The First Person I Knew with PTSD


Trees laying roots intertwined with each other and growing into a stock block wall.

10 years is a milestone in our memories.

We celebrate the birthdays ending in a zero or the decades changing differently. Well, unless it’s the birthday when one can vote or retire. Or drink legally.

The end of a decade and the beginning of a new one is a big time to take stock.

Which brings me to thinking about my mother who passed away 10 years ago today. It wasn’t a surprise when she died. In fact the family had been told quite a few times in the years before her death that we needed to prepare ourselves to say our good-byes.

About a week after her death I wrote a note about some of the ways that her courage and her life affected me.

10 years later, I realized something I didn’t in 2009. My mother was likely the first person I knew who lived with post traumatic stress disorder. I didn’t realize it at the time, because my PTSD diagnosis was still a while in the future.

I say “likely” because there was no diagnosis and I am not a professional. It looks so similar to me and it feels like a link between us.

Over the years I have talked to many folks about the fog that I felt when my mother was gone. It usually comes up when I see a friend who has lost a parent.

What I don’t usually say is how unsafe I felt after my mother died. Or how I relived previous trauma or how the next several months of my life would feel unbearably threatening as chaos seemed to spring up every where.

Despite knowing some bits of my mother’s life, I had never realized how unsafe her life must have felt for so long. Even if PTSD had been a diagnosis for much of her life, she would have been treated by a doctor or received any kind of therapy.

Simply because she was a woman, compounded by when she lived. A doc might have talked to her at length about self-medicating if she went to a doctor. Maybe.

I think about what a diagnosis and treatment could have meant to her.

And then I think about the terrible toll that her fight-or-flight instincts took on her, arising from what I assumed as a kid were easy, day-to-day things.

Along my road to a diagnosis, there were enough challenges. Docs were quick to prescribe drugs rather than therapy. There was one shrink who told me I just needed to tell my father I loved him more often. My GP tried to diagnose me without referring me to a specialist and got the diagnosis horribly wrong. And then breached my confidentiality. When finally a therapist noted that acronym it was anticlimactic for my doc. He might even have been a little annoyed.

When I heard PTSD I imagined that was only for soldiers or police or firefighters. I knew practically nothing about how many people were affected and I had no idea how important the role of losing a parent was in leading many folks to feel traumatized again.

Last week I was chatting with a colleague about PTSD and I disclosed that we shared a diagnosis. I’ve told quite a few people over the years about living with depression (another milestone: 20 years of an actual, honest-to-goodness depression diagnosis–okay, 20 years and 2 months) but there are only maybe 3 people I have discussed PTSD with.

Something clicked as I was approaching 10 years of living without any parents that made it possible to say this is a part of who I am.

I kinda feel that I am reconciling with something I had no way of knowing–my mother likely lived with PTSD and it informs so much of my life from work to parenting.

For most of my life, she was the most courageous person I knew. Believing that we share a diagnosis makes me realize I wasn’t even close to recognizing how much she went through. How much the easy choices in life become impossible to make. Or how connected we really were.

The greater the distance from my mother’s death, the closer I get to understanding her, I believe. The reality is that time ran out long ago to have some discussions it has taken me a decade to know I needed to have to understand both of us a little better.

A better world through fundraising

CN: ableism, abliest language

I don’t write much about fundraising.

Ok, I don’t write much about anything these days, but if I were writing, fundraising wouldn’t be the topic I would choose to write about often, if at all, despite being in the profession since Clinton’s second term.

I do, however, think about charities a lot. And not just the ones I work for.

When my son was diagnosed as being autistic, I started to encounter charities that made my skin crawl at the messages they peddled. It was only seeking out actually autistic adults that made me realize the depth of misery some of these charities were creating. Words like abuse and eugenics popped up a lot.

And then a year ago, I saw an ad from Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto that screamed ableism and opportunism.

I dreaded watching the VS ad other fundraisers were raving about because I heard that autism was referenced in it. When I finally did watch it, there was nothing positive about autistic people. In fact, it struck me that the mention of it was just thrown in to attract attention.

I vented about the ad on social media and at AFP* Toronto’s annual Congress. I started a couple of blog posts, but I just couldn’t get to the point of publishing them.

*AFP is the Association of Fundraising Professionals and is the professional organization I belong to.

A year has passed and the VS campaign messaging has become even more appalling to me.

I had only negative things to say whenever the Sick Kids campaign popped up and that wasn’t what I wanted to share, but it was often on my mind. Unspoken, trying to get out.

But then 3 things happened in quick succession.

First, I saw some fundraisers promoting an event presented by their company which had the word “savant” in it. For some autistic people and their allies, savant is a slur. It speaks to a greater value that the mere existence of an autistic person doesn’t have. If one is a savant, then one overcomes being autistic, or having no value.

Second, Sick Kids started running Twitter polls asking folks what team they are on. It took the whole competitive angle to a new and disgusting level. What happens if Team Autism gets more votes? Will they get to stay on the island?

Third, my professional organization, AFP Toronto provided me with something that looked like an opportunity to do something positive. They put out a call for proposals for Tough Topics–the things that eat away at fundraisers that never come out in presentations on direct mail, wills, click-through-rates, or being a better leader.

I asked a few people about some ideas I had and took the plunge and submitted a couple of proposals. Aside from a presentation idea about how to treat consultants well (tentatively entitled “The Care and Feeding of Consultants”), there was never much of a fire burning inside me to get in front of a bunch of fundraisers.

The opportunity to address ableism in fundraising sparked more than a bit of a fire.

I met a fundraising student, Liz Chornenki, at Humber at the most recent AFP gathering and heard what she had to say about getting around an event that is supposed to be inclusive. I wanted to co-present with her on one session, because she experiences ableism–especially in the profession–every day. Now, we are listed as presenting a session on ableism. Here’s the proposal for that one:

Unaccommodated: Fundraising and Ableism

Session Description:

Ableism isn’t just about trying to decide between saying differently abled or disabled people, it’s about not incorporating inclusion. While many charities deal with issues relating to ableism, fundraising hasn’t kept up. This session will look at the language we often use, the ways we exclude people from events and giving, and examples of appeals that reinforce stigma and ableism. We’ll also look at the under-representation of disabled people in the fundraising profession. Are we doing everything we can to accommodate people who use mobility devices and communication devices? (For this session, we would like to request a different seating arrangement from the usual one. One with fewer tables with room for people with mobility devices to move freely to any table in the room would be ideal. Also, a format type of other would be useful.)

The other session I proposed is related directly to that Sick Kids ad and agencies of the sort that touch on my son’s life.

Fundraising That Hurts

Session Description:

Fundraising is about changing the world. What happens when it hurts people? This session will explore the stigma reinforced by campaigns from a hospital foundation and a disability-related charity and the community voices raised in opposition to them. During the session, participants will look at the language of framing winning battles against a disease and the role of inspiration porn. It will also look at the movement to make charities operating sheltered workshops increase the sub-minimum wages paid to disabled people.

If either presentation is approved, I’ll be suggesting folks go looking for #actuallyautistic tweets and blogs, as well as post from disabled writers.

Some Christmas Sweets

Like a lot of parents, Christmas mornings every other year mean the absence of feet running down the stairs and squeals of delight when the presents are spied.

Santa has never once been seen in our house on Christmas morning, but he does get to take it easy in those alternate years. He can make a lot of other rounds before circling back to come to us. Continue reading