December 5, 2006

A Bit About Me & PTSD

I currently spend most week days with my beads, my dogs, and my computer. If I'm not home, I'm probably visiting with friends, showing my beadwork, going to medical appointments, or just drinking tea at Panera (well..., ok, maybe eating a bagel, too). To some of you, that may sound idyllic (except for the medical appointments). Two years ago, I would have said I'd give "anything" for that life, but I had no idea what lie ahead or what it would cost.

Not so long ago, I had a job with a title and a good salary. It was chaotic, stressful, and full of challenges. My entire life had been full of challenges, and I'd always been able to 'go deep' and rise to the situation. But the days were becoming harder and harder. I began to see signs that I was in trouble: losing my temper, inability to remember things, difficulty following conversations, not being able to focus on tasks, and becoming hopelessly disorganized--all things that were the opposite of my normal personality and performance. The harder things were, the harder I pushed and the longer I worked. Despite all the strength I could muster, things kept getting worse. I began to feel that I was hanging over a precipice by a small thread.

Something had to give. I talked to my husband, my boss, my doctors, my colleagues, asking for support, assistance, or relief of one kind or another. Nearly everyone responded with anger or denial ("take a day off, you'll be fine" and "you have obligations and responsibilities, so just get over it"). One high-level administrator became so angry that she hit me with a full-blown personal attack in a meeting with my boss. So, I tried one more time to regroup and push on; but this time, the thread snapped. I collapsed and was hospitalized with complete mental and physical exhaustion. I no longer had the strength or the will to keep fighting.

Over the course of the following weeks and months, a very surprising picture emerged. For starters, I found out that my thyroid had become under active. That alone can be debilitating. It was another three months before my thyroid problems were addressed, but the debilitating symptoms persisted. In fact, I wasn't any better. So, I pressed on looking for answers. Several months and many expensive tests later, I learned that I have a neurological problem involving the prefrontal cortex of the brain (governs higher cognitive function) and the HPA axis (controls hormone levels that underpin health and vitality). The shocker: it can be caused by life-long stress and/or a history of trauma in the critical developmental years of infancy and childhood.

Since then, I've learned a lot about the brain and the long-term impact of childhood abuse and neglect, as well as the effects of adult stress on brain function. PTSD is not just about memories and feelings--it's about serious alterations in the brain's structure and function. Complex PTSD is even more devastating; problems can multiply exponentially with repeated or prolonged trauma and stress.

For more information, see:
Does Stress Damage the Brain? by J. Douglas Bremner, M.D.
Trauma Spectrum by Robert Scaer, M.D.
Observations on Traumatic Stress, online article by Robert Scaer
Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine
Reading list by Dr. Bryan Post
Any books or articles by Bruce McEwen

More than a year after I made this post, I was able to have my adrenal glad tested and learned that it was (and is) not functioning normally. Major improvements came upon beginning supplementation with an adrenal hormone and a mix of bio-identical hormones. It's by no means a cure, but it has made an enormous difference.


jercollege said...

Something similar happened to me. Did everything work out for you in the end?

PDeWalt said...

I'm still working very, vary hard to sort it all out. I'm reading everything I can find on cognitive neuroscience and endocrinology. No MD I've seen has any answers, so I figure I have to find my own answers. I'm still unable to work but I know quite a lot about what is not working in my body. Now, I have to find out how to fix it. Today I saw a quote from Dr. Barry Sears that says it all: "To control your hormones is to control your life." It's all about getting the body back in balance.

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