August 14, 2018

PTSD: What It's Like to Live With Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (a guest post)

PTSD word cloud with runner

I write about mental health/illness pretty frequently, because it's been so prominent in my life. However, the only issues I deal with firsthand are bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and binge eating disorder. There are lots of other disorders out there, and so many people are dealing with them every day. PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is one of them. It is usually attributed to war veterans (for a very valid reason), but PTSD can affect a wide diversity of people.

This guest post is by Kerry, who shares her story regarding PTSD. I was grateful to read it, because it's not something that is easy to ask questions about. I fear that asking questions could be triggering, so I honestly don't know much about PTSD. This post was very eye-opening for me, and hopefully it will be for others, too!



The only thing I remember from the first time I had a panic attack was the knowledge that at some point in the future I was going to die. My boyfriend at the time (now my husband) was going to die. My parents, my brother, my friends, my dogs, my horse. All of them were going to die and there’s nothing I can do about it. Even worse, there was nothing I could do to make myself stop thinking about it.

Is it rational to be afraid of dying? Of course it is. Were those thoughts rational? Definitely not. And they were not stopping.

The panic attacks kept coming, usually at least once a day but sometimes more than that. I remember sobbing uncontrollably and trying to explain to my boyfriend why I was crying, and all he could do was hold me and let me cry. I broke down one night in the car on my way to the barn thinking about how my horse was doing to die. Nothing I did was making the thoughts stop.

After a few months my mom suggested that I go talk to our family doctor about the panic attacks. She asked me a bunch of questions about what was happening in my life, including what I was doing for work and how things were going in my family. Nothing immediately stuck out until she asked me whether anything unusual had been happening earlier in the year, and then it hit me:

The Robert Pickton serial murder trial.

I have always loved true crime and been fascinated by serial killers. One of my Grade 12 courses was History, and at the beginning of every class we talked about current events; some of my contributions included stories about the Green River Killer and the Beltway Sniper. I also wanted to be a newspaper reporter from about the age of nine. I enjoyed shows such as CSI and recreations of the crimes of Ted Bundy and other serial murderers.

It will come as no surprise that I ended up in journalism school with a minor in criminology. I even met my husband in a criminology class. At the end of my third year in journalism school, I decided to take advantage of the Honours program at my university, which entailed a research project and final thesis. I decided to write my thesis on how the media portrays serial killers. And that’s when Mr. Pickton entered my world.

Robert Pickton was charged with murdering 26 women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and suspected of killing many more. His victims were drug-addicted and mostly supported themselves through sex work. His first trial, for the murders of six women, started in January 2007. When my friend, who was covering the trial for a local newspaper, suggested I come with him on the first week, I jumped at the chance.

From that day on, I attended the trial on a near-daily basis, missing days only when I was sick or had other commitments. I changed the topic of my thesis to focus solely on how the media portrayed Pickton, from the time he was arrested in 2002 until May 2007 when I had to submit my thesis. My parents banned me from talking about murder at the dinner table, and I spent hundreds of hours staring at the back of Pickton’s head while lawyers talked about the details of the murders and witnesses talked about their interactions with Pickton or his victims.

By midway through the trial I could identify what day of the week the court drawings were from by the shirt that Pickton was wearing. I still remember which shirt was Monday’s shirt, which shirt was Tuesday’s shirt, etc.

I felt very little at the time except for during one important moment. About a month into the trial, a police officer took the stand to testify about the human remains found on Pickton’s property. I’ll spare the details for the squeamish, but they were quite horrifying. Other news media had reported the night before who was expected to take the stand that day and thus the visitor’s gallery was full with people wanting to hear the gory details. The “spectators” sat in rapt silence as the police officer testified about what he found, and chatted in the lounge area during the breaks about what they had heard.

I went home on the bus that night and I remember feeling tears drip down my face, completely out of my own control. These women were real people with real friends and real family. They weren’t actors who washed off the blood and went home at the end of the day. And yet, more than a dozen people showed up at the courthouse to hear the details of their deaths. I felt empty and wrecked; to some of those people death was entertainment.

Pickton was found guilty on December 9, 2007. He was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 25 years, the maximum sentence he could have received.

26 victims of convicted killer Robert Pickton

I moved on with my life, dating my now-husband and working as a community newspaper reporter. Everything seemed normal until September 2008 when the first panic attack hit.

That conversation with my doctor finally clued me in to what was happening: I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and it was manifesting itself in the unrelenting thoughts about my own death and that of those I care about. Over the next few months I learned coping strategies to work through the panic and anxiety, and lessen the duration of the thoughts. Keeping busy with work and my personal life helped; I got engaged, bought our first apartment, and continued working as a reporter.

I quickly learned that I could never watch anything bloody or violent if it was fictional. I have never watched extremely violent shows or movies such as Game of Thrones, Logan or Deadpool; my TV and movie-watching habits now revolve around reality TV such as The Amazing Race, Top Chef and Rupaul’s Drag Race, or sitcoms such as The Big Bang Theory or Modern Family. I watched The Assassination of Gianni Versace but skipped the two episodes dealing with the murders of Jeff Trail, David Madsen and Lee Miglin.

I can and do watch true crime documentaries such as The Staircase and Making A Murderer. I still read true crime books and newspaper articles; my husband laughs at me because my bookcases are literally Chick Lit Chick Lit Horrible Murder Chick Lit Horrible Murder Chick Lit Chick Lit Horrible Murder Chick Lit. Fictional depictions of death are the problem; real life is not.

I do not like guns. I am terrified beyond measure by guns, in any context. Happily I live in Canada where gun culture is not as prevalent (I mean no offense to American readers so I hope none is taken). My hands start shaking at the thought; when my husband’s cousin started dating a guy who hunts I couldn’t enter the room where his guns were kept. I. Don’t. Do. Guns. Ever.

For years the PTSD was kept at bay, though occasionally my thoughts would do a quick circle through death and then I would fight it and forcefully turn my thoughts to something else.

But it came back in December 2017. I experienced some significant stress at work (good stress, but stress) and in my extended family life (not good stress). And on December 23 as I got ready for bed, my brain flipped, my body got warm and my hands started to shake. It was back.

Over the next few weeks it would happen several times a day, mostly at night. I was angry, and I did the only thing I knew how to do to make it stop: I ran. I have been running since 2012, and it never fails to calm my mind and let me work through things. It can be frustrating and painful, but it always helps.

So I ran. I ran around the neighbourhood, I ran races, I ran to the end of the block. I just ran. And it helped. My mind settles down while on the run; I can relax and listen to podcasts and music instead of worrying and wondering when the next panic attack will come.

This time the symptoms of PTSD are slightly different; I used to cry uncontrollably but that doesn’t happen now. My body just gets warm and my hands shake (along with the constant cycle of thinking about death). I feel negative emotions very, very strongly. When I’m angry I am very, very angry, and if others are crying, I cry too. I have always cried easily (except apparently when the panic is actually happening) but it’s even more evident now.

It’s still triggered by violence and most especially by depictions of serial killers. I love the show Lucifer but haven’t watched it in months because the last time I watched it they were dealing with a serial killer case. I will watch it again because I love the show, but not right now. It’s usually not a hugely violent show and I know that once that serial killer storyline plays out, I will be fine for the rest of the series. I triggered my way through the storyline on Castle about the 3XK killer; I was relieved when that series of episodes ended. I don’t think I’ll ever be okay with depictions of serial killers in entertainment. Death isn’t entertaining.

But it’s okay. I have accepted that I will likely struggle with this for a very long time, if not forever. It doesn’t affect me on a daily basis anymore. I’ve learned how to breathe and how to re-focus my mind on something else, even if that something is my grocery list or an upcoming event at work (I’m not a reporter anymore; the print media business has gone downhill over the past few years).

My husband often pre-screens TV shows or movies for me and warns me if something is coming that I can’t watch; I’ll either go into the other room for a minute or cover my eyes until he says it’s fine. I feel like a toddler sometimes but it’s not worth what will probably come later.

I live with it because I have to. I’m not ashamed of it; it’s not my fault. I still talk about murder at the dinner table because my husband enjoys that stuff too. He’s probably the only person who doesn’t look at me like I’m insane when I’m talking about Charles Manson or Andrew Cunanan. I still talk about Pickton and the trial; it was a huge part of my life and affected me deeply in ways beyond the PTSD.

People talk about PTSD in war veterans; they deserve to be honoured for what they went through. But PTSD in journalists and “regular people” happens too. It doesn’t always manifest itself immediately, or in incredible violence. It can be quiet and cold, and that needs to be acknowledged too.



Since leaving journalism, Kerry is now a project coordinator for a construction association in British Columbia, where she lives with her husband and dogs. Other than running and reading, she loves wine, tea, trying new restaurants, and traveling.



6 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing this article. I'm a person who suffers from ptsd. And no I'm not a person in the military. My daughter was murdered in 2009 by the father of her children she was 21 yrs old. I have seen lots of death of people who grew up with my daughter.I live in the United States of America. Gun violence is devastating and It seems like gun's are Americans toys. I have panic attacks I don't feel safe in my own house I don't come out my room much. I'm in therapy for my ptsd every week.i don't like guns either I can't watch gory things. Feel free to talk to me.

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  2. Incredible story, thank you for sharing. My ex was a policeman, and some of the stories he told me were horrific, so I can appreciate just how horrible the story you must have heard was. It takes a special skill to be able to separate yourself from those stories and not let it affect you, I don’t know how he could do it. I actually wanted to be a forensic scientist and was studying it (I love true crime as well) but after dating him I realised I didn’t have the mental strength and quit my degree.

    All the best for the future, thank you for sharing x

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  3. Thank you for sharing your story! If you're ever interested in exploring some other options for treatment, EMDR and CPT (Cognitive Processing Therapy) can be really helpful. EMDR is helpful the same way running is--bilateral movement (alternating movement on the left and right sides of the body). "The Body Keeps the Score" is a great book that covers the changes in the brain that happen when we are traumatized and how the different treatments can help (including a lot of self-help ideas).

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  4. Thank you for this guest post. I also have a diagnosis of ptsd and have often felt like there is no resources to help where I live because I am not connected to the military. I have immense respect for the military and what they experience. I just find it frustrating to have PTSD be pigeonhold as their disorder.

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  5. I also have PTSD and your trigger event is very interesting. I was engaged and found out my partner was living a double life and had a secret family (wife, kid) that I didn’t know about, and a totally different name. The discovery was violent and I was house bound (agoraphobic) for a significant period of time and crippled by flash backs to the event and panic attacks for years.

    The veteran comment is very valid and something I mention often. 1 in 4 to 1 in 5 women are will experience some form of sexual violence in their lives, and if that number, as high in 1 in 2 will be diagnosed with PTSD. This stat alone is far higher than the veteran rate (vets who exist, not even calculating vets with PTSD) and is not inclusive of all of the other populations who may be diagnosed with PTSD. But only vets make media coverage. It’s great they do, but what a shame the full picture isn’t shown.

    Emilyissingle.com

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  6. PS: I also did EMDR, CBT and some elements of DBT it was very helpful.

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