Friday, July 24, 2015

Bear Attacks

Lately I've been doing a lot of posting about Mental Health Awareness and my desire to bring light to the dark subjects of Depression and PTSD, but I haven't explained why. I haven't opened up about my part in a journey that means so much to me. I haven't explained to you how I came about all this knowledge and experience with the subject. After a lengthy, encouraging conversation, we have decided together that now is the right time and this is the perfect way to tell this beautiful story. This story isn't mine. It belongs to my best friend. She is one of the most amazing people I have ever met and oh my goodness she has fought her way to get to who she is today. She has given me her blessing to tell her story, to recall her journey that I am so thankful I got to be a part of. I am going to tell it from my perspective, but this is very much her beautiful journey of strength.

It was kind of always an unwritten, unspoken fact that there were days she "shut down." It wasn't really discussed--it just existed. Sometimes the "bad days" were frequent. Sometimes they weren't, but they were a constant threat. Without warning--a word, phrase, song, or smell would send my beautifully vibrant best friend into a dark hole in her mind. Her mind had a way of turning anything into a negative. She would hear something totally different than the intention often. She would hear whatever she thought people meant with little thought or concern about what people really were trying to say. Her mind would insist that even the most amazing situation was negative. We called this "The Voice". We tried to ignore the voice. It just kept getting louder and more cruel with each passing day. The darkness was surrounding her--you could see it in her eyes. Constantly being belittled and berated by her own mind.

The thoughts would spiral out of control after one simple thought. For example, she fixed her 6 year old son's hair a little different that day per his request. After school, he mentions "Mom, so-and-so said that you did a bad job fixing my hair." That one singular thought created by a statement by a kindergarten student spun her world out of control because she began to believe the things her mind was telling her. The Voice kept telling her that this in fact made her a bad parent. The voice insisted to be heard--demanded it. No matter how much she tried it was winning. She was really believing many negative cruel and awful things about herself--especially about her parenting. Once something has been said to you over and over, you begin to believe it. She was beginning to feel like her kids would be better off without her. She is an incredible mother, I must say. This not even my biased best friend opinion. It is the truth. I have never in my whole life ever seen a mom love her kids the way she loves hers. She is able to put their needs before her own in the most amazing ways time after time. She lives for her kids. Listening to her speak to them blesses my heart every time. She is the type of mom that once stopped in the middle of the crowded fair and crouched down to her kids' level to explain to them some life lessons when they witnessed first hand a parent treating their child badly. This does not surprise me. She is that mom. The mom that will stop everything even in the crowd to get down on her kids' level and explain to them that sometimes life isn't fair or it's cruel, but they are blessed and will know right and wrong because of her life lessons.

Because of her childhood and the way she was raised, being a great mom is more important to her than anything else in life. She wants more for her kids than what she had. Her biggest fear was/is failing at being their mom. In those moments of darkness, her mind convinced her that she was failing. She was not able to see how great of a job she was doing. All she saw/heard was the negativity. She believed it was right because as I've said, once you hear something often enough, you begin to believe it. The voice got its' name because it sounded like the voice of her own mother. It was as if her mom's words were constantly haunting her--pointing out her flaws, constantly. I will not get into all of the details of that voice and its cruelty and why it was compared to her mother, but I will say it was real and vivid and battling it was not easy.

We were not sure what it was that was going on with her, but we knew it needed to be stopped. We didn't know how or where to start, but it needed to be shut up. We just weren't equipped with as much knowledge or experience on the subject to define the problem. We simply knew what happened and how it made her feel--hopeless, worthless and like a failure. She wanted it to stop. She reached out to a doctor who had previously told her he believed she was suffering from Depression. He prescribed her an anti-depressant as he had done a few years before. He gave her some options other than sitting down with a therapist for her to try to find ways to cope with her emotions and all that she had going on in her head. He was a great first stop in this journey and definitely started the ball rolling in the right direction.

After a couple attempts of seeking out the suggested outlets, I started to learn so much about mental health and that my own perceptions on the subject were not necessarily accurate to the truth. Before being a part of this journey, I hadn't thought much about what it was like to suffer from a silent battle; however, I am now painfully aware of the struggle, the pain, and the exhaustion that comes along with fighting that daily battle. I had never thought about how hard it is finding the perfect therapist. I never thought about how frustrating the process of getting into therapy can be. I never understood how "wanting to get help" was much simpler of a thought than the actual process of beginning to start therapy. I never thought about how just because you are now "getting help" doesn't mean that you are all of a sudden "better". People always say things like "She would do better if she got help". Which I totally agree with this and am supportive of turning to professionals for help in the journey, I just wasn't always aware of how much work is done after making the decision to get help is made. There is still so much more beyond that. The professionals do not "fix" people--instead they help find causes of problems while helping find solutions. It is very much an inward journey.

Eventually, she found a therapist that she really liked and seemed to be making progress. He was very understanding and reassuring of her journey. He was able to express to her the things he thought she was doing well while pointing out different ways of coping with/readjusting her thoughts. He helped her to be able to better understand how and why these thoughts were happening. A big turning point in her journey and therapy was when he gave her a diagnosis she could better understand. The day he explained to her that she is suffering from PTSD rather than depression it all seemed to "click". Although depression is a symptom of PTSD, the entire explanation of PTSD made much more sense and added up better in her situation than depression did. Most people associate PTSD with the military, which many soldiers do suffer from. Hers is caused by childhood trauma, but it reacts in the same way as a combat vet's version. No matter what caused it, its effects are real. The daily battle is real. The stigma that exists on the subject is not reality. Yes, it is jumping at the sound of fireworks because it reminds a vet of war, but it is also much much more.

Her therapist went on to compare PTSD to a bear attack. This vivid description he gave made everything in her head make sense. It all lined up. It was exactly what she had been experiencing for years without an answer as to why.

Here's the analogy:

Let's say you were once attacked by a bear. It sucked really bad. It was painful. It was traumatic. You healed and went on with your life. There were scars left behind but other than that you were physically fine. Now fast forward in time, let's say you see a bear coming out of the woods toward you. Fight or Flight kicks in and you are scared for your life. You are aware of the danger and potential pain. You want to never experience that again so you either shut down or run far away from where you see the bear--even if the bear was walking the other direction and was not a threat to you. Even if the bear was not even close to thinking about attacking you, that does not mean that the threat does not feel real to you. That does not mean that you are not terrified for your life in that moment--terrified of experiencing that pain again. Another example, let's say you are in a situation that brings back the same feelings or emotions that you had when you were attacked. Once again, you shut down, you are scared, you run all because you do not want to experience that pain or trauma again. This is exactly what happens with people who suffer from PTSD. They only have to sort of be reminded of some trauma in their life in some way and they are taken back to the exact moment it happened and they begin to relive it. They can physically feel what they felt in that moment as they did before.

There is no running away from PTSD. Memories, reminders, and potential threats are everywhere. They don't just "get over it". Instead, they must find ways to cope with these feelings and thoughts. They must learn how to remind themselves--this is not a bear attack. This is not the past. This is not a threat. They must reassure themselves that they will be okay and to point out to themselves how this is different than that. They fight a constant battle between the past that was real and the present that feels real.
(This diagram is an example of how the thoughts work for people suffering from PTSD.)

It took a lot of hard work and determination, but she has done it. She has come a long way. She is able to cope in ways I never even imagined were possible. I always told her that we would see sunshine again. I told her that the other side of this would be beautiful, and it is. It is much more beautiful than I ever imagined. There are days or situations that I halfway expect to go a certain way because I know how her mind wants to react, but rarely does she let things get to her like that. She has found the coping skills and the strength within herself to win these daily silent battles, and I couldn't be any more proud of her if I tried. I am so very thankful to her and the part I was able to play in her journey. I am so very blessed to get to be with her in the sunshine experiencing what life looks like now. Thanks to her and her beautiful journey I am able to share this story and hopefully make a positive impact on someone's life. Thanks to her, PTSD doesn't have to be such a silent battle.

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