Monday, February 04, 2019

What Happens When You Tell People You Have PTSD?

There's lots of encouragements these days to be open about mental health problems. but what happens when you're open? I think it varies on who your friends are and how clued up they are. In order to help other sufferers and their friends, here's my experience. I tried sharing my PTSD symptoms with friends and pastors over a period of around 20 years, and got a variety of responses I wasn't ready for. Hopefully these responses will help get you ready :)

1. Puzzlement. For years I tried explaining my PTSD symptoms to a few people (even seasoned pastors), but no one seemed to get what was going on with me. It meant that I almost gave up trying to explain it or get help for it. But don't give up, ask God to help you find someone who can help you.

2. Rebuke. After sharing some of my childhood abuse for the first time ever, a lay counsellor told me that Jesus would want me to repent of having a tough exterior that deters abusers. I still had tears in my eyes, and was taken aback that the first response to my story, was a rebuke. Maybe that's happened to you, but don't give up looking for help, there are better counsellors out there. And if someone shares their abuse story with you, start by telling them how sorry you are that this happened to them.

3. Ridicule. One pastor friend laughed at me, and told me I didn't have PTSD. Unless they're a psychologist, ignore their diagnosis!

4. Suspicion. Once I told some people I had PTSD, they then viewed me with suspicion. Even if they'd trusted me for years (whilst I had those symptoms and demonstrated sound judgment), the mention of PTSD caused distrust. Perhaps they confused hyper-vigilance (a PTSD symptom) with paranoia (not a PTSD symptom). Being treated this way can gaslight you and make you wonder if you're even worse off than you thought. So make sure your health professional assesses you, rather than your friends whose understanding of PTSD might come from either the movies or a quick google search. Conversely, if a friend tells you they've got PTSD, assure them that this is a normal response to trauma, and that they are not falling apart.

5. Abandonment. Some people just ignored me when I told them. Its painful when you've opened yourself up like that, but don't let that stop you from seeking out help, coz it'll be worth it in the end. Bear in mind as well that God will never abandon you, and that Jesus knows what its like to be abandoned.

6. Encouragement. A couple of people said they were glad I'd got a diagnosis and was getting support. That was encouraging! I think that these days, there's more awareness, so you'll probably get even more of this than I did.

7. Safety. When i found a professional counsellor, they first said, 'we need to get you feeling safe before we can do counselling' and then they made accommodation arrangements so that this was so. This also meant avoiding contact with the people who did some of the unhelpful responses above that didn't make me feel safe. If a friend tells you they've got PTSD, help them get and feel safe. Now is not the time to practise your lay-counselling skills on them - now is the time to get them safe!

8. Space. Some people gave me the space I requested because they knew I needed to focus on counselling. My amazing wife was key in making sure this happened. In one instance this even involved her trying to stop someone getting on my case about something, because it would be too much for me. If you can, get someone to help create space for you. If you've got a friend having counselling that stirs up deep pain from the past - hold back from telling them all their character faults - you've got the rest of your life to correct them, it doesn't have to happen during the most vulnerable season of their life :)

9. Helpful Counselling. A Christian psychologist diagnosed me and then gave me amazingly helpful counselling. In a few months, they helped me get through something I'd tried most of my life to deal with but didn't know how. They did it without the puzzlement, rebuke, ridicule or suspicion. They truly acted like Jesus to me, who does not crush a bruised reed (Is 42:3). It was life-changing, and so worth it.

Interestingly, my counsellor told me to not tell more than 5 people that I had PTSD symptoms and was having counselling. This was for 2 reasons: 1) People have different understandings of PTSD, so you don't know what you're really communicating to them (too many people think of movies they've seen, or how the media associates PTSD with killers on the rampage). 2) It gets exhausting to have to keep updating a large number of people about how you're doing when you're going through painful counselling sessions. I also had an unrelated potential legal battle, and the symptoms might have been used against me - so it was best to keep it private. I didn't properly take the advice however, and told more people, thinking that openness was the way forward. In the process, however I've learned that we need to be careful about who we open up to when we're vulnerable. I'm glad I opened up to some people, but wish I'd kept the circle a bit smaller. Don't throw your pearls before swine when you have PTSD, you might be too vulnerable to take the trampling (Matt 7:6).