I went for a walk with a friend recently. The autumnal colors are reaching their peak, and the fall weather is crisp and warm at the same time. I wonder sometimes at the circumstances that bring two people together in friendship. This particular friend has also survived traumatic circumstances. The only detail I am free to share is that she is lucky to be alive, and her perpetrator will never see the light of day–we hope.
We walked together as the newly fallen leaves crunched under our shoes, her wee toddler in tow in a bright, red wagon. I shared with her that I had this recent epiphany. How is it that I had never understood the concept of “the sense of foreshortened future” as it related to PTSD? How is it that I had done deep work with a therapist–2 hours every other week for three years–and left his office with no treatment for this particular aspect of PTSD? How is it that I still meet the criteria for PTSD after all these years? And, why had my therapist and I never discussed the idea of a “foreshortened future” because I certainly struggle with it. A “sense of a foreshortened future” is, apparently, a lesser known symptom associated with PTSD. I found a very good synopsis online from which I quote the following:
One of the lesser known symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a sense of a foreshortened future. They may feel that they will not live long enough to experience certain milestones within a normal life cycle. Believing they will experience an early death effects their lives in several areas, including the manner in which they plan for the future. Children with PTSD may believe that they will not live into adulthood. They may develop “omen formation” or the belief in their abilities to predict troublesome or unfavorable events. As they grow into their teen years, they may feel there is no point in planning a future. They may choose not to attend college or learn a trade if they feel they will not live long enough to achieve career goals. Believing they are destined to die in a few years, they may participate in high-risk behaviors feeling their lives will be shortened regardless of how they live. In early adulthood, those who suffer from PTSD may feel that they will not live long enough to find a future spouse. If they already have a family, they may fear that they might die before their children become adults. As they grow older, they may see no reason to take care of their health or plan more than five years ahead. Older adults may assume that they will not outlive their spouse. They may sense that they will not live long enough to retire or see grandchildren. Some people with PTSD do not understand why they think they will have a shortened lifespan. Others feel that it is a miracle that they have lived as long as they have, considering the traumatic experiences they have survived. The traumatic experiences many people with PTSD have suffered have led them to expect more of the same, or worse. Their traumatic experiences have led them to feel an impending doom or to expect the worst, which may include an untimely death.
As I went on to explain this revelation to my friend, she laughed out loud. She looked and me, and said, “Oh, that’s a survivor thing.” I couldn’t believe my ears. All these years I’ve suffered in silence believing that I would die soon, or, worse, believing that my husband or one of my children would die before me. Ever since my graduation from high school, I never thought I would live beyond my college graduation. I’ve been stuck in some sort of temporal purgatory. How do I plan? How do I manage my money? It’s all about surviving the moment because there is no future; there is only today. And, today must be survived, never lived. Certainly not enjoyed. I did not know what to think or do when I discovered that THIS paradigm was associated with PTSD. Other people lived with the same sense.
I shook my head and shared, “You know, whenever I was forced to sit through the ramblings of these motivational speakers that came to my high school or college or even highly motivational sermons that preached ideas like “Write down a list of your dreams, and then go for it!”, I always thought these people were idiots. I thought they had been abducted by Tony Robbins and force fed the Kool-Aid because I could never imagine anything for my life beyond today.” My friend dryly replied with a wink,” Yeah, well, turns out you were the one who was abducted.” Silence ensued, and then we burst out laughing. Put two victims of extreme trauma and violence together, and it becomes almost natural to fall into an easy exchange of morbid jokes and banter. There should be empathy, but oftentimes there isn’t. There is, however, understanding, but no solutions. I left her house that day thinking to myself, “Survivor thing, huh?” Well, what can I do about it?
Dr. Judith Herman is doing a pioneering work around Complex PTSD. She is trying to introduce this new diagnosis into the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association) because PTSD alone does not adequately describe the symptoms of those who have experienced long-term trauma such as individuals exposed to long-term domestic abuse, concentration camp survivors. POWs, long-term childhood abuse of all forms, childhood exploitation rings, etc.. PTSD more accurately describes the symptoms of an individual exposed to a specific traumatic event rather than exposure to long-term trauma, abuse, and violence. I think that there is a necessity for both diagnoses in the mental health community because there are those of us who, unfortunately, have experienced both.
Dr. Herman suggests that the first step in the therapeutic model for healing C+PTSD and PTSD is establishing safety. This makes sense. How are we to arrive at the conclusion that we can plan for a future for ourselves if we do not feel safe? How are we to stop surviving our lives and move on to enjoying our lives if we lack the most basic tenet in our minds: I am safe. I am okay? By four months-old, babies are learning that the world is safe and predictable. They are to be learning that their parents are safe, too. Four months-old! Step Two in Herman’s therapeutic model is grieving what was lost or taken during the traumatic time period. If you have lost your sense of safety in the world and/or relationships, then you have lost something that needs to be grieved. Grief is healthy and necessary, but, oh, is it ever painful. I’ve been grieving for years now, and it is getting easier, I think, mainly because I’ve had so much practice. I know how to do it, and I recognize what it feels like when it approaches. It does no good to stuff it down or run from it. It isn’t going away so you may as well succumb to the process of mourning what was stolen from you. Grief acknowledges worth. Your life, your experiences, your time, your body, everything that makes you who you are is valuable. So grieve.
When I realized almost two months ago now that I was going to have to return to the therapeutic process, I was discouraged and angry. I thought I was finished for crying out loud! Why must I continue to pay for the crimes of someone else? This time around is different. I am doing work that I didn’t do previously (i.e. Doesn’t everyone think they are going to die soon?) There are constructs so ingrained in my mental processes that I believe they belong there when, in fact, they do not.
I was in a a small neighborhood grocery store a few days ago waiting for the cashier to process my grocery items when a man came in. He wasn’t American-born. He was shorter than I, and he was looking around the store as if he were looking for a person rather than an item. He stepped in front of me, his hands in his pockets, and quietly asked the cashier a question. The cashier looked tense to me. She had a rather grimaced smile, and her posture became erect quickly. The man continued to speak in a voice too low for me to discern distinct words although I detected a Caribbean accent from the cadence of his speech. I immediately thought that he was going to rob us. Adrenaline dumped into my body, I slowly began to walk backwards with my basket of groceries looking for alternate exits. All I could think was, “My babies are at home. Oh God, protect my babies. Let me get out of here. My babies are at home….” Then, I froze. I continued to look at the cashier. What could this man want? As quickly as he came in, he exited. She smiled at me indicating it was my turn. I paid for my groceries and quickly drove home. I don’t know what that man wanted. He didn’t buy a thing. The troublesome point of this incident is that my mind jumped to the conclusion almost instantly that this man was a criminal–“We are not safe.” Oh yeah, and I froze…again. This is the fruit of exposure to trauma and violence. Once you’ve known it, then it becomes a possibility again.
I usually try to end my posts on a positive note, and I feel bloody narcissistic only speaking about myself. I want to make a point to say, however, that I write in order to share my experiences in hopes that someone else experiencing something similar will, firstly, know that s/he doesn’t suffer alone. Secondly, if I can document the road out of C+PTSD and PTSD or at least provide a peek inside the process of learning to heal from these “disorders”, then perhaps I can provide some hope to those who have suffered under the notion that the life of the victim must only be endured. I can’t believe I am saying this, but we were victims before we were survivors. It’s heartbreaking when I realize this. There is so much to grieve. We must allow ourselves to do that work. Please, please, please do not grieve alone. If you feel brave, contact me through my blog, and tell me your story. I will grieve with you.
Here is what I shall leave with you. In the last month I have learned to say daily particularly when I feel the need to provide for my own safety: “I am safe. I am okay.” Often we survivors are prone to saying, “It’s going to be okay.” When will it be okay? It seems that that time never comes. In those anxious times I must take stock of my surroundings. No one is coming to abduct me. No one is coming to empty my bank account. My children are safe. I truly am safe! Safety is not an option. It’s a necessity for any and all forward progress. At this moment in time, I am safe, and I am okay. How about you? What do you think?
He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle. Finally he will cause justice to be victorious. Matthew 12:20