There’s a very drastic difference between understanding something as an abstract idea, and in a real, tangible way. You may not know the horrible depth of grief at the loss of a parent (sibling, child, dog), but most people can understand it’s some bad shit, even if they can’t identify directly with it. In the last few years, there’s been a crapload of effort to raise the awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder and its secondary, often comorbid effects. Still, there’s been an almost equal crapload of misconceptions tossed around in the media and other places despite this, or even perhaps because of it, even in the upper ranks of the public services most likely to be exposed to the trauma that causes the injury.
Like others before me, some of these just make me shake my head while others really grind my gears; some are because of that abstract understanding, others more vitriolic and spiteful. I wanted to address some of the most common.
Anticipating this piece, I put a call out on Facebook for some thoughts about it, and the response was wonderfully large. It inspired conversations on the neuroscience of PTSD and mental health in general as well as the lingering stigma, semantic arguments about the depth of health-care concerns as a whole, and whether or not I should start a vlog to compliment my written musings here. I’ll need to make an investment in equipment before I could do that, though. I was really pleased with the comments and the thoughts they encouraged. My gratitude to everyone that continues to participate there.
The discussion thread showed me that this was not a subject so easily covered in one off-the-cuff essay. It’s an important topic, and each thought requires more exploration than a simple point-form list of counter arguments or explanations about why it’s a misconception and why it’s wrong, or, even, why it just might be right but expressed wrongly. So, I am going to make this part one of I don’t know how many. Though there’s no particular order to these, the ones I have the most solid thoughts on and that probably because they’re more important to me in some way, will probably be explored first. Like this one:
We’re all violent psychopaths
Psychopathy is a totally different animal, let’s put that to bed right now.
Anger and rage can be a problem for many of us, but it’s situational, does not last very long, and is not a true reflection of the real person or their most fundamental nature. With PTSD, there are threats around every corner, and every threat, real or perceived, is life and death. This is how the lizard brain reacts. Often this results in what looks like rage, or anger, when in reality it’s fear. Fear for your life, basically. It makes no sense at all, even we know that in the midst of the thing, but that’s why it’s called a disorder.
There was a tragedy last year in Canada when a military veteran killed his family, and then himself. The media felt the need to lead most of the stories with how he had been suffering from PTSD, insinuating, wrongly so, that this was what caused him to go off his nut and do this horrible, horrible thing. There was much more at work inside his head than PTSD, and in fact I’d wager it was a minor issue in relation to whatever it was that caused this.
Recent statistics show that 20% of paramedics and correctional officers, and 16% of vets and police, will develop this during their careers. I’m sorry, but I can’t remember what the stats are for the general population, but if you can, feel free to toss them at me in a comment below. Ultimately, though, regardless of the numbers, of everyone you know in your daily comings and goings, someone is suffering this and you might just not know it. Nobody I know has killed anyone yet because they have PTSD, and I know a crapload of people with it. In fact, I know a few police officers who developed it because they’d had to use their sidearms in that way.
PTSD does not change a person’s basic nature.
But you look okay
One person who responded to my call-out referred to herself a master of disguise when suggesting I examine the fallacy that we all wear signs around our neck or hide shivering in the shadows like sensationalised cartoon characters. I have a defense mechanism, that because it helps me in some ways I’d venture is not an unhealthy one, in that I can become fairly gregarious and flirty in short-term social situations. I will toss off jokes and laugh, and look perfectly normal, and can generally maintain that for enough time that nobody looking would think anything different about me. Usually about fifteen to twenty minutes, actually. That’s not the kind of behaviour you’d expect from someone still huddled in the pit of agoraphobia secondary to PTSD, is it? Me neither, actually, but there you go.
There is a false assumption that someone suffering this, or again any mental health issue, will show it on their face like a rash (that spells “nutbar” across their forehead, maybe?) or in their general, casually observed behaviour. The simple fact is, we all have the ability to put on some armour, use some tools to manage our daily lives and the things we need to do in order to go about them. Some manage better than others, but even I can go get groceries and chatter with the cashier for a few moments if I do it when there’s hardly anyone else in the store. If you’re close to someone with this disorder, privy to their lives and changing behaviours, then you might notice things that others wouldn’t, but chances are if you’re really that close you’d already be aware of it before you managed to figure it out on your own anyway.
Even someone in the midst of a panic attack might not appear any different. Anxiety does not always manifest like they say it does in the movies. That’s dramatic license, folks. Though it certainly can, it is not always about diving under the table at a loud noise then flashing back to ‘Nam for the next half hour. It is not always the guy sitting in the corner hugging his knees, eyes wide and darting, hyperventilating. In my post The Anxiety Scale, I talked about the various levels and appearance of anxiety attacks, something I wanted to explore because I was as guilty of this as anyone once. You should sally over, it’s a good read.
And what the fork does okay really look like, anyway? Ted Bundy (a violent psychopath, you know) looked okay. Just Saying.
There are so many more of these common misconceptions, and conversations that need to be had about them, but this is a good start. Expect part the second sometime in the near future, but in the meantime, if you have any you think I should examine, leave a comment.
Be part of the conversation.