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Heroes, Monsters and Martians: The PTSD Epidemic in America

Posted Jun 27 2013 7:01am

PTSD awareness1 Dear America,

Today is National PTSD Awareness Day; an auspicious day to share with you some truths about posttraumatic stress disorder that you don’t yet seem to fully grasp. Even after 9/11 and our decade-plus war, there’s still often confusion about what causes PTSD, how many of us suffer with it and some other very salient points about coping and recovery.

This lack of education causes problems for PTSD survivors sweating it out in doctors’ offices, mental health programs and communities from sea to shining sea. By learning some simple facts, however, you’ll be just that smidge more up to speed that you can stop seeing us as “permanently damaged, like a broken bone – even when it’s reset it’s weaker than it was before” as one psychiatrist commented, and instead see us more as another expert expressed it to me: “PTSD survivors are like Martians trying to live and assimilate on Earth.”

In truth, America, you’re not to blame for not knowing that PTSD is a disorder not a disease, that often it can be healed, that it affects women twice as frequently as men, and left-handed people more often than right. Why would you know these things if PTSD isn’t your personal concern? The problem is: PTSD is your personal concern. We Martians are everywhere. Given that you’re sitting next to us on buses, trains and planes, in cubicles and carpools, in restaurants and movie theaters, here are five things you need to know so we’re all on the same page:

Contrary to skewed media coverage, combat is not the sole cause of PTSD. As a matter of fact, even in the military, rape has ranked as a predominant PTSD source for both women and men. In the civilian world, you can add natural disasters, car accidents, medical dramas, child abuse, child sexual abuse, and domestic violence, to non-exclusively name a few.

The number of people struggling with PTSD is not, as the National Institute of Health would like you to believe, as low as 7.7% of the population. What those of us struggling with PTSD or working in the field know is that many survivors do not disclose their mental state to the tallying clipboards. Thousands of survivors lack health insurance and do not have access to the mental healthcare system. Thousands more remain undiagnosed due to professionals’ unskilled assessments. Even thousands more mask, avoid or deny symptoms attempting to live an unlabeled life.

Despite Dr. Phil’s opinion, people with PTSD do not transform from heroes to monsters. Simply: Your biggest moment of temporary fear is our round-the-clock lifestyle. As Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, knew “an abnormal reaction to an abnormal experience is normal behavior.” In every moment, though it may not look pretty, we are doing our best to mitigate the frequent  overwhelm of our executive function by our more instinctual, reptilian brains.

We are being overmedicated by professionals who do not know what else to do. While there are many ways to heal, PTSD is not such a simple ride as the monorail at Disney World. It’s more like an Etch-A-Sketch tablet: scribble as much as you can and eventually a design emerges. Just because we’re not healed immediately does not mean we need three prescriptions and the advice, “learn to live like this.”

Lastly, every single one of us contains enormous healing potential. Whether symptoms have been present for two months or over two decades (as was my case before 100% recovery) healing is imminent. With advances in neuroscience and widening acceptance of alternative modalities the opportunity for relief exponentially increases – but you have to believe it can happen. Without belief healing becomes impossible.

The DSM-V was released last month. While there was a big hullabaloo about the changes in PTSD diagnostic criteria the fact is that no one outside of the clinical world really cares about the criteria. We care about making PTSD relatable so that it comes out of the ivory tower of theory and into the streets where we live. Those of us who have now or have had PTSD can tell you – better than any diagnostician – what PTSD looks and feels like, plus how it impacts our lives, and yours too. We don’t heal in isolation; we heal in community. Acknowledge us, reach out; ask what it means to have PTSD. We’ll tell you.

Michele Rosenthal is the founder of  HealMyPTSD.com , a post-trauma coach, and the author of  Before the World Intruded: Conquering the Past and Creating the Future.

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