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.


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