In light of the movie theater shooting I thought I would write about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Initially we have our response to the deaths and visible injuries of the people who went to the opening night of The Dark Knight Rises. I have been brought to tears several times thinking about what the victims went through and what their families are going through now. It is just heartbreaking and so difficult to grasp why this would happen.
Then there are the invisible wounds. The wounds that are under the surface. The scars that trauma leaves behind and that alter the lives of the people who were there. Many people may have an acute stress reaction that will last only a few weeks or months. Others may develop PTSD symptoms.
I, myself, have PTSD. I wish I didn’t, but I do. I could describe to you several of my various traumatic experiences. I have had, at least, a handful. I could describe each one but then this blog post would be way too long. Let’s see, I’ll choose the time I was held up at gun point.
It’s an interesting story but I am not writing to talk about myself but to talk about how PTSD can affect you for a lifetime. Those who were at the theater in Aurora, and survived, are forever changed. They are deeply affected by trauma and it will be something that doesn’t just go away, but it may be something that they can learn to live with.
For me it started on a regular Saturday. I worked at a clinic for Heroin addicts in recovery. I loved the work and loved my clients. I enjoyed helping them, and in hindsight realize God was showing me my own addictive tendencies and how to overcome them through my case load of mom’s, dad’s, husband’s, wives, and regular people who had become addicted to a powerful drug; Heroin. This stuff was strong. It held people in it’s grip like a vice around someone’s neck. It was not something that was easy to overcome. Some of my clients were believers, they went to church they loved the Lord, but they had a vice and the vice was heroin addiction.
My own personal struggle came the day my enthusiastic helping skills came to a halt. I worked a Saturday AM. One counselor was there with the nurse every Saturday morning. This day it was me. A young man came in and asked to become a client. Since we took “walk ins” I decided to let him fill out the intake form. My gut told me something was wrong so when he went to the bathroom with his brown paper bag, I pulled the GPS alarm we had been given and set it on the desk in front of me. It looked just like a garage door opener.
Anyway, I thought something was fishy when he couldn’t tell me basic answers. He seemed distracted, like he was there for another reason. Then, suddenly he stood and lifted his shirt to show me his gun. It was big, silver, and shiny as he pulled it out of his belt line to hold it in his hand.
I took one look and knew this wasn’t a joke. Fortunately, by God's grace, this was the only weekend day ever that there was a third person in the clinic. The painter was there because we were fixing up the place. The nurse and the painter could be heard talking in the entryway while I was trying to help him get enrolled in our program. The chatter Interrupted his intimidation display as he got up to peer into the hallway to see where the painter was. It was my window of opportunity to push the "garage door" button on my GPS without being noticed. When he turned back toward me with gun in hand, I looked him in the eye and told him the police were on their way.
His response was to press the gun to my head and say to me, “I am going to kill you!” I felt the barrel on my scalp and feared for my own life. Then he turned and ran out the door as fast as he had shown up and was gone.
The police did show. They got my signal and showed up. A search started on the streets and unfortunately they never found him. My body trembled as I told my story to the officer. What took only a moment changed me forever. I was never the same.
I have PTSD. I react in extremes when I hear just a regular noise. My hear starts pumping and the adrenaline rushes sometimes when my husband just walks in the door. He say’s, “It’s just me,” but it’s too late, my heart is palpitating and my breath is short and I can’t fall back asleep for hours because my subconscious can’t seem to tell the difference between my husband and a crazy gunman. It sucks because he falls asleep happily and I am left awake to try to calm my nerves when noises in the house have triggered me to be afraid. I can control it during the day but when I am almost asleep, or asleep, my guard is down and my amygdala (a portion of the brain that stores traumatic memories) cannot seem to discern the difference.
I had a series of traumatic night terrors after this event that left me gasping for breath and waking up terrified. People with guns chasing me and no escape. It took months for the nightmares to subside. For the people who have been through this Dark Knight theater trauma it will take a long time to feel normal again. Even then, they will be traumatized and sensitive to even small noises that most people dismiss.
The symptoms of PTSD are:
Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms typically start within three months of a traumatic event. In a small number of cases, though, PTSD symptoms may not appear until years after the event.
Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms are generally grouped into three types: intrusive memories, avoidance and numbing, and increased anxiety or emotional arousal (hyper arousal).
Symptoms of intrusive memories may include:
- Flashbacks, or reliving the traumatic event for minutes or even days at a time
- Upsetting dreams about the traumatic event
Symptoms of avoidance and emotional numbing may include:
- Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Avoiding activities you once enjoyed
- Hopelessness about the future
- Memory problems
- Trouble concentrating
- Difficulty maintaining close relationships
Symptoms of anxiety and increased emotional arousal may include:
- Irritability or anger
- Overwhelming guilt or shame
- Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much
- Trouble sleeping
- Being easily startled or frightened
- Hearing or seeing things that aren't there
Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms can come and go. You may have more post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms when things are stressful in general, or when you run into reminders of what you went through. You may hear a car backfire and relive combat experiences, for instance. Or you may see a report on the news about a rape and feel overcome by memories of your own assault.
Another interesting point I learned in my psychology classes that psychopaths act a lot like reptiles do before they strike. Reptiles do the opposite of what a normal human does, their heart rate slows before a strike, they become very quiet and still. That’s why psychopaths can pass lie detector tests and why they seem “calm” when they strike. Eyewitnesses seemed surprised that the gunman seemed so “calm” or emotionless whereas a normal person would appear anxious or agitated, with increase heart rate, perspiration, and other symptoms of anxiety.
Watching the news about this increased my anxiety as it may have for many of you. As you pray for those affected pray also for their mental health and recovery from the symptoms of PTSD that can be debilitating. PTSD affects people for a long time, as does grief. We pray for those who have lost loved ones and who are reeling from the pain of sudden loss. We never know when our last breath will be and so we focus on the present and appreciate what we have now and who we are blessed to have in our lives. We may be perplexed but trust that God is good even when people are not. Free will means some people choose to be aggressive.
The important thing to do is to be supportive. Don't force people to re-tell details of the story unless they are ready. Hugs and just being there can go a long way. Counseling can be a place to feel safe talking through the pain and learning some skills to manage the symptoms of trauma. It could have been any of us and we never know when our time is up. That makes life more precious and we appreciate our loved ones even more than ever. I hope that all of those affected by this tragedy will find hope in the midst of the pain.
Blessings to you, Gretchen
"For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands." http://bible.us/2Cor5.1.NIV