What I Know about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – Part I

I have it.  That’s the first thing I know about it.  Or more accurately, I live with it. 

And I’m constantly discovering a new way in which I’m suffering from it—like peeling layers from an onion.  But today, I know that suffering from it is strictly optional, and when my denial bubble pops on a new level of my PTSD dysfunction, I’ve got a process that works for letting go of it. 

How’s that for a string of psychobabble?  I mean every word of it.

PTSD is a strange, scary, subtle critter.
In a strange way, I’m quite lucky.  I’m an only child, and when I was three years old, I had a specific event that taught me with profound certainty that my parents not only were not safe, but were potentially dangerous despite their very best intentions.  From that moment, I was on my own.

I use the word “lucky” because I’m convinced that an overwhelming majority of Americans born after WWI, or maybe WWII at the very latest, live with and suffer from various degrees and permutations of PTSD, without the slightest clue why they feel that something’s missing or not quite right, no matter how good their lives are otherwise.  Their life-long trauma comes from the disparity between the cultural norms of the time and the reality they see around themselves in their everyday lives and relationships—forever begging the eternal question “Has the whole world gone crazy, or is it just me?”

My other double-edged advantage besides having a specific event that gave me a handle on thinking about the whole trauma thing came in the form of my parents themselves. 

Don’t get me wrong.  My parents were amazing people, but they were products of the times and culture in which they were formed.  Mom was from Gibson City/Paxton, Illinois, and Dad grew up in Griggsville.  The small town factor alone added at least one full generation to the gap between us.  Add to that  that they were 40 when I was born, and you have two generations between them and the parents of my peers, and three generations between my parents and me. 

We are all formed by the cultural norms or “common wisdom” of our childhood, and when your parents were formed in a reality that is not the normal one generation past, but three generations from the day’s reality, the answer to the “is it them or me?” question is a lot easier to see and believe.

In my lifetime, there has been no period of time when the distance between conventional wisdom and reality has been greater nor more traumatic for a forming human being than the formative years of the baby boomers and generation X.  If you don’t get what I’m talking about, here’s an example:

The world in which I was forming was a very progressive world compared to most of the rest of Springfield and 1940s-50s America.  My parents and their friends and associates were well educated, enlightened intellectuals who read and traveled and were pacifists and rejected materialism and classism and stood up for civil rights and civil liberties, and were unafraid of the unknown and unfamiliar—and yet, formed by the conventional wisdom of their childhoods, they carried all sorts of erroneous nonsense from their past in their innocent hearts:  from a long list of racial stereotypes applicable to all coloreds except their colored friends—and the same for homosexuals and Jews and to a lesser extent women—to another lengthy list of what constituted morality that, although most of them were various forms of atheists and agnostics, drew heavily on the conventional taboos of conventional Christian orthodoxy and dogma.  And don’t forget that these peaceniks, including one of the original founders of the International Women’s League for Peace and Freedom, defended our involvement in Vietnam and the domino theory until mid-Nixon!  Their hypocrisy was obvious to my young mind, and it seriously pissed me off.

Most of my peers didn’t have even that little bit of affirmation at home to question authority and the tyranny of conventional wisdom to help them process the enormous gap that existed in the 1950s U.S. A. between the way it was spozed to be and reality!  Traumatic?  You bet your sweet ass!  Hippy?  Revolution?  Question authority? Visualize world peace (or whirled peas)?  Inevitable!  I think this is why the boomers are the first generation to really begin to get a handle on PTSD and begin to understand how it works and how to live with it comfortably, with a minimum of suffering.

Back to that suffering thing (and PTSD)
I sometimes get a kick out of responding to polls from Harris Online and ERewards.  Who doesn’t  enjoy telling a stranger what you think about the world?  Plus, they give you points which every once in a while can be exchanged for something worth having if somebody gave it to you for free.  Also every once in a while, the sponsor of that day’s poll will be a drug company with a new product. 

When that happens, the first set of questions after age and gender usually asks you what diseases you “suffer from,” and I always wish there were a place for me to explain that while I live with diabetes and ADD and a tendency toward hypertension and high cholesterol and depression and anxiety, I sure as hell don’t suffer from any of them.  This is the 21st Century, and these are all conditions with which a person with a little money and/or insurance can live quite comfortably.

Thanks to a new generation of research and picking away at the whole idea of PTSD, led by the boomers—many of whom themselves live with it, PTSD is also slowly but surely creeping its way onto the list of conditions one can live with quite comfortably and contentedly.

So just what is PTSD?
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is one of those psycho-medical terms that means exactly what it says.  It was first addressed by the modern medical community during WWI when allied soldiers were returning from the horrors of that war with a condition that came to be known as “shell shock.”  Today stress is the number one killer in American culture, and post-traumatic stress is a chronic stress that one experiences after an especially powerful or prolonged trauma which at the very least undermines one’s sense of safety, well being, and the ability to trust and/or control one’s own environment.

People with PTSD tend to be intense, hypervigilant, easily startled, perfectionistic, demanding, unforgiving, rigid, anxious, possess a low tolerance for ambiguity, etc., or they may demonstrate an exaggerated opposite of any or all of those characteristics.

They often have varying degrees of tendencies toward at least alcoholism/addiction, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, attention deficit/hyperactivity, and/or a variety of phobias and neuroses.  They live with a lurking fear that somewhere deep inside lives the truth that it’s really them against the world and they are somehow inadequate to that challenge.

More to come:
Part II, A Personal Journey About Healing
Part III, Taking the Whole Thing Macro

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