Living With PTSD – Taking A Victory Lap

David and his wife in front of graffiti art

To say that the day a teenage driver ran me over was the most pivotal day of my life would be an understatement of epic proportions. My entire life can be easily segmented into two parts: life before the accident and life afterward.

Over the course of my post-accident life, I was dual-diagnosed as having both a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis. Now, well into my thirteenth year since my accident, I have a very good working relationship with both of these chronic conditions. I’ve met many others over the years who also share both brain injury and PTSD as part of their own new narratives. For some, living with a brain injury, and all that encompasses, is the more problematic of the two, while others, including me, have found Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to be the greater challenge.

It took me many years to become familiar with how to live life as a brain injury survivor, but these days I do pretty well. I am better at setting limits and understand that pushing beyond them most always comes with a heavy price. That doesn’t always stop me, but even the consequences of pushing too hard are predictable. Slow processing, speech challenges, brain fog, and cranial pressure are all part of the brain injury hangover that comes with not honoring my limitations.

PTSD, on the other hand, has been my nemesis. Like a tide, there can be a subtle ebb and flow to living with PTSD, but when the PTSD tide comes roaring in, I suffer. Singularly, the biggest manifestation of my PTSD is night terrors, and with those, the type of nightmares that make a Stephen King book look like a kindergarten primer. Not one to suffer needlessly, I sought professional help. Over the years, psychotherapy and EMDR both provided very limited relief. They would work for a while, only to have my PTSD come roaring back in. I likened it to building up a tolerance to medication. The PTSD always won.

Thankfully, there has been a very gradual abatement of these horrific night terrors. For the first few years, bad nights came up to 15-20 times a month. It was torturous for both me and my wife Sarah. Somewhere between years seven and ten, they slowed to only three to four bad nights a month. While still far from perfect, it marked a dramatic improvement over the early years. A few bad nights a month were sustainable, and I simply accepted that this was the way things would be for the duration of my life.

We built our new life largely around avoiding triggers. No more crowds and no more live concerts, we opted for more pastoral activities like finding and exploring flower gardens or local woodland trails. But not everything external can be controlled. My dad, now in his ninetieth year, almost died last December. And like a solid fuel booster drives a rocket into space, my PTSD instantly catapulted off the charts. By unlivable circumstance, I jumped back into something that had shown to offer relief: VR Virtual meditation. I doubled down on mindfulness, applied box breathing to life stressors, and diligently blocked off fifteen minutes every morning for my daily VR meditation.

The positive results were almost immediate. In fact, just last week, I found data from a rather large scientific study that concluded that for most people, VR meditation had a positive effect on their quality of life.

But on March 6th I woke up after yet another night of abject terror. At the time I had no idea that something was about to change. First, a week passed without a bad night, then another, and another. I celebrated quite heartily when the one-month mark came and went. I went a full month with solid, restful sleep, something that hadn't happened since before my 2010 injury. A few more weeks passed with no night terrors. Secretly, I started to wonder if I could finally close the door on that chapter of my recovery. How exciting that sounded - a reality where I could look back and say, "Thank God that's over!"

Just last week, out of the blue, without provocation or cause, I had a bad night. It was, in fact, one of my most abysmal nights ever. My initial reaction the next day was one of despair and hopelessness. I had allowed myself to think the unthinkable: that I could win the battle against PTSD.

Life really is all about attitude. It's not so much what happens to me, it's how I react to it, and how I move forward that has the greatest effect on my quality of life. Sure, I can look at it as a setback, eyes cast downward, and lament how terrible fate has been to me. With this outlook, I am all but guaranteed to be unhappy. But I chose a different way to frame last week's experience. The reality is that I've only had one bad night in almost two months. Same experience, just a different way of looking at it.

Life will remain unpredictable. Of this, I am quite certain. But I am also certain of this: if I choose to lean decidedly optimistic, life gets easier - not only for me but for those closest to me. And for today, I am indeed taking a victory lap because one bad night since March 6th is certainly worth celebrating!