PTSD is a harsh, stern, taskmaster. Triggers are everywhere. They can even come in safe places and through a person you trust. Those are the difficult ones because, if the trigger was very unpleasant, going back to that same safe place or person for help – does not feel safe.
Living with ASD keeps the traumatic reliving of memories all close and fresh so to speak. For many, our autism keeps the triggered memories alive through rumination of thought; keeps them graphic through visual thinking and lucid nightmares, and keeps us alone through withdrawing to cope.
With PTSD there’s a Groundhog Day feeling of reliving a traumatic experience over and over again with no way out. Enduring the triggers of PTSD can use up way too many spoons, which leads to exhaustion and the possibility of giving in and letting go of hope that things will get better.
The other day I saw a man I hadn’t seen in three weeks. When I last saw him, he was just starting to grow a beard, and during the time I hadn’t seen him his beard had grown substantially. At my first glance of his beard, my stomach reacted, but my mind didn’t just yet. I had no idea why I had any reaction at all. He’s a nice man, helpful to my son, and I’ve known him for a couple of years. It wasn’t until some time had gone by, and he made a certain mannerism, that I realized his new beard caused him to look quite similar to my deceased husband.
Then, I uncomfortably physically reacted with more than just my queasy stomach. I was triggered. The problem was my ASD characteristics (in this particular instance, alexithymia) slowed down my understanding of what was happening because although I was anxious, and in fight or flight mode, I didn’t feel any emotions just yet.
As the day wore on, my panic grew, my anxiety kept going up, and I was having uncomfortable physical symptoms such as: feeling like I couldn’t breathe, physically shaking, my throat constricted uncomfortably, my heart thumping wildly, and I had a sharp, knife-like pain in my chest where my emotions sit. Still, I had no emotions that I could tie to my physical symptoms. I knew from experience I had been triggered. My brain had interpreted a man with a new beard as my deceased husband of whom I had great fear of when he was living.
So, what to do about that? I try several things to alleviate the physical symptoms and essentially ‘talk my brain down’ from the heightened state of reliving a nightmare. I keep busy. I take a quick, brisk walk. Moving my big muscles can, at times, release some of my anxiety. I try reading, writing, baking, listening to music or binge watch Netflix.
If none of those works, I might go to the seashore and listen to the waves or walk in the forest near my home. If none of that works I reach out to someone I trust to simply listen. It helps to have someone listen. Lastly, I try to fall asleep, even if it’s just a nap. This can sometimes backfire due to PTSD nightmares, but it’s always worth a shot to rest and try again tomorrow. If a nightmare does happen, I start the coping strategies all over again.
Autistic people are vulnerable to developing PTSD due to long term bullying, traumatic experiences, relational rejection, and many other adverse life experiences. While our autistic characteristics can keep us prisoners of PTSD, our characteristics can also set us free. As autistic people, we have the resilience, inner strength, and perseverance of overcoming adversity that we can use to subdue one trigger at a time in our journeys towards health and healing from PTSD. So yes, PTSD is a harsh, stern taskmaster and we are vulnerable to developing it, but we also have autistic strengths to use in combating it and reclaiming the quality of life we deserve.