A lot of people may not realize this, but PTSD messes with your brain. I know, I know, but give me a second to elaborate.
It re-wires it. Permanently. Again, I hear you say you knew that already. But I’m not talking about emotions or flashbacks or unexplained anxiety. I am talking about your senses.
That’s right: Sight, Smell, Taste, Hearing, Touch. The five things you rely on every day to help you determine the state of the world around you. In particular, PTSD survivors most often report a complete rewiring in their sense of Smell.
This ‘weird yet true’ fact is something I live with constantly. MiniSir endures me “do you smell that?” questions without comment, and attributes it as more evidence that I am in fact a Wolverine-esque mutant. (And since I completely healed myself without need of surgery or medical intervention after the accident, he has a point.)
But honestly, living like this sucks. Or rather, it stinks. Three days ago I had MiniSir smell the kitchen garbage can because I thought it smelled like cigarette butts. It didn’t, apparently. I swore the blind in the baby’s room smelled like really strong male body odour, and I believed it so strongly that I eventually asked that we moved the baby into the spare room instead. When we make tacos, I am grateful that I enjoy the taste because the house fills with the smell of feet.
I don’t understand why this occurs, but it does, particularly if the trauma causing the PTSD has been severe. And I wish I could at least explain why I smell the noxious odours that I do – repressed memories from the scene would make it much easier to bear. But the truth is that when we survivors smell weird things, it is probably just that: a weird thing with no reason behind it at all.
I am also sensitive to other smells: poop, vomit, etc., but I don’t smell them often like I smell the others and they are always attributable to an actual cause. Don’t know why, but living with the smell of strong body odour, feet, and snuffed out cigarettes in your home when they aren’t truly present is something I have had to get used to.
So if you visit, and the house smells just a little *too* much like vanilla candles, let me know. I will gladly tone it down – it’s just that I can’t tell over the smell of phantom cigarettes.
Something weird happened to me yesterday. I sat down, slouching into the soft couch, to watch one of Grunt’s favourite shows with him. At one point, he climbed into my lap and I looked down to make sure he was going to get comfortable in a way that wouldn’t hurt me either.
And then I realized: I can see my legs. Not just my legs, but the tops of them. And not just the tops, but I can the rest of my body underneath my tummy. Somewhere along the way of losing weight and getting more active, I actually got thinner than I remember being in a long time.
This is an important milestone for several reasons. Since puberty, I have had this annoying large stomach that protruded over my lower abdomen, the tell-tale mark of someone with PCOS. It has only gotten more prominent since having Grunt, as I carried him very high. And since my accident, I have had a much larger behind, thanks to all that fluid that stuck around the injured areas because of the nerve damage done. So, when I look in the mirror sideways, all I see are these two problem areas; my torso gets lost somewhere in the middle.
In 2015, MiniSir and I decided we were going to get healthy – lose weight, eat better, take care of ourselves a little more. The previous 4 years had been a cluster of serious, terrible, and exciting things; a time in our lives we could not forget even if we wanted to. But 2015 we chose to start fresh, and give Grunt positive role models right at home. We purchased pedometers, started counting calories, watching portion sizes, and intensely meal planning. MiniSir started exercising right away, and his weight melted off. He has since managed to successfully lose over 50 pounds. Exercise has always left a dirty taste in my mouth, so I focused on being active with Grunt and trying to hit my 10000 steps a day. It was easier said than done, but by the end of the year, I had lost nearly 40 pounds.
We found as we got doing it that it felt good. We enjoyed it, and it helped us keep our grocery costs and food waste to a minimum. Helping ourselves and helping the planet? Okay! We decided to purchase home exercise equipment for our joint Christmas gift – we had a friend looking to off-load his and we were given a great price. So now we have a treadmill and a recumbent bike, and since MiniSir is a runner, you can guess which one was for me.
I was reluctant to start seriously exercising – what if I hurt something, what if I made it worse, what if what if. Finally, I made up my mind to try without judgment, and I got on the recumbent bike and pedalled. The next day, I got on it again. And the next. Throw in a little yoga once or twice a week, and suddenly you know how I’ve been spending my time while Grunt naps since the start of the year.
Some days I just can’t even, and I still get on the bike. Today, for example. I’m biking and writing this blog. I have no qualms about multi-tasking, and if this helps me feel better about time I spend on me, then it’s a win-win. I can only bike for about a half hour before my back and pelvis tell me I’ve done enough, but I can work up a sweat in that time which tells me I have indeed done what I came to do.
I’m hungrier, downright starving some days. Last week I ate supper and then an hour later I had a bowl of oatmeal and almond milk. But I feel good when I’m hungry – it means I need the fuel.
So maybe exercise still sounds like a dirty word to me. And maybe I hide my scale in my closet so I don’t obsess over my weight. Maybe I’m taking anti-depressants still to help me sleep.
But you know what else I am doing? I’m kicking that bulletproof, armoured bank truck right in the ass.
You can’t beat me, truck. What didn’t kill me has made me infinitely stronger: physically, mentally, emotionally.
I cried last night. It’s been 4 years today. And I cried openly while listening to music. Don’t get me wrong – it was moving. MiniSir and I treated ourselves to our first concert as a couple. We went to see Mumford & Sons, the band that has pretty much been the musical accompaniment of our life together. We courted to their first album, had the first dance at our wedding to a song from the second, and celebrated the birth of our son with the third – not many people have timing that good. So we made out a little to “Lover of the Light”, our dance song, and I thought that was as emotional as I was going to get. Then they played “Ghosts That We Knew”, and the audience looked like this.
It was magical. It was a moment out of time. And it was the combination of being there, in that moment, and listening to these words being sung as though they were directed at me, that started the tears streaming down my face:
You saw my pain washed out in the rain
Broken glass, saw the blood run from my veins
But you saw no fault, no cracks in my heart
And you knelt beside my hope torn apart
But the ghosts that we knew will flicker from view
We’ll live a long life
So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light
‘Cause oh that gave me such a fright
But I will hold as long as you like
Just promise me we’ll be alright
And as MiniSir held me, and I wept, I felt almost whole again. It has taken four years – four years of agony and defeat and hope and struggle – but you know what? I feel renewed. I feel like the old me – or as close to the old me as I’ll ever get again. It’s not going to be the same ever again, but I don’t want to be any more. I love my new life. I am happy. And I can cry happy/sad tears and be okay.
Happy Fourth Anniversary, me. You have come a long way, kiddo.
It occurred to me this weekend while MiniSir was away being a soldier and I was looking after Little Grunt by myself that I don’t do things “normally”. More accurately, that I can’t do things “normally”. My mum keeps asking me if I have put Grunt on the floor on a blanket to help him learn to crawl, and every time she asks the answer is “no”. Not that I’m not helping him learn to crawl, but rather that I just haven’t done it the way it’s “normally” done.
Since the accident, I’ve learned to do things a little differently than most people. Physical tasks most people take for granted are more than a little painful for me, like getting down on my belly on the floor, for example. Not only can I barely get back up, but lying on my stomach at all is extremely hard on my back. I used to be a stomach sleeper before, and now if I spend 5 minutes lying in bed like that I seize up. It takes another 5 painful minutes to transfer to my side and then my back before I can get up. So getting down on the floor with my son is just not ever going to happen. Instead, I put him in the middle of the bed and get down face to face with him to encourage him to crawl. We have tummy time together there too, where I can lay on my side beside him. It’s supportive for me, and softer when he decides he’s had enough of being on his tummy and starts to smash his face into the covers.
The bed itself is special too: it’s a full mattress width higher than most beds. The delivery guys questioned my request to make it so high, but it is easier to climb up into it and slide down off the edge than it would be to struggle to get up and out of a lower bed. It’s a solid wooden frame too, and according to my husband it’s killer on the knees in the middle of a dark night, so if I need a bit of a boost up onto the mattress I can use the side rail as a step.
But it’s not just in the bedroom that I have to make accommodations. I sit differently in a car seat now. I have to elevate my feet several times a day or they turn purple and get fat. I can’t go more than a half-hour wearing heels, even if most of that time is sitting down. I have limited stamina, arthritis in pretty much every joint in my body, I have to manually check my legs after I shave them because I can’t feel if I’ve nicked myself in the process, and every single piece of my wardrobe has been replaced in the last 3 years.
But the point of this post wasn’t to be all, “oh it’s awful for me”, it was actually this: I have become so accustomed to doing things differently, to making accommodations to my injuries, that I had to really think about why I don’t get down on the floor with my son. And then I had to wonder why my mum always seems so disappointed when I do say “no”.
The weird truth is, I’m so used to living and dealing with all this that my family doesn’t even see it anymore. Things that I can’t do seem to slip their minds. I know it’s because of all the things I can and have done since the accident, things the doctors were unsure I would ever do again, that the small day to day things I am still unable to do get glossed over; in our house they do too. And while this is a good thing, it does take me aback every once in a while when people expect me to do something and don’t get it when I can’t. I guess it’s up to me to be more vocal, to be my own advocate. All right, world, here it is:
Yes, I’ll try it your way, but if I can’t do it, let me try it mine.
Three. I can’t believe it.
Seems like only yesterday at just about this time I was racing through the hallways of Medicine Hat General’s emergency department, nurses and doctors surrounding me, paramedics bringing up the rear with the police. The police that stood outside my room until the CSI team arrived. The police that had to tell dispatch the weight of the vehicle several times before she believed him. The police that agreed I was lucky to be alive.
It didn’t really occur to me until last week that this was approaching. I’ve got something so much more important in my life now that it sort of crept up on me. In fact, I didn’t even think of it until I was calculating my little man’s four-month anniversary and realized it was the day before this one.
This past year has been another lesson in strength and perseverance. I never thought I would be hospitalized again, and yet I accumulated four more weeks “inside”. I never imagined I would get pregnant and successfully deliver, and look how that turned out. I took on and took down my PTSD. I kicked my meds. My husband and I have gone from a downtown, one car, dirty thirties lifestyle to 3 bedrooms, 2 cars, and a mortgage in a neighbourhood where the store across the street isn’t an organic foods place but a Walmart. Change was everywhere, in everything. And I made if through. Stubbornly at times, blindly at others, but I did it.
If there’s anything I can say that having three years in has taught me, it’s that nothing will ever be the same. I didn’t really accept and see that until this year. But I also discovered that I can be the one to change my situation, and I can make it the way I want it to be, can make it better for myself.
I can do extraordinary things. I have done extraordinary things. And I will keep doing them, because I am extraordinary.
Most of the time I think I have my anxiety problems left over from the accident completely handled. I’m not on any medications any more, for my mental or physical state. I weaned myself off all of them while I was pregnant with Little Grunt. It took a lot of supplementary therapy (we are talking about therapy twice a week for an hour for the better part of a season), and a period of adjustment to deal with the manageable daily pain. But my hard work was rewarded with a child born with minimal exposure to the NSAIDs and narcotics I was taking. And for the most part, the therapies seemed to have worked.
I am stiff in the joints, but getting back into my swimming this fall will help with that. I don’t have any issues with traffic anymore, and very few left while in a vehicle. I have completely beaten my depression with the odd exceptional bad day that pops up now and again. The PTSD is also mostly gone into recession, my only problems now generally related to the unpredictability of crowds and sudden change. But every so often, panic sets in out of the blue, and it all revolves around my precious baby boy.
I am not saying that it’s his fault – far from it, as he’s actually the reason I am doing so well – and the panic that does well up is always irrational and completely out of context. It hits hardest just after I’ve put him back to sleep in the middle of the night, when I’m lying in bed in the dark loneliness and I can’t stop the thoughts. Thoughts of falling down the stairs while carrying him, thoughts of mishaps in the pool when he starts swimming lessons next month, even thoughts of him just not waking up again. They are terrible, awful thoughts and I would not wish them on anyone. But they come, whether I like it or not.
It’s nearly midnight. I just had to go check on him, lay a hand on his belly and listen to him breathe. He’s sound asleep in his crib next door, wrapped safely in his swaddle. And I stood over his crib for a moment so I could share some of his peace. I know I won’t sleep well now tonight, my dreams filled with confusing and painful images.
But I won’t go back on the medications. Not yet. I can do this by myself. It’s a little rocky sometimes, and it’s tiring, but it’s worth it. He is worth every clean moment of it. If I need them, if it gets bad enough that I feel like I need help, then I will seek it. I’m not shy about asking for it, or admitting I could use it. I was warned that there would be an increased risk of me developing postpartum depression because of my issues before, and I make sure to take stock of my well being to check for signs that I may be slipping that way.
In fact, I would be worried about these panic attacks except that they have been happening since long before Grunt was even born. They are the last lingering icy cold fingers of anxiety that grip me from the accident. They are simply taking a new turn with the arrival of my boy, which comforts me somewhat as I lie here staring at the ceiling in the dark. I have bested the ghosts of bulletproof vans and traumatic pain on nights like these not too long ago, and I know that by employing some of my coping tactics I can best this too.