"Well, don't," has been one of my husband's favourite responses over the past 16+ months as I've struggled with the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress. He would ask: "What's wrong?" I'd respond with something like: "Well, you know... I'm just feeling a bit down and that..."
These days, thankfully, we make a bit of a joke about it. When he responds with: "Well, don't", I say: "Ah, if only it were that simple, the Health Service would save a fortune on mental health treatment".
The thing is, it's so natural to respond with comments like: "Cheer up... Snap out of it... Worse things happen at sea..." and so on.
As this great article explains, this just makes us feel worse. We know we 'should' feel OK, we know that others have undergone far worse traumas in life and have handled them impressively, the problem is that our biological brain won't allow us to 'snap out of it'.
This article explains the three ways that trauma affects the brain - and for anyone that's going through PTSD, it's like a breath of fresh air - a 'get out of jail free' card. We are not guilty; it's our brain's fault!
And, these days, I tend to feel that my biological brain, although housed in my body and responsible for my thinking and physical actions, isn't 'me', as such. The 'real me' would be something separate, not governed by the way my brain happens to be wired up at any one time. The 'real me' screams out that 'THE TRAUMA IS OVER!' - my son is recovered from anorexia - but my silly brain doesn't appear to 'get it'.
Fact #3 in the article explains how the Prefontal Cortex part of the brain tends to do three things following exposure to trauma:
1. 'Your lower brain processes responsible for instinct and emotion override the inhibitory strength of the cortex, so that the cortex cannot properly stop inappropriate reactions or refocus your attention'. This is probably why people still react with a start when they hear certain sounds or something triggers a flashback. I guess this is also why many people with PTSD find it hard to concentrate on anything for very long - like reading, work, anything really.
2. Because the 'blood flow to the left prefrontal lobe can decrease, ... you have less ability for language, memory and other left lobe functions'. Could this be why, over the past months, when anyone has asked me about our experience with anorexia, I've opened my mouth and nothing's come out? Also, why I've become less fluent verbally i.e. I tend to forget obvious words, stammer, get tongue-tied and sound generally stupid?
3. 'Blood flow to your right prefrontal lobe can increase, so you experience more sorrow, sadness and anger.' Tell me about it! Depressed, generally 'down', lethargic, lack of interest in anything, mourning 'what might have been' and MASSIVE ANGER at the various obstacles that were thrown in our way from various quarters as I struggled to get my son well.
As I have struggled with PTSD, it has taken me months to begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Months of therapy, processing and CBT 'homework'. Even now I have to approach everything in 'bite sized chunks' and think in terms of small ripples rather than massive tsunamis. And that means everything - from talking about eating disorders through to my career.
But it's so incredibly reassuring and liberating to know that it's not 'the real me', it's my biological brain that's at 'fault'.
And I know that 'the real me' is determined to get shot of this horrible PTSD once and for all and get back to 'normal'.