"Knock, Knock. Who's There? PTSD. Oh Shit." One Woman's Struggle with Depression, Suicide and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Friday, June 27, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Mom Stories/Opinion

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a complicated process and can involve a number of symptoms discussed at length in the last post. Today, I was going to run a post on treating PTSD, but I received a number of questions surrounding how these symptoms play out in individuals.

"I see the symptoms, but how do I know if I have it or if I am just anxious?"

"Can I have PTSD without having something traumatic happen to me?"

The short answer is that the way those symptoms come out varies greatly. Not only are the traumas themselves different, but individual tolerance also matters when determining how someone feels.   

So today, I wanted to share a personal story to illustrate how PTSD might feel before we launch into the treatment interventions. This is one woman's story of loss, trauma, strength and survival. See if you can relate.

 

By: Kathryn Leehane 

I have dealt with depression my entire adult life.

For the most part, I can manage it on my own. I recognize the signs, feeling in a very physical way the oppressive, sinking sensation that comes over me. It weighs down my body and makes me heavy… weary… tired. I’m drowning in a slow-moving eddy, and the spinning paralyzes me and makes my vision fuzzy. People talk, but I don’t hear them. I can’t concentrate on what they are saying or what I am doing. My life is happening around me, but a glass wall surrounds me and prevents me from participating.

Most times, I can identify when I need to stop and focus on myself and my feelings. I know when to get fresh air and more exercise. I know when to head over to my Grandma’s house (she’s my unlicensed therapist). I know when to do the things my body needs me to do in order to help combat the fucked-up chemistry in my brain. I am very lucky that way.

Other times, when my depression is more intense, it becomes too much for me to handle on my own, and I have to turn to a professional for help. Times when I withdraw from my family and friends, for example. When I can’t answer the phone. When I stay in bed all day. When I don’t have the will to shower or even change clothes. It’s at these moments that I know I need to reach out for professional help. And I do. It might take me a while, but I do.

What I’m saying is that I can live with my depression. I know how to manage it. I’ve become comfortable with it, and it’s part of who I am. I know how fortunate I am to be able to recognize what is happening to me and how to address it. I know there are others who suffer from the condition much worse than I do.

My anxiety attacks, on the other hand, began shortly after my brother committed suicide two years ago.

The Business of Death and Finding Support

I hadn’t seen my brother in over fifteen years. He had disengaged from the family and cut off all contact. We knew he was an alcoholic. We knew he needed help. But he was never able to ask for it and never able to let us in. Eventually, his mental illness overcame him, and he ended his life.

The business of death is sad and chaotic, and the suicide of a loved one brings with it a very unique set of emotions. Because of my history, I knew I was at risk for a major depression spiral. I knew I needed to keep close tabs on myself. So I relied on my friend Nicole to help keep me in check. We’d talk. We’d text. She’d helped me to gauge my state of mind as I:

  • Talked with medical examiners about my brother’s cause of death and how long the body had remained undiscovered;
  • Interviewed funeral homes and determined what weight of body bag would be required given the advanced state of decomposition;
  • Brought my parents (separately—they are divorced) to the notary to sign the cremation authorization forms;
  • Wrote my brother’s obituaries and submitted them to the newspapers—one in our hometown and one in the city in which he had lived, alongside the friends and co-workers I never knew;
  • Flew to another state to clean out his apartment—the apartment I had never been to and never seen him in;
  • Disposed of all of his worldly possessions;
  • Cleaned the closet where he hung himself, removing the shorn tie from the closet rod with my own two hands; and
  • Prayed the “Our Father” in his bedroom before leaving that apartment for the last time.

Nicole helped me keep myself in check while I was busy being strong. Being strong for my parents, who shouldn’t have had to deal with the loss of their child. Being strong for my other siblings, who were overcome by their own grief. Being strong for my brother, whom I couldn’t save.

What PTSD Feels Like

I was so busy being strong that I didn’t notice the anxiety symptoms sneaking up on me. These uninvited guests crept quietly into my life one by one—so quietly that I didn’t even notice their arrival until they’d already launched their simultaneous attack.

First came the rapid heartbeat. I wrote that off as too much caffeine. I needed coffee to help me power through the day, but maybe I had had too much?

Then came the tightening in my chest. The clamp around my ribcage. Was I just crossing my arms too hard again? My body was so tense; I needed to relax. To take deep breaths.

Then came the difficulties breathing. My short, staccato breaths would take over my entire body—pinning me in place and depriving me of sufficient oxygen. I brushed them off as grief. I tossed them aside as I choked back my tears and kept working through the business of death.

Then came the nightmares. I had visions of my dead brother standing at the edge of my bed. Never talking. Just watching. Just 

waiting for me to help him. Only I never did.

Then came the sleepless nights. Too afraid to dream, I would lay awake for hours. I couldn’t face the visions; I couldn’t face my guilt.

Then came the hair loss. Clumps of hair would fall out in the shower. Strands would cling to my fingers each time I ran my hands across my head. “Damn, I really need more sleep,” I would tell myself.

Oh, I’d function just fine in my daily routine. I’d bring the kids to their activities. I’d take care of the dogs, the house, and the family. All of these activities kept me focused in a different direction—they kept me distracted from my anxiety’s mounting assault.

Until they weren’t there to distract me anymore.

When Trauma Meets the Past

One weekend, a few weeks after the memorial service and after I had closed out most of my brother’s affairs, my husband took the kids to visit a friend out of town. I couldn’t go because there was too much to do at home. And, quite frankly, I needed to not be strong for other people for a while. I needed to be alone and attend to myself.

I was going through my memory box searching desperately for mementos from my brother. Looking for anything—photographs, drawings, letters. All I found was a short letter that he had written to me in college. It was a simple note introducing some sort of article that he had clipped out of the newspaper. The article was not there. But I clung to that note.

First my heart started racing, and then my chest tightened. I tried to breath through it. I closed my eyes and willed myself to breathe through it.

When I opened my eyes, I felt a little better, so I pushed on. I found an old journal of mine from high school and thumbed through it. I was looking for anything I might have written about my brother. Anything at all.

That’s when I read it. A journal entry, written in my own hand, describing my desire to end my life. My own words declaring my intention to hang myself in my closet. Just as my brother had done.

Suddenly everything—all of those silent enemies who had been so stealthy for so long—pounced on me. All at once. Overwhelming me. Taking full control of my body. Seizing all of my senses.

I couldn’t breathe. My ribcage squeezed my lungs and chest—they burned inside of me. My vision went black. Heart racing, I reached out for something to steady me. My arms flailed. I couldn’t find my ground. I couldn’t find a compass. My brain swirled—but like a tornado. It was spinning out of control. Nothing—NOTHING—had prepared me for this. Time seemed to suspend. My gut constricted. I thought I was going to die. There was no oxygen. Nothing to help me breathe. I. COULD. NOT. BREATHE.

All I could see was his closet. The shorn tie on the closet rod. The clothes piled on the floor. The fluids that had fallen onto those clothes when the coroner had moved the body. The bugs that had swarmed my face while I cleaned. The mess. Oh, the mess. That tiny room was the closest I had been to my brother in over a decade, and it was all death. All soiled clothes and death.

And that tie. My brain seized upon that tie.

And, suddenly, the panic released me. I collapsed in a heap on the floor. I wailed. I sobbed. I completely lost it—ugly, loud crying. My heart was still racing, but at least I could breathe. At least the vice on my chest had released. Cold and shivering (had I been sweating?), I picked myself up off the floor and crawled to my bed. I slept for hours.

That was the first anxiety attack. But it was far from the last. It seems that once these mental combatants joined together, they didn’t want to stay apart. They started coming fast and furious, at surprising (but not surprising) moments: praying the “Our Father” at school drop-off, driving away from my kids’ school, hearing certain songs, shopping for cleaning supplies, laying awake in my bed at night.

I knew I needed help. Professional help. But I didn’t know how to ask. I couldn’t discuss it with my husband or Nicole without the symptoms stirring inside of my body. Thankfully, it only took a few weeks and the quiet of a morning alone with my dogs to gather the courage to make that first phone call and get myself to therapy.

I’m not going to lie. It took a while to start talking freely about my brother’s suicide, even though my therapist diagnosed me with PTSD right away. We spent many weeks discussing my brother, my guilt, that closet. That tie.

It has not been an easy road, but I’m glad I took it. I’m done with talk therapy (for now). The anxiety attacks haven’t disappeared completely, but they have decreased in their frequency and intensity. I know (most of) my triggers, and I can sense the attacks approaching. I can usually manage them by taking a walk, by reducing my caffeine intake, by slowing down and breathing.

So I live with both anxiety and depression now, and I struggle on a daily basis. Still, I know I am fortunate. There are those who suffer far worse. Those who lose the battle.

Part of my self-prescribed therapy is writing. So I write. I write to share my brother’s story—to keep a part of him alive with me. I write to laugh and to make others laugh. I write to connect with people. And I write to survive.

 

Kathryn Leehane (A.K.A. Kelly "Foxy" Fox)​ is a mom and a writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two children. Along with inhaling books, bacon and Pinot Noir,  she writes the humor blog, Foxy Wine Pocket, where she shares twisted stories about her life as a mother, wife, friend, and wine-drinker in suburbia. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.  

 

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Topic-Relevant Resources

The PTSD Workbook: Simple, Effective Techniques for Overcoming Traumatic Stress Symptoms
A useful tool in exploring personal trauma, with an emphasis on healing.

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation
New techniques for mindfully altering the wiring of your own brain, leading to increased happiness.

Against Depression
Detailed explanations of the systems involved in depression along with personal stories of success from psychiatrist Peter Kramer.



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