Amazingly, it’s been well over ten years since the accident that forever changed me. If I look back to that fall day in 2010, the memories come flooding back with an intensity that can make me quite uncomfortable. So much life has happened in the years since. Events both good and challenging have defined the last decade. In many respects, I’m a garden variety member of the human family. But like anyone with a heartbeat, there is so much more than meets the eye.
While I don’t wake up every day and say, “Today I am going to make the most of my life as a brain injury survivor with PTSD,” that is exactly what I do. Looking back with the perspective that comes only with time, my journey has been defined by a pretty consistent one-two dance. I move forward for a while, only to backslide a bit, and then I move forward a bit more.
The net result is that slowly, over the course of many years, I have come to a place that I never expected. But after all these years, there are times that forward progress stalls, and I find myself going in reverse. It's always hard to admit when I'm backsliding. It's humbling to admit that some of my better times are behind me. I get angry when I set unrealistic expectations for myself that can't possibly be met.
But is it unrealistic to expect today to be better than yesterday? If not better, at least the same as yesterday? “It's not supposed to get harder now,” I tell myself, knowing that it can and does get harder at times. Yet here I find myself, struggling with PTSD again.
Last month, my wife Sarah and I got away for a few days, our first meaningful time away in close to a year. Both now fully vaccinated, it was time to take our first careful and measured steps out of our bubble and into the world at large.
For well over a year, we remained justifiably cautious. Like so many others, we wrestled with tough choices, sacrificing time with friends and family. Last month we avoided planes, crowds, and people by choosing a destination in rural Maine. Acadia National Park is an outdoor-lover’s paradise!
While packing for our trip, I never suspected that PTSD would steal a ride with us, but two of our four nights away found me with the type of horrifying PTSD episodes reminiscent of the early years after my accident. It's both frustrating and disappointing on so many levels. There were no triggers that I could attribute my night terrors to. There were no crowds - long a source of discomfort well before the pandemic took hold. There was no stress - nothing that would indicate that bad nights were going to define our first vacation since early 2020 - just a couple of terror-filled nights.
It’s not the first time that I’ve awoken in a hotel room from a PTSD episode. It’s not that much different than being at home as I pull myself forcefully out of my nightmare, heart racing, and breathing like I’ve just completed a marathon. In an all-too-familiar ritual as I hear Sarah’s voice softly helping to pull me back into the present. We’ve done this hundreds of times over the ten years.
After coming to grips with the fact that yet another near-death experience existed only in my mind, I try to get back to sleep, always wondering what will come next.
I've long since learned that PTSD has no rhyme or reason. It has a life of its own. Sometimes I can connect the dots with times that it rears its ugly head. Other times, times like last month, it just is. It's part of the fabric of life, even in the most idyllic of places.
Looking back through the prism of time, it was a truly remarkable getaway. We saw countless deer, bald eagles, osprey, and immersed ourselves in a rugged, rocky coastline unlike anywhere else in the world. And in that looking back, I see my growth. We were able to get off the grid, have a wonderful time, and come home recharged - in spite of PTSD.
While this may sound small to some, compared to the absolute torture of a few years ago, it's real and meaningful growth. To be able to coexist with PTSD, and not let it define me is no small task, nor did it happen overnight.
Early on, I was told that time was my friend. While this was shared with me regarding my recovery from a traumatic brain injury, it equally applies to getting my feet back under me as someone who struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. My life may not have unfolded the way I thought. At least while I'm here, I'm going to live my best life possible.