I have suffered multiple traumas in my life. As a first responder family, we were very aware of how cruel and dark the world can be. In 2013, when my then law enforcement husband was shot, the kids and I were again reminded that the world is not fair, and can be traumatic to say the least. Looking back, the shooting was not even our hardest day. The days after the shooting were certainly very difficult as we tried to navigate and learn to do things differently. There was nothing easy about any of it. We had no idea, however, that those hard days would actually be the easiest compared to what was to come later. Certainly the hardest days were looming ahead. No one prepares you for the mental recovery of something like that.
What Is It Like Living With PTSD?
Officers came to the house the morning of the shooting to tell us the dreaded news. My then husband, who had just stopped by for some kisses from the kids, was shot. He was somewhere out there without us fighting for his life. I arrived to see him loaded onto a helicopter. That scene forever etched into my mind. To this day, the sound of a helicopter pulls me back into that moment. The next time I saw him, he was crying. Blood was everywhere. He was then whisked to surgery. I sat there wondering what my next conversation with the children was going to look like. Would it be a happy conversation or one that would forever damage their little lives?
The next few months were a blur of taking care of a grown man who had gone from this big, tough veteran/cop to a man who couldn’t walk to the bathroom. I was balancing his pain and healing with four small children. It was a blur of survival. We made it. Somehow, through all the tears, we made it. We thought we were the toughest people on the planet. I laugh at that now.
A year later, PTSD crept in slowly. I didn’t know exactly what was happening, but I suspected PTSD. If you have read any of my previous blogs or seen me speak, you know it was a gradual process of PTSD. Over five years, PTSD turned into drinking, then heavy drinking, abuse in the home, and ultimately drug use stemming from an attempt to get help through the VA. The VA overmedicated him leading to a pill addiction. After a traumatic turn of events and his refusal to admit his problems, our family ended. I made the decision to begin healing myself and the children. We all have a choice to heal. I chose to heal.
The children and I did regular counseling for over a year. My PTSD from the trauma was making it very clear that it wasn’t going away anytime soon. My greatest fear was that I would damage my children like their father had damaged them. I worried I would take out my PTSD on them as he had. I worried I would end up addicted like him. The doctor had placed me on a small dose of anxiety medication which freaked me out. I was having panic attacks regularly. I was isolating. I was freaked out to go anywhere for fear of what could happen in this ugly world. I could see myself where he was in the beginning of his spiral.
I decided to step up my mental health treatment. My children deserve a healthy parent. We didn’t ask for any of this. We couldn’t control what happened to us, but we could certainly control our healing. I called a different kind of counselor. I called a trauma therapist. After a lot of research, I found a place that was delivering excellent results with our first responders with PTSD. I made the call. It was a hard call to make. I felt defeated just calling. I reminded myself that my kids deserve a healthy mother. If not for myself, I would do this for them.
Our very first session, she asked what my goals were counseling with her. I immediately broke down crying. I said, “I just want to go back to my old self. I want to go back to the time when the world didn’t scare me. I want to wake up and not feel scared. I want to go to sleep and not know the evil out there. I want the nightmares to stop. I want to go places and not be planning an escape in case someone starts shooting. I want to ENJOY watching my kids play and not worrying that they will die.” My PTSD was in full force. My mind was all over the place. I couldn’t make it stop.
My therapist broke my heart that day with her honesty. She also set me up for a realistic recovery. She said, “Oh sweetie, you can never go back to the person you were before this happened. But I will help you set a reasonable goal to achieve everything else and make you the healthiest person you can be while you navigate this. You will always have that trauma. We can use it to make you stronger. We can help you get it under control. We can set realistic goals and achieve them one at a time.”
She then walked me through a process over a period of weeks where I had to put work into myself. I had to heal. I had to learn to gain control. Slowly, I found myself waking up not scared anymore. Slowly, I began to go to sleep without all the nightmares. I began to rebuild my support system. I found myself out with my kids being cautiously aware without panicking. I found myself enjoying my children watching them play without my thoughts going to death or gloom and doom. I stopped beating myself up. She also made it clear that PTSD or trauma may try to creep back some days. Every day will not be easy. She made me prepare for those days. I thought that was unnecessary. But we made a plan for those days when those feelings crept back in.
This morning, I woke up feeling the all too familiar panic. I woke up freaking out. I felt shaky. I felt scared. I had nightmares all night. How did I regress? I did EVERYTHING right. I went to the trauma counselor. I did the work. I was in a good place. Suddenly, I found myself back at square one. How could this be? I started to beat myself up mentally. I told myself I will never be whole again. I felt like a failure. I could feel the panic taking over.
Trained Trauma Counselor vs. Regular Counselor
Then, I remembered what my trauma therapist told me. I am going to have those days. She already taught me how to reel it in and get control of it. This is where the difference in a regular counselor and a trained TRAUMA counselor will make or break you. I remembered everything she told me. I did my breathing. I got up. I got dressed and did something I normally don’t do first thing in the morning. I exercised. I breathed. I went outside and took a very long walk. I let the tears flow. I cried. Actually, I walked and cried while confiding in my support system.
I remembered my counselor’s tools. Get up, breathe, exercise, walk or run. Call your support system. I did those things. The only way out is through it my trauma therapist always says. Take the time to acknowledge it, feel it, then move on with your day. Otherwise, it will control you all day. I took an hour-long walk. I used the tools she gave me. I acknowledge my feelings. I felt them. I took away the power they have over me by acknowledging them. I took away the power they have over me by working through them. I emailed my therapist and set up an appointment for later in the day. I took my power and control back.
I got home from my walk and had the most incredible release. I am not struggling like I was. There will be rough moments. There will be rough days. My trauma therapist prepared me for this. I followed what she taught me. It worked. I am calm. I am not scared. I am not panicking. I acknowledged I was struggling. I acknowledged that I was angry to have to fight it again. I acknowledged that I was angry that I will have to do this again sometimes to fight it. I told my support system. I went through it. I didn’t suppress it and spent all day in it, or turned to a drink or a pill. I used my tools from the therapist and went through it. Before learning these coping skills, I would’ve isolated and panicked. I would’ve let my mind run wild and felt shame. But today, I went through it. Today, I reeled it in.
One Day at a Time
One day at a time they say. Some days are easy. I have learned to love and appreciate those days. Some days, I have to work through it. Every day is one day at a time. Today, I choose to do the work and give my kids a healthy mom. I had it all cried out and processed before my kids even got up for breakfast. They have no idea how hard I fight to stay mentally healthy for them and for myself. The only thing they know is today they have a healthy mom who loves them.
That was one of my goals. One of my first goals, actually, was to make sure my kids know they have a healthy mom who loves them. Healthy may not look like I wanted it to look. That’s ok. Healthy sometimes looks like an hour long walk while crying up the street and allowing myself to feel. Healthy sometimes looks a lot easier. As my kids get up today, they know I love them. I will enjoy my day with them. I will not isolate. I will not panic all day. I will do the work. One day at a time.