A PTSD Catholic

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In 2004 I was diagnosed with delayed-onset PTSD. It took three years for my 9-11 relief work to catch up with me. While most 20 years olds were partying in college or worried about exams, I was consoling 400 people whose loved ones had been murdered in the Pentagon. I had only been in the Navy two years and ended up being a part of one of the most historic and horrific events of my generation.

I was raised in a nominal Catholic home. We went to Mass often, but that was the extent of our involvement in the Church. I had fallen out of going to regular Mass on Sundays by the time I volunteered to help after the attack on the Pentagon. I still read theological works, but was separated from His Church. I did go to Mass while I was a relief worker and my Mass attendance did improve in its wake, but I was still a cultural Catholic. 9-11 was the catalyst that brought about my PTSD. There were a lot of other factors, but this single event triggered it.  Look at the picture below.  I stood there with 400 grieving families members looking at this sight straight from Hell.

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There are a lot of stereotypes and stigma associated with this mental illness. People like the Veteran who murdered people in Florida recently do not help the situation. The media perpetuates a lot of myths about the disease, while claiming compassion for the thousands of Veterans who live with this condition. The vast majority of us, are the types who work ourselves into the ground and then collapse. We take on more than we can handle, but don’t realize it until it is over. We run into danger with little thought of the long term consequences. We want to help others, but sacrifice ourselves in the process.

My PTSD manifested while I was living alone and stationed in the United Kingdom. It began when I literally cried for a week straight. My father had had a serious health scare and it was the last straw. I went to my Leading Petty Officer (LPO) and he had me go to the Air Force Base for medical care. I was on a British base so the nearest hospital was a 2 hour drive. The doctor threw different medications at me and that was that. I then started having horrific nightmares, night terrors, and panic attacks. The telltale flash backs began as well. The military continued to throw medicine at the problem while I spiraled further and further into the pit. At this point I was active in the small parish in town and attending Mass each Sunday.

I finally checked myself into the hospital for a month. Thankfully, the one thing the military did do right was get a contract with the top London mental health facility. How, I do not know? Mick Jagger was treated at the hospital I stayed in. Finally, I had doctors who were concerned with treatment that encompassed psychotropic medication and psychotherapy. It was there that I was introduced to EMDR. The single most effective treatment that I have undergone for my PTSD symptoms. The point of EMDR is to help each patient piece together memories of the event. Part of the problem for PTSD sufferers is that we have major memory loss about the event and can only remember it in pieces. Our brains cannot process incomplete memories. EMDR seeks to remedy that situation. I eventually left the hospital and continued treatment until I decided to leave the Navy after my 6 year contract was up. I had active PTSD symptoms for about 5 years.

Nowadays, I am able to function normally with my 9-11 experiences. Things have complicated a bit after having three miscarriages and serious hormone deficiencies. My PTSD symptoms have manifested in the wake of my most recent miscarriage that was traumatic in that it required emergency surgery because I hemorrhaged. I have recognized some avoidance symptoms in myself and it looks like I may need to look for an EMDR specialist in the area. PTSD does make it difficult to handle new traumas.

So, how is this tied to my Catholic Faith? It is a Cross. I have a very hard time resting calmly in the Lord’s arms. I am always pushing forward and running away. I am extremely restless, which impacts my family and my relationship with Our Lord at times. PTSD sufferers tend to drown out their pain through: drugs, alcohol, food, sex, gambling, etc. My tendency these days is food, as I am actively trying to live a life of holiness and avoid super risky behavior. But, it is still an unhealthy, and at times sinful, way to avoid the pain. There is a deep ache that lives inside of me because of what I have seen, what I have lost, and what I have experienced. I will spend time running away from Christ, only to collapse and beg for His mercy. It takes me a while to remember that He loves me and will extend it freely.

PTSD sufferers do not tend to talk about their experiences. Why? First, because a lot of people cannot possibly understand what we have been through. Can you understand combat, a terrorist attack, rape, abuse, etc, if you have never experienced that kind of horror? No. Unfortunately, while we should talk about it, most of us have experienced the dumbest and most unkind words from people. “Suck it up”, is not a proper response. Yes, this is based on ignorance, but it is hurtful. Second, we do not want to burden people with our suffering. We tend to be the caretaker types, we want to help others, but do not want to add to other people’s struggles. Third, media stereotypes make it even harder. I had to think seriously about writing this post, because of how it could be misconstrued.

There are a lot of stereotypes about PTSD. Hollywood tends to make movies where the Special Forces Veteran murders people while having flashbacks. I have worked with Special Forces guys and they are not a bunch of sociopaths. This is so unbelievably rare. In fact, the highest risk for PTSD sufferers is suicide. We tend to suffer in silence, rather than lash out at others. Stop taking information from the media, they are doing more harm than good.

For me, I know deep down that I will remain restless and on the run until I rest in Christ. The problem is, learning how to rest in Christ. I have been in flight mode for so long that I struggle to disengage, even now. I went from PTSD to three miscarriages in a few short years. It was a constant stream of pain and grief. It makes it very hard to “Be still and know that I am God”. I know that is where I belong, but some days it is much easier to drown my sorrows in copious amounts o sugar. Then the self-loathing begins anew and the cycle begins again. Thank God, Our Lord is patient.

 

Mental illness is a clear path to Golgotha. It is a heavy Cross to bare, especially in a society that is either fearful or apathetic about those who suffer from PTSD or depression. With so many mass shootings, people think that all mentally ill people are psychopaths. This could not be further from the truth. The fact of the matter is that you may work alongside someone who sufferers from PTSD, depression, or anxiety and not even know it. If you are blessed enough for someone to open up to you about their struggles be sure to show compassion, even if you yourself don’t get it. That person chose YOU to share with in their battles. As Christians, we should be helping one another in love and mercy. All of us are waging a serious battle with sin and suffering. Let’s help one another to learn to rest in God.

5 comments

  1. christtorch · · Reply

    Oh my goodness. Thank you, Thank you, for this post! My family is dealing with PTSD. I don’t even know where to begin to explain. It is my daughter. We think she may have been drugged last November and she ended up in the ER and almost died. At one point she was completely unresponsive. She has been seeing a therapist every week since about February, at college. She is home for the summer and doesn’t want to try to find a therapist close to home and go through all the “get to know you” issues. But she is extremely restless now that she doesn’t have school to keep her busy. I see her doing exactly what you are describing as far as running from God. She has been “meditating” in order to feel a sense of peace. She doesn’t want to hear what I have to say about resting in God. Her dad and I sit with her sometimes and just let her talk and that seems to help, since this is something that has traumatized all of us. She feels like she can talk to us without being criticized. It is such a comfort to read your words and know that we are not alone in dealing with something like this!

    Thank you!
    God Bless!

  2. I have a question for you. How did you handle attending Mass when you did not feel up to it because of your PTSD symptoms? My story is complicated, too much to talk about it here. 9-11 is part of it. I thought I bounced back pretty well, I was working about seven blocks from the World Trade Center. Since then the horrors have continued, in no small part due to the treatment I’ve received from family etc. in the wake of the aftermath, including many in the Catholic Church. It is extremely painful for me to sit in the local Church every Sunday, with many of my abusers, to the point that I now feel ‘paralyzed’, not functioning at more than a basic low level; eating, getting out of bed, driving around in circles trying everything I can think of to motivate myself to get my basic living chores accomplished. Your thoughts on the Mass attendance issue would be much appreciated. Everyone I talk to tells me to ‘just go’ or I’m in a state of mortal sin, but the more I do the more I feel paralyzed. There are other Catholic Churches not terribly far from here where I feel fine. The logistics of getting there are complicated because I don’t have a running vehicle, am flat broke from all this. Those issues have largely cleared up since I’m now care giving for my elderly mother, who needs someone to drive her around in her car, but in my current physical condition I don’t even feel presentable enough to show up at Mass elsewhere. Thank you for any thoughts/advice you might be able to offer. I did go through a little bit of talk therapy after several particularly horrific incidents, but was never officially treated for PTSD. I don’t believe in prescription drugs, alcohol, or any drugs for that matter, avoid them at all costs, but I do drink coffee, tea, things like that with a little caffeine, to try to improve my productivity. Eventually I’d like to quit using caffeine as a crutch, frankly that idea is not working for me any more anyway.

    1. holinessinmotherhood · · Reply

      I am sorry you are suffering so much. PTSD is complicated and it becomes complicated by other people who do not understand. I went through that with my family and friends and it is very painful; however, I found people who helped me through it. Many of those people suffered from PTSD or depression themselves. First, I think that treatment is extremely important. I went through very intense treatment, including in-patient. I had to check myself into the hospital when the anxiety and depression got so bad it had turned into a suicide plan. So treatment is key. Yes, I have had to take the lowest possible dose of SSRIs. I needed it. I have also gone through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), group therapy, and the most effective EMDR. I highly recommend EMDR. If you are not functioning, then you really need treatment. Perhaps look to see if there are any groups that meet for those traumatized by 9-11. I am sure your stress level is even higher caring for your mother. Treatment is essential.

      As to the Mass issue. Yes, not attending Sunday Mass is a mortal sin, however, your culpability may vary because of your illness. That is something to discuss with your priest so he can give you the correct theological answer.. Mass was hard. I really struggled especially after my in-patient stay and the suicidal ideation. I had not been to Confession much at that point, but I finally went. That helped me a ton. I am now a firm believer and lover of Confession. I go very regularly. Christ was able to minister to me in my guilt and pain through that Sacrament. I also had friends who went with me to Mass, even some who were not Catholic. I needed the support. If your home parish is inflicting even more pain on you right now, then yes, another parish would be best. Once you are strong enough to face the people who have hurt you, then you could return. Don’t pile too much up on yourself. I would also suggesting setting up some time to talk to a priest you trust. Spiritual, as well as psychological treatment, is crucial. I know that Mass is hard, but try to go. Focus on the Cross. Focus on the Crown of Thorns and the terrible crown of PTSD that you are wearing. Unite them and allow Christ to guide and strengthen you. I would also suggest asking Our Lady to wrap her loving mantel around you and guide you as a loving mother. I can tell you that she was instrumental in my treatment and recovery. She is still a major guiding force in my life. I will be praying for you. Let me know your thoughts. God bless.

    2. <>
      Grrrrrrrrr!

      No doubt these are EITHER those who would go to Mass when they had contagious influenza or would skip Masss when they had a hangnail. But, whatever, this is bad advice. If one is too sick to go to Mass, missing Mass is not a mortal sin.

      These are people who at bottom do not believe in psychiatric illness. And that means, at bottom, thet they have a heretical understanding of what it is to be a human, a rational animal.

      Depression and PTSD are REAL ILLNESSES. I’ve got ’em. They may be “all in my head,” but the last time I checked my head was all in my body. And we don’t solve the “mind/body problem” by pretending there isn’t one.

      One of the hardest things for intelligent and depressed people to come to terms with is the lack of thoughtfulness on the part of a great many people — regrettably including clergy.

      So, free, and worth every penny: My advice.

      Find a therapist TRAINED in PTSD. Check his or her references. If it adds up. Go to him or her.

      Google “Emmerich Vogt”. He’s a Dominican and a VERY good guy. And he kind of majors in 12-step stuff. Even if that’s not directly relevant, a lot of what he has to say is always good for just about anyone, especially those of us who joust with dragons.

      Who knows? You could email him and maybe he would back up my SANE response to the people who try to pile guilt and fear on you when you hurt too much to go to Mass.

      And, talk to Constance and me. I’m the WORST KIND of Catholic — a CONVERT!

      And, okay, if Mass is too much, go to adoration when you can. And if you don’t go to Mass, do not omit mking a Spiritual Communion.

      What God died for was for us to live, to be strong, to be JOYFUL in the power of his Love. He is on your side, always. And if you cannot make it to Mass, no one on earth or in the heavens understands, forgives, or loves you more.

      And when the dragons try to pull you back into the swamp, make SURE you tell them, “Jesus Loves ME, and he can whip anything you do to me! I may end up under water for a while, but he’s dealt with worse than that.”

      (The above prayer edited for public reading. The original had more … shall we say …. oomph.)

  3. thank you both for your helpful comments. my mother has a touch of dementia. oddly enough i have repeatedly witnessed her being used as an instrument, things come out of her mouth that she couldn’t possibly think of herself, and she is not a Catholic, i am a convert as well. yesterday when i told her my plan to stay home she said a few things that made it clear to me we were going to Mass, whatever. we sat in the children’s cry room, where we frequently sit when i’m not feeling well, and got thru it without any problems. many thanks again, i especially would appreciate any prayers for my mother and me, it’s just the two of us.

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