Sunday, January 23, 2011

Post Traumatic Stress

This is quite a personal post and it's been prompted by the flood disaster.

In March 2006 our town, Innisfail was hit, bashed and smashed by Category 5 Cyclone Larry. Our town was devastated by not only the cyclone, but by the 3 or 4 months of continuous rain and storms afterwards. Not light showers... rain, wind and more rain.

I distinctly remember yelling at my partner and my stepson for going for a sightseeing drive after the cyclone had passed. They took photos of the destruction and I refused to look at them. I should point out that my partner was checking on his place of business.

I busied myself with cooking on the gas bbq and making sure we had enough drinking water, looking after the school guinea pig (which I'd just got for the kids the week before, and which was renamed Larry that day), my little black mongrel dog and worrying about my cats and chickens that I'd had to leave at my house, (I wasn't living with Bruce at that time).

During the cyclone I think I was in a daze. I couldn't sit and watch the debris fly past our front door like the rest of the people in the house. I just sat and hid and rocked behind the couch.

We lost nothing really. Our roof stayed on and we only had one window crash in.

But to say I was terrified would be an understatement. I really, really thought we were going to die. I know people say that all the time, but until you actually feel it, you just can’t imagine the fear, the smell of fear, even the sound of fear . . . your whole body tingles and trembles with it.

The worst was to come however. Eventually I did have to leave the house to check on some relatives and friends. I did have to drive through the destruction on a daily basis on my way to work.

I was expected to 'counsel' the students at the school I was working at. I was expected to clean up the school grounds, my home, my partners home and somehow keep it all together.

It was like moving in a dream.

I broke down one day and yelled and screamed at my stepson, (something I had never done before), and burst into uncontrollable sobbing. Obviously there was something wrong with me, but I didn't know what.

Devastation to Brenden Collins banana crop as ...
Every time I drove to work past all the flattened banana plants and sugar cane, past the dump trucks and fallen trees, past the houses that had literally exploded and via at the work crews on the roads, I would feel sick. I was trapped in a nightmare.

And the really stupid thing was, I was fine, my house was fine except for some water damage, wet carpet and some fences down. My partners place was fine, my dad’s place was fine.

My best friend had to move her young family from the caravan park they were holidaying in to her parents house . . . which lost its roof for a while, then when the wind changed direction it slammed back on again.  My
partners sister and her family lost everything as their house blew away from around them while they huddled under a mattress in what used to be the bedroom.  Several of the kids at school told me of how the walls of their home ‘flew away’ or their roof ‘went up’ in the sky. Parents were shaken and teary as they dropped their kids off for the day, and I was supposed to reassure them!

I had ‘survivors guilt’. I just couldn’t understand why I could possibly feel so stressed when I was ok and unhurt, we had our home, a generator, food and unfortunately we were able to make the tv go each night for the news updates.

I say unfortunately, because that was the last thing I needed to see.

So, I guess this was the beginning of my anxiety and panic disorder. Pretty sure it all started off as
post traumatic stress. I had nightmares every night through the constant wind and rain for months after the cyclone, being expected to counsel children and parents through their ordeal and receiving no counseling myself.
Just the act of traveling to work over the next year through all the devastation and the painfully slow rebuilding and clean up process was putting extra pressure on my nerves.
TempestaImage via Wikipedia

By the start of March the next year I thought I was really turning into a ‘fruit loop’. I couldn’t bare the
drive to work anymore, but I did it. When the storms came in the arvo I cringed, but I got through it. Little things at work started to get to me. I couldn’t make a decision without second guessing myself.

I stopped sleeping and starting drink 4 or 5 coffees a day with 3 or 4 sugars just to get through the day. We started eating baked beans on toast several times a week for dinner and in the end my partner just did the cooking while I lay on the couch or cried in the shower.

What was wrong with me?!
On The Threshold Of Eternity, by Van Gough

I carried my work with me everywhere I went, but it never got done, (not to my high standards anyway), and eventually I wound up crying through the Huggies commercials and could no longer watch Neighbours because it was too stressful!

I lost weight, I put weight on, I slept a lot or hardly at all, I loathed myself for being so weak and wanted to hide in my room with my cat.  But I didn’t, I just kept on going . . .  until I couldn’t go on anymore.

I took leave from work, saw a doctor and went on an overseas holiday with my partner (which we’d had planned for months and was the best thing I could have done). I took more leave when I got home, which wasn’t very helpful as I just sat around the house and in the end, I couldn’t even leave the house without having a panic attack.

I went back to work, without receiving any proper medical treatment and by the end of the next year I had had another melt down.

The good news is, once I did get proper medical treatment  . . .  and yes people, that means a ‘shrink,’ I started to get better.
Psychiatrist Gottlieb Burckhardt
Ok, my shrink doesn't look quite like this , but you get the idea!

It’s been a long road, but I’m better now. Not cured, just in remission. Like a cancer, the type of illness I had needs to be monitored and lifestyle changes MUST take priority so I can stay healthy.

Am I ashamed to say I had a mental illness? . . .  nope. I am pissed off that I didn’t take better care of myself and it’s probably the same reaction I’d have if I was in remission from cancer.

If you see yourself in any of this story, please go to your doctor and talk to them. More importantly, don’t downplay your symptoms, insist on seeing a professional counselor and then later on if you need to, see a shrink. There are free programs your Dr. can put you on.

Of course, this is only a very vague summary of what happened to my life. There is much more, much deeper stuff that went on.

I’m writing this for the people who survived the floods and fires and any other catastrophe to say – it may take 6 months or a year, but if these symptoms start appearing in your life, don’t dismiss them, get help.

It’s so true that in times of need we can pull together to get through it, however it’s the aftermath that we may need to be looked after.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you found a helpful doctor & shrink, Despina - it takes strength to ask for help with mental health issues.
wishing you well in your ongoing recovery.

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