This installment of my PTSD-related posts is actually directed more at the friends and loved ones of survivors rather than survivors themselves. The points I make here also relate to the loved ones of those who have other non-trauma-based mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and mood disorders.
I’m very glad that society (at least in the US) has become far more accepting of mental illnesses, and that we are finally coming to understand that there are many situations that can cause trauma. Finally we are becoming more precise about the treatment of PTSD and C-PTSD (complex PSTD that is caused by longer-lasting situations, like child abuse or repeated exposure to violence), and we now appreciate that PTSD isn’t just reserved for combat veterans. However, one thing that hasn’t changed much is support for the loved ones of a trauma survivor.
Al-Anon recognizes that alcoholism is a family disease: it’s not just the addict who suffers, but their close friends, family members, and entire support system. Children of addicts often become addicted themselves, or suffer from mental illness related to the difficulty of growing up in a dysfunctional home. What we don’t usually talk about, however, is that most, if not all, mental illnesses – including PTSD – are family illnesses too.
My whole family has been affected both by my bipolar disorder and my assault, though in different ways. My mother and brother are always on the alert for signs of mania; my mom and I have signed forms allowing her access to my medical information, and we’re planning on signing forms allowing her to take control of my assets and treatment should I have another psychotic episode. After my assault, my loved ones did everything they could to support me: going to the hospital with me and staying as they did the rape kit, talking to detectives and prosecutors, taking time off work to be there for me, and having some very painful conversations about what happened.
Sometimes I think that the stress of my mental illness and PTSD is actually worse on them: it certainly is when I have a psychotic episode, because I’m barely aware at all of the repercussions of my actions. They’re the ones that have to pick up the pieces, at least temporarily, if I go missing in the middle of the night or spend all my money. And they are certainly the ones that suffer the most when I attempt suicide, as I have done multiple times. My mom said once that watching your child suffer is the worst pain you can experience, and I believe it.
It’s similar, though perhaps not as dramatic, with PTSD. While we are dealing with the symptoms and working through the trauma, our loved ones have to stand by and watch us struggle. The best loved ones – like my family – appreciate that there’s little they can do other than simply be there for us. For them, the situation is absolutely uncontrollable. Feeling helpless is extremely painful, as is recognizing that you have no control over a difficult situation. It’s no wonder that loved ones may lash out, force a survivor into treatment, or simply back off because it’s too intense.
I am surrounded by excellent people, ones who appreciate exactly what the symptoms mean and how they can best help. One of my loved ones told me, when I had a crying jag, “It’s ok. I know this just happens sometimes and you can’t help it.” This was extremely powerful because he was acknowledging both of our feelings in that moment: both my pain, and his helplessness to solve the problem.
But it doesn’t make it easier on our families and loved ones that they understand what’s happening. The knowledge doesn’t make it easier for them to stand by and watch us suffer – in fact, it may make it worse, because they’re fully aware of just how little they can do.
And the frustrating thing is that there are few resources available to help our loved ones process this. NAMI has support groups for loved ones of the mentally ill, which is great, but what about outside of the support group? What about when a mother of a survivor wants to vent about how frustrating her child’s behavior is?
Let’s just admit it: she’ll probably be jumped on for not being supportive enough. People will share her post and scoff at her for not being able to always put her child’s feelings first, for not always being able to deal with her own emotions about the process, for not stuffing down and repressing those feelings in order to be there for her child. But she’s a person too, one who is working hard to support her child through an extremely difficult time, wiping the tears and enduring the mood swings. She has every right to be tired, overwhelmed, hurt, and upset.
Hiding frustration and resentment is extremely hard on supportive family members . Now, I am not saying that it is the sole responsibility of survivors to support their loved ones through their separate healing process. We’re dealing with so much already, and we shouldn’t feel guilty for not being able to help our loved ones when we ourselves are in duress. After all, you can only heal others when you are healed.
However, I think, when we can, we should be supportive of our loved ones, especially if they are very supportive of us. After all, they are not only dealing with our symptoms – which can be very stressful – but also their own reactions to our trauma. They may be feeling guilt, anger, sorrow, and many other complex emotions that are hard to process alone. We should respect that they are entitled to their own feelings about what happened, and that it is not only us who were impacted by the trauma. And I feel that we, as survivors, should work on developing spaces for our loved ones to approach their feelings, where they too can be supported by understanding and caring people.
Of all the people hurt by my assault beyond myself, my brother has had the most difficult time. He has struggled with guilt because he felt that if they would have been able to find me sooner, it wouldn’t have happened. Being a naturally reticent person, and also kind enough not to want to upset me further, he has hidden these feelings away and not dealt with them. I know that this wears on his mind, and that he hasn’t had a safe place to discuss it. He deserves that space, and he deserves to have his feelings recognized just as much as mine have been.
I would like to tell everyone now reading this: if a loved one has been traumatized, unless you were directly responsible for it or enabled it, it is not your fault. The only person at fault is the perpetrator. Please don’t beat yourself up for not being able to protect your loved one. Please don’t think that you are in any way responsible for preventing others from causing harm to your loved one. Yes, that includes parents of traumatized children. Unless you were aware of the abuse and did nothing to stop it, you are not at fault.
Also, please know that your own feelings are valid and deserve space. Even if you aren’t the primary victim, you have still been impacted by it, by helping your loved one recover and by watching them struggle. The fact that you feel so deeply and are so impacted proves that you are a good person, someone who deserves to be taken care of too.
I don’t know what spaces for the loved ones of survivors would look like, but I do know that they need to be readily available. Loved ones of survivors should have a safe space to express their own feelings and work through them. They should also have their feelings taken seriously, rather than being disparaged because “it wasn’t you that was hurt.”
Here are some things we can do as survivors to help our support system:
- First and foremost, recognize that you aren’t the only one who suffers, nor are you the only one that has bad days. Your loved ones are human, and they are entitled to have off days, or weeks, or months!
- Show appreciation regularly, both by thanking them and by being considerate of their own feelings and struggles. Do your best to be mindful and kind.
- Be honest about what’s going on with you and avoid blaming others for what’s going wrong. Even if you know that it’s not their fault, be explicit about it and make sure they know it’s not their fault. Say something like, “I am having a hard day; please know it’s your not fault. I know you’re doing the best you can and that you have your own problems too.”
- Encourage your loved ones to seek out support. You can help them find groups or send them articles about how to cope with the trauma.
- Respect boundaries as much as you can. Listen to your loved ones and if they say they are overwhelmed, back off. This is very difficult, especially for those of us with mood disorders. But you must try.
- Expand your support system. Find others with PTSD or your mental illness and lean on them. They know what you are going through better than anyone else, and they often have great suggestions of how to deal with day-to-day problems caused by your condition.
- Find new activities and things to do by yourself or with others that can help you gain confidence. Work on your hobbies or develop new ones!
- Be the one to reach out. When you’re having a good day, invite your loved ones to do something fun, to have a good chat, or anything enjoyable. Don’t only contact them when you’re in crisis, because friendships and relationships are two ways.
For those supporting a loved ones, here are some ways to improve things for yourself:
- Set boundaries and be clear about them. Make an environment conducive to healing by saying, “I am here for you, but I will not tolerate abusive behavior from you. If you are being rude or hateful, I have the right to leave the conversation or the relationship.”
- Communicate honestly. If your loved one is bothering you and you don’t have the energy to deal with it, say, “I know you are stressed and having a hard time, but I can’t handle this at the moment. I will be back in touch when I am feeling better. I am not leaving for good, just for a bit.” Survivors might panic and worry about you leaving forever when they don’t hear from you, so to help them and yourself, let them know what’s going on with you.
- With the above, communicate also about what bothers you and what, realistically, both of you can do about the situation. For example, if you are very bothered when they talk about a certain aspect of their trauma, say something like, “It really upsets me when you discuss that with me. I know it’s important to you, but I would appreciate if you found someone else to talk about that with you.”
- Be realistic about what you can handle. If someone is causing you constant stress and you don’t gain pleasure out of the relationship, you have every right to leave. If you don’t see any benefits from the relationship whatsoever, you are not a bad person for leaving. You only get one shot at this life and you don’t need to be miserable just because you have a relationship with someone.
- Put your own feelings first. You are not responsible for your loved one’s trauma, nor are you responsible for their healing. They have to seek help and work on recovery themselves. Don’t enable bad behavior by being someone’s unpaid therapist or letting them be hurtful.
- Recognize what you can and can’t do about the situation, and consider what you can do to improve things for yourself. What are you in control of? What can you not avoid? What helps you feel better?
- Lean on your own support system. Be honest about how you’re feeling and how the illness or event is affecting you. Your feelings are valid and you have every right to be hurt by what’s happening.
- Read up on what you’re dealing with. Search for articles written by the families of survivors about their experiences, and if you can, read up also on your loved one’s condition. Knowing what to expect can help you remain calm when symptoms appear.
- Keep inviting your loved one on outings or other events, but don’t get your feelings hurt if they decline or cancel. It has nothing to do with you, nor does it mean they don’t like you. Survivors and mentally ill people can be “flaky” because they never know when symptoms might emerge, or what might cause them to get upset.
- Above all, take care of your own health: physical, mental, and social. Go on outings with other people and indulge your own hobbies. You can only help others when you are taken care of yourself.
We need to recognize trauma as a family disease, one that deeply touches each person involved. It’s only then that we can all heal – together.