Wednesday, May 6, 2009

PTSD Diagnosis: Educating Family

When we think about educating our world about PTSD, the most logical place to begin is with family. Assuming you’re on speaking terms with them and they’re not the origin of your trauma, family is usually the first line of defense between a PTSDer and the outside world. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and extended relations are usually the people we feel most comfortable being ourselves around, who we call when we admit we need help, who bail us out when we get ourselves in tricky situations, and are, in the best of circumstances, the people who love us and hurt the most when we’re unhappy. It’s critical then for this group to understand our condition.

Over the next few BRIDGE THE GAP posts I’ll outline different things to consider about approaching family with your PTSD diagnosis, plus how to communicate to them what you’re dealing with and how they can help.

Understanding PTSD Yourself

When I first discovered I had PTSD I kept the diagnosis to myself for a while. I wanted to fully understand it before I tried to explain it to someone else. I did a great deal of research and, because I would have been a professional student if that was a job description, I took notes, made outlines and highlighted the facts on tons Xeroxed, printed and downloaded pages. I studied PTSD which meant, really, I studied myself. In the things I read I recognized who I was, had become and was struggling so hard not to be. I spent a lot of time thinking, I’m not crazy after all! I walked around feeling like I had 2 new and very important secrets:

1 – a name for what was wrong with me

2 – the knowledge that, after all, there was nothing wrong with me but how my mind was processing memory

These two secrets meant that in explaining the situation to someone else I could highlight the fact that there was something bigger than my own temperament at fault. For many years I had just deemed myself ‘difficult’ and imagined that’s what others thought, too. With diagnosis came the chance to set the record straight.

Deciding Which Family Member to Talk To

After my own education my next task was choosing the first person to tell. We have two choices in making our announcement: we can tell the whole family all at once, or we can tell one person at a time. I chose the one person at a time option. While I’m very close to my entire nuclear family, my emotional state was fragile and fragmented enough without having to deal with the reactions, questions and suggestions of three people all at once.

Choosing with whom to first share my news was a no brainer. My mother has always been my best friend, champion and most trusted companion, so when it came time to share all of the new information I had, she was my natural choice. But if she hadn’t been, I would have had to develop a list of criteria to assess who would be the safest choice to begin sharing my story with. My list would have looked like this:

1 – who is the most compassionate?

2 – who do I trust the most?

3 – who usually if not always seems to understand me?

4 – who has more often than anyone else worked to keep a relationship with me despite how difficult that has been?

5 – who is the most empathetic and willing to feel my emotions with me?

6 – who do I feel most comfortable talking to?

7 – who do I feel I can be myself around?

8 – who is the most stable so that I can count on their calm acceptance of this news?

9 – who do I think can support me the best on my road to recovery?

10 – who has the most patience?

Choosing to out ourselves and our struggle with PTSD is a very personal and brave action to take to further our PTSD healing. We need to move slowly and to carefully consider whom we bring into our inner circle of healing. Take your time, choose carefully.


Two exercises today:

1 – Make your own criteria list. What qualities do you want in the first person you choose to share your diagnosis with? See if you can list 10 characteristics that are important to have in the person you talk to.

2 – Make a list of possible candidates in your family and score them against your list of criteria. Literally, make a chart and individually consider how each family member ranks on your list of criteria. One person may be a great listener, but has a tendency to interrupt; another may be empathetic but also demanding. Slowly working your way through a chart can help you put the facts into an easy to interpret form that allows you to clearly see who you think and feel would be the best person for you to approach. (For a free copy of a ‘PTSD Family Assessment’ chart email me at parasitesof.themind @

How did you choose the first family (or adopted family) member to tell about your PTSD diagnosis? Leave a comment or shoot me an email.

(Photo: arcojedi)

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