PTSD can take different forms

Trauma is very much part of living.  It’s not hard to imagine what people young and old may find traumatic: a horrific accident, a major natural disaster, sexual or other abuse of our person, tormenting or extended medical procedures, the separation and divorce of parents.

As I mentioned in my previous post, 70% of us experience at least one traumatic event, but only about 20% of this number will be significantly affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  In other words, our response to trauma varies greatly.

The reality of PTSD is a fairly recent discovery.  Those four letters never came to my ears until some 20 years ago, despite a lifelong interest in psychology and spiritual pastoral care.  During most of my life it was known that many soldiers on active service returned home with “shell shock”, thought to be caused by the heavy percussion of explosives affecting their nervous system!  Sexual abuse was an unmentionable, and any such deeply distressing experiences were regarded simply as events people needed to “get over” and “put behind them”.

The incidence of medical trauma has surely fallen greatly during my lifetime, but violence and breakdown in home and family have greatly increased.  I believe this is because Western society advocates selfishness and insatiable materialism and devalues the social values and capital of our culture’s Christian ethos.  Is it any wonder that the number of anxious, depressed, hyperactive and withdrawn children is so great?

I have fought lifelong although relatively mild PTSD caused by my infant pyloric stenosis and surgery, and my parents’ struggle to manage this for themselves and in helping me.  So my main interest in the symptoms of PTSD is related to the way it affects those whose somatic (body) memory has been affected.

Now read this Comment (actually a “cry”) in response to a video posted on YouTube of Dr Peter Levine speaking about somatic experiencing and PTSD; it touches me deeply:

I had a surgery called pyloric stenosis (opening small intestine to stomach) when I was 6 weeks old back in 1973 but back then anesthetic could not be given to small children and infants so I was fully conscious but I can’t remember a thing about it even though I realize that it does not really matter that I do!  I have lived like a kind of ghost for 38 years and have no “real” life – I have no sense of what it is like to not be traumatized (no before to compare).  Incessant thoughts ruin my life!!

Although I and others have urged the writer of this Comment to seek help, I recognise that good help is often hard to receive:  apart from having to find a suitable therapist, distance and costs may be prohibitive.  The person who wrote this post also confessed,  I guess I have adapted to life like this.  It feels like 10 life times sometimes but I don’t know any other way – I don’t and never have known what “normal/un-traumatized” is.  I am and have tried to rectify it for many years but I have nothing to compare “real life” to.

Dr Louis Tinnin identifies this vague but ongoing sadness and anxiety (depression) as a key indication of PTSD.  As I can identify with this, I can also assume that there are many who are somewhat paralysed and almost comfortable in their depression and anxiety, ashamed or embarrassed to change as this would involve going public and spending time and money on a secret pain.

Anger and self-hatred that are quite public can be symptoms of depression and may take the form of abuse of or addiction to cigarettes, alcohol, and/or other drugs.  Or the addiction may be hidden, such as self-harming (more common among women) and sexual self-gratification which may be common with (at least) men.

Anxiety and depression perhaps including suicidal episodes are common signs of PTSD.  My anxiety has been evident in the lack of self-confidence, the shame and embarrassment, and other symptoms with which I have battled, but which I did not understand for far too long.

Jolene Philo manages a blogsite aiming to be “a gathering place for parents of special needs children”.  She reports that
“Linda Gantt, who spoke at the 2010 Linking PTSD and Medical Trauma national conference, said the risks of developing PTSD increase according to this general principle: The more unexpected the procedure, the younger the patient, the more numerous the previous traumas, and the more urgent the need for the procedure, the greater the possibility that there will be psychological effects.”

This information, together with my recognition of my parents as stable, loving and Christian, and sensible people has helped me to understand why my PTSD has not been as severe as others have experienced – although very real just the same.

I am so thankful for the strong family and faith values which have probably been responsible for keeping me from the struggles others have or have had with alcohol, drugs, deep depression and inadequate medical “treatment”.  But I was certainly “self-medicating”: my inner turmoil, lack of self-confidence, self-harming, and sexual struggles are clearly common ground with the PTSD after infant surgery suffered by others I know.

Our opening up these pages of our lives is healing for us, in whatever way we choose to do it.  I want to invite you to respond to blogs such as this, possibly doing so regularly.  Several of us affected by PTSD from infant surgery are also interacting by email, and you are welcome to join this off-line forum.

I am sure this painful but therapeutic exercise will help open the eyes and minds of many others, even if they are not (yet) able to self-disclose and write.

4 thoughts on “PTSD can take different forms

  1. Mark

    Took me a day or so to think about and process this post. First I had not seen that YouTube video before, and the “slinky” description rings pretty true and might be useful in talking to non-PTSDers who are interested in what we go/went through. The posted comment to the video really stunned me. Man did that hit close to home. I actually had to stop and think for a minute… Did I write that and block it?

    You spoke about a lot of the early signs of PTSD and the reticence to seek change. One point you might add in, especially when the trauma occurs really early in life, is that PTSDers have an ongoing struggle with denial. It can take decades for us to connect the symptoms we suffer to the trauma we experienced. Then it can take another decade for us to work through the denial that that connection is real, that we were violated, that our parents let it happen, that no one came to our emotional aid, that we really had to hurt so deeply and for so long, that so much of the damage we did to our psyche was self-inflicted because we were so scared to “come out of the closet” .

    Like the description in the video, we learn to hate the emotional chaos that results for (from? -ed) getting triggered. Maintaining control and a feeling of safety at all times becomes our addictive narcotic. We deny or avoid anything that “rocks our boat”. We exclude ourselves from activities and fail to capitalize on opportunities out of fear. We learn to fear change even when change and recovery are just what we need. Although an exterior trauma was the catalyst that started this reaction, often we can become our own worst enemies in never working through it.

    So I really can relate to that person who posted their plea. That was me for 45 years.

  2. Fred Vanderbom Post author

    Thank you Mark for your valuable comments. Your experience of ptsd certainly adds to mine and what I have written.
    I warmly welcome your and any other feedback and additional insights!

  3. Wendy

    What an incredible post, Fred! I really related with his/her comments. I’ve thought a lot about the fact that I’ve known no other way to be in the world except trauma since that’s what I grew up with. I don’t know whether I had anesthesia or not in 1952 but there’s a good chance I didn’t. In any case, the self-doubt, self-hate, self-harming, suicide attempts, depression, etc. all add up to trauma from the surgery at 3 weeks old and attempts to cope. What a rocky journey! I do think that the Christian values your family espoused and practiced were precious and healing in and of themselves. I’m so thankful that you had those experiences and were spared some suffering. Mark, your comment is so much nourishing food for thought. I will re-read and comment on it soon.

  4. Fred Vanderbom Post author

    Thank you, Wendy. Whenever somebody who has experienced ptsd after infant surgery describes something of their pain and journey, it creates immediate recognition and a sense of deep kinship in their readers.
    I have felt this myself, every time, starting when Mark and I met via the web, with renewed vigor when I read your first post, and continuing on from there. When I read the Comment I’ve included above, I knew again: this person has been through the same kind of trauma.
    And yes, I do feel I have been protected from some of the (to me at least) scariest stuff ptsd can do to people like us, but that still leaves a lot which is all-too-familiar territory to me.


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