Held in Dark Places: My Life with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
It takes time to heal from the inside out.
by Sally Gosen Case
I am no hero. I am just an ordinary woman who did what an ordinary person would do in a difficult time. You won’t find me listed with war veterans. I’ve never fought a fire or rescued anyone. There are no websites honoring my courage, nor the courage of others like me.
We are the caregivers. We silently spend ourselves so that loved ones can finish their days in peace and dignity. Outsiders, so quick to press advice and admonitions, know nothing of the cost.
When the season comes at last to a close, they don’t see the part of us that is gone forever, nor the ways we have changed. Some of us are left with a lifetime’s worth of scars. Some of us discover that the season’s occurrences are with us forever. Like some veterans, like some firefighters, we have post-traumatic stress. It’s just that no one notices.
In ‘the loop’
I called it “the loop.” It started well before my husband lost his two-year battle with cancer. I would jerk awake at the slightest sound, heart racing, adrenaline surging, certain that something terrible had happened and I must do something immediately. The overwhelming sense of doom, of panic, of urgency, knotted my muscles into spasms. I must run, run quickly, and make everything all right, but I didn’t know where or how.
If I willed myself to be still, my legs would twitch and jerk painfully. Soaked with sweat, panting, agonizingly alert, I would be awake for hours. I would try to pray but found it impossible to focus my racing mind. I knew that if I went to check on my husband, I would wake him. He would be confused and in pain, possibly bleeding. It would only make things worse. I was alone with my demon.
After his death I was left empty and unfocused. I continued to go to work and homeschool my son but slept less and less. Nighttime meant pain and panic. Days became increasingly surreal.
I lost the normal ability to filter my brain’s input, consumed with the need to be fully aware of everything all the time. The tiniest sound, the smallest detail must have all my attention.
Overwhelmed with the need to manage everything, I could deal with nothing. I was exhausted, jittery, irritable, and constantly sick. I saw two doctors, a pastor, and a grief counselor, all of whom informed me that I was grieving the loss of my husband.
One doctor also thought I had some form of stress-induced ADHD. Everyone agreed that I needed to lighten up, get some sleep, and stop worrying. I begged God to help me rest and heal from this “grief” that was ruining my life, but it only seemed to get worse.
Month after month slid by in a hazy blur. I became increasingly introverted as my ability to cope with any stimulus waned. I avoided people, animals, physical contact, television, music, and newspapers.
Acquaintances rebuked me for “grieving” so much and informed me that I was too self-absorbed. No one would listen as I tried to describe what was happening to me. “You have no business being tired! You should be walking in victory!” proclaimed one friend. “What happened to your faith?” asked another.
Distance from God
I was often informed that worry is a sin. If I would just trust God, He would honor me with a new husband and everything would be fine. Distressed that I was so trapped by sin that repentance did nothing to free me, I pulled away from God. How could I ask Him for help when my life was such a terrible testimony?
Day by day my self-hatred grew until I blamed myself for every tiny thing that went wrong for anyone.
Finally, after two years of widowhood, I began to doubt the wisdom I was given. Wouldn’t grief be getting better by now? I asked myself. Certainly I was crying less on holidays, getting accustomed to doing things alone. Why would the rest of this grief be growing steadily worse?
I never stopped trying to get help, despite the accusations my attempts yielded. That was about to pay off.
Word of mouth brought me to a pastor/therapist I had never met. He was quiet and kind. He actually listened attentively as I described “the loop,” which by now was far more real to me than my actual life.
When I finally stopped, he said, “This is what is known as post-traumatic stress disorder.” He explained that all those months of anxiety for my husband, dealing with crisis after crisis with no one to back me up or tell me what to do, had created this response in my subconscious mind.
I was taken aback. People like me didn’t get this. PTSD was the honor badge of the hero and the curse of the vacant-eyed veteran begging on street corners. I was an ordinary mom. How could this be? But it was.
Well-meaning friends have questioned the diagnosis. “The Bible promises that God will never give us more than we can handle,” they say. They don’t want to believe that a Christian could ever be damaged like this.
It took me more than two years to find out that there is a way of escape.
The pastor taught me calming techniques. He had me breathe deeply, then focus intently on a single sound. He explained that this would help reconnect my mind to reality. He reminded me of the verse “Prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled . . .” (1 Peter 1:13, NIV).
I was almost insulted. It seemed too simple; I couldn’t see the connection. The pastor told me that my mind had held me prisoner for too long. It was time to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5, NIV). He emphasized that this technique could actually be used to “capture” destructive thought processes.
Focus and therapy
In spite of my skepticism, I practiced focusing. I quickly grew to hate it. How could I listen to the clock tick when every fiber of my being was awash in panic? I spent hours every night trying, but found only frustration. I saw no point to this and no end, but it was the only chance to break free that I had been offered.
At the same time, I was going through intense cognitive therapy that left me completely drained. I could not believe any of this would ever sort out the mess in my brain.
As I began to gain perspective, though, I started to realize that post-traumatic stress was not a sin. I was filled with relief when I understood that God was not punishing me. I could approach the throne of grace and find help, not accusation.
Breaking ‘the loop’
Then one night I snapped awake to some small sound. As always, I dropped into “the loop,” but this time I could not do one more minute of that stupid exercise. Something in me rose up and screamed a silent No!
To my utter disbelief, “the loop” stopped. After about two hours of prayer and quiet meditation, I fell asleep.
Once I knew that it was possible, I found that I could routinely stop the reaction, though it took tremendous discipline. I started catching it sooner and sooner. I went back to sleep more, and more quickly, and gradually became more aware of my days. I was careful to honor the Sabbath principle, taking one day a week to rest and heal emotionally as well as physically. I joined my therapist’s church. I changed jobs. I started college.
I grieve for those who, like me, have had to deal with more than they could process. I have spoken with others who have found themselves stuck in their own “loop,” and I beg them to get help and, if it doesn’t work, to keep looking. These experiences are painful memories, but they don’t have to shape the rest of our lives.
Gift of rest
Some small noise wakes me with a start. I feel my heartbeat rising. No, I tell myself, taking a long, deep breath.
I can hear the ocean from my bedroom. I lose myself in the sound. Thanking God for my cozy home by the sea, I think of the little creek that empties onto the beach. My muscles relax as I remember leaves floating lazily on the water the last time I was there. I slip blissfully to sleep.
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