It came out of nowhere. Overwhelming pain more present than memory, as if lifted up and planted back in that moment, that time, with no escape, no recourse but to live, once again, those minutes; to experience again the emotions, visceral as they were, searing as they were that first time.
Perhaps the day had got to me, perhaps I was tired… who knows. Whatever it was, watching my son in the dentists’ chair triggered a flashback of an intensity that I have not experienced in the past three years. It still wasn’t as bad as it used to be. Nowhere near. This time I was, at least, aware of reality and could move through it. The past overlaid the present instead of erasing it as it used to. Even so, I have long since ceased to be on guard against such things and it caught me by surprise.
When it first started, when my son was released from hospital and I could begin to breathe again the hope of a long road to recovery, when there was the possibility of relaxing a little the reins on emotion, the pressure on the floodgates was too much…PTSD set in and the flashbacks were severe. A whiff of a particular aftershave, a colour, a phrase… all could have me frozen for long minutes in a supermarket aisle. Back then it could happen once a blue moon or ten times a day, and at night there were the nightmares that woke you screaming. I feared sleep; feared what I would see in dream. I did not dare to drive. It is difficult to describe how utterly these things overwhelm your senses, emotions and reactions.
The treatment was to relive the misfiled memories deliberately, facing each one, over and over, in an effort to desensitise, and in order to re-file them properly. The logic is that such memories were too much, too traumatic and were hastily shoved in a dark corner instead of being properly dealt with; instead of being consigned to archives of the past they are allowed to lie around the surface of memory, falling open whenever they choose and dragging you into a ‘present’ that is really a replay of the past.
It is normal to look back on a traumatic event with horror. Normal to have the occasional nightmare, to weep with pain or shake with remembered fear at memory of extreme distress or to have those memories resurface and replay in the mind. PTSD doesn’t work like that. It is a time machine. You are there.
The treatment is traumatic in itself. But it works. Eventually.
What it cannot do is completely erase the subliminal triggers because there are potentially so many, both real and symbolic. Today it may have been the combination of the antiseptic atmosphere, the masks and the sound of the oral suction machine… it may have been, but it could just as easily have been the dentist’s aftershave. Impossible to tell. Whatever it was, for half an hour I shook, sweated, and fought back tears, whilst striving to present the appearance of normality, caught between reliving and reality, though with, thankfully, a perfect grasp this time on the reality of now.
And this time my son was there, and himself. That was then; this is now… the litany with which you finish each of those therapeutic relivings.
Ani met me as I came in and, unusually, came for cuddles. I needed that while I took a deep breath and decided what to do. Did I write about it? Yes. Not for sympathy, because none is needed. Not for pity, or even understanding. That was then; this is now. And this was merely a minor, if unpleasant, hiccough in the greater scheme of things.
Why, then, write about it at all?
Because PTSD is a hugely misunderstood effect of trauma. I found that while most people know of post-traumatic stress syndrome few have any knowledge of what really it is and what it can do to those affected by it. It can happen to anyone following an incident of sufficient gravity… not only soldiers on the front line; it can happen after road accidents, war, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, rape, abuse and violence… the list goes on.
It is estimated that almost 260 million people had PTSD last year alone.
I would never have thought it could happen to me. You don’t… you’re ‘not that type’ of person. Except, there is no ‘type’. The truth is it can affect anyone witnessing or experiencing horrific events and the helplessness that goes with them. There are all the usual studies and diagnostic guidelines, but the variables are endless.
The strange thing is that knowing all this, there is still a lingering stigma attached to PTSD, the insidious trace of shame that defies the circuits of logic because you ‘didn’t cope’. And that says an awful lot about how society handles such things, even today. It took until 2006 before there was sufficient understanding of the condition that shell-shocked, court-martialled ‘deserters’ from WWI were pardoned posthumously by the British government.
It’s worth thinking about.
If you or someone you know may be suffering the effects of PTSD please seek help from your local health professional or through one of the many specialist organisations. Support on both professional and personal levels make a huge difference and there can be light at the end of the tunnel.