A Close Look At PTSD


IMG_0714Over the last twenty or so years, I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD, three times. Though I was never sexually abused, my father who suffered from PTSD himself, beat me and my brothers, and made growing up into healthy adults, almost impossible. His experiences during the Second World War, screwed up his brain, and like so many other soldiers in every war that has ever been fought, my father brought his “invisible wounds” home with him. At the time, veterans such as himself, were said to have, “Shell Shock.” There was no treatment for what would later be called, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Those warriors just had to get over it by themselves.

My mother, was abused as a child herself, and later by her husband, my father. She rarely, if ever laid a finger on me, yet her psychological abuse of me made an already difficult childhood, even more challenging. She was also loving, and at times an ally in my never ending struggles with my father. But she’d also threaten me with, “Just wait till your father comes home! He’ll get you to behave.” I was left to pray that she’d forget what I had done to anger her. Mostly though, I simply had to face the music when Dad came home from work. When he turned physical and brought out the leather horse crop he sometimes used to beat me, my mother would completely disappear, never protecting me from who we all, including Mom, called King Kong. Her behavior was confusing to say the least, and her constant betrayals did not help me to build trust or confidence in her.

I’ve struggled with extreme anxiety, depression, and flashbacks most of my life. When I became my mother’s caretaker during the final seven years of her life, my symptoms grew worse. She lived with me, for most of that time, and because I was there, I became bore the brunt of her sadness and anger. We were constantly at war with one another, making my intention to help her to be as comfortable as possible through her waning years, impossible.

I knew that I needed help after my mother died, and for the third time, I was told I was struggling with PTSD. I finally let go of my denial, and sought treatment with a therapist whose specialty was dealing with Trauma. With her help and a village of other supporters, including my husband, I began a slow recovery, pulling together the lost and broken pieces of my life. Writing my memoir about those difficult times has been the act that has most helped me to celebrate who I am and have become. I look forward to it being published soon.

I’m happy to say that eight years later, I feel like a new person. Though I’ll never be perfect, I no longer struggle every day with anxiety. When depression tiptoes in, I know who it is, and it makes a hasty retreat. Yes, I can still react to certain triggers, but now I usually catch myself before I react and cause extensive damage to my own ego and those around me.

Living with the likes of PTSD has an extremely steep learning curve. Just a few weeks ago, I learned an important lesson about dealing with those nasty triggers. I was sitting in the dentist’s chair, being fitted with a new mouthguard which I need to use at night, in order to keep myself from grinding my own teeth away. It was a new product, much harder and stiffer than the mouthguard that I had been using. My dentist, who is the kindest and best of them all, was struggling to get it seated properly. Suddenly out of nowhere, I had a panic attack, and started struggling against him. I was in tears and for a few moments didn’t understand what was happening.

We took a break from the fitting and in a few minutes I realized that I had been reacting to some unremembered trigger event. I confessed to the doctor, that I have a history of abuse and have struggled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I had never considered telling him about it. What does dental care and PTSD have to do with each other? Having been a military dentist in Iraq before opening his practice here, he knew exactly what I was talking about.

At the time, I had to admit that there is still a bit a shame involved in owning my PTSD. But it is nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing I did caused it. And just because it isn’t on the list of ailments we’re supposed to check off when we see a new caretaker, doesn’t mean it should be ignored. True self-care is learning to accept ourselves as we are and honoring our own minds and bodies.

Finding my center amidst the panic, I learned that it is important to let caregivers of any kind know about the problem I have. My general practitioner has known all along, but being upfront about PTSD with everyone is important.

Is there anything in your life that you’re ashamed of owning?

What Little I Know About My Father

My grand father's cabinet making shop.

My grandfather’s cabinet making shop.

The photo on the left is of my grandfather’s cabinet shop in New York City.  He is standing on the left. To the right is my father. Further to the right is a hired employee.

Except for a few photos and the stories I remember from the time I was a child, I know very little about my grandparents.  On a visit to Ellis Island a few years ago and my husbands penchant for putting together family trees, we gathered the small amount of information we have about Dzadzia and Babchia. They were very tight-lipped. If they ever spoke about their lives in Poland before they arrived here in America or their journeys across the Atlantic Ocean to a new country where they couldn’t speak the language, I never heard it.  I remember meeting other relatives who came from Poland through them, but the visits were always brief and we never followed up. There was never a sense of having an extended family.

I can say I don’t know a lot about my own parents, who were both born here as first generation Polish-Americans. I do know the day to day Mom and Dad stuff, but their early lives remains a mystery to me in many ways.  For my father all I have are his military records and the medals he was honored with for his heroism during the Second World War.  I have a few photos but that’s it.

I know my dad suffered from shell-shock, known today as PTSD.  He was difficult to live with and my mother, my brothers and I suffered the consequences of his damaged mind. He abused all of us both psychologically and sometimes physically.

My dad as a boy!

My dad as a boy!

He was born and grew up in New York City in what I presume was a Polish neighborhood, surrounded by other ethnic neighborhoods.  He was a bigot, always taking people of other ethnicities down. He was also extremely competitive. I imagine it started in the City where many early immigrants first settled. The competition he most likely experienced in school and on the streets, to be the biggest and the best that he could be, must have been fierce. He experienced the Great Depression, witnessing men jumping out of windows because they’d lost everything. Other than that I know nothing of his day to day family life.

He attended Cooper Union, where he studied engineering and architecture for three years.  I have no idea why he didn’t graduate.  He did however have a chair of his design in exhibition at the World’s Fair in New York in 1939.  He married my mother on Valentines day, 1942. I was born 9 months and 3 days later.

The day after he and Mom were married he went to Montana to begin training for his role in fighting the war with the First Special Service Forces, known by the Germans as the Devil’s Brigade.  The were fierce fighters trained to jump out of planes over Norway, then skiing during the cold winter months to munition factories and labs where the Germans were beginning to experiment with atomic energy and bombs. When their mission was canceled, my father landed by parachute in Italy where he and his men fought their way up the boot, killing and being killed as they went.  He witnessed his best buddies head blown off by a Nazi, as they stood talking and was the lone survivor when he and his men took out a nest of  Nazis hiding in an extensive underground bunker.  When the war was won, Dad was one of the men who liberated a number of the prison camps in Germany and stayed there for several more years doing some kind of secret work. My mother and I joined him there when I was four years old.

After the war he started a home building company on Long Island, where we lived until 1960, when he decided to “retire.”  We moved to Killington, Vermont, where he built and ran three ski lodges.  Despite his early abuse and bigotry, he was a good man in many ways, and became  a loving “Grampy Tom” to my kids.

As Memorial Day approaches at the end of the month I think of him and wish I had known him as a boy, as a student of engineering, and the man who fell in love with my mother.  Before he went away to Europe and came back a different man.

It’s all still happening today as we send our young people across the seas to fight in other lands.

Be Grateful, Stay Sane

DSC00487.JPGIt’s the time of year when all of us start looking forward, wondering what the new year will bring our way.  Though I prefer to live on a day to day basis, I’m  preparing for the big renovation we’ll be doing here in January.  I’ve got things to pack up and sort out. I need to figure out how I’m going to handle certain problems like continuing to eat the healthy way I do while not having a fully equipped kitchen available to me.

For part of the time we’ve decided to get a room at the nearby Residence Inn where we’ll have a small kitchenette and our dogs are welcome.  I’m making double recipes of things like soups and freezing the left overs so that we’ll have some good quality food while we’re there. But if the project takes longer than they say it will, we’ll need to move back home, rather than spread our budget to its breaking point.  It’s all going to be costly, and we don’t want to go overboard.

While part of me excitingly deals with details like paint colors, choosing a new bathtub, and lighting fixtures, another part of me is freaking out. “Everything will be a mess. How will I organize the things I ‘may’ need on a daily basis? How will the cat adjust to the noise and invasion of her space?  Will I be able to keep my cool without living with the debilitating anxiety that often overtakes me when I’m living in a transitional space?”

I’m easily triggered by what is happening around me and having my house torn apart will not be an easy.  I was a building contractor’s daughter and have lived this kind of life many times before. The idea was that once a house my Dad was building was under roof and halfway finished we’d move in and work on finishing it up until it was done and the buyers took over.  We’d move on to the next unfinished home often living without doors on bathrooms, cooking on a camping stove, and once again waiting to move on the next site. I also know that projects like this usually takes longer than first expected. We’ve been told it will take four weeks.

I’ve come a long way in recovering from my PTSD and I think I’ll be fine.  I can easily recognize triggers and change the direction of where I’m headed quickly. I’ve learned a lot about patience and the things you can’t do anything about like ice storms, power outages, getting the flu, or simply feeling sorry for myself. What ever happens, I know I’ll get through it and will learn a few lessons along the way. New life lessons are always a given.

I’m preparing by designing a plan that will help me focus on being comfortable throughout the project.  I’ll get back to meditating on a more regular basis, make a few artist dates with myself, keep working on my book in my studio, which is over the garage not in the house, move a cot up to the studio for an occasional nap, and just do the best I can. I may wipe out once or twice, but I’m only human and know I won’t fall as hard as I used to.

I plan on staying mindful and somewhat balanced by sharing things that I am grateful for on my Facebook and Twitter pages, on a daily basis, until the project is done and I’ve moved back into my house. I’ll start on January 1th  in preparation for the the first day of work which is scheduled for January 6th, when the slate tilesd floor in the kitchen will most likely be demolished.

I’m calling it, “Be Grateful, Stay Sane Month.” It will hopefully be a way for me to keep my attitude positive during a possibly trying time. If any of you would like to join me please do.  Simply post things you are grateful on my gratefulness posts on Facebook or Twitter.  It will be a great way to start the New Year.


DSCF0125I was in my mid-sixties when a therapist first suggested that I was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. My response was, “No. Impossible.”

Dr. B. handed me a book and asked me to read several pages out loud. When I was done he asked me if the words sounded familiar in any way.  I had to admit that the long list of PTSD symptoms did indeed sound like things I’d experienced.

But I also told him that I had never been in a fire, a horrific act of Mother Nature, experienced a terrorist attack, or fought in a war.  I told him my life was just ordinary, and that the parental abuse I had experienced as a child did not make for PTSD.  I reasoned that there were many other people out there who’d had it much worse than I, and that I knew my parents had really loved me. They were just a bit f ‘cked up.  I described others I knew who had been through much worse and weren’t suffering from a mental disorder.

It took a few more years and another two diagnoses by other therapists to set me straight and to get over the shame of having a mental disability. Early on, my parents had planted a seed in my head that said mental dis-ease of any kind, is something to be terribly ashamed of.  Denial was always the name of the game.

My father, who had beaten and abused me, showed signs of what at the time was called Shell Shock, brought on by his experiences in World War II. But he was never considered to have a mental health problem.  On the other hand my grandmother had been labeled an unfit mother because of the way she treated my mother and her siblings. She was the family’s deep dark secret that no one ever talked about. After all, what would the neighbors think if they found out about Grandma?

After numerous long and difficult hours with a therapist who specialized in working with trauma patients I began to understand that most any trauma can cause PTSD.  It all depends on the person who experienced the trauma, how early it started, how long it lasted and so on. She helped me to find new ways of navigating through life without the anger and anxiety that tortured me.

After I finishing my work with M., I picked up a book written by Michelle Rosenthal, entitled, Before The World Intruded, Conquering the past and Creating the Future.  Hers is an inspiring story of how she overcame PTSD and won the battle for her life brought on by a life-threatening allergy to a medication she experienced in her teens.  Over the years as she suffered from insomnia, nightmares and flashbacks she was diagnosed with a number of ailments, including cancer, by physicians who did not recognize the classic signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Twenty-four years later, knowing that there was something terribly wrong, Michelle started doing her own research.  When she discovered she had PTSD, she began a journey of healing that included a move to a new location and getting on the dance floor.

As she began to recover, she started blogging about her journey. She became a Certified Professional Coach, a Certified Hypnotist and a Certified Neuro-Linguistic Programmer, and started giving back as a PTSD Coach.  In 2009 she founded Heal My PTSD, an organization that brings awareness, education, and treatment options to those struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Michelle’s book is a compelling story of self-empowerment, and has further helped me with my own struggles. Filled with inspiration, Michelle brings us good information and the understanding that most anyone can recover using self-empowerment techniques and community to bring those with PTSD back to feeling safe and at peace in their surroundings.

Writing My Life

At five, standing in my grandparent’s garden.

When I told a friend a while back that I’m in the process of writing a memoir, she asked me what it was going to write about. I struggled with what to tell her. I wasn’t very clear yet myself, but trying to find words that I thought would serve the purpose, I said, “Well, it’s about my life, how I came to be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and how I’ve brought peace into my life.”

Sufficing as a fair to middling, but far too general a description, it didn’t answer the deeper questions that had been rolling around in my head when I started the writing. “What am I going to include?  What do I want to say and why do I even want to do this?  Am I up to the challenge of reliving some of the darker moments of my life?”

In my first conversations with myself about writing my life, I didn’t have a clue as to how to start.  So I started with stories as they came to me. I published some here, on this blog.  I wrote the happy stories, avoiding the dark stuff, not ready to spill the beans and their big stink. Slowly, I started allowing the ghosts waiting outside the door into my studio and began digging deeper, becoming more honest with and about myself.

Many have told me that I’ve lived a fascinating life and should get it all down on paper. They told me it would be helpful to others who’ve suffered through undiagnosed PTSD. Many people don’t understand that it can be caused by lesser events than living through a tsunami or being a veteran of a cruel and arduous war.

But my first concern was just getting it all out of my internal storeroom, knowing that once I started getting my shame out, I’d feel lighter and happier. I could downsize my memory bank, just as I was downsizing my belongings and living space. I felt that writing through my struggles, I could begin to put the fragmented pieces of my life back together, reaching a new understanding of who I am and how I got to be me.  I knew it could open up the doors I’ve kept locked for far too long and giving me a new perspective on where I’ve come from.

As I was trying to get started on this project, I was diagnosed with Endometrial cancer, which grows in the lining of the Uterus. I was told by a number of doctors that if one has to have cancer, this is the best kind to have. It’s easily treated, depending of course, on its stage when it’s discovered.  Even so, I was extremely frightened. Cancer is the killer in my family. Heart disease has rarely been an issue. All of my relatives, who have passed on, died of complications and the affects cancer had on their bodies. We’ve had cancer of the lungs, bladder, esophagus, nasal cavity, and colorectal cancer.  I found it disturbing to think that unless I’m run over by a dump truck or die of some other external cause, my life would most probably end in the same kind of suffering that my forebears in death went through.  I did not want that for myself.

Treatment for my cancer was a simple hysterectomy, removing all of my reproductive organs. As long as it would be gone, I didn’t care about the loss of parts of myself. At my age, I wouldn’t be needing them anyway. I now visit my Oncologist twice a year to be rechecked and to date there has been no reoccurrence. I’m told that the chances of it returning are rare and should it show up again it is treatable.

While spending several months recuperating from the surgery, I decided that there was no time to worry about cancer and its potential return.  I had no time to feel sorry for myself or the events in my life that had brought me to this moment. I wanted a new a perspective on how to proceed through the rest of my days. Life has been hard and cruel at times and I still bear the scars of child abuse. I’ve struggled with depression, extreme anxiety and spent years thinking of myself as broken and unfit. I learned about and began to accept that I’m an HSP, or a highly sensitive person. Whatever the cause, whether genetic or learned over time, I am an introvert, who has continuously tried to be the extrovert that I thought everyone expected me to be.  I was constantly at war with myself, feeling unworthy of the good things in my life, wondering what was wrong with me, and why I couldn’t reach my unthinkable dream of being just like everyone else.  In a word, Normal.

My cancer has given me a second chance at life. With the help of a therapist whose specialty was treating trauma, I had already begun the journey.  There was much healing to be done, both from the surgical standpoint and from years of blaming, hating, and abusing myself, because I was different and didn’t seem to fit in anywhere.

I can say with confidence that the most effective part of the healing process has been my memoir writing and allowing myself to relive certain aspects of life.  It has been difficult, but I’ve also discovered the many joyful times I spent with my parents, who unable to cope with their own lives, abused me and my brothers.  I’m learning about forgiveness. I’m learning to love myself and that I am worthy, and a good person.

I’m still at work on my memoir and cannot say how long it will take me to finish it. I need time to navigate through my memories and often need to take breaks between the intense chapters in order to reground myself. Being able to laugh at myself and to be joyful about my newest perceptions is constantly rewarding me.  When I’m finished writing my life and it hopefully becomes a book, I will be most happy if those who read my words will find within them, peace and a new perspective on suffering.

Are you writing a memoir or keeping a journal?  Are you finding it easy or difficult to write your stories?  Do you feel that writing about your life is an opportunity to heal the most painful parts of your journey?