I had been told several times during my twenties that I probably had some form of PTSD, but since it didn’t hit me in the same way as it did war veterans, I took a strange comfort that it wasn’t the “same kind of ” PTSD that I’d heard about. In fact, it’s a common misconception when people hear about mental illnesses that everyone who has PTSD has it the same way, that everyone who is bipolar has it the same way, etc. It makes sense to order it in our minds that way when we’re fortunate enough to not be having to deal with it. Mental illnesses are like any other type of illness in that they manifest in as many ways as the people who have them.
Starting in about Jr. High, friends in one of my classes figured out that I had an exaggerated startle response. In other words, when they would do some sort of game like waving their hands in someone else’s peripheral vision, the person might move a little. I, however, jumped. I’m not sure why I remember this. In some strange way it was comforting to me, because they hadn’t teased me about it (I guess they thought it was some kind of superhuman reflex) and it was also some kind of proof to me that I wasn’t okay, even if my parents tried to pretend everything was normal at home. Jr. High was also a difficult time for me, probably the worst of my growing up years at home, which translated easier into difficulties feeling like I fit in at school. I went from “brainy” and mostly normal to “struggling socially.” Not too different from a lot of kids in that stage, unfortunately. I found out later that out of my siblings, only one enjoyed Jr. High.
I have two kids, about 4 years apart. My daughter is the youngest and was born in Los Angeles not long after 9/11. My former husband and I had gone through a couple really hard years, followed by a small amount of peace (during which time my daughter came to be) and we moved to L.A. for him to finish graduate school. I was going through severe postpartum depression and constantly on myself, thinking I was doing everything wrong. As my ex once put it, “Do you think you’re responsible for everything that goes wrong in the world?” At which time I realized that I did, and that it was odd, but I couldn’t seem to make the feeling go away.
We lived in student housing next to the 405 freeway, and not far from the intersection with the 10, and about 10 miles south of what they said was then (and still may be) the “busiest freeway intersection in the country.” It was a nice neighborhood. West L.A. is a nice area. It is still L.A., though, and we frequently heard traffic and news helicopters outside. Once I was walking back from a friend’s place in the student housing complex, and a helicopter passed overhead and on a loudspeaker someone said something similar to, “please stay indoors, suspect is in the area, on foot. Police are in pursuit.” Not terribly comforting. Needless to say I quickened my pace and told my family.
The kicker for me in realizing that it wasn’t “just” Postpartum Depression (which is not a “just” for anyone, of course) and anxiety was when I was feeling overwhelmed, which was what I’d come to believe my life would just have to be like, and my kids were watching tv or playing in the family room and my ex husband was either walking by or sitting there. A helicopter passed nearby, and in a split second a felt a HUGE adrenaline rush, and I fell to the floor and covered my neck like we used to do in earthquake drills in CA in elementary school. It felt like there was a war right there, like the terrorists had come to Los Angeles and we were about to die. Then in another split second I realized what had happened: that I was “okay” and we were okay, and that it was just a helicopter (and I have never been in a “literal” war zone), but I was not okay. I just started to cry, wondering what was going to happen to me.