PTSD and me – One year on

For those of you who have followed me through these early posts, hi and thank you. Here I will share with you what life looks like a year after my accident both in terms of what is left of the symptoms of PTSD but more importantly, what life looks like a year on. I don’t recognise it but I like how it looks. It’s lengthier than my normal posts so get a cuppa and enjoy. This post is for you.

Aside from the memory issues that come with PTSD I’m one of those people who remembers the dates things happen. Birthdays, dates of significant events, the date I met certain people, the date I helped my cat poop a 1 meter length of string. If we were friends at school, even if we have never spoken since, chances are I know the date of your birthday. For better or worse I cant help getting a bit reflective on anniversaries, even completely obscure ones. It comes with no surprise then that the 18th January is a date etched into my brain and although I have no intention of letting it become a date that hangs over me every year to make me sad, I think it’s ok to get a bit reflective. We could all use a healthy dose of our own mortality to kick us up the arse and actually act on all those Pinterest quotes about life; so I hereby declare 18th January “check in with yo’self” day.

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As a bit of an overview, on 18th January 2016 I was hit by a 44 tonne lorry on the motorway. I was pushed sideways at speed along the motorway under the front of the lorry, the driver unaware I was there.

You can see the posts already written about my accident and the subsequent recovery and diagnosis of PTSD on my home page here. You are very welcome. I left for work as normal on a Monday morning with my life mapped out the way I’d planned it but I didn’t arrive at work that day; and I haven’t been back since. In an instant life changed forever and it will never go back.

I will never not know what it was like to be looking up at the grill of that lorry and I will never not have suffered the effects of PTSD. I will always know what real and disabling fear feels like and I’ll always know what it feels like to be sure you’re about to leave your family behind.

All that said, I’m glad it happened.

Finally, a year on, I can say with honesty that despite having to live with those memories and despite still experiencing the impact of PTSD every day, I’m glad it happened. I’ll discuss here a bit about what my PTSD looks like now and the symptoms that have improved, but more importantly I will share what life looks like now and why everyone needs an occasional dramatic plot twist. Not that I’m recommending a fight with the Decepticons.

In terms of daily life then, what of PTSD am I left with a year on?

I haven’t had a full and undisturbed nights sleep yet. I either can’t get past a wall of flashbacks or hallucinations when I close my eyes to actually get to sleep or more often, I wake up in the early hours with an aching face and neck having had nightmares. They are hardly ever about lorries but are always about me or the people I love being in danger.

Unfortunately, the flashbacks are still happening. If I fully re-experience the accident the adrenaline surge is such that it still renders me exhausted and confused in the hours that follow. The most serious one recently was when I was driving in France (I’m trying to get behind the wheel as often as possible) and a set of circumstances involving a lorry and a left turn saw me completely lose control of my thoughts and put me right back in the accident to the point that I could hear myself screaming. By the time I’d come to again I’d nearly forced an oncoming car into a ditch because I’d stopped being able to think critically and had driven down a lane too narrow for both of us and didn’t think to let her pass. She shit herself, Lewis shit himself, I wanted to go home.

There are a few symptoms that I could probably put under the category of just being scared. I’m scared a lot. I get really hyper-sensitive to noise and get a massive sensory overload if I’m in a busy place with lots of people. I recently went to the cinema and sat crying because the background noise in the cinema had become as loud and clear as the volume of the movie and that kind of overload makes you feel really unsafe. Around me I could hear every crisp packet, every piece of dropped popcorn, every whispered word, every door opening and every seat shuffle and it felt like sitting in a deep hole where the walls are making all that noise. I’m told it’s all part of hyper-vigilance. The ‘fight or flight’ adrenaline-fed part of my brain is still dominant and so having all your senses in HD is a pretty effective way for your brain to keep you safe. It also means that a lot of the time I can’t bare the TV any louder than background noise if at all and it makes concentration difficult.

It is at this point I should probably apologise to my friends – you know who you are. If I’ve avoided a telephone call, a catch up lunch or a proper get together, I’m sorry.

The hyper-vigilance and hyper-sensitivity to any external stimuli has given me massive social anxiety. Lets put this in perspective. My boyfriends’ mum warned him that I am a party girl who will lead him astray. A few weeks ago we were at a quiet family meal and I lied about a reason to leave early because the sound of the waitresses shoes on the hard floor was like an army led by Michael Flatley. I couldn’t take in conversation any more and was completely overwhelmed. I hardly drink alcohol, and caffeine in fizzy drinks can be enough to make me become completely unreasonable. Sometimes it doesn’t happen quite so bad, sometimes it does. Once my brain can determine what’s safe from what isn’t again, I’ll buy you a drink for your patience. For now though, just know that I love you and that it’s not personal. Or forever.

Being scared is probably the symptom with the least technical term but the most impact.

A year ago I was not scared of anything. I threw myself out of a plane without even the remotest sense of fear. I was buzzing with excitement and couldn’t see why my sister would not speak to me that day until it was over. Danger just didn’t register as something to be scared of. Fast forward to the great blizzard of 2017 (1cm of snow, anyone?) and I was frozen with fear sitting in the passenger seat of the van terrified of skidding on the ice. I get scared of slates blowing off roofs on windy days and killing me, I get scared that tall pieces of furniture will fall over and squash me and I’ve been too scared to get back on my roller skates. I was recently faced with my biggest challenge on the roads so far (still as a passenger) with a drive to Portsmouth ahead of a trip to France. Despite meaning a 7 hour journey we decided not to use motorways and we left a day early so we could make as many stops as I needed but by the time we were in Tesco getting some snacks for the trip I was having a public meltdown and couldn’t think straight. I was starting an unnecessary argument in the car park and couldn’t process my environment any more. By the time we got home my legs were shaking and I was crying so hard Lewis decided we weren’t going, unable to let me to go through it for the sake of a holiday. I was angry and dug my heels in determined to go so he made the room quiet and dark and lay with me for over an hour until it had passed. That kind of fear puts you in quite a child like state, however the technique worked and we had a fun drive and a great time.

I’m going to put this out there – I get confused. About even the simplest of things. Some days I can understand the theory of relativity (that’s not true, but you get the idea) and some days I put my shoes on before my socks and spend a minute wondering why my feet feel weird. My ability to understand the world is largely dependent on how much adrenaline has coursed through my body that day so if it’s been a day of flashbacks and other things that put me in a state of fear, don’t expect me to be able to figure out that the water goes in the pan before the spaghetti.

With this comes a numbness to my left side. Paralysis sometimes. I’m reliably informed by my brain doctor that because the lorry hit on my left side, the numbness and paralysis of my left arm that happens after an adrenaline rush is all part of the multi-sensory nature of flashbacks.

As a final point, The tension that comes with these symptoms seems to play out in my neck and head. I had a number of tears in the muscles in my back and neck that took a long time to heal because I spent all my time jumping out of my skin in the first few months so although these have now healed, I get tension knots in my neck and the base of my skull. These can cause headaches so severe it affects my vision and renders me bed bound. The pain in my back can return with flashbacks as part of re-experiencing through all my senses and if there is something related to the accident coming up, such as when I had my first appointment with my brain doctor, my neck can completely seize up for days at a time only to remedy itself the instant it’s over. Someone drove into the back of the van while we were parked recently and although the severity of the flashback it caused means I don’t remember it in any great detail, I’m told I was screaming with my head in my hands followed by saying my back hurt. I remember being unable to get out of the van and walk without assistance because of the pain in my back but a few hours later once the adrenaline had worn off the pain had completely gone. It hurt, but it wasn’t real.

Now on to the good bit about reflection – considering what has improved. The shortest answer is everything, and it continues to do so every day.

Life with PTSD looks nothing like it did in the months immediately following the accident and a year on I’m more than half way there. I very rarely have non-triggered flashbacks any more, meaning that without a set of circumstances that are similar such as the sound of an air-brake or perhaps tyre squeal or other trigger, they rarely happen. This means most of the time I’m back in control of my actions which has been a massive breakthrough. The hallucinations aren’t daily and when they do occur I can usually dismiss them and live alongside them. I can now reason that it’s unlikely there’s a lion trying to get me and that no one is re-making Jumanji in my garden. As I become less scared of daily occurrences there is less need for my brain to process this fear into something tangible, so they are less frequent.

The most significant improvement for me however is in my ability to think and learn.

Until recently because of the constant adrenaline surges keeping part of my brain swollen, I couldn’t retain any information. As a passenger in the van I would be told where we are going and I would forget almost instantly. After a few minutes wondering where we are having not recognised anything I would ask again, and again a few minutes later. Eventually I’d know I’d asked and forgotten numerous times and would just wait and see. I couldn’t read anything because I couldn’t remember the information in the previous line and simple things like opening and reading my mail left me completely overwhelmed. I would forget how to tie my shoelaces and I couldn’t buy food from the supermarket on my own because I couldn’t work out what else was needed for a particular dish. I would pick up the chicken to make a curry and not be able to work out that you eat curry with rice, so I’d get frustrated and leave empty handed. Our local takeaway was delighted. As the swelling subsides and the cognitive part of my brain starts to become more dominant again my ability to function properly and consistently has had a massive impact on my outlook and my confidence and it has made me believe that life will go back to normal.

Better than that, it has gone from normal to extraordinary. Let me explain.

My intention with this blog has been to outline my experience with PTSD but in a way that details how that actually looks in real life rather than just a list of symptoms. In this post I also want to focus on something equally important.

We all have moments in our lives, usually when we hear of a loved one getting sick or passing away where we are reminded of how precious life is. People bleat on about how you should live each day as if it were your last and other well meaning lip service, before going back to the lives they are comfortable in.

I don’t belong to that camp. If I lived each day as if it were my last I’d be obese and in jail. Here’s my insight.

I lived my life in control of absolutely everything. Everything I owned I had bought myself, from my house and car to the jewellery I wore. My career had been carefully carved and nurtured and it was important to me to get myself to position where I was financially secure, which I had achieved. I had never put my well being and happiness in anyone else hands and as a result I was protective of how hard I had worked in difficult circumstances and had every intention on capitalising on that and building an empire. By myself.

I worked in an industry I loved so it had never crossed my mind that through striving for freedom I had built my own walls. I had picked a path and I loved it, so I had forgotten that there was other things I love too. I had realised that I thrive in stressful situations so had always taken on high-pressure jobs but I had missed the fact that I thrive in un-stressful environments as well. Like most people I lived for my days off and ‘filled’ them by spending money on entertainment. I paid my bills, paid my taxes, and felt free to do what I wanted.

When I came to draw on some of that investment I was faced with a harsh reality. I was in a position where I needed some time and money to get through a difficult few months but the system I had lived within did not provide me with that. I have no intention of getting political here, that’s not what this is about, but it became clear pretty quick that the freedom I had felt living in our governed society was constructed by people who benefit from the lifestyle we all lead. It’s important to those same people that we feel having a mortgage, a new car every 3 years, an annual foreign holiday (or even 2 if you’re flush), a conservatory, a retro Smeg fridge, a gym membership and a vegetable spiraliser means we’re comfortable financially and that our happiness and feelings of security are dependant on this.

It is important to the benefactors of society that we work enough hours so as to be too tired to do much at the end of the day, perhaps even too tired to cook so you eat out, but energised enough to crack on at work again the next day. The constructed confines of the working week mean come the weekend, we go ‘balls to the wall’. We spend money. Lots of it. On a rainy day we might even spend 2 weeks wages on a new TV for something to do in this precious window of time. We’re then left feeling pretty smug that we have achieved a position whereby we can do whatever we want. On Monday we go back to work to make sure we can continue to be free to do whatever we want.

So my insight is this. It is not for any one else to tell you how to live your life. Not me, not well meaning cliche reciters, not the system you live within. As long as you’re not hurting anybody – make sure it’s your life you’re living. The one you would choose for yourself again and again. One that if you showed a teenage you a video clip of your average week (ok month, we’re being realistic here) you would be excited to grow up. If you are not in paid employment but filling your time doing what you can to make you and your family happy, don’t be concerned with a system that has to demonise you to survive.

If you’ve got issues causing you worry then remember that you have a 100% record of getting through bad days and every problem or bad feeling you have ever had has come and gone.

Be aware of what’s holding you back and open your eyes to alternatives. Give your best years to yourself and the people you love, not to the quest of an extra days holiday for length of service and a hamper the day you retire. The world will still spin if you decide to get off.

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Here we are at the business end – a year after a near fatal accident and the subsequent diagnosis of near madness (PC brigade need not respond) what does life look like now?

Awesome. Unrecognisable but really awesome. I lost my job so stopped being able to pay certain bills. They are big companies and their shareholders are probably cheating on their wives in their 8th home in Barbados – they can wait for my money. I’ve spent a lot of time asleep but in between I’m taking it on! My back has recovered enough for me to take on physical activities again so I’ve been up Snowdon, walked around Ingleton in the rain and put my hiking boots to good use in various other beautiful landscapes.

Thanks to booking our 2016 holidays in 2015 I’ve been to Italy, Ireland and France twice.

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My boyfriend and I have started the conversion of a dirty old builders van into a camper van with the intention of downing tools and travelling Europe as soon as I’m well enough.

van-conversion-for-blog

I have attended 5 business courses and I’m about to take on a 6th. A far cry from not being able to tie my own shoelaces or put the steps together to cook a meal. I have developed this blog with absolutely no prior blogging or website building experience and I am building a second travel blog site to support our future plans. I have taken on and developed the tattoo studios’ Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest which are all starting to gain momentum, as well as managing the diary and most customer communication. I have set up a shop on Etsy for Lewis’s artwork and photography and built a separate gallery website under new branding. I have started writing short stories for children again and tomorrow I will be starting lessons in Italian. I am part way through planning every stop on our year long trip around Europe and I am busy writing guest posts for other travel sites. I’m not earning a wage but I have been given a chance to live an alternative life and I’m taking it.

So what’s to come? I’m currently having weekly sessions with my brain doctor who carries out something called EMDR which, without getting boringly technical, re-wires the problems with how my brain is processing information. This should see off PTSD or certainly get it to the stage where time and coping strategies will do the rest. Following that we’re off! Off to live in a tiny tin can without restrictions to see the world. I’m learning how to use my love of writing to help fund it and I’ll spend my days with my favourite man human seeing stuff. Seeing stuff and writing about it, being there while he takes photographs of it, and sunning myself while he is drawing. My lack of talent in that area allows for adequate lounging. I’ll continue to run this blog and develop the travel blog to a professional standard in the hope of helping make travel our life for as long as possible. And yours, if you fancy it.

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As for what comes after that, I don’t know; and I’m ok with that. In fact, I’m more than ok with that. I’m relieved. Being forced into a position where I wasn’t in control of even my actions never mind my life has made me let go. I no longer feel the need to build my forever and stick to it, or be part of that constructed ideal and although I’ll always strive to be the best I can, I’ll always remain mindful of why I’m doing what I’m doing in terms of lifestyle. Probably on my annual “check in with yo’self” day. You’re welcome to join me.

“When nothing is certain everything is possible.”

4 thoughts on “PTSD and me – One year on

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