Adrenaline is nature’s way of keeping us safe in the face of danger. It serves a purpose, but when a traumatic experience causes you to live in a constant state of fight or flight it can wreak havoc on your life. PTSD can wreck you if you let it.
We’ve all experienced that jolt of muscle quivering energy that floods our bodies during scary or stressful situations. Like when the car in front of us stops unexpectedly causing us to slam the brakes. Or when a glass slips from our hands, but we catch it before it smashes.
Our hearts race, but we quickly recover and move on.
But sometimes the situation is painfully serious and the recovery time is substantial. Like when your child has a medical emergency—a near fatal seizure or maybe she chokes and stops breathing. I can’t begin to describe how frightening that is.
We’ve been in this horrible place a few times over the past decade. We’ve watched helplessly as our youngest lay unconscious, or unable to take a breath.
Our daughter Avery’s near fatal seizures have rendered her lifeless in my arms. I’ve seen her lips turn blue. We’ve watched paramedics bring her back to us.
These are impossible images to erase. Though the fear has quieted now, it’s never gone completely.
In the early days, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t breathe. So my doctor prescribed me something for anxiety. It helped, but after a while I weened myself off it. It’s effectiveness seemed to have lessened and I didn’t like the way it made me feel “outside of my body.”
If you need help, ask. There are always people ready and willing to listen. If you need drugs or therapy or both, do it. There’s no shame in it.
I knew I couldn’t keep living on edge. The smallest noise made me jump. I was like a nervous, highly caffeinated cat. So I started exercising, and meditating. I practised breathing techniques. And I worked through the exercises in an “Anxiety and Worry Workbook.”
And I worried less. Way less. Though the sound of an ambulance still made my palms sweat, my heart didn’t pound like it used to. I didn’t panic. I just noticed, and breathed (granted, sometimes with my head between my knees), and moved on.
I was even able to go off my blood pressure medication. My pharmacist high-fived me when I turned in my leftover meds for disposal. She said she was so proud of me. I was proud of myself.
Outside of a few choking episodes last summer, Avery has been healthy and safe. She hasn’t had a seizure in many years. Life has been calm.
I believed the PTSD was finally gone.
Except PTSD is never really gone. Not completely anyway.
A few weeks ago I was working at home in my office. My son was in the kitchen while my husband and daughter were outside having lunch. Suddenly my son shouted, “Are you choking?!!” as he ran to the patio, slamming the door behind him. Then silence.
Avery was choking.
I bolted down the stairs to the back door where I saw my husband sitting in a patio chair, his head hanging back, the kids hovering over him.
I screamed, “Adrian!? Are you okay? Are you choking?!”
He turned and said calmly, “I had the hiccups. Avery was pouring water down my throat.”
Avery wasn’t choking. It was my husband. Except he wasn’t choking. It was just a case of the hiccups. Nobody was dying. My family was fine.
But the adrenaline in my body made me feel less than fine. My legs were so weak I could barely stand. I felt nauseous. My heart was pounding.
I went inside and exploded into tears. From relief, but also from frustration. Why did I have to have such a visceral reaction to something so benign? It pissed me off.
Anybody would’ve reacted with some level of alarm in that situation though, right? Normal.
But maybe not everybody would’ve been as completely gutted. Not normal.
The fear I carry inside me rose up, bringing with it all the trauma and anxiety I have stuffed way down. It’s always there, lurking.
In the past an episode like this might have stopped me from going on vacation with my family. Or at least it might have prevented me from relaxing and taking risks like letting my daughter out of my sight, or buying her a ticket to ride the Drop Zone at the fair, or allowing her to tube behind my brother’s speed boat.
I was able to relax into our vacation, but not fully. I carried around an uncomfortable feeling of dread. And it made me angry. I had worked too hard to allow a heavy blanket of anxiety to ruin my good time.
So I did some square breathing. I did yoga. I walked on the beach. I meditated. I created peaceful images in my head that I could summon up when I felt the scary thoughts creeping in.
It helped. But still felt unsettled. I found it hard to enjoy the moment and I felt myself planning ahead for possible what ifs.
And that sucks.
The trauma and the fear that it causes is still there despite all the work I’ve done. Clearly I need to work harder. Instead of thinking about meditating, I need to actually do it. Instead of thinking about employing the strategies that I know work for me, I need to use them.
So I’m back working through my anxiety workbook. Back to eliminating as much stress and negativity (the kind I can actually control) from my life. Back to making sleep a priority. Back to exercising daily and drinking all the water my bladder can hold. Back to meditating for a least ten minutes a day. I’m doing everything I can.
Because, what choice do I have?
Living in fear is no way to live well.
Though I accept that PTSD is a part of who I am now, I refuse to let it wreck me.