A Call For True Personal Stories PTSD Etiquette: Finding the Right Words

Gift From Within is looking for true personal stories for a new resource called PTSD Etiquette: A guide to helping friends and family members find the right words to express caring and concern.

This happens to all of us. A friend is sick and we mail a get well card or bring over some chicken soup. A friend breaks a leg, we sign the cast. A bit more difficult is how to respond to the person dealing with cancer. We want to be kind and say the right thing. Even more difficult is when we’ve heard or read that a friend or community member has been through a terrible traumatic event like a rape, or an assault or there has been a violent death in the family. Finding the right words might not come easily.

We would like to invite trauma survivors to write about about how friends and loved ones were comforting at the time of their trauma, comments from friends and loved ones that were appropriately helpful. Some of the comments might have been unintentionally hurtful and you may have thought to yourself..if only they could have said… When it’s a traumatic event it is not always easy for people to know what to do.

How To Submit Your Story
We would like to invite you to contribute to PTSD Etiquette: finding the right words. We are looking for stories written by women and men who have been through all types of traumatic events for our website and possibly a booklet. If you are not sure whether your story is appropriate please send us a note. Sharing true stories of what words worked and what words did not will benefit all of us. The stories can be 150-400 words. Please let us know if we can use your first name or just your initials.

Here are a few of their stories.
“I don’t know if it’s being a “Wednesday Child” or simply bad luck but I have been in the wrong place at the wrong time most of my life. At the age of ten, I experienced the 1964 Earthquake in Alaska and all the strong aftershocks that went with it. I must say that as a child, I found the whole thing quite entertaining and had absolutely no idea the devastation that would follow.

What scared me the most were the reactions of adults around me, from the radio announcer screaming “don’t panic” every minute and my aunt claiming we were having “the last supper” that night it was hard to do anything but be frightened. What helped was being close to my family and my dad reading from Tom Sawyer to us every night. We had no electricity, water or heat except for a propane stove. At least we had that. Neighbors would come and huddle to stay warm. If I could suggest anything to anyone about natural disasters and children it would be to try and not inflict the fears of adults onto the kids.

I have not forgotten the warmth of my dad reading that story. I have children and I’ve learned how to be loving and supportive and how to be there for my son when he was traumatized during his HS years. Three of his best friends who were related were murdered. He is dealing with this slowly and what has not been helpful from supposed friends is telling him that it’s been five years…he should be over it. Please don’t say things like that. We heal differently and not on your time schedule. I have recently taken a leave of absence from my social work job as the constant work with abused women and children was starting to be detrimental to my mental and physical health. I am dealing with anxiety and depression and other PTSD symptoms. My new job and a supportive husband allows me the time to concentrate on being the best mom I can for my children. I found helpful information on the Net and books and also found Gift from Within. I heard Dr. Ochberg’s tapes and for the first time I realize the ending of my story is hopeful. Likewise for my son. PTSD doesn’t have to be a permanent condition. That knowledge is what helps the most.”
“While going through a lesbian battering relationship, my friends did not understand the dynamics or seriousness of the situation. Whenever I talked about what was going on, they tried to convince me of the positive attributes of my partner. They avoided talking about the obvious bruises even though they were aware of previous victims. It was especially difficult as this was my first lesbian relationship and I felt pressure to make it work as my family did not readily accept my coming out. It would have been helpful to have had a friend say “The abuse is not your fault. It is wrong.” Or have a friend ask me “What can I do to help you?” It may have been helpful for my friends to educate themselves on the dynamics of abuse and ways to support someone who is being abused, particularly in a same sex relationship. I went to couples counseling with my batterer and found it helpful that the therapist focused the responsibility for the abuse exclusively on my partner which gave me validation. I am an artist and if you look at a piece of artwork I created called The DOOR you may understand how other battered women feel.” – Stacie.
“My childhood was pretty messed up. I lived in what is commonly referred to as a dysfunctional family. My mom neglected her children and her husband. As a result my father withdrew from his children and was unable to deal with his own pain. My mom had affairs and so life was chaotic and difficult. My father tried to commit suicide under a tree in our yard and I found him. That was quite traumatic for me. I was never quite the same. I closed myself off from people. When I was in Junior High a classmate asked me why I was so quiet. I didn’t quite know how to respond so I told her that I “think a lot.” She mentioned she had an aunt like that and she went crazy. That remark affected me deeply. I thought she was probably right. I was very serious, and came up with play fantasies involving self-sacrifice. This should have alerted the adults in my life that I had no self-worth. I had ideas also way beyond my years and this gave the adults around me the impression that I was quite odd. They voiced their puzzlement to me and did not respond with the extra care and compassion I needed from them.

I married a man who turned out to be abusive. I mistook his possessiveness as caring. Having a role models is important and it’s something I try to do for the younger women in Gift From Within. I was scared of him. People who I thought would have been understanding haven’t been. A coworker, normally supportive, commented that if I really wanted to leave I would. Even more devastating was when the new man in my life asked me if I enjoyed being abused. What would have helped was if he would have said, “I’ve tried to help you and I really don’t understand why leaving is so difficult for you. But even though I don’t understand, I’m here for you and I love you and I won’t give up on you.”

I’ve had several people say to me “that’s all in the past, why can’t you let it go?” What would be helpful is for them to understand that I do not choose to hold on to pain, rather it holds on to me. I would like those individuals to say instead: You must have suffered horribly to have it still bother you. What can I do to help? How can I be supportive to you? I really want to be. And I want you to help me understand because I care about you.”

My new love also asked me once if I held on to the past so that I could be a part of “that support group” and to get attention. Once, after I spent an hour trying to explain PTSD and the effects of trauma on the childhood undeveloped brain, he commented, “I just can’t buy that.” I was crushed and vowed to myself to never speak of it again with him.

It would be helpful for our loved ones to pledge their support, whether or not they ever understand why we suffer with our anxieties and at times, profound sadness. I would say to those who would like to learn how to give support to consider these truths below:

Believe me;
Be patient, I do not want to be a burden to;
Accept that my pain and my disorder is as real as any other physical disability or injury, even though you can’t see it;
Understand that I would never hold on to this if I had a choice;
I would like to cast these feelings into the far reaches of the universe and banish the pain and bad memories from my mind forever.;
If I don’t mind being touched then hugs are great;
If I say I just need a moment, or I cry for no apparent reason, just wait for me to come back;
I want to be whole and happy and, other than my dark times, I will be there for you.” – Patti B
“I belong to a support group in Maine and we had an unusual and challenging problem occur with one of our members. Seems the member was in crisis and had to be hospitalized. We as a group were uncertain as what our role should be in regards to calling the member, visiting, sending a card, things of that nature. We have since decided as a group to put together a form that each member can fill out if they like, with information on how they’d like to be supported by the group if they are ever faced with hospitalization. We have yet to work out the logistics of the form, but we as a group are working on it now. We were all determined to honor each member’s requests and it’s great working as a group to come up with such a vital piece of information.” – Heather