Keeping it together – Guest Blog

Keeping it together - Guest Blog

“You wake up one morning wanting to hide from the world. Before long you wake up every day a prisoner to anxiety and fear.” This guest blog from Kim Price, author of the book ‘Teeth, Hair &Tits – A story of resilience and PTSD’ talks about what PTSD really feels like, what her coping mechanisms were for years, and how she finally found help.

“In 2005 I began suffering PTSD after my son had several bad asthma attacks; attacks that put him in intensive care on life support; he had respiratory and cardiac arrests when these terrible asthma attacks struck.  It was these repeated traumatic experiences that triggered PTSD as my brain struggled to process the horrific memories. The first time I witnessed my son nearly die from an asthma attack was in 2001; he was four and at the time we were told he had suffered incipient respiratory failure. Basically, his lungs were unable to do their job and he was finding it extremely hard to breath. Potentially he could have died, but he didn’t, thanks to the medical team. The event was a shock, but we all recovered reasonably quickly following the incident, which happened on the last day of our holiday on Guernsey. The second time he had a near fatal asthma attack he was eight; this time things were more dramatic and horrific than the earlier one. This second time he had a cardiac arrest, and I watched a crash team do CPR to get him back. We were fortunate to be in hospital at the time and once the crash team had resuscitated my son the plan was to move him from the children’s ward to intensive care. On the way to intensive care, he had a respiratory arrest on the trolley as we sped down the long cream hospital corridor in the bowels of a major hospital. There was much more to this event than I can do justice to in this blog but suffice to say it was this second event in 2005 that triggered my PTSD.

Over the next 10 years years as my son had more life-threatening asthma attacks, and our visits to PICU became many, I began to have a number of different flashbacks: always reflecting the critical moments before, during and after the crashes. The sights, sounds, and smells were vivid and the atmosphere of my fear and panic tangible. I never had a voice in my flashbacks. I heard other sounds, medical machines, body monitors, doctors and nurses’ voices. My mouth would open but no sound came out. I was struck dumb with fear. It was like an out of body experience, I was there and yet not there, I was part of the pain, but also an observer. The flashbacks came at such random moments: when I was cooking dinner, reading a book, having fun at the theatre, out for a meal, or in a meeting at work. Each time I was left shaken and disturbed, it was an effort to conceal my distress. The flashbacks came at a rate of two or three a day to two or three a month; I never knew or worked out what triggered them. I learnt to breathe through them and let them pass.

My son was hospitalised nearly every six weeks in 2005 (my annus horribilis) and over the next ten years these life-threatening and serious asthma attacks turned our lives upside down.

I had never felt so:

Frightened

Anxious

Numb

Over the ten years that my youngest was going in and out of hospital with these life-threatening asthma attacks I learnt to live with the flashbacks, nightmares and the compartmentalising of the pain, anxiety, and fear. I was super twitchy, living in a constant red alert state, and I was easily bothered by noise and smells. I should have sought more help at the time, but I didn’t recognise that I had a long-term problem. Besides, I’d other more pressing things to deal with, including looking after my son, caring for my daughter (who had chronic health problems too), helping both children in the aftermath of each event, and running my own business. I was the main wage earner and paying the mortgage was dependant on my income. I had to get back to work quickly after each event; no time to stop, no time to deal with my feelings, no time to heal. I thought if I kept going, the PTSD would eventually pass, and time would do the mending. Big mistake. But then as we all know, hindsight’s a wonderful thing.

Wind forward to 2019 and the PTSD is out of its box again. In the intervening years much had happened; my daughter had nearly died whilst volunteering in Ghana, and returned to the UK with seizures that were eventually diagnosed as epilepsy; my mum had a bad fall just before Christmas and following surgery died in January of 2018; my husband nearly popped his clogs in the summer of 2017 with what was quickly, thanks to me dragging him to the doctor, diagnosed as stage 4 kidney disease. Good things had come to pass too. My daughter had graduated with a First-Class Honours degree from a good London university despite crippling health issues. My son had turned out fit and well, eventually passing his driving test on the 6th attempt, got a job and gone to university. My husband and I had separated.

I know the PTSD raised its’ head with a vengeance because I’d not dealt with it first time around. I’d been ignoring the pain and negative emotions, burying them, and just moving on to cope with life. I’d been doing this for so long, just surviving. Just. Second time around the PTSD was far worse.

I felt:

scared,

terrified,

vulnerable,

torn,

apprehensive,

angry,

on edge,

guilty,

a failure,

exhausted,

exposed

and sad, so sad. 

The difference between my initial bout of PTSD and my more recent trouble was the intensity to which it disabled me from doing my job and living my life. First time around I managed to soldier on. The obvious PTSD symptoms of flashbacks and nightmares tended to be acute, troubling me in and around the asthma attacks, lasting for six to eight weeks at most. Second time around the symptoms were more troublesome, chronic, and truly disabling; I could not cope. Second time around it took eight months before I realised PTSD was the issue.

I started 2019 waking up scared. I feel anxious as soon as I open my eyes. I’m nervous for no reason. I feel like disaster is about to strike. I feel as if there is doom pending around the corner. I feel sad deep in my bones. I want to hide. I’m awash with negative emotions. I’m overwhelmed by the strength of these feelings. I’ve never known anything like this before. I’m a born optimist, I’m irritatingly positive, I always find a way to smile and see the sun. I’m not enjoying things. As February goes by, I know I’m struggling but I decide the best thing to do is to keep going. I tell myself this is a phase, a natural response to the fact that in the prior six months my husband and I had separated.  Every morning I make myself get up, get out of bed; I wash and shower, make sure I look good: make up on, hair done, flattering clothes, keep smiling. My mantra:

Keep smiling.

Keep going.

Block the negative stuff out.

Don’t feel it.

Don’t give in.

Keep busy.

Keep it out.

Keep smiling.

As February goes on it’s getting harder and harder to block the negative stuff out.  At work I start to panic about talking to colleagues and chairing meetings. I cannot make decisions quickly; I worry about any decisions I do have to make. I’m confused; for over thirty years I’ve been in the front line of the business in which I had worked and never been muddled or nervous I can’t think clearly. I’m apprehensive of people. The apprehension is a worry in itself. This is not me. This is so not me.

I doubt my competence.

I cannot think clearly.

 I find myself hiding in the toilets. 

I’m petrified of talking to clients.

When the phone rings I physically jump.

I push on, keep going.

I recite my mantra.

That February I did a two-week business development trip to the USA with a colleague. I don’t want to get on the plane and do two weeks on the road, talking to clients, selling, consulting, solving problems, discussing new ideas, securing business, and doing my job. I tried to think of any excuse not to get on the plane.

I can’t do it.

I’m so scared.

Not sure exactly what I’m scared of

I’m drowning in fear.

I got on the plane.

I did all that was required of me.

I did my job.

To the outside world, colleagues, and clients I was the usual me. During those two weeks I hid so often in the toilet, thinking of any reason not to walk into the next meeting. I felt vulnerable; I thought people could see through me and know I was weak; see I was scared. I recited my mantra over and over to get through each day. On the flight home I confided in my colleague; I explained what I’d been feeling and how this impacted on my behaviour; to my surprise my colleague had no idea I’d been through this turmoil. At least my mantra was helping, or so I thought at the time. Over the next six months I lived by my mantra. I got up and performed my duties. I worked hard at being me. I worked hard to keep smiling. I started walking more on my days off. I hoped to march away the fear and anxiety, to drive the impending doom away with every footstep. At work I drove myself harder. After a driving hard spell, I’d feel exhausted and could not contain the negative emotions no matter how hard I tried. I needed to escape before I burst and so would take time off at short notice. I was not aware at the time I was swinging between over-trying and hiding away. I’d have spells of pushing myself extra hard at work, starting earlier, finishing later, and taking on more; forcing things through aggressively; not leaving anything on the backburner, getting so much done. I was like a dynamo for brief periods and then the doubt and fear would snuff all the drive out and I’d be immobilised by the fear. Once I hit a bad spell, I’d take a day or two off work, so I could hide away. This pattern went on throughout the spring and summer. Hiding how I truly felt was exhausting; physically and mentally. I ached with the burden of hiding the pain and fear. I was physically and mentally drained. I was so tired. I felt like an old dishcloth, all wrung out. I feel I’m going mad. I’m so tired of trying to keep sane; my head hurts with the thoughts, images and feelings bouncing around my skull. I get muddled so easily. I can’t think straight some days. I can’t make simple decisions. My head spins and spins with thoughts, sometimes I think I’m okay, I am getting better, then the next minute I’m pushing down the bad stuff. I work so hard at blocking the bad stuff out, on thinking good thoughts only. Thinking, too much thinking, pushing thoughts away. The bouts of numbness, feeling flat and sad make me feel weirdly safe with the lack of the high intensity emotion. Weird, makes me think I’m mad, cracking up big time. Bring on the white coats.

What do I do? I make myself think rationally, but the negative feelings are crippling, they’re disabling me.

 I can’t think.

I can’t think.

I can’t think

 I try to convince myself that my thoughts are not facts. Most days I can’t make the simplest of decisions, never mind anything important or complex. When my son was growing up, I read, and reread, watched, and re-watched, R. R. Tolkien’s epic stories. I felt like Bilbo-Baggins when he tells Gandalf, in A Long-expected Party, The Fellowship of the Ring, ‘Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something.’

We hear so much encouraging conversation today about ‘asking for help’ for mental health issues. Asking for help is a critical step; you can’t get free of mental illness alone. You can’t think or breath problems away, you can’t just forget: it requires professional help. In my head I hear the sayings, ‘If you don’t ask then you don’t get’, ‘One can’t read minds’, ‘Better out than in’, ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ and ‘Keeping it bottled up does no good’. These sayings are well intended and are based on common sense, and for those of us on the extroverted end of the personality spectrum, this is advice we often take; we talk, we open up, we get it out. In doing so we often feel much better. But I know many people who don’t feel the need to talk to solve problems, and that’s fine most of the time. When you feel bad and the negative feelings start to impact on your well-being and ability to function, I believe not being able to talk is a handicap. Not being able to define, describe or relate mental issues, limits and often prevents people from getting the help they need and deserve. When you feel bad inside, even the most extrovert of us can clam up, retreat, and close off the communications channels. I am by nature an extrovert, but even I struggled to verbalise the feelings that came with PTSD. For a long time, I was hiding the pain, I was ashamed of my feelings, I was scared of my emotions; and worst of all, I tried to dismiss them, ignore them, and it was this that led to problems beyond PTSD. Bottling up led to additional problems in my gut and mouth. When I did manage to talk, I got the right diagnosis, the help I needed and in time, with much work, my mojo back.  To get help for mental illness, someone has to understand you and nine times out of ten this is achieved by someone listening. For that to happen someone else has to talk.

When my PTSD was at its worst, I used writing to help. Writing helped me come unstuck from the disabling emotional glue of PTSD. I wrote first and foremost, to heal myself. Later I published my scribbles as a book, to give words to those struggling to talk to those seeking help for what they think may be PTSD in themselves or a loved one, and to give encouragement to those already on the path to getting free of PTSD. Words are essential to human communication; my story may provide someone with the words they are looking for; words of honesty, comfort, solidarity, and humour. I want to be the catalyst for action, I want to inspire people to get help, and not accept living with the disabling symptoms associated with PTSD or other related mental health conditions. The good news is that PTSD can be successfully treated, even when it develops many years after a traumatic event. I bear witness to that fact.

Getting free of the strangle hold PTSD had on me took a few years, and some of the latter stages of my recovery were during the Covid pandemic, a nightmare of its own.  I had given up working in the summer of 2020 to focus on getting better, however the first critical step in my recovery was diagnosis. It’s important to get the right diagnosis if you want to be successful in managing, relieving, or curing any illness. It was this rational that fuelled my belief that I was not suffering from depression in 2019. Getting the right label, the right diagnosis was the only way I was going to get the right help. When I first spoke to a therapist in late 2019, I was adamant – ‘I do not have depression’. When I reflect it sounds arrogant and ignorant. However, I admitted to her I had symptoms that included depression and anxiety, but also a hell of a lot more negative and disabling emotions. The dark new emotions for me included fear, anger, pain, misery, hopelessness, sadness, and indecision. I had no vision for the future, and I was scared, truly scared. The ingredients to my recovery included CBT, EMDR, medication, support of family and friends, good exercise and diet, and writing.

I have a way of dealing with dilemmas that usually works. Part of my coping is to remind myself of what I have, and how lucky I am that things aren’t worse. When my good friend and I were reminiscing about the impact of her breast cancer and my malignant melanoma on our lives, it prompted me to say to her, ‘at least I still have my own teeth, my own hair and my own tits, which is more than you can say’. The grass was greener on my side. I was lucky. That’s how I saw it. My glass is always half full. And so, when it came to giving a title to my book, it seemed natural to call it ‘Teeth, Hair &Tits – A story of resilience and PTSD’.

I was tempted to give my book a different title and I did road test over 86 different options, some of which I mention in the last section of my book. I also considered publishing under a pen name and for this I invented 23 nom de plumes. In the end I know the book had to be authentic and for that I knew I had to publish under my own name and with a title that would not only draw people in out of curiosity but reflect the way I use humour and words to get through life. I had no intention of shocking or offending and it is funny to see my book come up in searches alongside hair removal cream, denture cleaner and support bras. My book, although self-published is available to order from all outlets worldwide and readily available on Amazon as Kindle and paperback

Getting better was hard work and the rewards are that I am no longer disabled by PTSD, and I now have the skills to deal with anxiety, fear, and depression, and I look forward to life with a capital L.

Sources

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