Last night, the far North Side of Chicago was hit by a massive storm, including microbursts that caused extensive damage. 75 trees were ripped out, roots and all, and hundreds more were severely damaged. Cars were smashed in, windows blown out. My best friend and another 6,500 people are without electricity on a 95-degree day 100% humidity stretch of days. And at least one person was killed during the story, and many more were injured.
Luckily, the home I share with my boyfriend is fine. Our back porch plants are shredded, and my community garden plot down the street is severely damaged. But they’re just plants; they’re not people, or pets, or homes.
You may wonder why I’m writing about this today. Here’s why: I have PTSD.
In August 2008, I was living in a condo with my now-ex-husband about a mile from where I live now. The same thing happened: one minute the skies were gorgeous, the next, my ears popped, and an intense sound swooped down on our home. Having grown up in hurricane territory I knew this wasn’t just a thunderstorm; I knew it was a tornado or something similar. I locked myself in a closet, holding the door shut, while our building was practically destroyed around me. I thought I was going to die. I prayed and thought about people I loved.
When the storm finished, I climbed out of the closet to see complete destruction. Long story short: Our home was ripped apart, flooded, and we spent the next seven months rebuilding. We had a ton of help from so so many people, in person, online, through financial donations and prayer and words of support. We were incredibly lucky to have all that help.
It wasn’t just physical rebuilding. I was damaged mentally from the experience.
If you’ve read about PTSD, you may know that it is commonly triggered by life-threatening experiences. It’s common among people who return from war, and among people who have been severely abused — and people who have faced death. I have faced almost certain death three times now in my life, and I can say that the previous two incidents can’t hold a candle to what happened in that storm.
The side effects have impacted my life for seven years. Slowly, and with a ton of help from professionals and medication and meditation and desensitization, I have been able to handle my PTSD. I still have symptoms during big storms, and when I see photos of storm damage. But it hasn’t been severe.
Then last night happened.
And I was triggered so hard. Joe and I were driving when it happened, and we pulled over to a safe spot to avoid the worst of it. When it was over, we tried to continue our driving plans, but as we drove by ripped out trees and damaged cars I started to panic. Not just feel some fear: I mean, real panic. Life-gripping, breath-stealing, body cramping panic. I choked back hysteria.
As the day wore on — as we checked our garden, which I’ve lovingly tended as my children this summer, I faced devastating loss. As we came home and saw the damage on our back deck, I was reminded of the intense damage to my old home back in 2008. As we drove past dozens and dozens of downed trees and devastated automobiles, the panic kept setting in.
I felt as if I were right back there. The terrifying feelings are so real; it’s as though I’ve been transported back to that summer of 2008, when I faced the possibility of death, and the grueling months of rebuilding our life.
Therapy: Doing good
My best friend’s electricity was out, so Joe and I brought over a cooler of ice and cold drinks to her and the kids. The darkness of their home, the wet verdant smell everywhere outside, the blackness of the streets with no power, the teams of neighbors out in the streets cleaning up — it all brought the past back to me. I had to fight not to vomit out of sheer terror. But helping people I love — as people helped me back in 2008 — really helped calm me a bit.
Will it ever end?
I keep thinking that seven years is enough, that I should’t have PTSD anymore. I keep hoping that I will stop having such a strong reaction when these storms happen. But I think that no amount of therapy and medication can make it “go away.” I believe I’ll always have some degree of these symptoms, but how I deal with them makes a huge difference.
So today, I’m going to clean up our porch and celebrate any plant that was not destroyed. I’m headed over to the garden plot to salvage what I can and celebrate that we only lost some plants. In the grand scheme, we got off easy.
Taking those actions helps. So does medication. So does taking a media diet, a.k.a. not reading Facebook for a day or two (those pics of uprooted trees make me nauseous). I’m going to work, too, sink into my responsibilities as much as I can. And I’ll be providing much-needed air conditioning and laundry facilities for my BFF. Again with the helping. 🙂
I want you to know PTSD is real, and that many of us experience it.
Pop culture and media often mention PTSD in passing, glossing over the intense reality of it. It’s not just “getting upset” or “feeling panicky.” The events that cause the condition are life-threatening, and they burn neural pathways into our brains that are triggered by similar experiences. In those moments, those of us with PTSD feel, in our minds and bodies, that we are back at that initial moment. That we are facing death or destruction or torture. It is so very, very real.
I’m sharing this today so everyone understands that I’m one of those people. I work all the time to keep it in check, and I take proactive measures to avoid triggers. By being open about it, I’m hoping that more of you will understand how real and common this is, and help continue to educate the rest of the world. The more understanding we have in our world, the more peace all of us can have. And: I just needed to get this out there. Writing is how I process difficulty. Thanks for listening.
And: If you have a story to tell about your PTSD experience, please share it in the comments below.
Many hugs, your humble Editrix Jenni Prokopy