I had a shrink diagnose me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) once. It made me mad. I didn’t want to admit that the trauma I had suffered from my psychopath ex had lasting effects on me. The fight to be well and live a good life demanded that my past did not hinder my and my son’s future. But the reality I can face today is that the damage was done. Some damage to the way we think and behave will stay with me and my son forever. It has gotten better for both of us over the years but some subtle reminders remain and some not so subtle, like nightmares.
I still have nightmares three to four times a week on average. Not all of the dreams can be considered nightmarish; at least not to me because I’m so used to it, most of the time the dreams don’t bother me. Dreams with my son often revolve around me trying to keep him safe or trying to get him back into my custody. Those types of dreams are unpleasant to say the least but again, I’m used to it. Then there are the drug and drinking dreams common to most addicts. Just last night I dreamed I was casually smoking crack with a colleague from work. Luckily my son wasn’t in that dream. The drug and drinking dreams don’t bother me either. Although, when I was writing the most traumatic parts of my memoir SICK the nightmares became so intense and violent that I had to take a break from writing for four months.
Despite my protest against the fact that I have PTSD and refusal of the idea that the trauma would affect my and my son’s future, the scientific reality is that trauma changes the brain. I’ve been reading Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman and the book states that some key changes in the brain are in the limbic circuitry focusing on the amygdala. The amygdala has been shown in research to perform a primary role in the processing of memory and emotional reactions. What gets screwed up is the secretion of two substances, one that mobilizes the body for emergency and the other that stamps memories with special strength. A certain sound used to cause me to freeze with fear and there are certain memories that are branded in my brain like a photograph. I also believe that there are events that my brain refuses to remember. Trauma victims often have lapses in memory.
The good news is that for a lot of folks, including me, the symptoms of PTSD do decrease over time. Fear conditioning is the name that psychologists use for when something that shouldn’t be threatening, like a certain sound, invokes dread or fear. This can last for years but in most cases subsides with time. In scientific terms, according to Goleman, the fear ingrained in the amygdala does not go away completely rather the prefrontal cortex part of the brain suppresses the amygdala’s command to the rest of the brain to respond to the fear. To quote Goleman further, “One of the most encouraging findings about PTSD came from a study of Holocaust survivors, in about three quarters of whom were found to have active PTSD symptoms even a half century later. The positive finding was that a quarter of the survivors who once had been troubled by such symptoms no longer had them. Somehow the natural events of their lives had counteracted the problem.”
For me I’m glad I resisted the idea and thoughts that I was once again some type of victim of the trauma by contracting PTSD. Moving on and fighting for a positive environment for my son and a good sober productive life for me was my only goal and all that I could afford to allow in my mind. Of course this was a tremendous struggle and daily battle that continues. Now that I am truly safe and have achieved a good life I can look back with honestly. Yes I still have nightmares and I might jump a mile if you startle me but I’m ok and my son is ok too.