Leashing PTSD

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one of the after effects of cancer. There are no ands or ifs about it. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association (AADA) of America, PTSD is apparent when individuals “re-experience trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of an event, flashbacks, and nightmares.” I’m now four months out of my last chemo session and I still feel the effects of distress whenever anybody talks about cancer or the death of a mother, or the lonesome life a child will live after losing his/her parent. In last week’s blog I described how my middle school students wrote letters to the little nine-year-old boy named Jacob, who is dying of cancer. What I didn’t tell you is that I did not sleep much that week. I awoke with tremors every night, barely able to breath.

But awareness of a malady and action to resolve the effects are two distinctly different beasts. So, I started researching. I wanted to know what the indicators of PTSD were so that I could adopt my own approach in dealing with it. I discovered that the AADA also says that “emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma” is a definite indicator that a person is suffering from PTSD. Until last week, I unknowingly practiced this.  I left the room whenever I heard the C word. I changed the channel during C related commercials and I tried to avoid the white elephant in the room.  I hoped that by doing so, I would simply forget that the last eleven months even existed. However, something changed. Mailing out the care package to Jacob reawakened the dormant side of me that had been hiding in the darkness.

Since then I realized that avoidance doesn’t reduce fears and nightmares. Stepping into the center of the raging fire and letting it consume until it burns out is the only strategy I had not yet tried. So, I dove into the deep end of the pool!

Las Wednesday evening I spoke before twenty cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers, sharing how I “Thrived through Cancer. ” I spent most of last Wednesday feeling dizzy and nauseous. I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t for the life of me stop from trembling. The thought of revisiting what I had been through and how I had endured it was more taxing than I thought. 

I could have cancelled, I could have not shown, but both of those are characteristics that go against who I am and what I stand for. So instead, since I dipped my toe in, I decided to take a leap of faith and let the fire burn. I drove eastward towards Alhambra, where the United Methodist Hospital holds weekly cancer support group meetings.

I spent an hour sharing the mathematical formula I’m convinced helped me withstand the side effects of the chemo and go from cancer to remission in eight months. And at the end of the night, as I drove homeward, I felt an internal shift. The fear had subsided just a bit, and I knew that I could not leave this battleground untended.  

Thus, I seem to have reawakened to a new purpose, which was affirmed yesterday during a Serenity Club meeting I hold on Tuesdays, at lunch, with fifteen or so interested middle school kids.

“Please,” I said while distributing a piece of paper to each member, “take a minute to write 1 or 2 words that tells us what the word serenity means to you, what it is you feel in your heart when you come here.”

The children wrote and then shared-



“Honoring of voice.”

Then came the one that stood out, “anger and sadness.” It was the boy’s first visit to our club.

“Thank you for your honesty,” I said.

He glared.

I added, “I hope that you will tell us more when you feel comfortable, because here in this little circle of ours I’d like us to share how we cope with the anger and sadness that the world throws our way, how we learn to endure and thrive.”

I then shared a Michael Jordan quote with them: “If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up, figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”  

We read it three times and by the end the angry boy said, “I don’t think they’re talking about a wall!”

“No,” said the kid sitting beside him, “I think they’re talking about cancer, the cancer that tried to kill Ms. Marine and the cancer that my mom battled for four years. She couldn’t just give in to the sadness and anger, she had to get through it, just like what Michael Jordan says we need to do to overcome the obstacles in our lives. Even now, we never know if she’s going to live or whether it’s going to come back…”

In a room full of teens, a pin could have hit the floor and the sound would have resounded like church bells.  The angry boy sobered up, calmed down and stared in shock as his friend began to sob. The others rushed to his side, hugging him and holding tight.

“Oh son, all any of can do is share our love with those in our lives while they are here,” I whispered.

“And don’t you remember last week when we wrote letters to that little 9 year old who is dying of cancer? We never know when our end is, we just have to live and help each other through the darkness,” another kid said.

“But how?” The boy gasped.

“By counting all of our blessings. I am grateful for all of you who have shown me that teenagers have feisty spirits and voices that need to be heard. I am grateful for my boys and my husband. I am grateful for my friends and my family. And most importantly…” and that’s when it hit, I was grateful for the opportunity to relive my terror and shed some light for those that are feeling the darkness the most. PTSD is real and it is crippling, no doubt about it. But by leashing it and facing one’s fears, one can use their experiences to help others and manage PTSD as one does a trained dog.

The bell rang soon after and the kids stood up grudgingly, “Can’t we meet every day?” One asked.

“Sounds like you’re grateful for this group. Make sure you count your blessings this Thanksgiving and share your love with those that matter regardless of how painful it is,” I said as they filtered out of the room.
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Till next week, go live, thrive, have fun and do great things!

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