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My 4 Year Struggle with PTSD

Lessons Learned from a Trauma Survivor

It's always an uphill battle

You and your family must learn everything you can, as soon as you can, if you are to survive PTSD

Background: As I think back over the last 4 years, I realize how confused I have been with respect to “my PTSD.” Despite knowing early on that I had PTSD – I never fully realized or appreciated what it meant or what to do about it. To the doctors who diagnosed me, I was just one of hundreds of patients – the docs did what they always do. Only one of them had any meaningful experience in treating PTSD and he was the busiest. He treated me – but he didn’t teach me. I needed to be taught how to live with PTSD.

My friends, family, and employer were as baffled by me as I was. It wasn’t until I recently read “the godfather of trauma treatment” Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score, Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, that I came to understand and accept that I was normal (trauma survivor). I can’t explain it but being told by someone of Dr. Van der Kolk’s stature that all of the abnormalities in my life were perfectly normal for someone with PTSD was a tremendous relief. A huge weight was lifted from my life – it got a little brighter. I was normal after all.

So, I am writing this essay to help other survivors conclude that whatever their abnormal feelings, experiences, or behaviors, they are normal for us. This is not meant as an excuse for survivors to purposely wreak havoc in the world, but rather to provide a sense of relief. You are having a normal reaction to an incredibly abnormal experience. You don’t have to keep beating yourself up!

In his book, Dr. Van der Kolk, offers to his readers that trauma survivors can survive and even learn to thrive; but the successful treatment regimen must (almost) always include balanced doses of 4 key elements. These elements are:

  • Appropriate Medication (from qualified psychiatrist)
  • Appropriate Therapy (from trauma experienced therapist)
  • Strong Social Support (unconditional from friends and family)
  • Discovery of Self (through mindfulness, meditation, and yoga)

In the essay that follows, I will tell parts of my personal struggle with PTSD. At key milestones in the story, I will provide a brief report card on whether or not I met the above elements. Hopefully, by the end of the essay the reader will conclude, as I have, that all 4 elements are necessary and the sooner the survivor has access to all 4 – the sooner he or she will recover.

My 4 Year Struggle with PTSD

PTSD can arise in a person’s life as a result of many different life-threatening situations or traumas. When a person is faced with having little or no control over their own or another’s survival, the situation is ripe for a traumatic event. Common situations that are traumatic include: combat, rape and sexual abuse, witnessing the death or near death of a loved one, mass shootings or massacres, and terrorist attacks. All people who experience these situations will suffer for a period of time and most will recover without additional difficulty. Meanwhile, 5 to 15% of those experiencing trauma will not recover “normally.” In these cases, a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is made and for the time being the person is considered a trauma survivor.

I still feel guilty for being a trauma survivor. I am in a class with combat heroes and victims of childhood sexual assault to name a few. It doesn’t seem right. My event, occurred in February of 2014, when I found my heroin-addicted son overdosed on the bathroom floor. I believed he was dead when I found him, and I was told later that technically he was dead. The miracle of Narcan brought him back.

I don’t know if something is wrong, and if something is wrong, I don’t know what it is

In the days that followed, I didn’t know that I had suffered a traumatic event or that I might have long-term adverse reaction to the event known in some circles as PTSD. No messenger showed up following the event and said, “Hey you’re pretty messed up go see a doctor.” There were no signs, postcards, text messages, Facebook posts, tweets, or billboards. I did know, something about me was very different. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but it felt bad – very bad, to be me.

My condition, in the first few hours and days following my event, I would now characterize as being in shock. Nothing about me functioned normally. Despite the lack of normal function, I attempted to return to normal life. Early on, I (or whoever I was now) became frustrated that I no longer fit in to the world that I had become so accustomed to over the years – the world of mine that I helped create. It was like I had become a square peg struggling to fit back in to my normally shaped “round hole” world. The hole wouldn’t conform to me and it (the world) became frustrated that I was now square. I had become adversarial to my old world, and my old world had become adversarial to me. It was very disconcerting. At this point, I still didn’t knowingly have PTSD. I hadn’t yet seen anyone who could say so.

In the meantime, all of my relationships were changing in very subtle ways that are hard to describe. But whatever the subtle changes were, they had huge impacts on my life, my family, and my work. I can say that I no longer trusted anyone in my life – that is a coward’s way of saying – I was afraid of everyone and everything. I was scared 24 x 7. If you ask me specifically what I was afraid of – I couldn’t answer. I was just terrified. I didn’t feel safe at home where the overdose happened, I didn’t feel safe at the office where I had worked for 11 years, (it didn’t help that my company was sold just as my son’s overdose happened), and I didn’t feel safe with people who loved me. I did feel relatively safe curled up in a ball with my back against a piece of furniture on my basement floor. Sometimes I had to be drunk to feel safe.

I suppose that my new behavior had become noticeable. I don’t remember what my wife thought at the time, but my executive assistant decided that I needed to see somebody – a doctor – and quickly. But really, I didn’t see anything that wrong; I felt fine as far as work went. Without my consent, she made me an appointment with my family doctor. Then she insisted that I go to see him. I conceded and went. My family doctor started me on anti-anxiety medications and insisted that I see a psychiatrist. I was still resisting; after all, my son survived! So technically I had no reason to be upset or frightened. Unless of course, I was a p*ssy, or a sissy, or something less than a man.

My EA shopped for a psychiatrist, and I ended up on waiting lists which was fine with me. Although I didn’t feel normal and wasn’t behaving normally, I would get over it. I could handle it; I was after all me! I was Bob Hobbs.

It was in this early phase that I learned that alcohol made me feel substantially better, not normal, but better, most of the physical pain that was in my body constantly since my son’s overdose (for no known reason) was alleviated somewhat when I drank. Because I didn’t like the pain, (especially since I didn’t know why it was there), I drank – I drank often.

My EA was somewhat desperate to get me in with a psychiatrist and while the waiting list was 6 months, she managed to get me an appointment in just 6 days. I went to my appointment trying to remember the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist. When I arrived, I was greeted by a nurse practitioner who spent 45 minutes asking me questions. As I responded, I was surprised at how difficult it was to answer her. I sniveled like a baby in front of her. She simply handed me a box of tissue. I’ve gotten handed lots of tissues over the last 4 years.

When she was done with her interrogation, she left me for 15 minutes and then she returned saying “the doctor will see you now,” then she walked me to his office.

He was a very cordial and compassionate man with great credentials. He went to Vanderbilt and founded the psychiatry center where I had become the newest patient. He was about my age and had a family very similar to mine. I was able put two and two together and figured out that the nurse practitioner told him my story. He asked me a little about it – I teared up – and got another box of tissues.

He reassured me that everything would be okay, and then he nonchalantly said, “You have TSD or traumatic stress disorder.” He might as well have said, “You have brown eyes,” it was that casual. To me, at the time, the way he said it took any fear I might have had about TSD away. God forbid I ever develop a life-threatening illness, but if I do, I want the doctor to tell me about it just like this guy told me I had TSD. He went on, “Maybe you know of PTSD, what you have is similar except the ‘post’ hasn’t happened yet. You are still in the traumatic event. Eventually, your condition will become PTSD.”

He added to the anti-anxiety drugs that my family doctor put me on and told me to find a therapist. If I couldn’t find one there was a company that he would recommend which ultimately he did.

“Start the pills; come back in 2 weeks.” That was it. So now I have TSD and it will turn into PTSD. I wasn’t worried because the way he told me made it seem like no big deal. I didn’t even bother to look up PTSD or any of the medications he prescribed. It was probably 2 years before I could consistently tell you what P-T-S-D stood for. This was probably a big mistake on my part. I figured that the doctors would tell me everything I needed to know and everything my family needed to know. It was NOW that I needed an education in what PTSD was. It was necessary so that I could prepare myself and my family for what it was going to do to us, but there was nowhere to go for that education?

I figured that if the Vanderbilt shrink made it seem casual – it must be so. I was so wrong – it was a big deal, a big one, and the only way I was going to find out about PTSD was to live with it, and without some luck, maybe die with it too.

Dr. Van der Kolk Scorecard

Trauma Appropriate Meds

Trauma Appropriate Therapy

Strong Family and Social Support

Discovery of Self via

Meditation

Yes

No

No

No

So now – I have PTSD. Great! I can finally tell people what’s wrong with me when they ask.

I now know something is wrong, but I don’t know what it is

I went to the recommended therapist and shared with him everything that happened to me so far. Again, I was disappointed in myself for how emotional I had become. Once again, I cried in front of a man I had just met. This guy also handed me a box of tissues. I really had become sally.

He started teaching me mindfulness and meditation as methods to reduce my stress and anxiety. He didn’t give me many instructions on how to do it, he just told me to focus on my breath, and if I get distracted, acknowledge my distraction, and return my focus to my breath. He didn’t spend one second on what PTSD is – so I still didn’t take TSD or PTSD too seriously. I took my meds Klonopin, Zoloft, Cymbalta, and eventually Xanax, without really looking up what I was doing. I sat mindfully for 5 minutes, 3 times per day, with really no purpose related to PTSD; and because of the pain in my hips, which I still didn’t understand, I drank alcohol. This ignorance toward my condition went on for almost 2 years.

Dr. Van der Kolk Scorecard

Trauma Appropriate Meds

Trauma Appropriate Therapy

Strong Family and Social Support

Discovery of Self via

Meditation

Yes

No

No

Yes

In hindsight, I was doing everything I was advised to do, so I should have been getting better. But I wasn’t getting better. I was afraid – constantly; and I cried frequently. Worse, I had the most graphically violent nightmares; so graphic, so violent, that I was afraid to go to sleep.

At this phase, I would say that we were treating the symptoms, but not the cause. If you asked me then about the cause, I would have told you about the overdose. That was as deep as my understanding of PTSD was.

I kept expecting to get better and sometimes I did feel better. When I did, I’d consider myself healed, it would be such a relief to say to myself, “Finally, this time it’s gone.” Then of course it would show up again. Every dip seemed to get lower and lower and every peak seemed lower and lower – everything in my life was getting lower and lower, darker and darker.

For clarity sake – I didn’t say “Oh my PTSD is back,” it isn’t like that. For me it was physical pain, usually in my hips, coupled with being scared. Think of a time when you were in big trouble, maybe sitting outside the principal’s office, or getting pulled over by the cops, or standing in front of a judge, that feeling of dread that lasts maybe a few moments in these situations. Well now imagine those physical feelings never going away – they are always there. That pain is what I refer to as being gone in the above paragraph.

Over the course of 2015, I suffered several setbacks. Maybe some of these are normal life situations but for me each one was more devastating than the one before. They piled up on me in rapid succession. My son relapsed and went back to rehab, my son relapsed in rehab, my nephew stole $8,000, my son totaled my truck, my brother died, my son went back to jail and was headed to prison, my wife and I were drifting further apart, I was drinking every day, and I left my job. I was at a point where I could not handle the simplest of tasks. Worse I didn’t want to. I really was indifferent. I wanted to escape my life situation and I couldn’t. I was trapped. I felt totally trapped. In simple terms, I was having a nervous breakdown.

This feeling of being trapped permeated all of me. It was a threat to my freedom. So, I did what any normal American man would do when his freedom is threatened – I bought guns – lots of them. In 2015, I bought a combat shotgun, an AR-15, three pistols, and 1,500 rounds of ammunition. I spent my whole adult life with no use for any weapons and then one short stretch of 2015, I bought 5 – and they were not for hunting.

At this point when I met with the psychiatrist, he started to let me know that PTSD may never go away. I may be stuck with it. I really didn’t like hearing this and therefore I didn’t like him.

It sounded so simple early last year and now he made it seem so hopeless. It wasn’t fair. Everything in my life was slipping away and I didn’t know why or what to do. Even if some genius idea did arise in me, I would have been too afraid to take any action.

I still had some friends who are trying to help me, the problem was I didn’t know I needed help. I had doctors and medicine and mindfulness. How could friends – who had no idea what they were helping me with, do any good? They didn’t know enough to help me, and I believed I knew more than enough that they couldn’t help me. This my friends was a major error on my part. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but it was a mistake to not allow my friends to help me.

We’ll find out that strong social support from friends and family is key to PTSD recovery. My family was busy dealing with the aftermath of a heroin overdose, while I was becoming more of a recluse. My only chance to break out was probably through the friends I had left – they did show up for me – I brushed them away. My recovery is probably prolonged because of my failure to recognize the critical nature of strong social support when I needed it most.

As 2015 ended 2016 began, I had no job. I had chased off most of my friends; and my intention was to finish my training as a life coach so that I could focus on helping families of heroin addicts avoid the many calamities that had just about finished my family off. When my son overdosed, I didn’t know what heroin was, and certainly didn’t know anything about detox, rehab, and IOP. By the time 2016 rolled around, I had the equivalent of a master’s degree in handling heroin’s impact on unsuspecting and unprepared families.

Meanwhile, I was 5 months sober from alcohol and I had developed a new set of incredible friends in AA. To this day I still enjoy the fellowship in the support of the friends I’ve made in sobriety.

However, PTSD was not yet finished with me.

A dear friend from college contacted me in early 2016 with a request for help. He had good cause for concern that a relative of his was involved in heroin and thought I could intervene. I was more than happy to help because it would allow me to do some 12th step work and practice some coaching skills with the addicted person’s family.

Despite my intervention the addict overdosed, but because of my intervention his mother saved his life. However, when news of the overdose made it to me I was instantly overwhelmed with exactly the same shock that I had on the day my own son overdosed. I cried for hours and only a double dose of Xanax and my mindfulness cushion allowed for any peace.

It had been 23 months since my son’s event and here I was behaving as if it just occurred here 2 years later. It was terrible suffering and worse was the recognition that I was susceptible to something such as a PTSD flashback. It was at this point that I came to accept that whatever PTSD was I had it. I was really scared now because I didn’t even feel safe being me.

My wife and I also agreed to divorce in early 2016. We even told our kids – it was real. She rightly needed a supportive husband at a time when her son was headed to prison and while everything she had been able to rely on for 25 or 26 years was now unstable. I cried a lot and stayed curled up in the basement. I was increasingly frustrated with myself and my condition. I came to believe that I – the I that is my identity – was not normal. I am not normal. Somehow, I came to believe this about myself.

Normal people get over it; normal people go back to work; normal people don’t cry 2 years later; normal people don’t feel this bad; this is not normal behavior. I became totally focused on the idea that I was hopelessly abnormal. There is something wrong with me. My obsession of not being normal would carry all the way into 2017.

As I faced the reality of divorce after 27 years of marriage, an affair didn’t seem like a bad idea. In fact, it seemed appropriate for me to have one. PTSD clouds any and every judgment. Although my wife and I agreed to divorce, we were actually trying to reconcile. Neither of us had moved out, and we never talked of divorce again through the spring. When I had the affair however any reconciliation progress ended.

Also, right before the affair started, I stopped seeing the psychiatrist and blamed most of my current problems on my medications. So, between late April and mid-June 2016, without permission or guidance from any doctor, I weaned myself off of all medicines – Klonopin, Zoloft, Cymbalta, and Xanax. It wasn’t easy, but I had become quite spiritual with mindfulness and meditation and AA; it felt like I was ready. This was another critical mistake on my part.

Dr. Van der Kolk Scorecard

Trauma Appropriate Meds

Trauma Appropriate Therapy

Strong Family and Social Support

Discovery of Self via

Meditation

No

No

No

Yes

Please note that as I call out these mistakes it’s only with the perfect 20/20 vision of hindsight that I can say where I made mistakes. At the time, I had no indication that the irrational moves I was making were irrational. What I was doing seemed perfectly logical (to the PTSD mind) at the time. The thing about a person with mental or emotional disorders is they don’t know what is right and what is wrong for them. Often, they unwittingly make mistakes, and those mistakes can be fatal. This might be the number one reason for unconditional social support – someone has to serve as a reality check for the trauma survivor. It must be someone who KNOWS the survivor and someone the survivor trusts. It has to be a thick and thin advocate – no matter what you do – I am going to be here to make sure you don’t harm yourself with poor decisions.

Hopefully, you see by what I am writing that (although I was a hundred percent sober) there was no sense to the decisions I was making. I was sober, I was taking my meds as prescribed, I was meditating. I can only conclude that PTSD, whatever that means, was taking charge from time to time and wreaked havoc on my life.

As I think about it – truly, I was insane (insane in a state of mind that prevents normal perception, behavior, or social interaction).

At the end of 2016, I was in prime physical condition. I ended the affair in July and had a sobriety anniversary in August. My wife sold our house and although she had formally filed for divorce she withdrew the papers. I was free of all my psych drugs and we weren’t ending our 28-year marriage – but we weren’t sure what we were going to do either. Things were ok.

The following part of the story is the first time I am putting this part of my life in public. I have to. Too many people die because of PTSD and they don’t know what they are doing wrong with their treatment – how could they?

These survivors would do anything to be normal again.

Late October and early November 2016, were some exciting times. My beloved Chicago Cubs won the World Series. Hillary Clinton was not elected president. My wife and I though not officially back together, ran the Chicago marathon together. Yet despite all of this good stuff happening I was terribly sad. Whether it was the reality of what an affair does to a family, or the whole wreck that had become of my life, or the sale of our house, or most likely the sudden elimination of all medications, I don’t know.

But despite the good, it was in this time frame, suicidal ideation became common, especially when I was alone. At one point, it became so difficult, I literally felt suffocated by darkness. For a brief moment, I had a 45-caliber pistol in my mouth, and I cried out into the darkness for help from nobody in particular. I was extremely afraid and more emotional than I had ever been. My body hurt so badly – all I wanted to do was escape the pain.

After I screamed out for help, I dropped the gun and left home bewildered. What was happening was so surreal – what had become of me? How was it that I ended up like this? As I drove toward nowhere, I made one of those if – then deals with myself. I ended up at the bookstore and as I walked in I said to no one “either something here is going to stop me I’m going to go home and do it.”

As I walked around the endcap between self-help and spirituality a prominently displayed book jumped out at me – I hadn’t seen it before and the author was also new to me, it was called:

It was an astonishing title considering where I was in my life. It was a new release only in hardback by a woman I’d never heard of, Gabrielle Bernstein; and it was published by Hay House, the same publisher as one of my life’s greatest teachers Dr. Wayne Dyer.

I didn’t know what I was doing, and it didn’t make sense, but I bought it. I went straight home, picked up the gun, and sat at the table and began reading. Tears poured from my eyes and splattered on the pages as I read. I wrote in the margins on nearly every page. Every sentence was underlined at least once. I didn’t stop reading until the last page. Then at the end, for some reason, I felt compelled to call my doctor, so I made an appointment; I went to see him.

He started me on Cymbalta, made an appointment for me with a new psychiatrist, and decided I needed therapy from a Doctor of Psychology in addition to a mindfulness teacher.

Dr. Van der Kolk Scorecard

Trauma Appropriate Meds

Trauma Appropriate Therapy

Strong Family and Social Support

Discovery of Self via

Meditation

Yes

No

No

Yes

For a time, I was seeing all three doctors every week. My new psychiatrist scripted Cymbalta and Mirtazapine; my new therapist did real therapy – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and my family doctor kept his promise to keep me alive without Klonopin and Xanax.

I know I have PTSD. I know what it means to have PTSD. I know my life is in jeopardy

For the first time in 3 years, I finally had a check mark in the therapy box. I guess at the time I confused my mindfulness teacher with a therapist.

Dr. Van der Kolk Scorecard

Trauma Appropriate Meds

Trauma Appropriate Therapy

Strong Family and Social Support

Discovery of Self via

Meditation

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

When I published the book in April 2017, my wife became more than upset because I had aired our dirty laundry. I ended up leaving her with nowhere to go. Although I wanted to travel, I went to Ohio to visit with my mom and dad. Despite my craziness, they unconditionally accepted me and loved me. There is no flaw too great for them to forgive.

I have been here with my parents since April of 2017, and in addition to my mom and dad I have numerous friends – some new, some old, some from high school. My old high school football coach, Andy Golubic, spends an inordinate amount of time with me laughing, crying and letting me know that he will always be there for me – just like he was when I played football for him. The bonds I have now, I’ve always had (but ignored), and they are unbreakable; I can rest knowing that I am not alone. Finally, for the first time in 4 years, all the pieces to my puzzle of PTSD were in place at the same time. I now had strong social support.

Dr. Van der Kolk Scorecard

Trauma Appropriate Meds

Trauma Appropriate Therapy

Strong Family and Social Support

Discovery of Self via

Meditation

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

I’ve written extensively to let you know that whatever it is addiction, anxiety, depression, overwhelm, or PTSD that you are not alone. I may not be there physically for you, but as you walk in pain and suffering I am there with you. You are not alone, you are never alone.

For a time, I focused on I have PTSD and it became my identity. Now I am just me; and PTSD is just one of many attributes. I don’t underestimate it though; I respect it, because it may want to confuse me once more.

Originally published at sandalwoodwellness.com

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