Yesterday, 26 years after the fact, I had a flashback to the accident in which I lost my right leg. I thought I no longer had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Clearly, I had underestimated its persistence.
I have, more or less, done well since the accident—with psychological therapy, the support of friends and family—and excellent prosthetists. But it didn’t take much to bring me back to the day when an Olds 88 jumped the curb and barreled into me while I was holding my three-year-old son. Miraculously, my little boy was unharmed. If circumstances had varied by a few inches or moments we surely would have been killed.
About five years ago I had another PTSD experience. I had been asked to counsel a woman around my age who had recently lost her leg. I was happy to do so. We talked several times and I hoped to show her by the example of my own unspectacular, but mostly happy, life, that despite her loss and the very real discomforts and difficulties of disability, she, too, would eventually feel better and find purpose and even joy again. But I couldn’t get through to her. And her impenetrable despair summoned up the madness I experienced following my accident. I started down the rabbit hole again. I had to stop contacting her.
Yesterday’s flashback happened during a physical therapy session. Although needing PT is a reminder of my disability, it had never before triggered PTSD. My therapist couldn’t be nicer or more capable. She has helped me immeasurably. All she did, for the purpose of learning more about how I use my body, was ask how I would move if something were about to fall on me. But at the time of the accident, when I saw the car coming at me, I had had to make a decision about what to do, which direction to go in, in a millisecond. I heard the question and was instantaneously back to that moment. It didn’t last long, but it was frightening and disorienting.
I have read a bit about trauma, most recently the excellent The Body Keeps the Score. I knew that trauma, like a virulent invasive species, takes root not only in our minds but in our bodies and is almost impossible to eradicate. I know my son has been dealing with what happened his whole life. Yet I was surprised at my reaction, my feelings of panic and sadness, so long after the event.
There is more awareness these days of PTSD and more treatments available—although, sadly, this has a lot to do with the number of traumatized veterans. An analysis done in 2014 found that the rate of PTSD in soldiers returning from Iran and Afghanistan as well as in veterans of Vietnam to be as high as 31%.
Overall, about 7-8% of people in the United States will have PTSD at some point in their lives. Knowing first-hand how intractable PTSD is, I can only hope that everyone who suffers from it gets the help and support they need.