I will always share my story and posts like this. I think it is so important to realize that PTSD is not just a product of military service but civilians suffer from it, too. Including me. You’re not alone, you’re not crazy, and it does get better.
⚠️⚠️ I want to warn you, this is a very raw, very real post. Read at your own risk- but after years of silence I felt the need to share this. ⚠️⚠️
When I was 11 years old, I woke up to screams. My mother’s screams. At 11 years old I called 911 as my father lay in my parent’s bedroom unresponsive. I tried so hard to help my mom lift him further onto the bed so she could start CPR. I watched her desperately try to revive him. I screamed at the 911 operator to “hurry up” after she told me to calm down.
At age 11, I watched my father die. I watched the paramedics put him on a stretcher, pull the sheet over his head, and carry him through my parent’s bedroom window because they couldn’t maneuver the stretcher in our tiny hallway. I remember running outside to throw up and then just standing in the driveway, a whirl of blue and red all around me but all I felt was stilled silence.
We had just come home from vacation that day, everything had been fine. We said goodbye to my aunt and uncle, drove home from the lake, stopped for dad’s favorite meal, and went to bed at 3pm, attic fan running, bags still packed and resting by the door.
I was in complete shock at how this could have happened. And while a lot of my childhood was spent sleeping in hospital waiting rooms because of my father’s various health issues, he had had heart surgery. He was supposed to be better. He had been better for over a year. How could this be real?
In a blink of an eye, my life changed forever.
At the hospital, we were met by the Chaplin and three or four nurses. I already knew what they would say. I collapsed when I saw them, I cried, I threw up in the break room trash can behind the ER nurses station, and I sat outside with one of the nurses while my mom saw my dad one last time.
When we got home later that morning, everything was untouched but all wrong, all at the same time. My father’s glasses were on the nightstand, the blanket I made for him that Christmas laying on his side of the bed, his wallet on the counter. There were also sheets on the floor, needle wrappers on the dresser, and a latex glove under the window. I remember that being my confirmation that I wasn’t having a bad dream. This was real.
At age 11, I helped plan my father’s funeral from the casket to the songs for the service. I remember being so startled when we walked into the funeral parlor where his service was and seeing him laying there in his casket. I remember kissing his cheek which no longer smelled like Curve cologne, and touching his hands, no longer warm.
At age 11, I spoke at my father’s funeral and I saw my grandmother cry for the first, and only, time in my life as we rode in the limo to the gravesite. I remember the gunshots and the flag they folded and handed to my mom- the same flag and bullets framed and resting on my entry hall table.
At 11 years old, I grew up. I became the person in our family who took care of things. From calling and paying bills for my mom, holding her and encouraging her to get out of bed when she couldn’t for days on end, to listening to her talk of suicide because she didn’t know how to live without my father, her best friend and soulmate. Cooking, cleaning, taking care of my sister. And I never really grieved.
At age 13, I took my first sip of alcohol, made a habit of sneaking into the liquor cabinet and sneaking out with friends to drink because somehow, that felt better than the situations I found myself in at home. We took our parent’s cars out, wrecked a few, skipped school, drank, and smoked, and on one occasion I was marched out of school in hand cuffs. This after being an honor roll student and athlete my entire life, prior.
I was far more broken than anyone knew. My sorrow turned into contempt and a lack of empathy for those like my mother, still crying over my father. Not because I wasn’t sad but because I couldn’t process or handle it. I was one crack away from shattering the wall I’d built to be able to function on a day to day basis.
By age 14, I started having anxiety attacks that convinced me that someone I know had died. Ambulance lights induced panic attacks, and I don’t remember most of my childhood. I don’t talk openly about my dad because honestly, I can’t. I can’t watch videos of him, I can’t look at his picture too long, I can’t even eat Mexican restaurant taquitos, listen to Amazing Grace, play basketball, or go to places we once did without fighting back tears or practicing my breathing so I avoid a meltdown. I’ve visited his grave twice in 16 years, only once could I muster the courage to get out of the car. Triggers are everywhere. And while I am working on these things, STILL, every day, PTSD is and probably always will be a major part of my life. My last panic attack was a little over a year ago and it was triggered by ambulance lights next door. I still cry by myself in my car because of a passing memory or thought, and it all still hurts. Like hell.
It wasn’t until I was much older, around 21, and going through a traumatic divorce that I sought professional help for what seemed to be the only way for me to take control of my life back; from the memories, from the heartbreak, from the abusive relationship I had just left with an 8 month old baby. I was a single mother, I had to get better. And while my marriage was anything from meant to be, my insecurities, my brokenness, factored into everything, including a lack of self worth that had kept me stagnant in my life for far too long.
Through good psychiatry, depression medication, and a new kind of support system in my life, I got better. I tell people all the time that Ben saved my life and as cliché as that sounds, ￼he truly did. He was the best friend and provider for Wes and I in one of the hardest times of our lives. I remember having a really horrible night, crying in the bath tub wondering if I was doing right by my son and right in my life and at that moment my phone lit up. Ben had texted me a poem that my father and grandmother used to say to me, a poem I had sent him only once years before. It was then that I realized my father must approve of him. His unconditional love and support was and is one of the number one motivations in my life to keep going. I owe much of my healing to him.
I wanted to share this because so often PTSD is thought of as a veteran’s problem. And while it certainly is, there are other forms of trauma that cause civilians to suffer from forms of post-traumatic stress syndrome, also. When I was diagnosed with PTSD, I was shocked but suddenly, everything I was going through, am going through, made perfect sense. Almost 20 years later, I can still remember what I was wearing the night my dad died. I can remember every detail, how blue his face was, what my mom’s screams sounded like, almost every word the 911 operator said. That is the memory burnt into my brain. Almost 20 years later his death and the trauma I suffered from touched every aspect of my life whether I wanted to admit it or not. The night my father died is one I revisit in vivid detail over and over again. But as horrible as that night was, it’s easier to deal with compared to all of the sweet memories I’ll never get to have again with my father.
He will never get to carry my kids on his shoulders, he will never be just a phone call away, he will never walk me down the isle at my wedding, and I’ll never get my dance.
I’m not sharing this for sympathy- it has taken me 16 years to openly share my story. And this has been extremely hard to write- I’ve erased it about five times. But something about this meme spoke to me. And it just seemed appropriate.
For anyone struggling with trauma, know that you are NOT alone. You are not crazy, you are not broken because you “just can’t get over it” even though it’s been two decades. You’re not sensitive when you cry because a song comes on that reminds you of someone you’ve lost, or because the memory of them just came to you. Grief is grief and it is not a one and done thing. It’s a lifelong process.
We are all so quick to acknowledge the existence of life-long, unconditional love but tend to sweep that under the rug and try to “move on” when someone we love dies. One of my favorite Ted Talk speakers, Jaime Anderson, discusses grief and she describes it as “love with nowhere else to go” and death as “love just squaring up with its oldest enemy.” And she’s right. The grief will never go away, but it does get better.
Eventually, we will start to see the beauty in those we have lost rather than focusing on the pain. We will be able to celebrate them without rejecting their memory because it’s something we cannot yet deal with. Don’t give up. Keep working. Because one day, love will win. And while triggers will always be there, the meaning of them will change. And it will be beautiful, reassuring, and peaceful.
Hang in there. I am. ❤️