Dear Dr. Brilliant Cliché,
My sister recently had her 5th floor studio apartment broken into AGAIN. They stole her computer and phone. But the worst part is that now she is going through post traumatic stress reactions and is afraid all the time. She was diagnosed as bipolar in her early 20’s (she’s 58 now) and is anxious and depressed all the time anyway, so you can imagine what this additional trauma is like for her. Last night she called me because she arranged to have a security system installed for her one window, on a fire escape, and she became afraid that the guy who came to measure the window was going to come back later and rob her. I reassured her by looking up the company online with the BBB and finding they had an A+ rating and were highly reputable. But her fear persists, of course. What can I do to help her? She lives in NYC, where crime is a real fear. I don’t think more meds is the answer.
Dear Concerned Cathy,
In reality there is no magic answer but there’s tons of research on this subject:
I have read that for post traumatic stress disorder the # 1 helpful thing is a daily schedule. Sink yourself into a daily routine, don’t isolate, keep busy. This helps gain back a sense of control that was stripped away and also time passes which in itself is the most powerful antidepressant as it affects perspective.
Do not isolate; reach out. Self help groups are a great source of community.
Volunteerism also helps battle the helplessness – helping others is the most powerful way to help yourself.
A good, comprehensive self defense class later on is a good thing but not helpful in the immediate. Be sure you find a program that offers prevention techniques as well as self defense techniques.
The best role for family and loved ones is as a witness – don’t suggest anything at first just be there in silence. Listen to them, don’t urge them to “get better”; that will cause guilt as they will feel they need to get better for you.
There are zillions of articles, suggestions, educational pieces; it is a much discussed subject these days. Google away, I liked this one in my 10 sec. of research I just did.
A friend and co-team member who would like to be known as “The Granny Dr.” has 40 years of personal experience with PTSD. She has some practical perspectives from the trenches and wished for me to include them here. So… word from the Granny Dr:
We tend to isolate ourselves when we are traumatized, and it’s not always because it’s our first choice. PTSD can make you act really weird. Thus it can make ‘normal’ people uncomfortable around you. That’s because ‘normal’ people just don’t get it. It’s not their fault, but it can cause them to handle those with ptsd very carelessly and sometimes avoid or reject them in a damaging way. You need to connect with other people who have experienced extreme trauma themselves. One of the best ways to do that is online. It has the advantage of anonymity. You can type your anxiety and fears into a Google search and find other people blogging about their own experiences. If you’ve been attacked and are now afraid to leave your house, your computer can be your lifeline.
But the main thing as a loved one and or family member is to remember this: you can offer, you can be there, you can suggest, but in the end it is not up to you. They need to make the choice to live, and they have to make that choice on their own. The movie What Dreams May Come showed this better than anything I have ever seen. After losing her child, Annabelle Sciorra blames herself and becomes suicidal. Her husband, Robin Williams, visits in her metaphorical Hell and says, “I can hold your hand for a while but I cannot stay here with you.” In the end she chooses to stay and he leaves. The choice to accept the pain and go on with life is one we each must make for ourselves.
Good luck, I wish her and you well.
-Dr Brilliant Cliché