Friday, May 8, 2009

PTSD Diagnosis: 7 Tips for Telling Your Family

OK, so you’ve thought about how to choose which family member to speak to about your PTSD diagnosis and hopefully you've decided on someone. Now, you actually have to follow through with doing it. Problem is – let me guess: It’s hard to talk about it. Don’t I know it! One of the symptoms of PTSD no one ever, er, talks about is how tough it is to talk about.

The PTSD brain fog and chaos make thoughts, sentences, phrases and sometimes, even single words, tough to transfer from the mind through the mouth to the outside world. I always felt like there was a bottleneck; too many ideas and emotions crushing against each other in the narrow chute that would spit them out into language. This was frustrating. I didn’t have the energy for it. Plus, I didn’t have the focus to unjumble it all up. So, I stayed quiet. For a very, very long time.

Silence, though, isn’t helpful when you’re trying to heal PTSD. We have to find a way out of the language maze. New information can be tough to hold onto when we’re in the shadow of PTSD; having things in writing can make all the difference by making us grounded when we attempt to speak. If we surround ourselves with physical details and explanations that we can refer to rather than try to remember (because, let’s be serious, while our memory of traumatic events is impeccable our recall for the little things is not exactly up to par) it makes talking with others much easier. The key to having conversations is limiting – and as much as possible reducing – the amount of stress such communication engenders.

A few tips and tricks to help order your thoughts in a way that makes PTSD presentable to a family member:

1 – Make an outline of how you want the conversation to go. Make a numbered list of the points you want to make, the facts you want to share, any issues you want to discuss, plus information you want to quote. Use this as a guide and refer to it frequently during the conversation.

2 – Make a cheatsheet. Maybe you’re more of a conversational freestyler and don’t want to be hemmed in by the structure of an outline. Instead of an organized plan free associate a list of things you want to cover in the conversation and jot them down. During the conversation you can check off each point as you make it and continue on to something else.

3 – Make flashcards. Sometimes we’re not sure how we want to approach a subject. Often it’s difficult to decide in what order we want to say things. Write out each point, fact, piece of information on its own individual index card. Then, place the cards all over the floor or table and look them over. Choose an order and place the cards in a pile. Set it aside. Think about it for a while. Go back to the pile the next day and look through the order of the cards. Does it feel right? If not, dump the cards and start over. When you’ve got the order you like sit down with the cards and a family member and flip your way through the conversation.

4 – Write a letter. Often, it’s easier to say what we want to say when no one is listening; easier to write out our thoughts when we’re not watching for someone’s reaction or picking up the thread after they interrupt. Who says ‘talking’ to a family member about PTSD has to begin with speech? If you don’t want to risk the initial interaction, write a letter to a family member explaining everything about you and PTSD. Then, read the letter to him or her aloud, or give it to him or her to read and follow up with a conversation afterward.

5 – Make a voice recording. Don’t like to write but don’t want to do something face to face? Tape a cassette or burn a CD. Using your notes, say what you want to say in the privacy of your room or office. Then pass the tape/CD around the family to get the conversation going.

6 – Make a video. There’s something very immediately impactful about being able to watch someone speak. With the same impulses for making a recording, use a video camera or webcam to speak to your family in your own controlled environment and then share the video with them.

7 – Print information off the web. If you’re not ready to do the work that speaking involves, or you don’t want to try ordering your thoughts, you don’t have to. The net is full of good information you can print out and give to a family member to read. This blog, for example, has an entire PTSD Education series with several posts that outline PTSD symptoms, causes, effects, treatments and other pertinent information. Make a PTSD packet for your family and then ask them to read through it.


Choose one of the methods above and use it to prepare yourself for a conversation.

How did you tell your family? Share your tips and tricks for approaching family members about PTSD. Leave a comment or shoot me an email.

(Photo: firoz shakir)


Angel said...

I just discovered your blog, and want to say how wonderful it is! I was raped when I was eleven, and kept it a secret for almost thirty years. I suffered from horrible PTSD and dissociation, and am now in recovery from anorexia. I finally got help, and I'm doing much better. It is great that you are helping people with the trauma that they have suffered.
Take care:)

Anonymous said...

Great post Michele. Actually, something else I think is important (for your own sake) is not assuming your family will understand or be as supportive as you'd like.

Some families are and will be. But if you go out on a limb by telling someone in your family, you are making yourself a little vulnerable. And unfortunately, not everyone likes to deal with the horrors of something like PTSD.

Especially if you're trying to explain what caused it in the first place.

So, I'd say be gentle on yourself and on whoever you're telling. Try not to have expectations on how you'd like things to turn out - it might be really different from that.

Getting help and support is important, but it needs to be the right person/people. Everyone has their own weaknesses and they may not be able to support yours.

However, there will definitely be someone out there who will be supportive and loving. Just... choose carefully, is all!

Michele Rosenthal said...

@svasti - Great point! I was writing from the asssumption that someone would make the determination that family was a safe place, but you're so right - that should be part of the thought process before any of the rest of this post is approached. Thanks for bringing this up! :)

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately I'm speaking from experience, having a particularly unsupportive family.

My advice for others, if that is what happens is... don't let that get to you if you can, as hurtful as it can feel. Instead, reach out to other people you can trust. If you think you can't trust anyone in your life, find a professional therapist you can trust.

And don't judge those who can't deal with what you're going through. Everyone has their own weaknesses and if they seem uncaring, that's not necessarily how they feel. It could very well be a self-protective mechanism.

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