Sunday, April 15, 2012

Love, War and PTSD

Take just a minute to look up at the header on the page. It says, "Stories of hope, love and recovery, all mixed with a healthy dose of humor." Here's the funny part: Over the last (almost) four years, we have gone through that list literally and I didn't even mean to, it was just a tagline I came up with to give my blog a bit of zip and pizzazz that I thought accurately summed up what I had written to that point in 2010.

I never thought for a moment we'd do the list in that exact order, but sure enough, we have.  We first went through the struggle to find hope; then we stumbled, floundered and unwittingly fell face down into love; now by some miracle we're on to recovery; and to my utter disbelief we did the whole list with laughs along the way. The only part that distresses me is that a lot of people, the second they look at the word "recovery" immediately think of substance abuse, not about marital demise or other illnesses we've been dealing with along the way. Well, we're turning the page and getting more into the Sophomore's version of the "recovery" aspects of life.

Before we get started though, I just have to say that right around now I'm really, really grateful for having the blues over that blue t-shirt, without it I wouldn't be sitting here as happy as I am right now.  The Ace has trumped the Sophomore and oh am I glad. Houston: We've finally landed, authenticity and heart beat the Palms 9.

I've said countless times that it's great to be in a relationship with someone who shares your illness.  I personally love it.  I've come to the point that I've realized how empty my life was until I found someone who truly understands and knows in his heart what is going on in my very broken brain. The bonus is that I'm slowly but surely getting there when it comes to my partner in crime. I think it's the greatest thing on two feet to be with someone who knows EXACTLY what you're going through and will go down swinging for you because they know what's going on.  It's like having a mind reader in-residence.

I'm beginning to think that Ace and I are a great example when it comes to PTSD and relationships. Actually after searching for hours, you'll find that Ace's and my story is one that I don't believe has been seen in print before. I searched endlessly for books, articles, even the smallest story about a couple where both partners live with PTSD and I didn't find a single one, so guess what, we're breaking new ground.  If you find anything like mine and Ace's story anywhere out there, please drop me a line in the comments section and I'll make sure to get a link up about it.

Currently the only things available for couples with PTSD is very one sided, with only one partner having the illness, but not both. I only found "assisting your partner who has PTSD" nothing at all about a couple going through the trials of being together with the illness icing on top. Let's face it, being in a relationship is already hard enough, adding PTSD into the mix from both sides, that's something else entirely; it's a story that every PTSD afflicted couple will identify with. So, "Love, War, and PTSD" is something new that I hope you will enjoy, that I hope will make you think and hopefully will help you understand our illness a little bit better.

Please don't let the lurid pandering of the media only reporting horror stories about PTSD color your understanding of the illness. It's a serious issue to deal with, but we can also look at it with a fresh pair of eyes that allows us to not just label something and follow the lemmings off the cliff in mistaken beliefs, but allow ourselves a moment of understanding so that those of us with PTSD are better understood and embraced by the world. If Ace and I can live individually with our own PTSD then help each other heal, I think that is a story worth telling, if not shouting from the rooftops so the rest of the world can look on and understand that with PTSD comes not only heartbreaking stories, but heartwarming ones as well.

 Before I began writing this post, I went through and did some research.  A few observations are:

  • Gen X has a high rate of PTSD because of the overwhelming number of individuals in that generation that were physically, mentally and sexually abused as children.
  • C-PTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) isn't widely talked about.
  • There are a huge number of couples where both partners are afflicted with PTSD but we rarely hear about them.
  • PTSD is villainized in the media when there are truly good, hope-filled stories to be heard about individuals who not only live with the illness but are doing well with therapy that works for them.
At this point, if you're a regular reader, you know that there is a pattern forming here. I've got C-PTSD and Ace has PTSD. Two very traumatized individuals in one relationship and it's given the "you, me and us" paradigm a whole new meaning. That's why the last 10 months of posts have gone up, down, angry, depressed and every emotion in-between.

However, this is where it starts to get really good. Why?  Because Ace took me with him to see his therapist over at the VA. Now, the whole goal of me going with him is that I'm there to assist in his PTSD therapy, but at the same time, guess who it helps as well? Yep. Me. So guess what? I'm going to be documenting how we're doing, opening up a whole new chapter in the life of the Eternal Sophomore.

I had a good, long cry the other night because it seems as I'm not alone anymore. Now if you had been through everything I have from the bullying, abuse, violence and abandonment-filled past that strips away any chance for anyone to get a shred of trust from me, to finally be able to hold someone's hand and NOT feel alone - it's a very "holy crap" moment.  Scary? Yes. Different? Yes. Wonderful? Beyond all of my imagining.

When you have PTSD like Ace and I do, you have to look at the criteria for our illnesses. Go ahead, click the link I gave, it's a whole new world for those who don't suffer from it, so take time and give it a read.

So to review, this is our handy little list.  Both he and I have it and we've also got the added gravy of attachment issues.
  1. Stressor
  2. Intrusive Recollection
  3. Avoidant/Numbing [Behaviors]
  4. Hyper-Arousal/Hyper-Vigilance
  5. Duration
  6. Functional Significance
Now with Ace, his is mainly combat related, but it would be a lie of omission not to relay that he has some of my issues as well.  His therapist needs a pseudonym, so I'm just going to call him "Jay".  He is a sweet guy and it only took him 60 seconds to take a look at how we act together to nail it, looking at us and saying, "A PTSD couple.  Nice." Put bluntly, when we sat down with Jay, he spoke to me for a while and said, "Wow Ace, you do know how to pick 'em.  She's your exact mirror image. This relationship is a match made in heaven. But it's also a match made in hell. She triggers you, you trigger her, and when you guys are pushing each other's buttons, it's going to go south really fast." But then he pulled out the big guns. Ace and I both have acceptance issues. We also have neglect and abandonment issues too. Talk about mirror images?  His issues arise from paternal acceptance while mine are from maternal acceptance.  Oy veh.  You want to talk about two people who's lives thus far have been almost identical?  That's me and Ace. Oh don't even get twisted, he has his own version of the BHFB as well with his cheating wife.  Yeah kids, we've got a match made in pure PTSD-filled heaven.

Then Jay really took me down a peg or two when he brought out a large easel sheet that he and Ace had been working on together  in the weeks previous. There on the page in black and white was my Ace of Hearts, all of his issues and things I know all about, but then Jay went and pulled a fast one on me, he looked me dead in the eyes and asked, "Sheri, how much of this do you think involves you?" I sat dumbfounded thinking, No way, that's all him, and replied, "I'm not sure." Jay looked at me and said, "All of it is about you. That's how much he cares and thinks about you." I felt like I was in Doc Cat's Personal Growth class all over again. Feeling like there was a stake holding me in the chair, my tear ducts decided it was time to irrigate my face because tears involuntarily started to fall.

I guess you would have to understand where I am coming from when I was told that. You have to remember, I have been severely neglected most of my life; in childhood, during my marriage, all of my life has some sort of neglect and abandonment tied to it. A lot of my friends will probably vouch for the fact that I thrive on approval to the point of needing it like some other people need food.  Pathological need for approval and acceptance?  Without a doubt. However, my avoidant tendencies come out and while I strongly disapprove of lemming-like following, I hide the fact that I do want acceptance and approval from my partner because I think it's normal to want that, but I put up an "I don't need you" front as a way of protecting myself. But here's the problem: I have never once in my life felt truly wanted until Jay looked at me and explained to me that Ace's avoidant behavior was because he wanted me in his life, wanted me around him and that I was (and this is the huge, huge deal) important to him, the problem is that his avoidant tendencies make it so he can't talk about it.  Ok stop. I've never been important like that to anyone, at least in no relationship I've ever known. Jay made me understand that Ace truly wants me around but has problems expressing it. I was floored, I teared up and had no idea what to do with it.  Accepted? Needed? Me? No way!

Remember how I wrote a while back that Ace doesn't "say", he "does"? Meaning that he'll never say he loves or adores anything, but he'll do everything in the world to show it? To him, talk is cheap and often is a lie; in Ace's world actions speak louder than words. The problem is with me, I need to hear it because that's what I deem important...hell, look at me, I'm a writer! I live my life hammering on my red-hot anvil-like keyboard, smithing out carefully crafted words and phrases - he's Mr. 140 characters or less... see where things like to get muddled up?

At that point I sat there just absolutely blown away, it was at that point that I realized I have never been so very loved. But here's the kicker, Ace wasn't saying it, he was doing it. When that realization hits you and you've never felt that before, oh yeah, it's going to feel like a major gut-check. I couldn't breathe and I most certainly couldn't speak. (Even writing about it makes me tear up.)

Remember, acceptance and approval issues stem from trust. Ace and I both have trust issues that make the Herculean Labors look like child's play. For the last 10 months both Ace's and my acceptance and approval issues (and ultimately trust issues) have wreaked havoc on our relationship (hence Jay's referring to it as the relationship from hell), but what is so bizarre about it is that while my avoidance issues manifest in a strong flight reflex, Ace's avoidance issues manifest themselves in being unable to verbally express his emotions.  It's a bizarre mix that for some reason works.  I think it works because both of us have heart, fortitude and tenacity for miles.  When you've been through all that we have, it only goes to reason that the expression "weaker have perished" comes to mind.  Ace and I are made of some pretty stern stuff (and we're both bull-headed to boot).

As you've been reading over the last 10 months, Ace and I both are filled with avoidant behaviors. One marriage apiece down, both of us are commitment phobic because of the betrayal he and I both have seen and because of that, you can cut the tension between us with a knife at times. But there is one overwhelming fact of it all: over the last 10 months we've both found out that trying to breathe in and out without the other nearby is close to impossible.

For me, breathing in and out without him sucks because our communication as a couple is phenomenal. A lot of couples shy away from working on their relationship because people mistakenly think it's supposed to be easy all the time. Well, it's not. Relationships require love, understanding, emotional maintenance and a whole lot of work. If someone sold you a bill of goods saying your relationship should be easy all the time for the rest of your life, return it to them and yell "LIAR!" in their face. Trust me, look at any fairy tale you read growing up and look at how much trouble the Princess and her Prince Charming had to go through to get to that happy ending you love so much! "Relationships are supposed to be easy," riiiiiight, you just keep on thinking that way and while you're at it, wave at the sandman for me as he whisks you back into your dream world.

You want to talk about two people unafraid to put the "work" in on our relationship? That's me and Ace all the way and I'm proud to say we've been like that from the beginning. (After all, those of us with our illness can find each other in a heartbeat.) We know our symptoms and we're slowly working through knowing each other's triggers (Ace is doing much better at it than I am), it's every day sitting down and making sure that when we unwittingly hit a trigger, we back down or do something to repair the damage.  Don't get me wrong, we trigger each other, we fight, we go up, down, sideways, backwards, temper tantrums, anger issues, rejection issues, stepped on and mangled toes, and somehow at the end of the day we've found that we've ridden them out because even though I tried my best to avoid it, my tenacity and fortitude has found it's match.

We've been through me fighting to accept our relationship with me crying, kicking, screaming and throwing him out the door, but as a testament to his overwhelming strength, Ace wasn't about to give up on me, and we both joke that our relationship has aged in dog years because of it. Put yourself in my shoes for a minute and imagine for one second what that is like for me; after being neglected, abused and abandoned, a man stood in front of me and wouldn't give up and wouldn't let me go, even when my issues would be at their worst, he stood in the eye of the storm and held strong.

That right there should put your stomach in the vicinity of your shoes. It did mine.

After a while because of his unrelenting pursuit of me and our relationship I just gave in to the whole idea because I finally figured out there was no way in hell he was going to let me get away.  I termed it as contracting a fatal illness. I caught him and ya know, that's just the way it is so I figured I should just suck it up and learn how to live with it.

You have to understand, I'm so very proud of my man and I'm proud to be honored by him calling me his girl. Ace is beautiful in every way a person can be beautiful. The blonde hair mixed with dashes of silver, the scruffy chin, the earth-rumbling deep bass of his voice (girls, if you heard him talk, you would swoon), his smile and oh! those blue eyes of his...let's just say that just one of his mischievous looks and that million dollar smile of his will make my knees buckle in a heartbeat. He's just all that AND he has played Myst, and yes my peeps, he gets it and has a fair (very unknowing) portion of cavern blood in his veins! I got an epic win when I met Ace, but with all those good, highly nutritious values of his comes PTSD. Some girls would weep at that, but not me, it makes him that much more adorable to me because "he's one of my people". He's got it, I've got it, it's just a fact of life like the fact he and I both love Dr. Pepper, warm days and ice cream, that the kitchen is a place to be highly organized, have fun, cook and feed each other wonderful things.

Our illnesses, a lot like any other character flaw you might find, both for him and me, likes to sometimes mess us up. Hyper-vigilance can screw up a daily schedule in a heartbeat if one or both partners get scope-locked on something or worse we get so hyper-vigilant we derail ourselves from what we were trying to get accomplished in the first place. Or worse, both of us like to take on too many responsibilities because we can't bear to tell people that we can't do something for them, so we get caught by the toe over doing our best impression of Atlas trying in vain to carry the world on our shoulders. Think about it, we've been denied emotional support and assistance for a good majority of our lives, so for us there is no other option, you get down in the mud and you help, no matter the cost to yourself. Trust me, the word "selfless" is a very, very real term in our relationship. Selfish people don't do well around either of us at all. Selfish people are no more than fodder for drop-kicking around us.

Then on the other hand, you have me and my strong flight reflex.  As you know, every human being has a "fight or flight" response built-in. It's a survival instinct. For me, my childhood was filled with constant humiliations; the kids I grew up with would literally hurt me because they loved seeing me react to it. "Oh we just love the look on your face when we did that to you" was a lot of what I heard back then. Couple that with living alone with a maternal influence that never had a good role model to work from along with an abuse-laden childhood of her own and you've got a little girl in a world of hurt. My instincts were always to hide or run from conflict or a situation that would result in a very painful, humiliating dressing down or extremely verbally-abusive punishment. "If they can't see me, they can't hurt me" was a lot of my rationale back then.

Until Ace came along, no one understood what that felt like even if I would try to explain it, but after a beautiful summer with long hours spent over ice cream, margaritas and a whole lot of daisies, I realized he really did understand what I had been through and it scared me to death. I felt exposed and vulnerable, which as you know, ridicule is not something I handle well, so having any weakness exposed immediately makes me block or run for cover, leaving him with the equivalent of the Roadrunner to his bewildered and confused Wile E. Coyote: a puff of smoke and a vapor trail of where a girl used to be. But then without me knowing it, my flight reflex made him feel rejected and abandoned which triggered him. See where our little vicious cycle started? It's like Jay said, "He triggers you, you trigger him and it all comes down like a house of cards." This is the essence of being in a PTSD relationship.

But, here's the kicker... there are a lot of servicemen coming home to their spouses and not having the benefit of the other partner having the same illness, so it's hard for them to understand. Let's blow it out a little bit bigger and look at the households filled with Gen-X'ers who don't know they have PTSD or C-PTSD going through the same situations with a partner or spouse who has no idea what they are dealing with. That's the point here kids, we've got to recognize what's happening around us. When we're aware, that's half the battle won right there.

And yet with all of my issues triggering his issues and my need to disappear, Ace persisted (which still makes me look for the boxes marked "Acme" in his house) chasing after his Roadrunner-esque partner.

His presence alone with all that he knew taunted and dared me to trust in him. But, of course, I have PTSD, so when I see anything that frightens me or reminds me in the least of my trauma (go back and look at the list again) my survival instincts kick in and my flight reflex kicks in in a major way, putting Ace in the middle of a fight he couldn't win, effectively forcing him to carry baggage he had no business carrying and wondering why I was running away from him as fast as my size eights could carry me.  

But as I said before, Ace isn't about "say", he's about "do". I watched as he kept doing amazing thing after amazing thing, then he'd politely step on himself and trigger me, which then triggered him, equaling a nuclear-sized explosion, charring both of us and resulting in having to put each other in "time out", so by the time we hit Jay's office, the dog was looking at the both of us as if to say, "Knock it off you two or someone's going to be missing their rear end. I might be older than the hills but let me tell you, I can still bite with the best of them." Yep, by the time we started to expect a monthly blow-up, we walked into Jay's office.

When Jay sat and talked to us, it wasn't long before he said, "Look you two, you're both very traumatized individuals, you have every right to feel the way you are feeling, but enough of this back and forth blow-up business.  If you two want this to work, you've got to commit, and I don't mean half-ass here, I mean 'all the way' commit. You two have to learn how to trust each other, if you don't, then you two are just going to keep up this vicious cycle you two have working and guess what, no one is going to end up happy. You either commit or you get out."

As you can imagine, after Jay laid the hammer down and explained exactly why Ace couldn't express his feelings (which by the way are the exact same reasons I run from things) he excused me from the session to dry my eyes and he and Ace could do their one-on-one. I walked out of the Jay's office and man oh man, did I feel like I had been through the wringer. As I walked out into the sunlight, I couldn't breathe. I finally had answers to the bajillion questions that Ace wouldn't answer, that I had time after time felt frustrated that he would duck, dodge, weave around or just plain ignore my requests for information (or validation). I had needed to feel accepted and clearly understand how he felt about me, but his issues prevented that from happening. When Jay explained that all of my needs were being fulfilled but Ace couldn't talk about it because of his issues, I sat in shock. For the first time I honestly felt accepted, but let's add the deal-sealer, I stood there just in awe over the fact that he truly did love me, come hell or high water. I stood there and just wept, and I mean involuntary tears just streaming from my eyes over the absolute shock of it. I'm still digesting the whole idea that someone actually wants me around. That's so foreign of a concept to me that my mind is still reeling from it. I've never felt wanted, ever, and here's this amazing yet troubled man who just thinks I'm the kitten's whiskers. I'm still trying to choke it down and get used to it, but it's different, that's for sure.

You see, Ace is just as beat up as I am. His dad was really (and I mean really) hard on him. I won't even lie, there are days when Ace and I are having trouble (because of our triggers) that I don't like my mother or his father very much at all. It takes all of what I've got and then some not to become volcanically angry that Ace and I had been through so much inside the supposed "safety" of our childhood homes before we went out into the world just to get stomped into the ground some more. However, like any acceptance-needing child, we both look to our offending parent, searching for the acceptance we long for; then when we don't get it, we try to forgive them, then try to understand them to the point that we can get past being angry at them for not accepting us or believing in us. Ace is super forgiving with his father, just like I'm more than forgiving with my mother. My problem is that I want to understand fully how I got to where I'm at, and I have gained all of the necessary information, but as I always say, "An audience won't hear your message until they're ready to understand it." So I keep my chin up and pray that one day that my mother accepting me for who I am isn't the end-all, be-all of human existence, that accepting myself is truly the answer; but I won't lie, it's hard to do when you don't feel it from the one person in the universe that would make all the difference in the world, knowing that even if she'd tell me, I still wouldn't believe her because the whole concept of trust went out the window long ago.

But then I realized something - Ace and I individually had decided, before we even met, that the cycles and the things we've been through had to stop with us. We're not about to perpetrate the same injustices on someone else as we had done to us. Yeah, it takes a lot not to rip someone's head off or scream back every time our triggers get stomped on by the outside, knowing perfectly well our triggers didn't have to be there in the first place. But alas, those triggers might love to persist but that doesn't mean I'm not going down swinging to make it right so I can live a happy life.

But then Ace has his combat issues on top of that with (check the list) "Intrusive Recollection". As I said earlier, Ace doesn't talk about the things that hurt him. He doesn't really talk about anything emotionally involved because it triggers him huge. From what he has told me though, he's seen things from combat that no human should ever see, but as a soldier, that's a part of life in the military. On the day I had the Rice Krispies meltdown in the kitchen, he was having his own little meltdown on the road. He's been to Afghanistan, (I almost feel like saying "What soldier these days hasn't?") and well, as he was driving in from Arizona he got caught in a dust storm.  Between the obscured visibility from all the sand flying around, then seeing the mountains, well, Ace got transported back to Afghanistan in that moment. He had to pull his truck over, get out and walk around because he literally felt like he was right back in the combat zone. His brow covered itself in sweat and he sat shaking from it. When I heard about that later, I was so grateful that he walked in to find me laughing and giggling, giving him the sense of normalcy that is so very important to him.

Normalcy is actually very important to both of us. We need to feel very safe and normal for us to get through the day in one piece. I've got my own "Intrusive Recollection" problems as well, and wow, to talk about those is a whole other kettle of fish and this will be the second post I'll avoid talking about it. (Yeah, yeah, I know...avoidance...) However, I'll go this far...there are lots of days where I can still hear the taunts and sneers of the bullies that tormented me, the evil smirk on the boy Anti-Christ's face that signaled his satisfaction and great joy that he had once again tormented and humiliated me in front of all of those children. There are still television shows and music I can't listen to from the 80's that will do the same thing to me that the dust storm on the road from Arizona did to Ace. Let me tell you, it's not an easy thing to go through because you can literally see, hear and smell that exact traumatic moment, down to the last detail. I can even remember colors and patterns on clothing. It's not pleasant and it literally makes me nauseous. There have even been a few times where I've thrown up because I can't take the sensory overload of re-living a traumatic moment like that. "Intrusive recollection" can and will bring you to your knees if you let it, other times you can't help it, you're just screwed until you can get to feeling normal again.

The most important thing that Ace and I work on every single day is to make sure that when we have moments of intrusive recollection that we automatically take that moment and turn it into something positive, effectively re-writing our responses to the particular stimuli that triggered the intrusive memory, but I won't lie, it's hard, hard work to get through it. When Ace is with me and I'm going through it, I look into his ice-blue eyes, take a big, deep breath and recite my mantra in my head, "How old are you? 40. Where are you? Las Vegas. Are you safe? Yes. Can they hurt you any more? No." Then I coach myself through breathing in and out thinking, "That's it sweet girl, just breathe. Just slow down, look around and figure out where you are.  You can do it, I know you can. Don't cry. Chin up. Come on, you can do it!" Then I hold on to Ace's hand and he never fails to wrap me up in his arms so I can get a nice sized bear hug from him and feel protected. After a few minutes I start to feel better as my world of here and now comes rushing back into existence, transporting me back to the present. I'm just so glad to know I'm not alone when it happens and that I can and will do the same for Ace when it happens to him.

Part of Ace's problems lie in "deprogramming". I can't speak for any other soldier I know, but I do know that Ace's PTSD becomes evident because he's having trouble adjusting back to the regular world that you and I know and take for granted. Remember, when he (or any soldier for that matter) gets trained, they go through some pretty horrific stuff. The only example I have experience with (that Ace has been willing to talk about) is the whole "combat nap" paradigm. You see, those guys have to be ready at a moment's notice to defend themselves because they never know what's going to come around the next corner, much less over the next hill, so they're trained to be extra-vigilant. Remember, what's coming around that next corner or over the next hill has a chance of literally trying to kill them, so their senses are super sharp and they're hyper-vigilant almost 24 hours a day. Check the symptoms list again, that's the Hyper-Arousal/Hyper-Vigilance thing.

The sad part about hyper-vigilance is that once those fellas are programmed that way, it's really hard to come back from. When you've been trained to be hyper-vigilant on purpose because you're going into a combat zone, I'm convinced that it really messes up how those fellas sleep for the rest of their lives. When I'm hyper-vigilant, forget all about sleep, it's not happening, but Ace, that poor, sweet, darling man...I'm always amazed if he gets more than two or three hours at a stretch of sleep. Every time he falls asleep, I give a huge sigh of relief, look at him and think to myself, "He sleeps" and I'm grateful for it, hoping and praying that for once he sleeps a full eight hours, but alas, I never get my wish, he's usually up every three or four hours, he'll cruise around the house, make sure all the doors are locked then crawl back into bed. It breaks my heart every time his sleep is interrupted.

But let's ice the cake. When I was doing my paper for my media ethics class entitled, "The Media, The Military and PTSD", we talked about why fellas like Ace are so tuned up all the time. He said, "PTSD sufferers struggle harder with lesser tolerance because they’re at an elevated level of functioning. Where everyone else gets their eight hours of sleep per night, we don’t. We’re constantly on guard because that is how we are trained.” He continued, “Everyone else gets to relax, so when they wake up in the morning, they are at a low level of stress. On a scale of ten, they wake up at a 'three', when we wake up, we’re already at 'seven', I’ve never once seen the media report anything like that, and they wonder why we’re so keyed up.”

The one thing I've learned in the last 10 months is that while all I need is silence to sleep well, Ace can't really sleep well unless he can hear crickets chirping or some other ambient interruptable noise. I need to explain the whole "interruptable noise" thing. Ace explained it like this,"When you're asleep outside you know that the crickets, frogs and other animals will be scared off if someone is walking around nearby; it also enables you to hear a noise when it disrupts the sounds the animals make." Meaning that he can sleep knowing that the crickets and frogs are singing, it tells him that he's safe. Then there's Lucky. If Lucky barks it's a sheer miracle (you know how I love that dog), but if he's asleep in the room with Ace and he barks, guess what, he just told Ace something isn't right and Ace pops out of bed like a pop tart flying out of a toaster. But Ace's favorite thing to go to sleep to is the sound of frogs. He's a frog fanatic and I don't blame him, we've spent hours going over pictures of Poison Arrow frogs because he and I both love them and want a wall sized terrarium filled with them so we're both lulled to sleep by the singing of frogs.

But let's talk about hyper-vigilance in my world before we delve back into Ace's. I think mine might be easier to understand and a little bit more relatable. I gave you the Wikipedia definition there, so take a moment to familiarize yourself with it. Odds are, you've experienced a mild form of hyper-vigilance, but it's really different when you suffer from PTSD.

Let's look at me for a minute. Let's talk about the bullying once again. Imagine, just for a moment, that you are surrounded by constant threats. Kids pushing you, kids threatening you, kids belittling you, then having authority figures threaten and belittle you as well. It's all forms of attacks on your person. So after a while, your body goes into survival mode and you're trying anything in your power to protect yourself just to simply survive. While you're going through it, there is no "safe" place, no safe harbor, just endless torment. Now, prolong that sensation over days, weeks, months then years. All of a sudden it's not just about survival, it becomes something you do automatically and when even the slightest feeling of attack or persecution hits've just been triggered and you go into the state of just protecting yourself.  Nothing anyone can say can get you down out of that, you have to ride it out and find some way to make yourself feel safe. Hence, that's where my strong flight reflex comes in. If I feel attacked, I'm going to immediately want to go home and hole up with my 34-year-old teddy bear because that's what I've done for the last 34 years to feel safe and in control. Yep, I live like that every day. Not pleasant, is it? On the other hand, Ace's reflex is that he gets frustrated and angry, and I mean really angry. Then he clams up. He expresses no emotion but this roiling anger over the fact he can't change the situation he's in.

Now, let's go back to Ace again. Not only does he have the same type of history I do, but then let's add on bullets flying through the air at him in a combat zone. If you're like me, you are thinking that that man needs major hugs and a protective blanket of love wrapped around him permanently. However, it doesn't work like that. Ace isn't a touchy-feely guy when it comes to him interacting with the world and when that trigger goes off for him, oy veh, I want to run for cover, but it's like Jay said, "You've got to commit." So I do everything to hold my flight reflex in check and remind him that it's not as bad as he thinks it is, just like when my trigger kicks in and he has to do the same for me. The one great differentiating factor between the two of us is that his anger issues are very surface. Last night I had to quote the movie Twister when he had been triggered and his anger was raging, I giggled (which always makes him feel better) and said, "Someone should warn them about your temper." At that point, I kind of feel helpless, but I can only imagine how helpless he feels when I get like that too.

Anger is a staple in our world.  It is. Look at today. It's tax season and nothing will set Ace on edge like dealing with things like doing his taxes. He's got some issues there and they're not for me to touch (yet) but I sat and watched as he became so angry over just about everything, and I looked at him and said, "Hey, it's not as bad as you think it is." When the papers went flying across the table and I was watching him lose it, I remembered Jay and said out loud, "You can be as angry as you want to be, but I'm committed! Now we're going to get through this, just like we get through everything else. If I don't get to fly, you can do me the favor of not getting so upset. I'm how about giving me one in return." After that he cooled off a bit, he hugged me and said, "You shouldn't have seen me get upset. I'm sorry, you shouldn't have been here for that." I just rolled my eyes. For all the bull he's taken from me, a small blow-up like that is nothing I can't handle. I at least owe him that.

I realized long ago, knowing that he had been through anger-management therapy, that Ace was going to get mad now and again. It comes with the caveat that he can sometimes get that irrational kind of angry which I know is not directed at me unless we're having a knock-down, drag-out argument (we've only had two in ten months which I deem as 'not bad').

Most of the time, Ace just gets angry because he knows there are better ways to do things. His big thing that makes him the most angry is hypocrisy and bureaucratic red tape. Oh yeah, those two things will set him off quicker than a fuseless firecracker. One bit of heat and boom! He's off like a rocket, so I know not to touch those things. When he gets mad, I think about the times that I see red and the triggers associated with it. Half the battle is knowing the trigger then the cool-off point, also known as things that get his mind on other more pleasant things.  Usually, I just give a little giggle.  See, I'm covert like that, I figured out that nothing gives him more joy or lights him up faster than when I'm giggling and smiling. He loves my laugh. I have no idea why, but he does. The minute I get onto something that makes me laugh he forgets all about being angry. Trust me, the distraction tactic works because when I'm upset like that, if you plug me into a video game I forget all about what upset me. The minute you can figure out what defuses a trigger, the better off you are. But then again, I know where he's coming from because if I see Ace laughing and smiling, I immediately cool off.

You see, living through love, war and PTSD isn't easy, but the returns on the emotional investment are huge. I have a partner who not only understands me, but I have a unique peek into my man that most other women will never be able to get into theirs. But then again, I don't have one of those football watching, aloof guys either. I have to give Ace kudos, he's very much present in the relationship and thanks to Jay I can see him in better and different lights that help me read Ace's body language, the expressions on his face and know when I can step in and help out.

Individuals with PTSD are very special people. They've been through things that you don't ever want to experience and their spirits have been forged in the hottest of fires. We have been exposed to prolonged trauma and when you think of it that way, it begs to have some bit of lenience because we've seen more hurt and pain than most other people who grew up in a very "Ozzie and Harriet" or "Leave it to Beaver" household or lived their lives without a hint of danger, taking normalcy for granted. We've been beaten, we've been torn up and torn down, yet we survive. Sometimes I like to think of my PTSD as a badge of honor, it means that you can come at me with your best, most malicious shot and I'll probably laugh at you thinking, "Is that all you've got?  Really? Amateur! Keep trying, one day you might get it." LOL. And people wonder why I get upset when I see people do malicious things. The need to slap them into next week and tell them,"The de-wormer is in the pet aisle" is overwhelming. People. They never fail to make me laugh. The ones that make me laugh hardest are the insecure ones that only strike out at others because they feel inferior; when the truth really is that it's all in their perception, that there is really nothing wrong with them besides their Napoleon Complex or their own issues that they need to go work on without making everyone else their emotional baggage bellhop.

PTSD is an illness, we can't get around that, but some days I wish it will be eventually re-named as People That Survived (other people's) Drama. We're tough stuff and we deserve every bit of the acceptance and love that every human being on the planet deserves.

If you know someone with PTSD, please give them a hug for me and remind them that they're not alone. The biggest and best thing you can remember is that your PTSD afflicted friend has been through situations that would make other people crumble. That they are getting up, getting out and being a part of the world is nothing short of a miracle. There are a lot of people who PTSD just takes down for the count, who's illness has taken them to places they would have never gone unless they were so traumatized they couldn't handle it any other way (that's why you see such a huge number of addicts in the PTSD population). It's the ones who have hit the bottom and are fighting to come back strong that are the ones who deserve your love, your patience and most of all, your respect.

One other thing, PTSD does not make us bad, lowest-caste citizens. We are just as productive as anyone else, we just have special needs and special considerations to take into account. Those of us with PTSD are no different than you are, we've just seen and been through traumatic events that you may not ever see in your lifetime. That we're standing is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, our ability to adapt and survive. That I can write and tell you about it is nothing short of pure bravery because I want the world to understand that PTSD doesn't mean "outcast", it means "survivor."

I have C-PTSD and I'm proud to be me. I'm even more proud of Ace. He's seen combat along with everything else and I couldn't be happier than to have a man in my life like him.  He has my illness too and I think he's adorable.

For the song of the day, I'm going to go with one from 1990, Big Audio Dynamite's "Bottom Line"...
When you reach the bottom line, the only thing to do is climb, pick yourself up off the floor, don't know what you're waiting for...

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