When PTSD is actually a blessing
By Jo Hassan
No one ever goes looking for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) yet, according to Phoenix Australia – Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health, 15 million Australians have experienced a traumatic event. That may be a natural disaster or an accident. It might be that your day to day work experiences mean you are more likely to be exposed to trauma, as is the case for example with first responders and military personnel. The reality is that the causes of PTSD are much broader. And that means that literally any workplace could have employees living with PTSD at any time. In some cases they may not even have had it diagnosed yet.
In my case, I experienced PTSD after the birth of my son. It wasn’t that the birth itself was particularly traumatic, despite being a middle of the night ‘emergency’. More that once the “Baby Blues” had set in to become Post Natal Depression (PND), I had traumatic flashbacks to a previous parenting experience nine years previously involving my step-daughter. She was literally deposited on my doorstep with a suitcase by her mother who then returned to the other side of the world. It was a tumultuous time for everyone and one that I gave my heart and soul to. I did my absolute best at mothering her, despite often feeling so unsafe in my own home that I deferred having my own baby whilst she lived with us.
I was on maternity leave from a job working for an IT company so once diagnosed I had a few months to get myself better. Prescription anti-depressants were immediately prescribed by my general practitioner along with a referral to a psychiatrist. It’s important to mention that as soon as I had self-diagnosed the PND (from a parenting book as we didn’t have Google back then) I felt a sense of relief. I had been struggling in secretive silence, faking everything being “fine” with my family and friends, and once I knew that was actually sick I allowed myself to try to relax and get better. I wasn’t sick like a broken arm or the measles or mumps which were more visible issues I experienced at other times in my life, but sick nevertheless and I needed time to recover.
It took ages though and lots of hard work. Longer than the nine months maternity leave I had. And even when I thought I was better, there were relapses. Each relapse though took me back to a place not as bad, and the recovery was quicker than the time before. I was called the “Queen of Resilience” by many in my professional support team. I returned to work part-time and initially no one needed to know about my mental state.
As well as personal appointments with my psychiatrist, I went to group Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) sessions for a few months at a hospital. I also had acupuncture and grew to enjoy the counselling sessions I had with the acupuncturist. He was a big fan of the Psychiatrist and Psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung and I became fascinated with this reading too: trying to understand what was going on with my body from the inside out.
Exercise, journaling, meditation, massages, and being mindful of my diet all played an important part in my recovery and have really stayed with me ever since. As has setting goals. I have always been one to do that but it became even more important at that time.
The Oxford Dictionary says ‘resilience’ means “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, toughness” or “the ability of a substance of object to spring back into shape, elasticity”. Some personality profiling systems acknowledge that some people are born with a greater capacity to do this, and for others it is a learned skill.
In my experience making a decision to fully recover and act “as if” has been fundamental. I make a conscious effort every day to look for the positives, smile and “be happy anyway”. I wear hot pink because that makes me happy too. Not that everyone needs to wear pink, but finding something that makes them happy is really important. It could be wearing brown or walking their dog. It could be listening to happy music. There were many times when I sang Bob Marley’s “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” out loud!
I practice gratitude regularly too and live by the words “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become” from Carl Jung. Post PTSD life will always be different and many would say, perhaps remarkably, because of new habits and insights, that it is actually better than before. Not that I could possibly have imagined that myself though! Finally, thankfully, my relationship with my step-daughter is now terrific.
Jo Hassan is an author, speaker and coach specialising in resilience.