On the seventh anniversary, my story.

On the seventh anniversary, my story.

I wanted to write this post last year, but I chickened out.  I put it off while I thought about it. I planned on writing it this year.  And then as the time drew nearer, I kept thinking, no, I don't need to do this. I don't need to put this in writing, I don't need to share this, I don't need to make myself so vulnerable.  And yet, if I don't share it, then I am not being honest with myself, I am not helping myself, and I am not helping others that struggle with this. 
 
After the accident I had a terrible time coming to terms with what happened. I blogged year after year about my struggle (fourth anniversary, fifth anniversary), without understanding WHY I struggled. I mean, I know it's a hard thing to deal with, but even so, I knew I was having an overly hard time with it, and I couldn't understand it, even though it was ME going through it.  
 
Year after year went by, and instead of forgetting about it, it seemed to stay with me, moreso than anything else I've gone through.  I was completely stuck, afraid of change, afraid something else as devestating would happen, sure that every time I left my house or faced something new or had a new challenge in front of me that something so horrifying would happen that would threaten my well being. I didn't understand why this was what consumed me, but I knew things had to change. 
 
Early last year, I made a promise with a friend who was also going through something equally as challenging.  She wanted to go to therapy, she knew that her struggle was bigger than her, and that she needed someone else to look at it, and to give a view from outside. I was so proud of her for recognizing that, and I told her if she made an appointment to see a therapist, than I would also.  She did, and I kept my word.  The next week, I started working with a therapist near me, trying to unravel things, and put things back together.  I spent four and a half months sitting in weekly therapy sessions, and it was some of the best time and money I have ever spent on myself. I opened up not only about the accident, but many other things.  It gave me a new perspective on many things, and helped me understand more about me, who I am, why I am the way that I am, and how I can better navigate the world.  It also gave me an answer that made me uncomfortable. My seeming inability to deal with the accident wasn't just an inability to accept change, or to 'come to terms' with anything... instead, it was post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.  In hindsight (and part of me knew it while I was dealing with it but didn't want to admit I was struggling, even to myself), it makes perfect sense. I had nightmares, insomnia, and panic attacks that awoke me from a dead sleep, every single night, for nearly an entire year after the accident. I kept reliving parts of the aftermath, daily. And after I worked through the conscious memories through flashbacks, my subconscious started feeding me the sensory memories from the accident itself. It was like my body remembered the crash, the screeching sounds of metal tearing, the horrible slamming of my body in the car.  It would come to me at unlikely moments, and I would try to rationalize that is wasn't real, that I wasn't even likely conscious when the accident happened. 
 
Through therapy, and dealing with some of my other issues, I came to terms wth things, somehow. Or at least I was able to set it back a bit, and not have it be so consuming. Because having a label for what I was going through made it make more sense. I wasn't crazy, or emotionally unstable, or making myself into a victim. What I was experiencing wasn't uncommon, or a sign of weakness, but a natural reaction to a trauma.    
 
I felt so much better that summer and fall, I felt lighter, somehow. Less afraid. When the opportunity came though my job to relocate, I could finally say yes, and I could face change positively. And I survived the move! I think it was also one of the best things I have done for myself.  I felt so good last fall that I didn't bother posting an accident anniversary update, because I'd come to terms with things, and realized that living with PTSD was just that... living with it. Soon after the anniversary, Stewart was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, and I started to struggle a bit. Just a bit. Nothing worth panicking over.  The next February, I was driving back to work from lunch, and was involved in a minor accident. I was hit in a somewhat freakish accident, by a man who was driving in reverse on the street as I turned into my parking lot. He backed into my car, and because he hit the gas trying to clear the driveway before I turned into it, he hit me with some force. I was shaken, but I made it through. And yet, things slipped a little more. That same week, I made arrangments to let Stewart go. It was such an incredibly sad time for me. When I saw my doctor for a prescription refill, he suggested I try taking an SSRI, an anti-depressant. Feeling as low as I had been in years, I agreed. I started taking it the next morning. Later that week, the vet came to my house, and we let Stewart go. While I was at peace with my decision and so relieved it went as well as it could and that he didn't suffer, I felt my grounding slip a bit more. Things were stacking up, and I was having a harder and harder time keeping perspective.  The anti-depressent helped mask a lot of it;  unfortunately it made me feel less about everything.  I realized later that the dose I was on was high enough that it was flattening my emotions, something I do not like.  About six weeks later, in March, I was coming back from a lunchtime errand when I was in a serious accident on the freeway, again, another freak accident.  But this time things slipped out of control. I started having very disruptive issues with hyperalertness, anxiety, panic.   
 
Driving totally freaked me out. I didn't fare much better as a passenger. I replaced the totalled Tahoe with a new Toyota, but was afraid to drive it.  I was somewhat okay going to and from work, but anything else was out of the question. My friend Sara was such a good sport, she would go places with me, and I would drive there, and ask her to drive back. She put up with me screaming out warnings and grabbing the safety handles every time I thought something was going to happen.  Which was often, and nearly never real. 
 
I began having side effects from the SSRI, including hypertension, and elevated blood sugar levels associated with type 2 diabetes. I decided that I didn't need them, and I tapered off them. I soon realized how much they had helped, and how much worse off I was without them. I began having nightmares and insomnia again, and anxiety-riddled sleep. Any exposure to violence or yelling or perceived trauma would set it off. Telling myself it wasn't real, or that I was safe, no longer helped me. I began to realize, after my experience of being on the SSRI, that without the meds, I had a very exaggerated flight or flight response to stimuli that nearly never warranted it. Instead of feeling mild concern over something, I would often feel panic, fear, anxiety.  My heart rate and blood pressure would rocket over something as simple as the driver in front of me tapping his brakes, passing an accident on the side of the freeway, or if I was watching an unexpected violent or disturbing scene in a movie.  I became so frustrated at all of it. 
 
And part of my struggle was my own challenge in accepting that I had PTSD.  I'm a veteran, and like many other people, I associate PTSD with what combat veterans go through, not civilians.  Nothing in our lives compares to being in combat, and none of it is bad enough to cause this reaction unless you're just a complete sissy, right?    
 
But PTSD isn't an emotional reaction, it's a chemical re-wiring of the brain that results after a trauma that is so severe that it overwhelms the body's ability to respond.  The brain releases a huge rush of hormones to fuel the 'fight or flight' response, and the body memorizes that level of response as the new normal. Sometimes the trauma is one instance, and in other cases, traumas occuring one after another will cause this reaction.  Some people can go through traumatic experiences and never have PTSD; others are not so lucky.  Researchers are finding there are some correlations in previous experiences with people who do suffer from PTSD, things that led the person to be less able to respond in a positive manner to the trauma.  And post-trauma support also has a great bearing on whether or not the person does ultimately suffer from PTSD.  In my particular case, it doesn't seem surprising that I would experience PTSD, given that I had a number of risk factors, plus nearly no support after the trauma.  And I think if the trauma had stopped at just the accident, then I would have been okay. But it was the combination of the trauma, then losing my partner, my family in law, my house, my business, my life as I knew it.... I think all of it together was too much, and hit me in areas where I was already vulnerable.  
 
After struggling through the summer, I went back to my doctor, and we started expirimenting with medications to find something that would alleviate the anxiety and depression, and yet not have such unbearable side effects. After a few months, I think we've finally hit on the right combination, and for the first time in a year, I feel like I am coming out on the other side. I still have my moments, and I still experience being in a triggered state now and then, but it's no longer so pronounced, or all consuming.  And my anxiety levels are so much lower, I can now leave my house without being panicked to get back to the security of my home.   Driving is now mostly non-upsetting, and sometimes I don't even think about it.  And I have my bad days where I feel like I will get crashed into at any second, but that mostly happens when I am already triggered, not regularly. 
 
Part of me hates being on medication for this, because I still struggle to accept it, but it has it become clear that I can not, at this point in my life, self-regulate without them. And I don't want to live my life struggling so much over something that I clearly cannot control. Life is too short for that. It has been an ugly path getting to this point, but at least I am finally here. Exhausted, tired of fighting an invisible enemy, tired of being afraid, but finally here.
 
I can't count how many times I have heard "get over it", or "you need to move on", or "you just have to deal with things".  Both said to me, as well as to others going through painful situations.  And that makes me so sad, because it dismisses that person's process of grieving and dealing with something, and it tries to takes away the right to feel things that make others uncomfortable.    When we don't talk about things, or even acknowledge them, it isolates the people that are struggling. It makes them feel alone, and like they can't reach out and share. Recognizing and talking about issues like grief, PTSD, depression, anxiety, and making it part of our daily conversation, makes it become more recognizable, more acceptable, and makes healing possible.   
 
I didn't want to tell my story because it makes me feel weak. It makes me feel like I can't deal with reality the way that stronger people can. But it is now a part of the fabric of my life, and isn't something I am willing to ignore any longer. I am one of many, and it is because of the few people that have approached me and told me their story that I feel like I can open up about mine. I'm sure I'll be judged, but I can't help that. If I help one person realize that it's okay to not be perfect, it's okay to struggle with things, and that they aren't the only one that feels the way they do, then it will be worth having opened myself up and to have told my story.  I am also telling my story because I hope that in time, it becomes easier for me to tell, and to be open about it. I still struggle heavily with telling people close to me about all of this, even though knowing about it helps others understand me and why I am the way that I am.  I've learned in the past year that opening up to close friends and sharing this information gives them the ability to support me in the ways that I need, and that was a lifesaver when I was really struggling this summer.  I feel like there is still a huge social stigma against mental illnesses, and that we are supposed to keep these things to ourselves, and pretend like we don't have issues.  But pretending doesn't make it not so, and I can better navigate life with support, and I can only get the proper support I need if I'm honest and open.  
 
Wow, that was incredibly cathartic.  Just the act of getting it out of my head and into writing.  It's funny how such a simple step can make me feel so much better. :)  So now, I face the upcoming year with a new resolve to be gentler to myself, and to be more understanding with myself, and to be more forgiving of myself.  And to be more open with others.  :)   

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