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PTSD for caregivers: It’s a thing!

April 13, 2015 7:18 pm

Nat and Drew benefit show

After three years together, two of which I was caregiver to Drew after his spinal stroke, we broke up. He moved out. While I was still his primary caregiver, I could no longer lay my eyes on his face every day, and so I lost the comfort of physically seeing he was alive and safe.

That’s when the magnitude of what happened washed over me.

One of the first nights without Drew beside me, I dreamt he was pining outside of our home, tears streaming, wearing nothing but an adult brief and clenching his legs shut.

Another day, standing in line at the coffee shop, I heard the metal clink of a cane on the ground behind me, and suddenly had to choke back tears.

When driving to work and seeing the flashing ambulance racing by, my heart too would race.

While having a cocktail with a friend and amidst cute small talk, an image of Drew, unable to move in the hospital bed due to sandbags holding his arteries together after heart surgery would inject itself into my enjoyment.

I was always on the verge of tears. I felt isolated and unsteady. My identity was in question, as I was consumed with Drew’s condition for the past two years. I also yearned for my partner. And I was constantly anxious about his health and care.

I thank this anxiety, because it was severe enough to push me to seek help from a psychologist. I found Dr. Jillian Lutz of Michigan Modern Psychology and we began my journey toward healing and peace of mind. I think of her as a living spirit guide, and she’s one of the most important people in my life.

I didn’t know where to start. I thought it would be extremely painful and scary to face the aftermath, but Jillian didn’t make it so. She didn’t inundate me with insensitive questions. She let me speak. It was all about me for a precious hour every week or so. It had never been all about me in my entire life.

Before I reached out to Jillian, I read online that caregivers can actually experience post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But was that me?

Here are some PTSD symptoms caregivers often experience:

  • Fear and anxiety;
  • Nervousness;
  • Difficulty concentrating;
  • Memory problems;
  • Irritability;
  • Sadness;
  • Feelings of isolation;
  • Guilt;
  • Changes sleeping and eating;
  • Crying spells that catch you off guard;
  • Emotional numbness;
  • Nightmares;
  • Shock;
  • Increased heart rate;
  • Muscle tension;
  • Rapid breathing;
  • Inability to stop thinking about traumatic events.

Here’s more information about PTSD from the Mayo Clinic.

Jillian said I had a mild case. We worked through it with therapy sessions that focused on bringing awareness to what I’d witnessed, experienced and survived, all while changing my thinking patterns and ways of coping with unhealthy relationships (many where I was an emotional caregiver throughout my life).

One way to control the flashbacks, traumatic thoughts and worries is to put them on hold when they creep up in my little head, knowing I have designated time to write about them in this blog, and turn them into something that may be able to help people.

Another way is to empower Drew to take responsibility for his recovery, instead of doing everything for him. I’m now able to do this because I believe he’s strong – and physically and mentally capable. Having true belief in his abilities and recovery only helps him better care for himself, and it removes a lot of the unrest for me.

I’ve been in therapy for about two and a half years. Today is the first day I can write about my mild PTSD, which has nearly subsided. Jillian continues to help me, teaching me to understand I’m worthy and giving me the tools on how to have healthy and loving relationships. It starts with my relationship with me.

What the doctors say on PTSD for caregivers

Stroke survivors may experience PTSD. But the caregivers witnessed the near-death experience and pain, too. Every step of the way.  It makes sense. It is traumatic to care for a loved one who is suffering. You feel helpless to stop their pain; your responsibilities become overwhelming; the stroke symptoms are unpredictable and out of control, so you’re always bracing.

I found a related blog post The New York Times, “For some caregivers, the trauma lingers.” Here’s an excerpt:

“There is little research on this topic, which suggests that it is overlooked or discounted. But several experts acknowledge that psychological trauma of PTSD for caregivers) does exist.

Barry Jacobs, a clinical psychologist and author of “The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers” (The Guilford Press, 2006), often sees caregivers who struggle with intrusive thoughts and memories months and even years after a loved one has died.

“Many people find themselves unable to stop thinking about the suffering they witnessed, which is so powerfully seared into their brains that they cannot push it away,” Dr. Jacobs said.

Flashbacks are a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, along with feelings of numbness, anxiety, guilt, dread, depression, irritability, apathy, tension and more. Though one symptom or several do not prove that such a condition exists — that’s up to an expert to determine — these issues are a “very common problem for caregivers,” Dr. Jacobs said.”

What if you might have it?

It’s natural for caregivers to experience a lot of the symptoms listed during and after caregiving. That doesn’t mean you have PTSD. But if there’s even a question, it never hurts to talk with your doctor, or seek help from a psychologist for coping.

I found this fantastic website with all sorts of healing resources for caregivers with PTSD. Here’s a page on getting help from healmyptsd.com.

And this helpful website, dontloseheart.org, talks about a PTSD diagnosis from a mental health professional and ways to care for yourself.

Even if you have none of these symptoms, I believe caregivers absolutely need care to process their immense life changes and responsibilities. It is possible to be a caregiver and have balance and self love. A therapist is the perfect outlet. I cannot advocate for it enough, given the way Jillian is helping me recover and truly love myself.

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