My mom’s birthday just passed. She would have been a young 68 years old. Like last year, I went to the cemetery to take her flowers. Visiting her grave on special occasions is a kind of ritual for me now, and I don’t expect that to really ever change. It’s part of my healing, and my healing is going to be a long road, I’ve realized.
Sure, the grief is lessening, but other issues remain. Or I should say, have revealed themselves, like my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Now, I knew I had anxiety. I’ve wrestled with that for some time. In fact, I mentioned that to my mom her last week with us, while she was in hospice, as a way to try and make some atonement for losing my temper with her at times. I apologized to her and said my anxiety can make me irritable.
Just weeks after my mom passed, though, I began to notice some persistent changes and problems with my mind and body. Things I hadn’t really noticed before. As I researched and learned through counseling, they were definite signs of PTSD. Before I explain my experience, here’s what the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) says about it:
“Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event… Nearly everyone will experience a range of reactions after trauma, yet most people recover from initial symptoms naturally. Those who continue to experience problems may be diagnosed with PTSD.”
It’s well-known that PTSD is something experienced by many combat vets. Experiencing the death of a loved one, however, is also traumatic and can lead to PTSD in survivors, especially when the suffering is prolonged.
Mental health advocates have a name for this. It’s called “traumatic loss.” Two researchers define it the following way:
“A death is considered traumatic if it occurs without warning; if it is untimely; if it involves violence; if there is damage to the loved one’s body; if it was caused by a perpetrator with the intent to harm; if the survivor regards the death as preventable; if the survivor believes that the loved one suffered; or if the survivor regards the death, or manner of death, as unfair and unjust.”
My experience with my mom meets most of these “check boxes.” Over the course of many years, I lost my mom twice, once to her mental illness, the second time physically. In her last two years, the time she lived with me, her kidney disease would gradually take over. I witnessed her lose her physical strength and increasingly pre-age. And the violence? I saw, firsthand, how my mom was the victim of institutional discrimination, abuse and neglect. My heart broke over and over again, in many ways, in this whole ten year plus ordeal.
The sadness and guilt were as intense as I figured they would be, after my mom passed. But as I got better at navigating the murky waters of grief, I started to notice those other changes and problems.
For one, I was restless and uneasy. I would pace between rooms in the house at times. I didn’t recall ever doing that before, aside from the week my mom was in hospice. I liked to relax whenever possible. What was this about, I wondered?! I began noticing, too, that something was going on with my mind. Thoughts were racing and intrusive, and I would be a bit forgetful. I wasn’t able to “zone out” by just watching TV anymore. I had to, also, navigate and skim things on my computer, when watching a TV show. Memories and moments of despair played like songs on repeat in my mind, like the time my mom told me, about a month before she passed, that she didn’t have the strength in her hands to cut zucchinis for Albondingas soup. That was the last time she helped me in the kitchen.
I started to realize that it was like I was stuck. Stuck in my role as caretaker for my mom. Stuck trying to fight my hardest to keep her alive. Stuck dealing with, and often pushing back against, her doctors and hospital administrators, monitoring and assessing her condition every day, counseling her to take all her medicines, and then keeping her as comfortable as possible in hospice.
Yea, I was stuck. My body and mind didn’t know how to turn itself off or even how to lower the volume. Part of them, I’m sure, didn’t want to. I just wanted my mom back. How dare the system take her away from me, from us, so unjustly and prematurely! To accept my mom passing was to accept that we ultimately lost the “battle,” so to speak.
The restlessness, intrusive thoughts and hypervigilance I just described are classic symptoms of PTSD. I, thankfully, don’t have nightmares. But my sleep isn’t great. More than a year after mom passed, I still wake up a few times during the night, as if she’s still here. She’d wake me up, for different reasons, or I’d wake up to go check on her. And rare is the morning that I am able to sleep in past 7:00. I used to get up at that time, like clockwork, to give my mom her morning medicine. I can still be tired, but my racing thoughts won’t let me go back to sleep easily.
And irritability? Check. Anger? Check. While I experience these emotions at times, for what appears to be no logical reason at all, unrelenting intrusive thoughts summon them easily enough. As for flashbacks? Sure. When I see a homeless person or when I’m at a doctor’s office for a medical checkup, my blood pressure and anxiety easily rise. I’m back there, again, in some fashion.
All this said, I am in counseling and doing my best to take care of myself. I was 8 months into my grief counseling when I started to see another counselor for more formal treatment. He would diagnose me with PTSD. I’m also experiencing low-level depression, which makes the self-care part of my healing hard sometimes (I have little motivation to cook), but my counselors say I’m doing very well, all things considered. Still, I know I need to find a meaningful purpose. I need to find peace. I need connection with others. I need understanding. It’s a long road and will probably always be a winding one. But I’ll persist and continue to heal because I know my mom would want me to.