Tuesday 16 September 2014

Dealing with PTSD, Depression, and Anxiety

In my last post, I mentioned that I would continue to write about my experiences with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of my attack in Ghana, and the things I'm learning about recovery.  This is extremely difficult to do, but I find it therapeutic somehow; I'm also doing this in the hopes that other survivors might stumble upon this little blog and not feel alone.  I don't know exactly where I'll be going with all of this, but I hope it helps someone.  For this post, I merely want to write about my personal experiences with this whole PTSD thing, and how it's been impacting my life.  Spoiler alert:  living with PTSD and its accompanying depression and anxiety totally sucks, logic and emotions don't always play nicely, but it's not all bad, and it can be managed.

Today I had such a great day.  My period one students seemed to be genuinely interested in the semester-long project we began today, my students in my other classes were (mostly) productive, and for the first time in a long time, I didn't feel completely overwhelmed and anxious about the pile of work I usually have on a daily basis.  When I got home,  I made a crazy delicious egg and vegetable scramble for supper (I never cook, so this is a big deal for me), and actually felt motivated to get some marking done.  My rabbit exhibited what I can only describe as affection towards me for the first time since we got her back, and I got to chat with my phenomenal husband, who is currently back in Ghana. It was cool to feel this particular level of happy!

I don't have many of these days. I mean, I'm not always unhappy, but my happiness gauge was reading much higher today than it usually does.  Then, suddenly, my day became empty and sad.  I'm having a bad night, and I have no idea why.  It just crept up on me, as it always seems to do. Up until actually writing this post, I spent the past hour sitting on my couch, staring at a piece of writing that a student submitted, feeling nothing and doing nothing. I didn't even let the time-suck that is the internet distract me.  I just did nothing. And I felt nothing about it.

I haven't had a night like this for a while.  Since the attack, times of emptiness and detachment had been constant and daily, and with some therapy, started to become fewer in their occurrences.  Just when I think I'm making solid progress, I have a night like this and it knocks me on my behind.  I know it'll get better.  I'll go to sleep and see my students in the morning, and I'll feel great while I'm teaching them. It just sucks in this current period of time.

Since our attack and return to Canada, the past three months have been filled with a polarizing combination of utter sadness in dealing with PTSD, and extreme joy in seeing friends/family and getting married, and I am absolutely worn down and exhausted as a result.  I think people experience trauma and depression differently, so here's a snapshot of what the last three months have been like for me:

1. Extreme forgetfulness. I think I've always been a bit absent-minded, but never like this. I can't seem to retain very much or remember anything unless I put about 20,000 reminders or notes in my phone (and even then, it's not a guarantee that I'll remember whatever it is I'm supposed to remember).

2. A superior lack of concentration and a completely deteriorated attention span. You know that dog, Doug, from that Pixar film Up?  That's me.  Just doin' my best to-SQUIRREL!.

...Sorry.  Anyway, this is apparently another common symptom of PTSD and depression, so I guess it makes sense for me why it's happening.  But it sucks. A lot. It makes me mad that I know I should be able to focus, and that I am capable of it, but my brain is not on board. This doesn't just impact me at meetings or during interactions with others, but it also has made my prep for work a bit more difficult.  I just can't seem to sit down and focus the way I used to, which makes lesson planning and preparation a more frustrating task.

3. Avoidance of most responsibilities.  Probably a result of a decrease in focus and motivation, as well as a general feeling of detachment and nothingness, I find that I often want to shirk my responsibilities as an adult and professional. I don't, generally.  I just want to.  Mostly I force myself to do the things I'm supposed to do. For example, doing dishes seems like a monumental task, so I often avoid cooking or doing anything to dirty my dishes so that I don't have to wash them.  That's messed up, right?

4. The desire to sleep ALL of the time. Not only because I'm just plain tired, worn down, and generally lethargic, but also because it would just be easier not to get out of bed some days.  Once we came home to Canada, I wanted more than anything to just sleep.  I slept in until noon.  I took four-hour naps.  Sleeping is pretty much all I want to do.  I just can't because now I go to work everyday (which is totally a good thing, as I love my job when I'm there. Also, routines. Routines are good. Also, making a difference. Hopefully.).

5. Escape plans. Escape plans everywhere. I guess this is called "hypervigilance" in the psychology world.  Basically, wherever I am at any given moment, I am mentally preparing myself for danger. At school, I look for potential hiding places or escape routes should there ever be a threat in the building. In the staff room, I wonder how fast it would take me to run through the kitchen to the delivery door and into the parking lot to get away from danger.  Or maybe it would just be better to hide in the freezer, because maybe the threat is outside. My classroom door, while often left open, is always locked in case of an emergency lock down, because I know how precious the few seconds are that it takes to lock the door. Whenever I walk to my car, even during broad daylight with dozens of people in the area, I walk to my car or house with my keys jutting out between my fingers in case I need to defend myself.  Even in our own basement suite, our home, I find that I'm constantly checking the windows and wondering if I could realistically fit through them if someone forced their way into the house, and how fast my escape would be.  The door is always locked. The blinds are always down.

Objectively, I know this is some pretty crazy behaviour. I'm working on it. I have a really good counselor.

6. Headaches. In the last few years, I've started to get migraines during period of high stress.  They're just way more frequent now.  It sucks, and usually results in a lot more sleeping.

7. Flashbacks.  A huge defining trait of PTSD is the replaying of a traumatic event for an extended period of time.  It's been three months since the attack, and there hasn't been a day where my brain doesn't get stuck in a seemingly endless loop where I relive what happened in my mind.  The replays happen at any time, always unannounced (trauma is so rude that way), and vary in their intensity and vividness.  I could be enjoying lunch with colleagues, teaching a lesson, working one-on-one with a student, or deciding which soaps to buy from Bath and Body Works - it never goes away. I think I'm just getting better at letting it pass and not letting it affect me outwardly.  It's like that little preview box that you see on your TV screen when flipping through the channels to see what else is on.  The big picture is on the screen, but that little box is there, in the corner.  My big picture is my daily life, and that little box is where the flashbacks are.

8. Apathy and detachment.  Not in  everything. But for a lot of things. Again, it's one of those things that logically, I know that, deep down, I do care about specific things, but I just can't feel it.  I can't find that feeling, and so I don't feel anything.

9. Random, crazy anxiety and flipping out.  My poor husband. He's really the only one that sees this part of me.  There are days when the most minute, insignificant decisions or tasks cause something to snap in my brain, and I completely shut down.  This summer, Mark and I were working on the blasted bathroom renovations in our suite, when. Mark asked me to cut some 2x4's into smaller pieces using a chop saw.  I have never used a chop saw.  Pre-attack Jo would have said "Cool, I don't know how to use that, though.  Can you show me?" and all would be well.  Post-attack Jo did the following: said nothing, looked unbearably sad, and burst into tears, complete with ugly-face crying and shuddering. Mark, being the wonderful partner he always is, simply took me by the hand and walked me upstairs and showed me how to use the woodcutting contraption.  I felt like a 5 year old, and probably looked it too. I'm so thankful for such an amazing partner

That's been my last three months overall.

Logically, my brain knows that all of these thoughts and feelings, or lack thereof, are not useful or productive. I think that's been the most frustrating thing about dealing with PTSD, depression, and anxiety - knowing on a rational level the things that make me happy and make me feel good, but having the complete absence of will power or motivation to actually do them.  When I do find the strength to do something, it's like running a marathon mentally and physically, and I feel great when I do it.  It's just getting there that's the hard part.

So far, recovery is weird, frustrating, and non-linear.  Recovery doesn't mean that each day gets easier and happier.  It's about having the tools to cope when you have the days that knock you off of your feet. It takes so much energy, mentally and emotionally - even three months later, there are days that feel like I've completely regressed, and I'm barely functioning at a minimum efficiency. Generally, however, I'm getting by, and I'm doing all I can for the things that really matter - things for my family, including my amazing husband and my awesome mom, things for my close friends, and things for the students in my classroom. I'll let you know how it goes. Thanks for reading.

+Jo Boots




  1. Hi Jo, I met your brother in law Sean through ewb five years ago (ish).

    Just wanted to say thank you for sharing your recovery journey and experiences. I know it is not something that is easy to do. So thank you for taking the time to help everyone understand. I appreciate it.

    - Kelsey H

  2. Hi Jo,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with such a rational approach.

    I have been dealing with depression myself and I know what is best for me on most days. But finding the strength to get out of bed and carrying on with life is the most challenging part.

    Thanks again for sharing. Happy recovery!

    1. Hi there!

      Thanks for the comment! I totally know what you mean - some days, just getting out of bed is the biggest achievement of the day, and everything seems to go downhill from there. I know it's all about perceptions, but boy, sometimes it's hard to get out of that rut!


  3. Hey Jo,

    your fight against depression and for life is inspiring. Thanks for sharing.


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