Care and compassion Global Health

Rising above PTSD

8 HOPES

Recently I read a quote which pretty much sums up my current status: “This too shall pass. It might pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass.” (Source unknown.)

Hashtag small comforts.

The last three years have seen me living and serving in Papua New Guinea with Mission Aviation Fellowship. A pretty fantastic organisation — find us on Facebook or check out our website.

Needless to say, this season has been a crazy adventure, a mind-blowing wonder, a brilliant learning experience, a heart-wrenching opportunity to love, and so much more.

It’s easy to write about the funny or exciting or thrilling things that happened on a weekly, often daily, basis. It’s not so easy to acknowledge the harder aspects of the chapter.

PTSD: and so it begins

Unfortunately for me, my time in Mt Hagen (PNG’s third largest city) also meant a great degree of ongoing cultural stress, concentrated security/alertness, 24/7 heightened awareness, adrenaline overload, barred-in windows and fenced-in days that finally crashed on top of me in an overwhelming wave of burnout.

Let me make the honest disclaimer that life in a developing country is tough. For everyone. Expatriate or national, young or old — in places of extreme poverty and civil unrest, hefty educational and health needs, plus social, political and infrastructural difficulties, merely getting through a day without more than 10–15 stressful incidents is an achievement.

Of course, people cope with stress, chaos and tension with varying levels of immunity and success. So many factors come into play, and some of us deal with additional stressors that may go unnoticed by the most caring of teams or the most self-aware of personalities. For example, being the only young, white, unmarried female in a town of 70,000 (in Mt Hagen, approx. 60 of that number are expatriate families/couples).

We can never break down or explain from a distance the final “whys and hows” of another person’s struggle. And this is why — as I write — I will not attempt to spell out all the events and issues that led to my PTSD, and why — as you read — you will not attempt to piece together the cause of my case. Let us simply share and learn together…

This is me?

The result of my personal situation was that I returned home to New Zealand at the end of 2017 for a three month break, exhausted but also suspecting that I had burnout. A visit to my doctor confirmed this, but further tests then revealed that I also have PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

P-T-S-what?? This was a bit harder for me to process…

Beyond just me

This is not an easy piece to write — partly because I am, by nature, a very private person, and partly because I keep taking breaks and resting in between paragraphs (hellooooo burnout). Words aren’t coming so easily for me at the moment…

I chose to write this because I want to be honest about my struggles with PTSD, and because I feel this illness and others like it need far more acknowledgement and acceptance.

Did you know that public servants such as ambulance and police officers, military personnel, missionaries and humanitarian workers are more susceptible to PTSD? It does not require suffering direct trauma either — sometimes simply being exposed to or in the vicinity of trauma or security issues or violence is enough to trigger Post Traumatic Stress.

A heavyweight boxer

At first, I viewed PTSD like a dark, heavy cloak which smothered me without asking my permission. How rude.

Did I ask to wallow in erratic stress over inconsequential events, or to struggle with sleeping through a whole night, or to be woken by terrifying nightmares? Do I want to cope with wrenching chest pain, laboured breathing, intermittent nausea and spasming muscles? Not to mention finding myself suddenly and inexplicably afraid of the dark…  (Seriously? I’m a grown adult here! Back off, Fear.)

Personal admin became more than just a chore; it was a colossal mountain of impossibility. Applying for government financial assistance due to inability to work? Not only humiliating but also overwhelming — I’m still trying to complete an application.

Daily life became beyond frustrating, unmanageable without naps and breathers and ridiculously tearful meltdowns. Emails, messages and phone calls came and went. I had no capacity to cope with something as simple as communication — still don’t in many ways (so please forgive me if you’ve made contact, with no response from me).

And, of course, it’s difficult to take real steps of healing and grounding and re-energising oneself, when so much extra angst is billowing around one’s psyche like a chloroformic cloud.

Anxiety + fatigue = disabling misery = medical appointment necessary = booking said appointment necessary = inexplicable panic over having to book said appointment = anxiety + fatigue…

It’s a vicious cycle.

The invisible vice

Even more frustrating is the fact that PTSD is pretty much invisible. No one else can see my mushy brain or screaming nerves or clenching muscles. Perhaps I’m imagining all this chaos? Perhaps I am deserving of this pathetic feebleness?

As a result of not-being-ok-but-kind-of-seeming-ok-but-not-really-being-ok, guilt and worthlessness knocked on my door pretty early on. Turning down 99% of group social events (despite being grateful to be asked), or becoming overly emotional over minor incidents, or explaining after a week of naps that I am still tired is…

Embarrassing. Distressing. Depressing.

Turns out PTSD is no picnic. It’s more like watching countless ants devour my picnic while I watch helplessly like some hogtied Gulliver.

And yet.

Emphasising the goodness of others

PTSD has very quickly given me a newfound appreciation for kindness. My sense of vulnerability and incapacity has highlighted those around me who gladly share their own strength.

Apart from having a wonderfully caring manager in PNG, an extremely helpful mission home support office in NZ, plus the most empathetic family ever, I have genuinely appreciated the shared strength of others. The gentleness of my osteopath, the concern of my doctor, the offer of admin support from a mentor, the debrief and hug from a friend — even the kindness of a check-out clerk when I’ve fumbled with buying groceries has sprung tears of gratitude to my eyes.

It has been good for me to exist amidst other people, in places and situations outside of my introverted bedroom haven. As my brother wisely noted, it has also forced me to stay in touch with life and the people around me, rather than retreating into the solitary confinement prison of “poor ol’ me.”

A white flag

Perhaps PTSD is a little white flag which signals me to stop, take stock, be grateful for the little/big things… and then prepare to rise again.

If nothing else, it has forced me to be not only aware of but also responsive to my own self.

Hey Body, how are you doing today? Need to exercise or, y’know, eat a lettuce? Hi Emotions, what’s your vibe? Need to go find a hug?”

And then I do.

Being aware of my genuine physical needs or the reality of my irrational fears or the complexity of my warring emotions has helped me stand up to the demons of shame or blame that would take advantage of my current distress.

It has also strengthened my confidence to be weak. Weakness is merely another state of being experienced by humankind. It is okay to feel confused or exhausted. It is okay to cry. It is okay to admit that the world is too heavy for my shoulders.

It is okay not to be okay.

Depression or Anxiety or any invisible illness really

This is a brief glimpse of my story, but my story is not the only one. Invisible illnesses are no less painful than visible ones — sometimes they need more compassion and grace because of this. It’s important to always be kind to others. It’s imperative to always be kind to yourself.

Perhaps you’re struggling silently in the background, feeling there’s no light in this tunnel; perhaps you feel irrational in your struggles, or too disoriented to come up for air; maybe you just feel too discombobulated to ask for help…

Take heart, brave one.

This is not what it feels like to be falling. This is what it feels like to be fighting to rise.

In the timeless words of Aibileen from The Help, there is only one thing you need to know about yourself, which defines you more deeply and eternally than PTSD or Depression or Anxiety, or any illness ever will:

You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”

Put even more simply: You are worth the effort, PTSD and all.

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Emma is an Italian-South African with a New Zealand passport. As well as years of running a puppet ministry and directing student choirs, she has served with Mission Aviation Fellowship since 2007. Emma’s deep joy is in writing, music, playing with her ginger cats and finding God in unexpected places.

8 HOPES
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