In seven years of writing this column, I have twice mentioned my own challenges regarding post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and, both times, mentioned it only in passing.
A National Institutes of Health website defines PTSD as an “anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat.”
People with PTSD often experience the following: 1) re-experiencing symptoms, such as flashbacks, bad dreams, and nightmares; 2) avoidance symptoms, such as emotional numbness and avoiding events reminding the person of the initial trauma, and; 3) hyperarousal symptoms, which can include being easily startled and having trouble sleeping.
My symptoms technically don’t meet the official Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) definition for disability because I’ve learned to cope and have worked very hard at overcoming the disorder. However, many people haven’t had as much success and their symptoms rise to the level of a disability.
For years, I thought people with PTSD were just inventing stories to gain sympathy or government benefits. Sadly, I’d distanced myself so much from my own personal experience (see avoidance symptoms above) that I hadn’t been able to take ownership and recognize what I had. I didn’t start seriously trying to tackle the disorder until two years ago, about forty years after the fact.
My trauma came from a head-on automobile accident at age seven in which I experienced a traumatic brain injury, a skull fracture, broken jaw, shattered nose and cheek bones, two lost teeth, and very nearly lost an eye. Two people died in the accident.
Today, regarding PTSD, I struggle most with hyperarousal and flashbacks, the latter including nightmares. The hyperarousal occurs when I see or hear something reminding me of any portion of the trauma experience. For instance, and this may sound strange, but I struggle keeping my composure when seeing or hearing people lightly tap their fingers on a desk or table. I also have experienced PTSD symptoms when playing a certain child’s video game: Flight of the Hamsters.
This year, about 7.7 million Americans will have PTSD. Many affected will recover fully, but others will develop chronic symptoms, including some people that will have symptoms meeting the ADA definition of disability.
You can get better. See your doctor.
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Welcome to the brighter side.