Post traumatic stress disorder is a sobering topic. In some ways it’s like a cancer, initially going unnoticed by the afflicted while gestating and evolving into a monster. There is an explanation for its presence, and its presence is purely malevolent. There is no benefit for those burdened by this beast. The incessant heightened awareness, the irritating social isolation and the recurrent nightmares that would make Stephen King gasp.
I am a combat veteran with PTSD. I was diagnosed in 2012 by the Veterans’ Administration after I separated from the Marine Corps. During the past four years I have attempted to understand the intricacies and tendencies of PTSD by singling out symptoms and reflecting on their nature. Admittedly, no combat veteran experiences the same symptoms the same way. Even though the causality may be the same, the effect is invariably different. Often, the only way to truly understand something is to experience it.
I was able to notice the hyperawareness almost immediately. It is centered at the root of other symptoms such as social isolation and anxiety. Mustering up the grit to join your family for an evening at a restaurant can be daunting, because the PTSD mind knows it will inevitably lead to uncontrollable hyperawareness when there is little need for it. It will tell you to sit with your back to the wall, keep your eyes alert, and keep social interaction to a minimum in order to single out and focus on any potential threat. This may seem gratuitous to those around you, and indeed it is while dining at the local Applebee’s, but the PTSD mind does not turn off for two-for-20 entrees.
The mind is now unable to differentiate between dangerous and safe or between necessary and unnecessary. The heightened state of awareness due to the fight-or-flight response in a combat situation can eventually imprint itself, which leads to constant overactive alertness even after return to relative safety. I have found that, with time and understanding, the increased sensitivity to my surroundings faded, allowing me to enjoy the presence of family and friends again. It’s not an absolute return to normalcy, but it’s certainly tolerable.
The PTSD mind will invariably bequeath its owner a certain level of impaired social interaction, whether it’s intentionally avoiding social situations or begrudgingly committing to challenged social interaction. I often found it comforting to be reclusive. Alone with no obligation to dialogue felt natural, normal and comforting.
The PTSD mind will withdraw itself from interaction because it has difficulty relating to a mind without the same outlook. It will lead its owner into thoughts of isolation to avoid unwanted reminders of tragic events and unforgettable horror.
It understands that seemingly innocuous events during a night out may trigger devastating and debilitating anxiety. It understands the inexorable embarrassment that follows. Carefree evenings spent with friends at the local bar can turn infernal with the sound of a shattering of a glass or a clean break at a pool table. The physical and emotional reactions can be perplexing to the less aware.
Ultimately, I have been able to reconcile these effects with time and patience, but the damage I have done to some relationships has been irreparable. The PTSD mind does not account for the importance of love and friendship.
I believe a true understanding of PTSD cannot come from outside sources. It needs to be studied internally by those burdened with it in order to acknowledge the presence and develop the ability to cope effectively. The PTSD mind is now the new normal, but the ability for a normal life is possible with understanding, patience and time.
Jeremy Angenend is a veteran of the Marine Corps. and a student at Temple College in Temple, Texas. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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