BY VENI FIELDS
VIRGINIA BEACH — Lesson No. 1, after seeking help for an April 2008 diagnosis of anxiety: Not all therapists are created equal.
More lessons piled up after that.
Most of them were unpleasant.
I had been physically sick for months, and a set of medical specialists had come back with anxiety as an explanation. I left my Annapolis, Md., doctor’s office with the name and phone number of a licensed clinical social worker.
I was more than ready to discuss why this diagnosis was absurd and to have her help me figure out what might really be going on. If nothing else, I was ready for someone to teach me how a person who had never been customarily anxious could somehow have come down with physical symptoms of stress.
Six months later – shortly after the social worker suggested I design an altar in my bedroom and light candles on it as a way to “just be” – I was no closer to learning anything about my condition.
I searched for an anxiety expert. I read bios online. I called half a dozen. I met with two before settling on one who shared an approach to problem-solving and a mindset very similar to mine. Dr. Marla Sanzone, a psychologist, had started her career specializing in eating disorders. From there she dealt with trauma survivors and victims of domestic violence, among other traumatic circumstances. Like me, she had served on active duty in the military. She loved to teach, she continued learning, and she gave homework and reading assignments. Perfect.
The more I could learn about this, the faster I could apply that knowledge to getting rid of whatever it was that caused the symptoms and be done with them for good. I figured six months, tops, and back to normal life.
Lesson No. 2: It doesn’t work that way.
Anxiety, I learned, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Lesson No. 3: There are as many ways to dissect it as there are ways to treat it, and there are as many professionals who believe they have the final answer as there are reasons it occurs.
I was in for a long, long ride. Then I genuinely felt anxious.
It was six more months before I had read enough, researched enough, examined, analyzed, journaled, talked, listened, and accepted that I was in some real trouble, with no easy fix. It would be another several months before the word “trauma” arrived, along with my official diagnosis – complex post-traumatic stress disorder – and to begin to understand how I had obtained it and what it meant for life as I had known it.
Lesson No. 4: My life would never be the same.
The next four years were spent in weekly appointments – twice-weekly for many months. It amounted to a classroom that was partly in the room in which we sat, partly in my history.
I learned that post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is vastly misunderstood by the general public, its victims, victims’ families and many in mental health professions. That not only combat veterans and victims of violent crimes can be stricken with it. That there are two forms of it, and one of them – complex PTSD – is usually longer-standing before it is diagnosed because it derives from long-term, lower-level traumatic events and untreated trauma. It is more difficult to treat, and severe cases of either type can be managed, but may bear lifelong effects.
I learned that caregivers of people with PTSD and complex PTSD can also be afflicted with it because of the demands involved in caregiving.
Most importantly, I learned that neither form is an emotional issue, but they are serious physiological injuries that involve brain chemistry and entire body systems. This was why I had become so physically ill and why my physical symptoms had lasted so long.
The endeavor became a journey as much about introspection as it was about education.
Over the eight years since my diagnosis, many inroads have been made into the diagnosis of both forms of PTSD and their successful treatment. What works for one person may not work for others, but the resources available for sufferers now are numerous and easily available.
The road of recovery can be difficult. It can be dark. It can seem hopeless. But it isn’t.
The light at the end of this tunnel for the wounded is in the lessons we learn about how it came about and our willingness to do the work involved in riding it rather than having it ride us.
This is the second in an occasional series of columns by Fields, a Virginia Beach resident and regular contributor to The Independent News. She has worked for The Virginian-Pilot and Military Newspapers of Virginia, and she has written for a number of local publications. Fields, a New Jersey native, is also a Navy veteran. Reach her via firstname.lastname@example.org or call (757) 754-7923.
To read the previous column, click on this link.
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