12 July 2013

Living Responsibly

Most of us, I think, want to  live as responsibly as we can. We try to keep our finances in some sort of order (that can be a tough one, but we do at least try), we generally pick up after ourselves, we turn off the lights when we leave a room, we shut the windows when a storm is coming.

When you live with health issues, there are additional considerations. Diabetics and others with fragile blood sugar levels need to pay close attention to what they eat and when, individuals with seizure disorders sometimes need to stay out of the driver’s seat of a vehicle, and people on regular medications need to take their meds, well, regularly, so that the underlying problems don’t get worse or send them into preventable crises.

People with mental health issues have similar responsibilities: take your meds (if you are on them) regularly, go to therapy, follow the instructions of your care team, let those around you know what they can do to help and actually be brave enough to ask for help when you need it. That help might be just to have someone sit with you or talk to you on the phone while the panic attack wears off, instead of suffering by yourself. It might be asking someone else to do your household chores today because you know that you need to rest. It might mean making the house safe for someone who periodically faces the dark thoughts of suicide – in our case, choosing not to have firearms here and keeping the medicine cabinet clear of anything particularly strong is just a reasonable precaution, as I’ve faced that darkness at times, and with a family history of severe depression, it just doesn’t seem like a risk worth taking – I might not be the only one to face that darkness, after all. It’s just the responsible thing to do.

Of course, another responsible thing to do is to find ways to enjoy the life you do have, no matter what your limitations may be. Just because you have mobility issues doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy being outside on a summer day – you might need to stick to the cleared trail, or the paved walkway, but you can still enjoy the sunshine and the fresh air. Just because you have diabetes doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a good meal. Just because some days are dark, that doesn’t mean none of the days are light. Fibre arts are a wonderful beacon of light in my world.

And, just because you have troubles that doesn’t mean you can’t have a good relationship with your partner and your family. It is going to take extra work, though - it takes the hard work of honest conversation to keep things going. Everyone needs support to get through the tough times, and when one person in a family is hurting and struggling, everyone who loves them hurts and struggles too. Family members who live with someone facing big challenges need support too – they need a break, they need a chance to go ‘off duty’, a chance to vent the inevitable frustrations with the situation safely. The whole ‘family meeting’ thing makes good sense – with a counsellor, even, to help everyone get their messages across to one another and find solutions instead of focusing on problems.

My PTSD has been a big challenge for my whole family, but we are finding our way through the changes, one step at a time. There are days when everyone’s mostly just annoyed (or downright angry) with one another (or with me, I can be a real pain in the arse when I’ve gone over the edge). There are days when things go smoothly and you’d never even know someone in this household was living with PTSD. As I keep moving in the right direction, more and more of the days go smoothly. My chest pain has receded, and hardly ever bothers me anymore. Usually, I sleep. Most of the time, I can keep up with my responsibilities around here – not always, sometimes things just slip for a day or two and I try to catch up later, and sometimes I have to say “I can’t do it today, can someone else cover for me please?” Once in awhile, I topple over the edge into the Darkness – but I come out of it faster than before, and everyone recognizes it when it happens and the Coping Plan gets put into place. It is my deepest hope that someday, I will stop toppling over that edge – my counsellor tells me that I’ll get there, and as it is happening less and less now, I do believe her.

As I’ve worked on getting well, our family has been able to have some really blunt conversations – not easy conversations, to be sure, but honest and productive. I couldn’t have done that a year ago – I wasn’t well enough to hear what my family needed to tell me then, and they knew it, and bit their tongues. A year ago, I couldn’t have asked them for what I needed, either, because I didn’t know. It’s hard to understand – it’s hard to understand from the inside, never mind from the outside observer’s standpoint – how the healing process unfolds. It’s far slower than I thought it would be, and it doesn’t seem to be so much about having big flashes of insight (though those do happen at times) as it is about gradually shifting one’s perspective and acquiring new patterns of reaction. I expected to have some big “aha” moments and then I’d be better. The “aha” moments helped me sort out some of my mucked up thought processes, but PTSD is a conditioned response, more like a ‘learned reflex’ than a ‘thought’.

Hah, I just came up with a new analogy.

PTSD is like having an allergic reaction to an ordinary event. Allergies, like hay fever or sneezing when you are in the same room as a cat, happen when the immune system goes into a full blown attack-the-invading-organism response when presented with some kind of environmental trigger that isn’t, in fact, harmful to the body. If the body would just stop freaking out, everything would be okay: that pollen isn’t actually an infectious organism that needs to be attacked and destroyed, and it’s the body’s own response to the perceived danger that’s making your eyes swell and your skin itch and your nose stuff up.

With PTSD, the body launches into full blown fight-flight-freeze-or-fawn response when presented with some kind of environmental trigger that isn’t, in fact, harmful. There’s a loud noise, and the ex-soldier dives for cover – even though the noise was just a car that backfired or a firecracker that went off and he’s actually quite safe in his suburban neighbourhood. Thought doesn’t come into it when you are triggered, though: you just react. My triggers are, unfortunately, far more subtle – someone says something innocuous and harmless but my brain processes the words as “you aren’t good enough” or “you are a failure” or “you are not wanted” (and often the translation inside my head is so subtle that even I don’t recognize it until much, much later, if at all) and my defenses go up automatically. Sometimes it’s a bunch of tiny stuff that just accumulates, or I get worn down from doing too much and then some simple, every day thing tips me over the edge and the automatic responses kick in.

Sometimes I fight. Sometimes I run. Sometimes I freeze. Sometimes I try to appease the ‘enemy’. None of it works, because these aren’t the appropriate responses to an ordinary situation. But my old conditioning is still really strong … weakening, though, as time goes on and the catastrophes I keep bracing for don’t arrive, but it’s a long, slow process. It’s kind of like getting allergy shots to convince your body to stop going nuts every time the poplar trees start tossing white fuzz all over the neighbourhood: it takes a lot of needles over a long time to convince the body to stand down. Eventually, though, it works.

So, I continue to work at living responsibly: seeing my therapist, listening to my body when it says “today we rest” or “today we can do a bunch of stuff”, pursuing happy things like fibre arts or being with friends or reading good books or going fishing with my husband, making an effort to eat well and get some exercise, asking for help when I need it, and being aware of that edge so that when I feel myself getting closer to it, I try to back away and bring down the defenses. I don’t always succeed, but every time I come back up out of the Dark, every time my old stories prove false, every time I see goodness and hope, I get a little closer to wholeness.

It’s just the responsible thing to do.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:51 pm

    The idea of living responsibly applied to our mental and emotional life is enlightening! And a challenge. It's so much easier to sort recycling, garbage, and compost. Sorting my thoughts and wishes? Quite another story.
    Fibre Neighbour


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