,” nobody ends up doing it, and I just get left behind once again.
I know it doesn’t make sense to others, but the hole the failure of this project creates is deep, and reads to me like a lack of caring about my entire blog. If people don’t want to be associated with my blog in a way that could benefit them too, then how could they want to be associated with my blog at all? Maybe that’s aberrant thinking but…I have no way of gauging that. That’s the problem with being ignored; there’s nobody around to explain to you the why of it.
I’ve decided to give Off-Fridays up for at least a month. I may bring it back later, because giving this up is a significant goodbye to the chunk of my soul that thrived on collaboration and creativity, but I don’t know. The amount of pain this type of rejection causes me is too significant,and being ignored too dangerous a trigger for me. My abuse killed a vital part of me, and all the tangential pieces of my soul have been slowly dying off. Here goes another one.
If someone you love has PTSD, please keep these things in mind:
–Her brain is physically injured. That means that she can’t control all of her symptoms.
–PTSD cannot be cured. She will never “just get over” the trauma.
–Resistance to treatment is a symptom of PTSD; if she leaves therapy or isn’t going, please don’t judge her.
–Severe trauma leads to intense feelings of shame and self-loathing, which will lead her to socially isolate. If she makes the effort to reach out, either by asking to hang out or inviting you to participate in a creative project, it’s really important that you respond.
–Her brain injury makes “normal” hurts more difficult to process.She may become what you judge as “overly sad” or “overly angry” in reaction to slights or even accidents or miscommunication.
–When she is triggered, she may revert back to the mental or emotional age when her trauma occurred, which may cause her to act immature. Don’t judge her for this. She’ll feel badly enough about it when she comes out of the episode.
–Forgiveness and compassion will go a long way toward helping her heal. If you can forgive her episodes and remain her friend, she will feel more worthy of love and friendship, which in turn will motivate her to seek healing and self-care.
–Even if she always says no, remembering to include her in invitations to hang out will help her feel that she is viewed as a worthwhile person, and not just a victim.
–If she reaches out to you-respond. Even if you think her request is petty or “shouldn’t” matter; even if you think it’s dramatic attention seeking, reaching out is hard for those of us who have experienced trauma, and if she’s doing it, it’s probably really important to her, even if you can’t understand why.
Loneliness and social isolation pervade my daily life. Peer support group offers a ragged version of social relief. Ultimately, however, I feel misunderstood and abandoned simply for having been injured. It’s a symptom of PTSD to feel you cannot be helped, and I am finally fighting it with regular intensive therapy. Nonetheless, I feel doomed to loneliness.
The truth, however, is that I have a small handful of really amazing friends. The majority of them live in other states, which contributes to my daily sense of loneliness. I’m married and my husband can be supportive, but he is also often exhausted by working and parenting, and distant because of his own PTSD. Still, though, I could be more alone. My life could be worse. I am in constant fear that I’ll lose the little I have. I don’t want any of you to think I’ve forgotten you, or that by writing this post I am negating your efforts. Gratitude is important, and you deserve to know I care.
Instead of ending this post with more litanies of rejections, I want to honor and respect those who have continued to be positive supports in my life, in ways both big and small. You help counter all the people who have abandoned me. You help me get through this life. You’re the reason I am still here.
If you have PTSD, I invite you to create a gratitude list with me.
People for whom I am grateful:
1. My fetus-friend, who I have literally known since we were both fetuses. We had a lil hiatus when we were kids, but besides that, he’s been there for me through all of it. He’s seen the worse parts of me and continues to love me. He has gone out of his way-like out of the state out of his way-to help me. He has his own mental health issues, and sometimes we drift apart and don’t talk for months, but he always makes himself available to me when it’s really important.
2. My friend who is hosting this blog. When I mentioned on Facebook that I was thinking about starting a blog, she reached out to me and offered to not only host the blog, but to buy the domain for me, and then she did. Without her, this would be wordpress.bettysbattleground.com, or maybe it wouldn’t exist at all. Besides that, she’s available any time a glitch comes up. So I can’t complain that my creative pursuits are always ignored because right there’s a person who has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that she supports my creativity. There are like a billion more majorly supportive things this person has done for me, and she too has seen me at my worst and continues to stick around. She’s a way better friend than I deserve, in my opinion.
3. My friend who always writes me nice comments or sends caring messages. Even though it’s hard for us to find time to see each other, she always remembers to show me that she remembers me. And she is really understanding when I go on these rants. She’s also gotten random gifts for my kids and recently went out of her way to help me in a major way on really short notice. I’ve yet to make that up to her..it was such a big deal I don’t even know if I can.
4. My friend who hangs out with me when I have the time, and keeps inviting me out even though I always say no. I always say no, mostly because of childcare issues, but she doesn’t stop at least sending me the invitations. Out of all my in-state friends, she’s the one I’ve hung out with the most lately-a whopping two times. This past weekend she accompanied me to the touring production of Studio 54’s Cabaret. She even fronted me a couple bucks so we could get slightly better seats. We were still in the third mezzanine, but who cares? It was Cabaret.
5. All the friends, peers, bloggers, and general people who have said nice things about my blog. Please don’t think I don’t appreciate it. I do..I really do. The big takeaway I want you all to get from my Off-Fridays rant is that even though the low participation is translating into my brain as “nobody cares about this blog,” I am trying really hard to fight that. You guys are helping. Whether you’re someone who messages me every once in a while with supportive words, someone who comments regularly, someone who e-mailed me out of the blue to tell me you love what I’m doing, or someone who messaged me with the desire to write me a guest post, it means a lot. This blog is often very personal, and your words are truly encouraging.
6. The bloggers who have participated in Off-Fridays more than once. There’s only a couple of ya, but I don’t want you to think that means I don’t appreciate you. Off-Fridays was intended to be a community building project for us mental health and mental illness bloggers; the hope was that people would engage in it again and again. If not every week, then every week that they had an applicable post. Whenever I see a blogger come back, it gives me a little heart thrill, and boosts my hope that my project may be salvaged yet.
7. The bloggers who have participated in Off-Fridays once. Even though my hope was that you guys would come again, and my honest truth is that I get sad when I see some of you ‘like’ my tweets or Facebook posts about the link-up but then not actually join in again, I also appreciate that you took the time to do it once at all. You helped create at least one really cool mental health resource library; you responded to my invitation to join when some people flat-out ignored me. And you took time from your lives to support my own project just because I asked. Maybe someday you will join in again? But even if you don’t, thanks for doing it once.
8. My mom. There are a lot of ways my mom has made me really, really sad. I could give my mom her own entire section when it comes to emotional neglect. But I am incredibly grateful to her for taking really wonderful care of my son while I have been unable to, and for recently supporting by helping with some groceries and supplies for my daughters. There’s still an emotional lack, but getting this help has improved our lives greatly, so I really appreciate that.
9. My kids. My kids can be trying. Especially my three year old-oh boy! My kids can
induce a lot of worry within me. They take an enormous effort and leave me exhausted on the daily. Let’s face it-sometimes taking care of them can be flat-out boring. But all three of them are sweethearts with ready kisses and embraces and a clear love for their mama. All three of them have unique, lovely personalities and they each fill me with their own special brand of pride.
10. My husband. I’m not always grateful to have my husband around. He can be a huge asshole, and like my mom, he could have his own dedicated section on emotional neglect. He completely undervalues my role as a caretaker to our toddlers, for example. But he also is very affectionate and loving, and he always makes me feel great about the way I look, which is a big deal for someone with body image issues.
11. My peer support group. I don’t know what they are like outside of group, but within group, they are caring, they make me laugh, they listen to my rants and don’t judge me, at least not aloud. We admit our worst selves around each other and are still able to look each other in the eye. That’s no small thing.
12. My therapist. My therapist is a really nice person who’s gone to bat for me on multiple occasions. We owe our housing to her intervention, and she helped me with my custody case. Beyond that, she listens to me bitch every week, and still greets me with a smile. She’s helping me recover-if slowly-from trauma. Without her, I’d be in a much worse place.
I didn’t know how many people I was going to include on that list when I started it. Twelve is certainly a lot more than I expected. There may even be more, and if I forgot you, it was probably only temporarily. Life’s not all bad. I have people and things to be grateful for, and now I have twelve of them listed out to reference when I feel down.
Life with PTSD is hard, with or without support. Stigma has robbed me of a lot of friends and family. I’m glad to have any kind of support system, but it’s wanting. My creative pursuits, which are dearly important to me, are hardly being taken seriously and it hurts. I would give anything to not have PTSD, but the best I can do is write this post and assure you: I am not alone. If you know someone with PTSD, she probably feels very similar to me.
June is PTSD awareness month. Today, I encourage you to take a moment to reach out to someone you know who has experienced trauma, whether you’re aware of a diagnosis or not. Remind her that you value her. Invite her to hang out. Participate in a project or event of hers. Forgive her for her sadness. And remember: she will be traumatized forever. Ten years from now, she will still need your support. Please don’t take it away simply because she has a disorder which cannot be cured.