So I want to talk about PTSD.
Last year, my daughter, then seven, was traumatized by some teachers at her old school. She has several disabilities, including anxiety disorder and sensory processing disorder (SPD). But for some mysterious, awful reason, these teachers chose to ignore that and punished her repeatedly for anxiety- and SPD-related behavior. When she hid under a desk because she was having an anxiety attack, they reprimanded her for being “disruptive” and sent her to the principal’s office. When she tried to run out of the classroom because she was afraid of them, they physically restrained her.
As a result, she developed chronic PTSD, and her anxiety got way worse, too. She was mostly not in school during the beginning of 2016 while we tried to heal her with a ton of therapy, meds, and other modalities.
How to explain PTSD? When a person perceives a really big threat, he or she is likely to go into an instinctive “fight or flight” mode. Fight or flight is what saved our cave-dwelling ancestors when they saw a lion running toward them.
When a person experiences a traumatic event and doesn’t develop PTSD, the memory of that event eventually goes into the long-term memory bank. It takes something very specific to trigger it, for example, a similar event or news of that thing happening to someone else.
But when a person develops PTSD, the memory of that event gets stuck in the short-term memory bank. All kinds of things can trigger it, even innocuous, unrelated stuff.
Because my daughter has PTSD, she triggers at the slightest thing and becomes overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness and powerlessness (which is what those teachers made her feel). If someone criticizes her … if someone tells her what to do … if someone touches her arm when she isn’t expecting it … these things can all be misinterpreted by her PTSD-addled brain as threats. Physical threats. Life-or-death threats. At which point she goes into fight or flight mode, and she defends herself. She runs. She hides. She hits. Whatever it takes to make her think she’s safe from the lions.
She’s in a new school now, but she continues to be afraid, and for the most part, she refuses to go. Her current teachers are wonderful, kind people, but she keeps thinking that they, too, will turn on her and reveal themselves to be monsters, just like the other ones.
The incredible social worker at her new school has created a written plan for her; the idea is for her to come to school for a little bit every day and then build on that, week by week. Here’s an excerpt from his plan (Charmander included):
If you spend 5 minutes in class, you earn a sticker.
ANY AMOUNT OF TIME you spend in school is super brave!
Thankfully, the plan has started working. Slowly but surely, she’s increasing her time at school. Slowly but surely, she’s learning to keep the lions at bay. It’s not a quick fix, and she still has a long way to go, but it’s progress.
I used to think that being brave meant facing down real monsters, real challenges. Soldiers, firefighters, Martin Luther King, Oskar Schindler, Malala Yousafzai … they’re heroes. But I realize now that being brave means facing down whatever monsters and challenges are real for you. For my daughter, she’s brave every minute she’s able to spend in school. She’s a hero if she can walk through that front door and maybe make it through first period.
Here’s to my daughter and to all the other heroes out there who are fighting and conquering their inner, invisible battles.