Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Panic at the Breakfast Table

I had so much going on yesterday that I never got to read the papers. So this morning I ate breakfast over Tuesday's New York Times. Then over my second mug of tea, I turned to today's paper. I pulled off the first section, flattened it and suddenly burst into tears. Just below the fold on the front page was a horrific photo and accompanying headline, Equestrians’ Deaths Spread Unease in Sport. I won't reproduce the picture here because I can't bear to keep seeing it.

It took me a few minutes to calm down enough to pick up the paper again, but I couldn't even glance at the front page. I opened to the middle of the A section, hoping to read political news. On the right-hand page there were stories about the campaign, but on the left was the continuation of the equestrian feature, with diagrams of monster cross-country jumps and photos of more crashes. I caught the words coma, concussion, death before I melted down again and bolted upstairs to my office. No NYT for me today; I'll read the top stories online.

What gives? My ugly little secret is that I suffer from PTSD: post-traumatic stress disorder.

On May 1 it will be two years since Gomez the Virginia thoroughbred (whom Darling Husband hopes has been rendered into glue) threw me into a steel-pipe fence. I was knocked out and came to consciousness in a helicopter, then spent a week in a hospital multi-trauma unit.

I suffered a severe concussion, nerve damage to head and face, smashed-up front teeth; broken right arm, two ribs, nose, brow bone, maxillary sinus, palate and palatinate bone. Since August 2006 I've had six surgeries, including two on my right arm. The first was to screw a 6" steel plate to the humerus (see Well and Truly Screwed); the second was to free the median nerve so I could regain function in my dominant hand (see Pharmaceutical Fun).

The glasses I was wearing on May 1, 2006.

Since then, my thumb and first three fingers have become partly to mostly numb, the base of my thumb is atrophying, and my arm and shoulder hurt all the time. The solution--we hope; no one can figure out what else to do--is to remove the plate and do carpal tunnel release.

During this writing the orthopedist's office called to give me the surgery date: Friday, June 13. (It could've been sooner, but I didn't relish negotiating BookExpo with my arm in a sling.) I'm hoping this surgery will be lucky #7, and that the third time will be the charm for my arm. And most of all, that the PTSD will lessen once I stop being retraumatized by pain, surgeries and complications thereof (the latest is ringworm along the new scar on my scapula; go figure.)

The first symptoms of PTSD manifested in the car. I gasped in panic whenever Darling Husband--whose super-cautious driving usually drives me nuts--made a left turn across oncoming traffic, or if a car came at us from the right (the direction I was thrown in). When I started driving again, I was so anxious that I stopped driving on side streets with stop signs; instead only going on ones with traffic lights. When I passed an ambulance stopped by a fender bender, I had to pull over because I started sobbing uncontrollably. On the way to therapy one day, another driver stopped and honked wildly at me and I was enraged for hours. At an outdoor reception, a helicopter flew by low overhead and I had to fight back tears along with the urge to run inside.

I went to see "Casino Royale" six months after my accident and thought I was going to faint and/or throw up during the chase and torture scenes. Fuggedabout the final episodes of "The Sopranos," or TV shows--or even ads--with crashes, explosions, fights, contact sports, horse races. I'd never been a football fan, but the sound of a scrimmage made me feel faint; I hid upstairs during the past two seasons. Of course any news shows were out. The Boy Wonder made fun of my new G-rated sensibilities. DH, while sympathetic, grew impatient with my tendency to bolt from the room anytime there was something remotely disturbing ("Jumbo Trucks!") on TV.

I started watching only comedies and/or old movies, but even they weren't safe. A short sequence with squealing car tires in "Born Yesterday" alarmed me. I covered my eyes during a scene in "Office Space," in which one of the characters is all bandaged up in a wheelchair. I started crying at the opening of a "Medium" episode, set in a hospital room identical to the one I spent a week in.

My therapist referred me to a counselor who practices a technique called Somatic Experiencing, which helped me enormously. It took a few months, but, like Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, I knew I was "cured" when I could watch violence again. Till I was blindsided by a newspaper photograph.

My trauma resulted from just ten minutes of doing something I loved in a peaceful setting. What about all the soldiers and contractors serving in Iraq, many of whom have traumatic brain injuries in addition to PTSD? What about when they come home and read the paper, or watch TV, or get cut off in traffic, or are insulted by a drunk at a bar? What's going to happen to us all?


Kim Stagliano said...

Bella, I'm sorry you had to go through this. I thought of you today when I read that article. We forget that the trauma remains in the tissue long after the wounds are mended. And the psyche.

Your glasses remind me of when I went to the John Lennon exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His broken glasses were on display.

There is a therapy called Somatic Emotional Release (a form of craniosacral therapy) that helps to remove trauma deeply embedded in tissue. I'd be happy to help you look into it. It's sort of like Reiki. Not too out there and very effective.



Bella Stander said...

Thanks, Kim! I'll look into SER too. If it's practiced anywhere, it would be here in Colorado.

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

I'm editing a book manuscript right now in which there is a discussion of somatic bodywork. It does sound as if it can be very helpful. Maybe somatic experiencing would work for you once again, Bella.

Bella Stander said...

Definitely. I have a call into the SE therapist; he's away till tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

Oh sweetie, I had no idea it was this bad. I can totally sympathize with that level of fear. I'm glad you've found something that works for you.

At JFK airport last year, I met a few soldiers just back from their stint in Iraq. Fascinated by exactly what you mention--how do they cope with constant danger--I asked them. They were the calmest people I've ever met. They had it all sort of compartmentalized, felt the odds were still on their side, and were bullish about going back. They became my heroes that day - after all the ridiculous panic I'd felt about a novel coming out...look what they'd been facing!

Tish Cohen (Google is forcing me to post anonymously, grr)