BY ASHLEY NEQUEST
Take a moment and imagine going out for lunch with your friend. You see a used CD store up ahead and begin to psych yourself up to walk past it. You’re here, in this day, so you’ll be fine. As you walk past, the friend suggests you head in and browse for the Alanis Morissette CD she had been wanting to listen to. That is when the panic you had been fighting off finally hits. The familiar nausea, shortness of breath and tears threatening to expose the war going on inside you. You stand outside the store as your mind relives a horrifying moment you faced many years before, over and over again.
This is what it can be like for those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Incidents from a person’s past can have such lasting, and life-altering, affects that every day events can suddenly send them into a sheer panic.
“I have a client that was mugged outside of a store,” said Joy Lang, a counsellor at Cardinal Counselling and Mediation in Waterloo, who works with people who suffer from PTSD on a regular basis. “Now they go out of their way to avoid that type of store.”
When it comes to PTSD the smallest thing can trigger a full blown attack. Something as simple as a type of store or the mention of rape in an overheard conversation can be enough to take a person who has suffered a trauma back to the day it happened.
“It feels like you’re stuck living that moment in a loop,” said Lang. “You can’t ever get away from it.”
This is incredibly true for Amy (not her real name) who survived a sexual assault when she was 17. Six years ago, which was more than 20 years after the incident, she was asked by police if she wanted to once again pursue charges against the man who assaulted her. In an impact statement she said that more than 20 years later the trauma one man caused her still affected her daily life.
“The nightmares … They happened every night for nearly two years … As time has gone on, they have become less often, but they still happen … now I see my daughter in this situation, rather than myself … it terrifies me.”
Her statement identifies other key aspects of her life that she states are not “normal.” There are activities she cannot partake in with her children, it affects her sex life, she still wakes up screaming in the middle of the night and someone touching her in the middle of the night causes her to jump, even if it is the man she has been married to for many years. She ponders on telling her daughter about her assault one day.
“I finally sat down my daughter last year and told her, because she couldn’t understand why I was so mean, so strict … I had to explain to her that no matter how big she is, how smart or how careful …very bad things can happen to her.”
“I spent years trying to control the situations my daughter was in,” said Amy. “When she was 10 or 11 things got really bad … She wasn’t allowed to be out after dark, she had to tell me exactly where she was and who she was with. I tried to always have her bring her friend to our house, if she went to their house I couldn’t stop anything from happening to her. What if that friend’s father molested her? Or the brother? Or the uncle? She was (so much like) her mother. She was strong, she thought she could handle everything … I had to tell her so she knew that it can happen.”
According to Lang, those who suffer from PTSD often struggle with situations like this. As their children grow up they fear that the same traumas could happen to them and it affects the way they live their lives.
“When things happen as kids they struggle all over again when their kids get to that age,” said Lang. “They see themselves in their kids, they begin to picture their kids being the ones who get hurt instead of themselves. They see their child and just think, ‘Look how little they are, someone needs to protect them. Someone should have protected me.’”
The PTSD Association of Canada’s website defines PTSD as “a serious condition that can develop after a person has experienced or witnessed a traumatic or terrifying event in which serious physical harm occurred or was threatened.”
Using this definition of PTSD it is clear that the list of people who can suffer from PTSD is much more expansive than those who have suffered from a physical assault.
In September 2014 an 18-year-old construction worker fell to his death from the 23rd floor of a building on Father David Bauer Drive in Waterloo. In an incident like this many people are affected, including the other workers on site who saw him fall and were around his body until emergency services arrived, the first responders who rushed to the scene to look after the man, any people passing by on the street and the young man’s family.
The PTSD Association of Canada includes the families of victims, first responders, journalists, emergency personnel and rescue workers in their list of people who can suffer from PTSD.
In terms of first responders it is slowly becoming more accepted that the things they see and experience can take a toll on them, though there is still quite a stigma surrounding it.
“We have identified that there is an issue,” said John Percy, public educations officer at Waterloo Fire Rescue. “We are doing our best to help our people but there just isn’t enough resources for them quite yet. We are slowly seeing progress in the acceptance of the illness and seeing a push for there to be help for them.”
Lang said the stigma still surrounding PTSD is largely because it is not understood. The person who has suffered the trauma is no longer the same person, their brain is no longer wired the same way.
“It’s an emotional thing,” said Lang. “They can’t logic their way out of their panicked state … When they are triggered they often feel younger than they are, as if they are back in the moment the incident happened.”
There are many places that people can find support, including counselling and in-person support groups, though Lang said many of her clients have found the support they need online.
“Sometimes they feel a sense of shame and don’t feel comfortable talking to someone in person,” said Lang. “The Internet allows them to connect with more people. Often they are surprised to find others who have had similar experiences and find there is a lack of judgment.”
PTSD is an illness that can affect someone forever. Lang said people can begin to feel shame because something from years ago still affects them, that people in their lives can forget how traumatic an issue was for the individual and eventually don’t understand that the person has to live with those memories every day.
“They feel like this shouldn’t happen,” said Lang. “They struggle with the idea that it shouldn’t still be a big deal, especially if they knew the incident was a possibility.”
When it comes to dealing with PTSD Lang said research is always changing, there are new ways of helping heal old scars. She urges those who are struggling with an illness like PTSD to seek help.
“I think what irritates me the most is when my family says things like, ‘Oh, come on. It was 20 years ago. It’s time to get over it,’” said Amy. “No matter how much I want to not think about it or move on I can’t just flip that switch. He didn’t just do this to me, it has affected everything in my life from then on. PTSD and recovery don’t have a time frame and people don’t get that. They need to understand that.”