June is PTSD Awareness Month. More than 8 million Americans have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, yet many who struggle don’t get the treatment or help that they need. As we approach PTSD Awareness Day, we had the opportunity to discuss the topic with 2019 Tillman Scholar Bridget Gehrz.
After Bridget’s husband Michael was honorably discharged from the Navy in 2008, Michael had to learn once again to live with PTSD. They found strength in each other as they learned to live a more balanced and structured life while acknowledging the impact of PTSD on their lives. Eventually, they were able to find support through various community programs and fellow veterans.
When Michael unexpectedly took his own life, Bridget once again faced a new life challenge: parenting three children alone while learning how to live with the effects of trauma and loss as a family. Through hard work, the strength of her community, and the holistic beliefs of the nursing profession, Bridget is able to see the beauty in life despite her loss.
“Is it strange if I tell you that PTSD has changed my life for the better?” Bridget asks. “Without its impact on my life I wouldn’t have learned the benefits of mindfulness, I wouldn’t have learned the superpowers of a kid who has big reactions and a big heart, I wouldn’t have pursued my doctorate, and I wouldn’t have learned to put myself first, and say no without feeling guilty. Living with and loving someone with PTSD is hard, but it is rewarding, sometimes you have to look really hard for those rewards but they are there.”
Bridget learned through supporting Michael in the early days of his medical retirement from active duty that PTSD is not something that can be medicated away, talked away, or hidden. She notes that the symptoms that make up the diagnosis of PTSD will always be a part of life for those who have it, but it is learning to manage them that has the greatest impact.
“Speaking and gathering with his community, Michael learned that the challenge of PTSD would not leave him and it would not be easy to walk in society as an individual with invisible wounds, but through hard work, connection, medications, and skills he could learn to live with PTSD. Over time, he started to find this same support and fellowship in a group of local veterans. His story didn’t end the way he wanted for various reasons but I believe that between myself and our three children, we are living with PTSD in the ways that he wanted to,” Bridget says.“We acknowledge that we have the invisible wounds of anxiety, depression, irritability, sensitivities to sounds, temperatures and textures, and even extra short tempers and big reactions at times. These look like flaws to so many, but they have been learning curves for us. As a parent who is sensitive to overstimulation I have had to learn what fills my cup in order to get me through the day without yelling or shutting down.”
Through her family’s experiences with PTSD, Bridget has found solace through an openness to conversation and self-reflection.
“As a parent who is sensitive to overstimulation I have had to learn what fills my cup in order to get me through the day without yelling or shutting down. It is not coffee or Dr. Pepper, it is time in silence and time in nature,” she says.“When I have these two things each day, I can be more calm and less reactive. I don’t feel as overwhelmed with the constant barrage of decisions I must make, and I can feel grounded.
“For my kids who live with PTSD and are not fully capable of understanding what this means, overcoming these invisible disabilities is a balancing act of constant discovery. We talk constantly about our feelings and how we have them for different reasons. If we didn’t need anger our bodies wouldn’t be programmed with it, but the way we respond when we feel anger is what we need to be aware of. We have tried medications and therapies, we have worked with therapists, schools, and community support. We have even tried some new biotechnologies to help bring awareness and calm to our bodies.
Have they all worked? Not perfectly. I think that’s the thing with PTSD. We won’t overcome it, but we will manage it. My goal for myself and for my kids is to manage our symptoms with the focus of positive, safe interventions, and a ton of compassion.”
Bridget learned there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting a loved one with PTSD, but maintaining a balance between your support and your emotional capacity is critical.
“The biggest thing that pulled my husband through, and keeps me afloat is the power of connection. Knowing there is someone out there who cares enough to ask how you are doing and accept that your answer may be ‘really bad,’ or can sit on the couch with you in silence just so you know you are not alone can be a world of support for someone living with PTSD,” she says. “Call your friend, sit by your partner, hug your child, remind them that even on their worst, hardest days, they are still loved. Also, set boundaries; boundaries are so important, they help you not get consumed with the pain that comes with PTSD and help you sustain your emotional capacity to help your loved one. Be present, take care of yourself, and show compassion. ”
Bridget leaves us with this sentiment, with hopes that progress in overcoming and living with PTSD continues to be made.
“You didn’t cause these feelings, these symptoms, these reactions; don’t carry that guilt. These symptoms are real, they are your body telling you it doesn’t feel right, give yourself compassion, give yourself love, give yourself grace, and ask for help. Surround yourself with positive people, and approach each day moment by moment, sometimes it’s the only way to get through and before you know it you will be living week by week, and appreciating the beauty in the moments even more. I haven’t overcome PTSD, but I am living with it, growing from it, and proud of myself for continuing to try even though it is often really hard.”