WHEN IT GETS TOO CLOSE TO HOME
Reminders of the terrorist attach on September 11th are uppermost in American’s life’s today. However South Africans also experience many different kinds of trauma.
A wife walks into the bedroom of her home and finds her husband with a gun pressed to his head, crying uncontrollably. She must grab the gun from her husband in a desperate attempt to save the man she loves. The man has been tormented by the screams of the terrified children who scrambled to get out of a Durban nightclub, into which a teargas bomb was thrown. The trauma experienced by this man, a bouncer at the club, has taken its toll. He had carried out several injured children, many who later died from their fatal injuries. Being a participant in such a horrific incident has lead to terrifying nightmares of the dead children. It is almost certain that this man is suffering from a psychological disorder known as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
However, it is only the participant or witness to a traumatic incident who is at risk of experiencing psychological distress. The entire family is profoundly affects when any family member experiences psychological trauma and suffers from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Some traumas are directly experienced by only one family member, but other family members may experience shock, fear, anger and pain in their own unique ways simply because they care about and are connected to the survivor.
Living with a person who has PTSD does not automatically cause PTSD, but it can produce “secondary” traumatisation. Whether family members live together or apart, are in contact often or rarely, and feel close or distant emotionally from one other, PTSD affects each member of the family in several ways:
§ Family members may feel hurt, alienated, frustrated, or discouraged, if the survivor loses interest in family or intimate activities and is easily angered or emotionally isolated and detached. Family members often end up feeling angry or distant toward the survivor, especially if he or she seems unable to relax and be companionable without being irritable, tense anxious, worried, distractible, or controlling, overprotective and demanding.
§ Even if the trauma occurred decades ago, survivors may act – and family members may feel – as if the trauma never stops happening. They may feel as if they’re living in a warzone or a disaster if the survivor is excessively on-guard, tense or easily startled or enraged. Family members can find themselves avoiding activities or people and becoming isolated from each other and friends outside the family. They may feel that they have no one to talk to, and that no one can understand.
§ They may find it difficult to have a cooperative discussion with the survivor about important plans and decisions for the future, because s/he has difficulty listening and concentrating without becoming distracted, tense, or anxious, or because s/hr becomes angry and overly suspicious toward the family member or toward other (hypervigilant). They may find it very difficult to discuss personal or family problems, because the survivor becomes either controlling, demanding, or overprotective, or unreasonably anxious and fearful about problems becoming terrible catastrophes.
§ They may find their sleep disrupted by the trauma survivor’s sleep problems (reluctance to sleep at night, restlessness while sleeping, severe nightmares, or episodes of violent “sleepwalking”). Family members also find themselves having terrifying nightmares, afraid t go to sleep, or difficulty getting a full and restful nights sleep, as if they are reliving the survivor’s trauma in their own feelings and sleep.
§ Ordinary activities, such as going shopping or to a movie, or taking a drive in the car, may feel like reliving the past trauma when the survivor experiences trauma memories or flashbacks. The survivor may go into “survival mode” or on “automatic pilot”, suddenly and without explanation shutting down emotionally, becoming pressured and angry, or going away abruptly and leaving family members shocked, stranded, helpless and worried.
§ Trauma survivors with PTSD often struggle with intense anger or rage, and can have difficulty coping with an impulse to lash out verbally or physically – especially if their trauma involved physical abuse or assault, war, domestic or community violence, or being humiliated, shamed and betrayed by people they needed to trust. Family members can feel frightened of and betrayed by the survivor, despite feeling love and concern.
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group offers family members and survivors support and referral to appropriate mental health professionals from their head office in Johannesburg. To speak to a telephone counselor, the Support Group can be contacted on (011) 783-1474/6, Monday to Friday (8am to 8pm) and Saturdays (8am to 5pm).
What can families of trauma survivors with PTSD do to care for themselves and the survivor?
§ Continue to learn more about PTSD by attending public talks, viewing films, or reading books.
§ Encourage, but don’t’ pressure, the survivor to seek counseling from a PTSD specialist.
§ Seek personal, child, couples, or family counseling if troubled by “secondary” trauma reactions such as anxiety, fears, anger, addiction or problems in school, work or intimacy.
§ Takes classes on stress and anger management, couples communication, or parenting.
§ Stay involved in positive relationships, in productive work and education, and with enjoyable pastimes.
§ Join a support group and share your problems with others.