Article 25

Mustard Can Be a Frightening Sight

In Uncategorized on 12/12/2011 at 10:34 am

Making sense of PTSD

By Gregory Flannery


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has become more familiar to the general public as a result of the U.S. wars against Iraq and Afghanistan. The good news is that improved medical care means more soldiers survive physical injuries; the bad news is that more soldiers return home with severe emotional scars.

Soldiers aren’t the only people who suffer from PTSD. Victims of sexual abuse and other violence, including natural disasters, also can face a lifetime of nightmares, intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance and the other symptoms so well laid out in No Comfort Zone: Notes on Living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Author Marla Handy, whose mother was mentally ill, whose father was abusive and who endured childhood sexual abuse and rape as a young adult, knows the subject well.

Handy has a doctoral degree and has logged more than 25 years as a consultant with non-profit organizations and community groups, so it would be tempting to call her a “survivor” ­– a term that is in vogue in contemporary psychology. But she rejects the term.

“Those of us with cancer, who have been raped or who have endured domestic violence aren’t called victims anymore,” she writes. “We’re called survivors. It’s supposed to be more empowering. … Sorry, but this does not fit me. I’ve been victimized.”

That kind of no-nonsense writing is what makes this slim volume (125 pages) so powerful. No Comfort Zone isn’t a psychological treatise but rather a lay person’s guide to understanding why your “weird” neighbor might not be able to abide confined spaces or why your child’s friend might insist on having the bedroom light on during a sleep-over. Life can be full of pain that has lifelong effects. In Handy’s case, for example, the sight of mustard or red liquids and the sound of a dish dropped on a kitchen floor can set off immediate sensations of terror.

“At some point, someone inevitably drops something or drags a sleeve over a serving dish or gets a dab of barbecue sauce on their finger,” she writes. “And my entire world shrinks to that misplaced spot. My heart pounds, my stomach clenches, and I jump and spurt, ‘Watch out!’ with the intensity of a scream condensed to the upper volume of a whisper.”

A friend gave me this book after I disclosed that I was diagnosed with PTSD a decade ago. She hesitated, not wanting to trigger any upset. But the loan was a great favor. Other victims will find Handy’s courage in telling her story inspiring and her observations affirming. But more important, her book will educate many others about this illness. Why, for example, can’t people just “get over” something that happened decades ago?

“So I have a bad case of nerves,” Handy writes. “Why can’t I just get on with life? If you’re wondering about that at this point, I understand. I’ve asked that question most of my life. As I’ve come to know myself and PTSD better, I’ve realized that I can’t just get over the bad things that happened to me because, well, they aren’t over. They’ve become ingrained in my being and I’m still living them as I live my present life. It’s like living life on a split-screen television.”

PTSD can be crippling. Soldiers have come home from war and assaulted their spouses while in the throes of night terrors. But like other illnesses, PTSD can be treated, and understanding the illness can go a long way in helping those who are suffering.

I intend to recommend No Comfort Zone to people who care about me.



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