I’m a member of a private group on Facebook that is just for mothers who have no surviving children. There is a connection shared between these women that only another mother in the same situation will understand. Death is never easy – any kind of death – but losing your child and being left alone is a level of pain that few can understand. The Facebook page gives us a place to not feel so abandoned. It gives us a place to vent and scream about the pain that so few others truly comprehend.
One of the recent posts was about PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD does not only afflict our combat soldiers. It can present itself in anyone who has witnessed a shocking, scary or dangerous event. It causes a hyper-sensitive “flight or fight” reaction, even when there is no real danger. I wasn’t really surprised to learn that so many of the mothers had, at some point, suffered from this. While it’s horrible that so many mothers deal with it, knowing I wasn’t the only one made me feel less alone and like less of a freak. You see, I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD twice in my life.
The first time was after Peyton came home from his 35 day stay in the NICU after he was born. I was terrified all the time. I had reoccurring daymares (a daytime version of a nightmare and a word I just created) about horrible things happening to him. I had vivid and anxiety inducing flashbacks to the morning he was born. Because his birth was so stressful, it created this pattern of fear in me. One particularly illogical one was that I would hit his head on the doorframe if I carried him and walked through a door. I took to walking through doorways sideways, just to be safe. It took many months and a variety of medications to get through it.
The second time was after Peyton died. After talking to my doctor about my symptoms, he knew right away what my condition was. It went beyond depression, which was also present, obviously. It was a deeper feeling of fear. I was afraid to close my eyes because, each time I did, I relived that horrible afternoon. I had (and still have) a tremendous amount of guilt and I had debilitating anxiety attacks. Often these were so bad that I couldn’t get out of bed and couldn’t work. Counseling and medication have helped somewhat, but I know that all of it could come back at any moment.
In thinking about all of this today, I realized that this is yet another area where our society has dropped the ball. We do much more for our soldiers with PTSD than we used to, that’s for sure. But even they have a hard time getting the proper diagnosis and treatment through the VA. But what about all the other out there who suffer from it? Did you know that there are still some practicing psychiatrists and psychologists who think only soldiers can suffer from PTSD? One that I talked to told me that I was probably just overreacting and needed to learn to control my breathing, even though I had all of the required symptoms for the required length of time. Needless to say, that was my first and last visit with that particular doctor. It took several visits to several different counselors to find one that actually saw it for what it was. She was able to teach me different ways to deal with the triggers, both before and during an episode.
The problem is that it took a while to find a person who knew what to do. I had a diagnosis from a licensed doctor, but because of insurance issues and the general lack of qualified doctors, finding a counselor to talk to was difficult and it shouldn’t have been. When a person is suffering from depression and other mental disorders, having to “window shop” for counselors is gut wrenching. For each one that didn’t work out, I left the office knowing that I would have to tell the whole story from the beginning to another one and another and another until I found the right fit. To do so was exhausting and emotionally numbing. All that did was make the feelings worse. To be honest, I eventually stopped looking and have sort of counseled myself. I’ve researched a lot and read a lot and learned how to handle my own self-talk. I don’t know if it’s working or not, though. I don’t have the anxiety attacks anymore, but I can’t sleep without Ambien or at least Melatonin and I’ve become rather distanced from the whole thing in order to be able to function most days.
This brings me to my point…we have to push for more mental health care. There are too many of us who don’t have access to it or don’t know how to get it. Being a healthy person is not just a physical thing. If your mind isn’t healthy, then you will never be whole. It’s time that all parts of our society realized this. Having a mental health screening or check in should be as common place as the physical kids get to play sports in school. In fact, it should be a part of that same physical. Now, please don’t misunderstand. I’m not pushing for a Big Brother type of world where your mental health becomes public record. But that doesn’t happen with your physical health, thanks to HIPAA laws, so why would it happen to any other sort of health record? Personally, I would rather know that my students, my co-workers, and other people that I come into contact with have at least had a conversation with a professional about their emotional well-being. Having depression or PTSD or bipolar disorder or any of the other types of mental disease doesn’t mean you’re weak or unstable or unable to be a productive citizen. It simply means that there is a chemical imbalance in your brain that needs to be treated. After all, diabetes and cancer are also caused by chemical misfires that created physical symptoms and you’d get treated for those, wouldn’t you?