Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

My topic today is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is rather personal today, but I feel called to talk about it, because until recently, I have been wont to claim the experience for myself. I am not a Soldier, Sailor, Marine, or war veteran, so I thought, how dare I claim the experience? Dysfunctional family, sure, I have been through that. And I must also acknowledge the sensitivity children have before the hard knocks of life deaden them emotionally – if they allow it. Children are sensitive, but they are also resilient. They get through, but maybe not without picking up some dysfunction of their own.

What saved me ultimately was my anger and my anxiety. Funny, to speak of anger and anxiety as conditions of salvation. But these emotions of survival kept me from losing myself to the experiences of a sibling who was going through the turmoil of a mental disorder. Were she still alive, were my parents still alive, I probably would not be writing this blog today. But they have passed into a realm where they will no longer be embarrassed by the sordid details of life. So I can write of these issues freely without censure by a family that had largely abandoned me anyway, since I had voluntarily stepped out of its dysfunctional patterns the best that I could – by not getting emotionally entangled.

Anger and anxiety served to alert me to those times when I needed to fulfill a certain role in the family to mitigate the danger my sister posed. I don’t think that we were so much in physical danger, as the danger (if danger it was), of seeing ourselves as we are. Naked in the limelight, not of our own goodness, but of our own shadows. Of course we have images to uphold, and when the social order including the social order of family breaks down, those images break apart like the fragile things they are… and we are left, with ourselves, as we are.

The worst time I remember, accompanied by all the usual hollering, yelling and shouting, was when I was in my bedroom, contentedly working on an art project, and the shouting stopped. That sudden silence felt ominous, so I went downstairs to see what was going on. I saw Mom standing behind the kitchen table, wringing her hands, piteously calling Dad’s name. Her posture was full of helplessness. There was nothing here she knew how to do, no problem she could fix.

I saw my sister standing in the kitchen, her eyes wild and her hair disheveled, cornered by my father. Then I saw my father turn to go downstairs into the basement. I walked into the kitchen, and saw my sister throw down the knife she was holding. Dad came back up from the basement workshop, an iron pipe in his hand, and my sister ran outside into the early snow of a Lake Erie winter. Apparently my presence had broken up the intensity of that moment.

With my sister out of the house and no longer a threat to my father, he laid down his pipe and turned toward Mom. I heard him say that no daughter of his would ever get away with that behavior. I felt my sister needed me more than my parents did. I was able to easily track her in the snow. I found her by the public phone booth at Taffy’s Hot Dog Stand. She told me she was okay and that she had phoned some of her friends to come pick her up. She clearly did not want my presence, so I went home, and largely forgot the incident until a later period in my life when my sister again needed me, and I could be of help.

I am not an expert on mental illness, and as you may guess from the opening paragraph, I have been oblivious at periods in my life when I could have benefitted from the help of a mental health expert. This attitude of denial was alive and well at home, and I picked up on it too. I now believe that Dad’s attitude of “No daughter of mine…” extended to the very real need my sister had for psychiatric help. I know my parents had her to a series of psychologists, but that seemed to do very little for her, because as we learned later, my sister’s need was not behavioral so much as biochemical. The balance of the chemicals in her brain was not functioning in a way for her to perceive consensual reality in a healthy way.

I have an image in my head now. My parents were religious regulars at the local Lutheran Church, and they were good and stable servants within the fold. Mom taught Sunday School for forty-five years of her life until deteriorating health forced her to give it up. Dad played various roles over the years as Deacon, and I am, at the moment, not certain what else, but he was in one role or another on the Board of Church Directors. The church had varying issues with ministers, and for a while it went through political upheavals within the membership, but my parents always stayed. I remember this timeframe being one of inconsistent values, and I am left to this day believing that “church” and the people within it are a nest of hypocritical vipers. I write this, even as I see the powerful, dignified, and meaningful role that Jesus has played in the lives of my friends of color… I just want to say that we are what we bring to the experience, and my experience of “church” left me with eyes that saw in the dark to souls standing naked in the limelight, as they were, and not in accord with their self-image. The image in my head is of a church uniting all these little boxes that are family homes, and the image of goodness projected by the church is not what goes on behind closed doors of the home.

I saw my Sunday School teacher mom reduced to helplessness in the face of the violence between my father and sister, and I knew that I had the power to walk into violence and break it up, because I had no fear. Both my parents spent my childhood trying to force me into the box my mom lived in, because that is the way “good girls are.” The violence forced upon our household by my sister’s mental disturbance was nothing that Mom and Dad were prepared for. What emerged from my sister’s chaos was a litany of “Poor Sherrie Lynn” and constant enabling of her needs, moods, tantrums, rages, that left me without having my developmental needs met, and yet I was the one who found myself in the middle, the one who made peace, and the one who allowed the other characters in the drama to vent on me, to project on to me, their frustration with whatever was occurring in the moment, so they need not see themselves as they were.

Yet at church, everything was fine. At church, this child or that is doing this, going somewhere, achieving stuff in their lives.

Behind closed doors, Mom would quietly say to me, the child in the middle, shaming me, “Why can’t you be more like me?” or “We thought when we adopted you that you would do what we wanted because you loved us.” Words quietly spoken that dug deeply into the heart of hurtfulness. The message I took up was, “You don’t love us, you aren’t worthy of our love, you don’t do what we want.” Words of conditioning that eventually led me to sabotage the good achievements in my life that I sought to earn through my own merits: “You’re not good enough” echoing in my ears.

So PTSD can be born of emotional violence, chaos, and uncertainty in a dysfunctional home. No, I was not brought up with alcoholics, but in my case a mentally disturbed sibling punctured the former peacefulness of family life with a similar chaos. And I was caught in the middle. When my anger happened to erupt my self-control, my father would rage at me for not being more like my mother – a weak saint. Emotional repression became my coping mechanism, but underneath the rage and anxiety roiled, and could boil over. I am a very strong person. I could cope, and it was obvious to me that Mom and Dad were not coping. But I was not nurtured well, I had to nurture the parents’ self image, I sat on a depth of rage that felt scary, and I learned in a way to be hyper-vigilant so that I could control (or try to control) that which did not feel safe.

My sister’s situation took a new turning when I was about 34 and she 32. My Angel, Guide, or Higher Self – pick your term – suggested to me one day that I call my sister. So I did. Our conversation was very strained, with long pauses and lack of response when I tried to engage her in conversation. It was like there was nobody home. Concerned, I called a college professor whose class I was taking at the time. He was a psychiatrist, and I trusted his advice. He said, “Don’t leave her alone.” By now, I was married and lived six hours away, so I called Mom and Dad. I could tell they really did not believe me, but I pushed and pushed, so they agreed to go over to see her in the morning after her husband left for work.

My sister’s husband left for work at 6am. Since my parents did not really believe me, they only arrived around 9am. But they found Sherrie Lynn halfway through a bottle of sleeping pills. The good that came of all that was that she was admitted to a Psych Ward, where she received the first diagnosis of her life and got the medication that made a difference to how she could relate to the external world. She was diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder. She later confided to me that it was the first time she no longer heard all the voices in her head.

I left my first marriage eventually, out of the mistaken belief that my anger and anxiety were somehow “his fault.” It has taken me the consequences of my own choices and decisions to perceive at last, that the shadow of anger and anxiety lived within me where I had carried them from long ago, past, and done with issues in my early life. Anger and anxiety are shadows of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and along the way I learned to meditate, to find my inner peace, and I became a Reiki healer. I stopped when I was curious as to why people weren’t healing, and I had an intuition that it was because the emotions behind a situation had not been healed. I have stepped very intimately into a relationship with Spiritual Teachers – Spirit Teachers, not human teachers of the spiritual.

Along the way I have become intimate with my own shadows. I have befriended my anger to the point where it no longer erupts outside of my control. I have befriended my anxiety to where its appearance becomes a guide for something occurring in life that I can act to change. All I need to do is to acknowledge the emotion, sit with it, ask it why it has arisen, and then take thought to define the situation and think about how I will deal with it. What is uncertain, becomes more certain, because my life experience has given me tools to work within situations I have experienced. I am still a work in progress, and I am recognizing now that having PTSD has left me with certain emotional coping skills that interfere with my inner freedom. What comes next? I will wait to find out, but everyday that I can increase my inner awareness, I hold more light and clarity in my life and the answers come, as I am ready.


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