And it might surprise you when it does
When it hit me just above my heart, I flinched, flailed my hands to remove the object, and burst into tears.
It was a wad of paper, tossed by a friend from the balcony a couple floors above me to get my attention.
Instead, I got everyone’s attention by my overreaction.
Embarrassing. An episode of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Not from a combat zone. Simply a throwback reaction to a time when something less benign did hit me. It fell from above, landed on my head, and wrapped itself around my neck.
This is how it happened
My oldest sister, Cyndi, was getting married, and her bridesmaids were sleeping in my bedroom. My other sister, Trish, and I, relegated to a camper parked in the woods near our house, had to walk to the house to use the bathroom. It meant traipsing through pitch-black darkness if I needed the facilities at night.
Our house was odd — an old, wooden farmhouse with two bedrooms, one bathroom, a kitchen, and a living area with a wood stove. Previous owners had added a large, bar-like den, dark with walls trimmed with burgundy, padded leather and red bricks and the occasional gold-splattered mirror for effect.
The entryway from the den to the main house was bricked, a large oval. And as if to make the bar-themed den fit with the traditional farmhouse, the owners had tricked out the entryway to the living room with the same bricked oval design.
(I used to wedge my backside against one side of the brick entryway and climb my feet halfway up the other side, just because I could.)
Outside, this addition also sported red bricks and an exterior door that didn’t quite fit the gap it intended to fill. The mortared space between the bricks made it easy for a snake to zigzag its way up the wall. The gap above the door made a perfect place for a snake to rest after that wall-climbing journey.
Until a young teen needed to use a bathroom desperately enough to brave the dark trek to the house. The trek I feared. Reaching the door to the house meant safety.
Except that when I opened the door, I got a snake necklace.
I wasn’t in any danger, really. It was a common chicken snake, likely as startled and frightened as I was.
I don’t remember anything about that traumatic moment other than the sensation of something weighty falling from above and entangling itself around my body.
Did I scream? Did anyone come to my aid? Did I fling the snake away from me?
The PTSD diagnosis
PTSD develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. Nowadays, we most often connect severe PTSD with military personnel returning from war zones. But trauma takes many forms. We can experience it ourselves or only witness it, but the feelings can stick and revisit at the slightest hint.
“PTSD symptoms are generally grouped into four types: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions,” according to the Mayo Clinic. “Symptoms can vary over time or vary from person to person.”
Intrusive memories might include flashbacks, bad dreams, frightening thoughts. Avoidance behaviors might mean refusing to think or feel or visit places, objects, or events somehow related to the trauma.
Negative changes in thinking and mood might include difficulty in remembering the details of the experience, distorted thoughts or feelings, or loss of interest. Changes in physical and emotional reactions are what I experienced. Clearly, I was easily startled and upset and physically reacted, too.
A counselor diagnosed me with PTSD — not because of the snake incident but because of my first husband’s sudden death. Bill, age 25, died unexpectedly after ulcer surgery. He had suffered a bowel obstruction from an ill-timed medical test and ruptured at the site of surgery, ultimately dying from sepsis poisoning.
Because his ulcer presented oddly, we had gone through months of tests and treatments, scares and sufferings until doctors provided what should have been a “simple surgical fix” for my dear husband. Those months had driven both of us into a closer relationship with the Lord — and his sudden death felt like the wrong ending to a faith-filled story.
Frankly, it felt like nothing less than an attack from Satan. More so, it felt like Satan’s victory.
Like my PTSD with the snake — and how ironic that it was a serpent, the form Satan took in the garden — my PTSD after Bill’s death made me fear what Satan would drop into my life to strangle me, to make me pay for my complete surrender to God.
I found it hard to read my Bible — let alone study it in depth. I listened to teachings on cassette tapes and the radio, what I called my “liquid diet” spiritually. I clung to God. I leaned into Him for understanding and my own healing. But I also held something of myself back.
For I feared what Satan might do. When Bill died, I had been following God whole-heartedly, leading women’s Bible studies at church, teaching children’s church. After I had worked through the grief and recommitted my all to God, I met and married Steve.
That “magical,” God-ordained union was fraught with difficulty. Years and years in which I failed myself and God and felt tricked into a marriage that was not as advertised. (Although Steve had promised it would be “an excellent opportunity for personal growth” and was; I had underestimated how painful personal growth could be.)
My attempt to self-protect
Maybe if I flew just under Satan’s radar, I could serve God unnoticed and encounter fewer obstacles?
I think that was when I subconsciously began living less than “all-out” — maybe not just for God but in everything.
And yet I didn’t stop entirely, nor did I stop trusting God. Deep inside, I knew I could trust Him. Outwardly, no one would have noticed my reticence. Inwardly, I held back a little bit of myself. Protected me as much as I could.
How does that relate to PTSD? Life tends to train you, doesn’t it?
Like the PTSD with a snake, I could have had any object hit me from above — a paper wad, a pine needle, a spider (which probably reinforced my PTSD) — and I instinctively reacted as if it were a snake.
Clearly, I didn’t have a second husband who died suddenly, but the trials I did encounter, I attributed to Satan — as I had the awful death of Bill. I feared Satan more than I trusted God to help me walk through any difficulties I might experience.
Like the PTSD with the snake, I wasn’t aware of my issue until I overreacted to the paper wad. I didn’t realize I’d been holding myself back from going all-out for God until I quickly answered a question meaning to guide my writing life. I was asked to reflect on the message God wanted me to share.
My scribbled response showed me I had been holding back. “He loved me when I held my heart close for fear Satan would attack me and hurt me even more. For years and years,” I had written. But it also showed me I knew God was sufficient — to getting me through whatever I faced and worth it.
“God is enough,” I had written in that same reflection. I did not need to fear Satan because I wouldn’t face anything alone.
A better set of initials
When I first started reflecting on my PTSD, I began by reflecting on MOPG — the initials I started to use to describe God that same summer in which I reacted to a friendly wad of paper. The initialism stands for My Own Personal God, for that was how I viewed our heavenly Father.
That year in college, I had awakened to the truth of the Gospel — that Jesus had died for me, paid my death penalty, brought me into a right relationship with God that wasn’t dependent on my feelings or my goodness. Prior to that, I relied on my feelings — and if I didn’t feel close to God, I assumed He wasn’t close to me.
Knowing that my salvation was based on what Jesus did and my acceptance of that gift relieved me of that hefty burden of feeling I had to perform perfectly. That summer, especially, I sensed His love and His blessing on my life — His gift because He loved me, not because I deserved it. I knew God saw me and had His hand on my life. He was my protector.
He is my protector still. He is MOPG. (So much better than PTSD!)
My husband rotated my tires yesterday, and he found both a screw and a staple embedded in my tires. Either might have caused a flat, he told me. I had had no idea those hazards were there.
But neither the screw nor staple caused me harm. Now they cannot, thanks to the protective, vigilant care of my husband. It seems a picture of MOPG, my own personal God.
Even though I’ve had troubles and trials that make me want to fly under Satan’s radar, how many troubles and trials have not bothered me because of the protective, vigilant care of my heavenly Father?
I may never know. I do know this. I can’t fly under God’s radar (and likely can’t fly under Satan’s either). But I can live in the knowledge that God loves me and personally protects me — because He’s with me always.
I realize I had PTSD “light” (and trauma “light”) in comparison with many others who suffer. I don’t mean to make light of this serious illness. But I do believe God, MOPG, who’d love to be your own personal God, too, can be part of your healing. I hope He is.
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4 thoughts on “Experience or Witness Trauma? PTSD Could Happen to You, Too”
Since I went through this years ago with you; it was good to have this memory appear! This will always be with you! However, you have Overcome! 😀 Aunt Claire.
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Amen to that Love you, Aunt Claire!
Thank you for sharing this amazing and vulnerable piece. You are incredibly brave and I love how there is so much faith embedded in everything you do and your life. I also have a fear of snakes ( I think due to my travels through the Thai forest) too.
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Thank you, Sothy! I imagine your encounters with snakes through the Thai forest would be more dramatic than my snake necklace! Have you written about that experience yet?