PTSD: When no one believes your pain is real

Posted: October 14, 2014 in Coming Home, Courage, Families After War, Healing from War, Post War Life, PTSD, Spirit Wounds

From the time I was five, I have lived with a body that subjects me to pain. Severe headaches at age five, joint pain that kept me on the sofa at age nine. Then an adolescence of debilitating fatigue, sensitivity to sound and temperatures, allover muscle and joint aches, flu-like symptoms. It would last for weeks, months at a time, then just as quickly leave. My physician father took me from specialist to specialist who ran blood tests. They kept telling me the same thing: there’s nothing with you. It must be all in your head. They ruled out a variety of illnesses and that was that. Bless my father for never giving up, even though the answer would not be found until after he had passed away when I was 18. Even the Mayo Clinic was clueless. Especially when I passed my psychological tests and they ruled out depression.

What was wrong with me? To the world, I looked fine. But I didn’t feel fine. I got anxiety every time I visited a doctor, knowing how I would be judged. I had told my story over and over and no one believed me. Even my family had doubts. They thought I was making it up, being lazy. I started to doubt myself. Was it all in my head? What did that even mean? It wasn’t until I was 22, after having been bedridden for six months with fatigue so severe that it took all my energy just to take a shower then I’d have to go back to bed, that I met a doctor who had the courage to defy her colleagues and believe me. She was on the forefront of what they were just starting to understand: fibromyalgia. Her faith in me changed my life.  (And I am grateful to say, aside from chronic neck pain and migraines, all my other symptoms receded completely.) But I know what it’s like when there’s something wrong with you and no one believes you. I know what it feels like to have people judge and question your integrity and sanity. And when you don’t get better within the timeframe they believe is reasonable, they dismiss you and often give up on you.

You know how this feels, don’t you. I know you do.

PTSD, spirit wounds, depression, and illnesses that run ahead of medicine’s understanding… people just don’t get it. They think that you’re making it up, that you’re lazy, that you’re just not sociable, that you should be able to overcome and get on with a life that feels right to them. They don’t see you. They see your symptoms and behaviors. And that’s it. When it’s trauma related, as PTSD and most spirit wounds are, they don’t understand how you just can’t let go of it and move on. Just like that. They knew you when you were strong and the idea that you can’t overcome this is difficult for them to believe. If you’ve tried for years to get better and haven’t progressed, they often tend to see weakness (instead of the incredible tenacity and strength it takes to deal with and manage that level of pain for that long).

It hurts to not be understood. It’s lonely. It ruins relationships. It splits families. It leaves you feeling ashamed that you’re not stronger and doubting yourself. The sad part is that if your wounds or illness were visible, if you had cancer or had lost a limb, people would be more accepting and empathetic. (Just to a point, though, people seem to be very quick to dismiss others if they do not recover fast enough. I know those who have visible wounds and illnesses also get “left behind” when the suffering continues.)

Why is it so hard for people to understand?

First of all, let’s be clear. I’m not talking about wanting pity or sympathy. You are tough, you’ve been through hell, you have higher thresholds for suffering and pain than most people will ever comprehend, as well as tenacity and endurance. You don’t need someone to feel sorry for you. Quite the contrary. You need someone to see beneath the pain and remind you of your strength and courage and ability to persevere.

But what happens when you have invisible wounds, is you come home and your loved ones start to see how those wounds manifest in your mood, your decisions, your ability to be close to them, what your attitude is… and what they see is someone they don’t recognize. That scares them. They keep believing that these wounds will just go away, or worse, they don’t believe that your pain is or should be as bad as you make it out to be. If you lose your job, you become a loser. If you don’t attend parties and social events, you become antisocial. If you shutdown Facebook because you can’t stand “the noise”, you become unfriendly and out of touch. And on it goes.

People hope that you will return to who you used to be. As time goes by and anger and symptoms become increasingly difficult for them to live with (cause it is damn hard to live with anger and rejection), their hope starts to fade. You do need to understand that your behavior feels personal to them — especially if they don’t know what you have been through*. You are angry because of what you’ve been experienced, but to them, if feels like you are just constantly angry at them. Anger hurts and it pushes people away. And over time, if people do not have a context to understand why you are angry, they assume they are the problem and they withdraw.

(I don’t want any family member who reads this to think that I don’t understand how painful and stressful it is for you to care for someone with PTSD and spirit wounds. It is. It takes a deep toll on you. The depth of these wounds is so deep that it hurts you, too. These are some of the most intense wounds that human beings can experience. We don’t often acknowledge that, but we need to, otherwise, we risk thinking people who have PTSD/spirit wounds are lazy, incompetent, weak, or uncaring. They’re not.)

What often happens is that people assume these wounds are temporary. That healing is fast. That there is some quick fix. When the reality is that these kind of wounds fundamentally change who you are. And that change (not the symptoms or the pain) is permanent. Unless that fact is accepted, there is no room for healing, growth, transformation, becoming someone stronger, wiser, and more whole. (All of which are possible when pain and wounds are validated and accepted and become the place to start rebuilding a sense of self and purpose.)

If you are a family member or loved one of a someone suffering from PTSD and spirit wounds, you need to realize that these wounds are deep and life-changing. There is no going back. You can only begin where you are and go forward. These wounds are not something that anyone would choose to have. They are sustained because your loved one was acting with extreme courage, willing to risk his or her life for someone else, and/or surviving.

I truly believe that if we make an effort to understand, to stop judging and try to imagine what it would be like to experience what each other has been through, more relationships can be healed. And the wounded can get that life-affirming belief in them that allows them to stop trying to justify why they are wounded and to focus on finding a healing path.

*If you don’t know what your loved one has been through and they can’t or won’t tell you, do some research on what people in similar circumstances have experienced. There are many stories out there that will help you to get an “inside” view and perspective. Know that everyone experiences trauma differently, but taking the time to imagine what it would be like will be helpful to changing how you perceive your loved one.

Comments
  1. Deb Shaw says:

    Thank you so much for being here and relaying these feelings, these situations, these actions about our “children” of war. Our men and women come back damaged and their physical wounds heal long before their spirits do. I so often forget when I am dealing with the soldiers that what thye do and say and feel…. are tainted by what happened over there. I wish I knew how to help my friends heal. One thing I do know… your writing helps keep me focused on the “why” even when I don’t understand how they could “act that way.” Please don’t stop reminding us about the “why.”

  2. Reader says:

    Hi.
    I just had a very emotional experience. I read some of the archived articles in Life After War.
    Every article validated what I’m going through, and, offered some solutions to try.
    Last night, when I literally woke up at 3:30a.m., I picked up a friends tablet to start reading from the Suicide article… Whatever I clicked on led me to numerous articles that I began to read. Actually, I fell asleep with the tablet in my hand.
    When I woke at 10:30ish, I started reading again. I couldn’t believe how well you know what I’m going through. It wasn’t long before I was in tears.
    I’ve had a therapist who knows how @#$%&* hard it is for me to cry in front of anyone, yet that @%&ing person has gotten up from her chair, no joke, walked away and suggested we change the subject when I became brave enough to open up to her about some terrible things, actually daring to let myself cry in front of her. ‘Sorry, I got derailed in my thoughts there…
    I don’t have an easy time admitting that I cry. But, you talked about it being natural and human, allowed, as something it’s okay to let ourselves do, and to tell others that we are grieving for [a] lost buddies[or, a friend, Someone close], so that Maybe those around us will have a clue when the tears do come. We Don’t have to turn it into rage to “appear strong.” Yet, when the rage is there, and how can it not be(?), you offer us safer, saner ways to get it out, than by hurting or scaring others, poss. even ourselves; or, by pretending we hurt no other when we do hurt or kill ourselves.
    If this gets put online, and you’re reading this, I want to urge you to take some action in changing your life for the better, Not by leaving it, by learning to stay in this battle for your life and mine. There are A Lot of us out here, feeling more alike than different.
    Think about what’s being said in these articles: Read the Archived Articles of Life After War. I think you can find it via Lifeafterwar.org. You are NOT ALONE, and neither am I, though the war in my head often tells me I am. And, what is war? — It’s chaos; it’s craziness; it’s a mixture of life, death, terror, pain, grief, rage, shame, self-blame, usually unrecognized (until varying periods of time later, after we’re back, or sensing a patch of safety strongly enough felt that those feelings we stuff(ed) start to come out)…
    It’s seeing sides of ourselves that are admirable, unbelievably strong, capable, competent, even fun! Then, there’s always that other shit lurking around inside and out. We can find people and things to enrage us here in the USA, too, if we look. And, I think I’ve looked to prove there were reasons for what I’ve felt inside, while avoiding where those feelings really began.
    Sometimes it came out over there in inappropriate ways (drinking, using other drugs, fighting, killing, abusing women and children, even men, in the enslavement of prostitution, or not… We know there are plenty more ways we can add to this list); sometimes we hold that fear and pain driven rage in while there. But, it’s gonna come out. It does, whether we think it’s showing or not!
    Please read the articles related to the one above. You’re going to find out that you’re less alone than you’ve thought. I’ve been reading these things, some over and over. There’s just one in the archives I haven’t read yet. I needed a break. It’s a lot to take in. And, I didn’t read it all at once. I started with one. Another day, I added another. Then, I just kept reading. And, I’m planning to reread… Maybe it’s the msg tht I’m not so F’ Ing alone! The msg that there’s nothing wrong with getting help. We called for it on the fields.
    Well, our lives are still on the line. For us, that may always be the case. But, together we Can get through the enemy lines drawn up in our minds, memories, lives. Just for today, I’m not going to give up on you by giving up on myself. All I’m asking is the same favor from you, one day at a time. I can commit to that. Will you? I will.
    All the Best,
    Reader G. USMC, ARMY

  3. Reader says:

    This address, slightly altered, should link you with an email I can access. Thanks So Much!
    The strange thing is that I sent you a msg to the email you left for me last night, and there’s no record of it in the computer, which there usually is. And, it doesn’t sound like you got it. Please try the one above. It’s close but not the same as the 1st sent. I really hope we can connect. Though, from this end, I did try your e address again, Bt same thng happnd…

  4. Richard Matheson says:

    I really dont like explaining myself everytime….i mean i really hate it. Im not good at it, i feel so much is going on that its hard to focus on one issue let alone express it. I really appreciate it that i got to read this. Im gonna save it cause it kinda made me feel better right now. So much i had to comment on a job well done

    • Thanks, Richard. I’m glad it helped a bit. The explaining repeatedly and dealing with all the subtle (and not so subtle) suggestions that your pain isn’t real is exhausting. The most important thing is what YOU believe, and you need to believe that what you are experiencing is REAL. And you are by far not alone. Please know you are welcome to email me at brittareque@gmail.com or connect on Facebook if you’d like to chat. I’m happy to do what I can to be supportive. Believe in your experience and keep room in your heart for newness. -Britta

Reach Out Here or Email Me at brittareque@gmail.com

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