- Janyne McConnaughey, PhD
Trauma and PTSD: My Story of Hope
This month has been designated as PTSD Awareness Month. PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is most often connected to those affected as a result of military service—and rightly so. Our understanding of the effects of trauma has, in large part, grown out of our nation’s desire to help those who experienced trauma as a result of their service to our country. I am so grateful we are finding ways to help—my healing was a residual result of this effort.
I live in a military town. We have multiple bases representing two branches of the military. PTSD is very real to us. For this reason, and those described above, it was natural to think of PTSD being a primarily military problem—until I met my own trauma and PTSD symptoms face to face. One of the major causes of PTSD is sexual abuse. Even a very bad car accident can cause PTSD. It is caused by trauma of all kinds.
Part of my therapy journey involved the healing from one tragic day at the age of twenty-three. This story can be found within my essay at the Uncontrolling Love of God website and will be published in a collection of essays later this summer or fall. It was a repressed memory of almost dying on a mountain road, but the trauma was lived out in many forms during my lifetime—most specifically in my pathological fear of mountain roads. This was very inconvenient since I am a born explorer and live at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.
During my healing process, I came across a book, The Posttraumatic Self: Restoring Meaning and Wholeness to Personality that would prove instrumental in understanding how trauma had affected me. I devoured the book and made comments on almost every single page—all 450 plus pages. In the chapter, The Posttraumatic Self, John P. Wilson explains the difference between normally encoded memories and the processes involved in traumatic memories. The result in my case was living with PTSD symptoms. “The hallmark feature of PTSD as a psychiatric illness is traumatic memory and distressing forms of reliving, re-experiencing, or reenacting what happened in a traumatic situation” (22).
When I read the description of PTSD, I wrote at the top of the page, “Classic PTSD—walking behind Scott down the mountain, screaming ‘I didn’t die’ after our wreck in California, and my accident in 2003 when the sun got in my eyes and I drove into an intersection (and then thought my cell phone was a calculator because I was reliving trauma which occurred in 1976).” As my repressed story continued to unfold, I began to understand how my life was affected by PTSD way beyond my misconception of it as only resulting from military trauma.
The following is a section from my upcoming book in which I describe a PTSD reenactment that occurred during the second year of therapy. We at first thought this episode was a dissociative shift, but once the experience of having my car skid out on the mountain road surfaced it was clearly a reenactment (which I repeated again at Multnomah Falls a year later). The man who talked me back from the edge of the cliff also convinced me to drive down the mountain by following his car—but I eventually passed him and wondered why he was going so slow. I drove home and only remembering pieces of what happened that day until it surfaced during therapy.
The pieces of my life were finally beginning to make sense. My seemingly random reactions to so many things did have causes. I didn’t become a lover of mountain roads like my therapist, who appeared to be part mountain goat, but my pathological fear, which kept me from enjoying the mountains, was almost completely gone.
The most interesting piece connected to the cliff had occurred when Scott and I hiked up the side of a mountain in Scottsdale the previous fall. It didn’t make sense at the time; but after processing the cliff, it was clearly a PTSD reenactment.
It was a lovely fall day in the desert, and we took the morning to go on a hiking trail. Climbing the rocky path, I sensed going up was going to be much easier than coming back down.
Sure enough. We reached a stopping point, marveled at the desert view, took pictures and turned to go back down. I started shaking and had to sit on a rock.
“Give me a minute, it appears to be trauma releasing.”
This problem was surprising since so much healing had taken place.
Gathering up courage to walk, I said, “What we have to do is you walk in front of me and I will follow you. Go slowly.”
And we were off . . . slowly, very slowly. We kept ‘pulling over’ to allow others to pass—as my body shook uncontrollably. Then a woman passed me—almost running down the mountain. She was about my age and extremely agile and confident.
I thought, “That is me! What am I doing creeping down this hill?”
Scott was shocked as I took off around him and began to run down the rocky path. He caught up with me at the bottom of the hill.
“What was that?” he asked. “Did you shift?”
“I don’t think so, but it would appear I did.” It was so confusing.
Almost a year later, the memory of the cliff surfaced and following the man down the hill fit on top of this strange episode like a fitted sheet.
This was not the only reenactment caused by the ways my body processed the trauma in my life—it was simply the most obvious. It was a reminder to me that behavior has its roots in experiences. In this case, it was a young adult experience, but what led me to the mountain road was embedded in childhood trauma. Our experiences remain in our very being and continue to affect us unless healed.
My healing, like many who experienced military-related trauma, was primarily through EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), an evidenced-based therapy approved for Veterans. The process of EMDR takes the power out of the memory by releasing it so it can be understood by the adult self. At the end of the therapy session, I knew what had happened, but it had become a processed memory. I never imagined I could be free from the symptoms that had caused sometimes debilitating distress my entire life. I did find healing for PTSD through therapy and I am on a mission to tell others there is hope!
Note: As a part of PTSD Awareness Month, the following website is a valuable resource!
PTSD: National Center for PTSD