Lisa Arends does an effective job in writing about the aftermath, the fallout, of a life-changing shock, on the abrupt desolation of her marriage. The read is a well done walk through all the PTSD and repeating changes that occur, which is depicted in a letter written to her by her exited husband, the commentary on the letter under the umbrella of the devastating changes she experienced, emotionally, physically and logistically are a walk through the fact that PTSD is not just relegated to victims of war, but to any life encounter that uproots your very existence in a shocking manner. She’s a likeable author, an engaging woman, that you take to and feel for, because she portrays the story, the horror she lived, with veracity and integrity, to allow the facts to unfold on the page even if they point a finger back to her (ie: a text from her spouse to his mother-in-law, Lisa’s mother). Devastation upon devastation unravels and what we hold onto dearly is lost, not just in the relationship but also in the family built around it, fury and otherwise. Arends navigates through this debacle with grace and humility, filled with emotions that are painted with strokes that are sure to offer others in similar situations some reflections and ground; she labels as “Lessons” chapter after chapter, ultimately culminating in what she has learned, valuable life lessons, applicable to anyone. But, this is not just a self-help work, or a read for someone in a similar situation, it’s a compelling story of the frailty and misconceptions we all live with, the thin line of trust & betrayal, confidence and fright, love and rejection, all the things that make the paradoxes of life and keep a balance, hopefully the balance stays in some semblance of equilibrium. In Arends case she tilts off the scale and by the Grace of her very nature, the love of her family, and whatever else strength she draws from she journeys through to meet what is most precious to all of us, connecting and opening to trust (applause to Tiger, no spoilers) despite all temptations not to, and in doing so, learning the ultimate, that love does conquer and cannot be soiled by another’s shadow cast upon our soul.
In the book, I never name PTSD. I only describe the events and my reactions. Yet, here was a third party who deemed that to be an accurate label.
Then, yesterday, a post from Out of the Chrysalis (Does PTSD After Divorce Exist? You Better Believe It) showed up in my inbox. I totally related to her description of her experience.
And I do believe it. PTSD happens when your mind cannot process the extent of the trauma. It’s like a short circuit in your nervous system, where you have trouble distinguishing between real and perceived threats. We tend to think of PTSD as occurring only in life-threatening situations, but it occur anytime there is an acute or prolonged trauma. Not all divorces lead to PTSD, but if it is sudden or abusive, the trauma can be severe and sudden enough to lead to PTSD-like symptoms.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the following are the symptoms of PTSD:
Symptoms of intrusive memories may include:
- Flashbacks, or reliving the traumatic event for minutes or even days at a time
- Upsetting dreams about the traumatic event
Symptoms of avoidance and emotional numbing may include:
- Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Avoiding activities you once enjoyed
- Hopelessness about the future
- Memory problems
- Trouble concentrating
- Difficulty maintaining close relationships
Symptoms of anxiety and increased emotional arousal may include:
- Irritability or anger
- Overwhelming guilt or shame
- Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much
- Trouble sleeping
- Being easily startled or frightened
- Hearing or seeing things that aren’t there
After I received the text that ended my marriage, I experienced many of these symptoms. I had the flashbacks and the dreams. I had trouble thinking and remembering. I couldn’t sleep and I frightened easily. But, most of all I trembled constantly, my autonomic nervous system was on high alert, waiting for the next assault.
At first, the triggers were everywhere. Driving along the road that passed by my old house felt like traversing a field with buried landmines. I fully expected an explosion at any moment. I responded as though every mention of his name was literally a threat to my life. At any moment, I could be catapulted back to instant where I received the text. It was as though the phone was always in my hand.
My psychiatrist that I saw that first year stopped short of a full PTSD diagnosis, but she mentioned the disorder and selected medications that are used to treat it. I honestly don’t think I would have made it through without the medications. They allowed me to sleep and eat – two things I could not yet accomplish on my own.
Over time, the triggers decreased. I learned how to sleep and eat without assistance. I stopped the medications and was able to use meditation and exercise to reduce any symptoms. I can still feel the shadows of the trauma when I feel like I’m being abandoned again but, for the most part, my mind and body no longer confuse real and perceived threats.
After my divorce, I learned that most people assumed that depression would be the disorder de jour after a break up. They expected me to be sad and withdrawn. Instead, I was hyperalert, shaking and always on the lookout for the next blow. It’s important to realize that all divorces are not the same and we all respond differently. There is no ‘right’ way to be after a divorce. The labels can be helpful but even they only tell part of the story. Be gentle and understanding with yourself and others. Seek the help you need and know that it does get better.
I wrote more about PTSD after divorce on The Huffington Post.