PTSD–Survival and Recovery

What follows is largely taken from a forthcoming book about my PTSD experience.

In 2007, I was diagnosed with PTSD–Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

First, a little background.

On April 5, 2007, I was aboard the cruise ship Sea Diamond. We were on tour of the Greek islands. If you’ve never been there, make it one of the destinations you must visit in life.

I was standing on the top deck as we pulled into the giant caldera of Santorini. It is one of the most stunning places in the world. Giant, sheer cliffs jut upward hundreds of feet. They are colorful and imposing, threatening and beautiful and intimidating.

Then, I heard a hollow scraping noise.

The ship had run aground.

There was chaos as everyone rushed to the top decks. People were ripping lifejackets out of the hands of the stunned crewmen.

Eventually, after four hours of haphazard and chaotic rescue efforts, we were finally ferried ashore. Later in the night, we were put aboard another ship and returned to Piraeus, where our journey had begun.

There, we were told that two people–a Frenchman and his daughter–had perished.

We were stunned. Some around me were crying.

Upon returning to my hotel, I turned on the TV–and witnessed the last moments of the Sea Diamond. It lay upside down, with only the tip of its hull above water. Slowly, it sank to the depths. Only several rubber lifeboats hovered above, a sort of floating burial site.

What followed were the most hellish weeks of my life.

It didn’t start immediately. At first, all I felt was annoyance at having had lost my luggage. Otherwise, I felt ok–a bit rattled, but nothing serious.

Or so I thought.

A week passed. Suddenly, I began to feel…wrong.

Something was off.

I would be feeling fine. Then, all of a sudden, my heart would speed up like crazy. I would be drenched in sweat all over. My entire body shook uncontrollably. My head would spin, the ground suddenly unsteady.

I felt like passing out.

At first, these episodes were infrequent. I would pause, take a few deep breaths, and the sensations would vanish.

Days later, it began to get worse.

Much worse.

I had no idea what was happening. My mind raced as blood rushed through it. My heart beat with the desperation of an escaping prisoner, trying to jackhammer its way through my chest. My entire body shook with uncontrollable spasms. I felt dizzy, like gravity had suddenly shifted beneath me.

Completely crippled by this point, I retreated to my apartment.

There, the hell I was in had only just begun.

Now, these attacks were constant. No reprieve. No moments of calm. Only a constant sense that I was about to lose my mind.

Was I on the verge of insanity?

For the next week, I lay in bed. And drank. A lot.

The alcohol was the only thing that drowned my terror. Even when drunk, I could still feel it, deep underneath the booze-induced haze.

A few bags of Doritos were my only food during that time.

On the last day, I remember standing on my 14th floor balcony, lighting a Lucky Strike with a trembling hand. I truly felt the end was near. My thoughts raced uncontrollably, my heart beating with the fury of a raging animal.

Either this stops–or I die.

I looked down off the balcony. The distance was…inviting.

Somehow, some deep, innermost part of me chose life.

With my head spinning and my entire body reeling, I dragged myself to a doctor. He was not a psychiatrist, but knew a little about panic attacks.

Panic attacks? Is that what that was? I had no idea.

He prescribed me a sedative and sent me on my way.

Once back home, I took a pill. Within half an hour, I felt much better. My heart had slowed down; my breath became even. The trembling stopped. For the first time, I could lay back and truly relax.

The struggle didn’t completely end then. Periodic panic attacks–some so intense that I felt about to lose consciousness–would plague me for years afterwards. I still struggle with them.

But I survived.

I have no secret remedies to offer. I am not a doctor or a therapist. Just a survivor.

But I do know this: no matter how horrible you feel, no matter how badly you feel your mind slipping and your entire world crashing and burning around you, choose life.

It gets better.

Ground yourself. Find balance.

Find a trusted therapist in whose reassuring presence you can talk and scream and vent your terror. A good friend whose shoulder you can lean on.

Walk outside. Look at the trees. Sit by a lake, or on the seashore. Water always has a calming effect.

Take up yoga. Meditate. Find that space deep inside yourself, vast and luminous, where only joy and peace and love exist. Dwell there as much as possible.

Slowly, that inner space will expand.

It won’t happen overnight. I wish it were otherwise. If I could take away all your pain and make it my own, believe me–I would.

But I can’t do that. Only you can.

It will be a struggle, and a long journey. But if you take small steps each day, eventually you will reach a point where the panic isn’t there anymore. A point of deep contentment. A day when you can look all around you, breathe in deeply–and smile.

You will get there. I promise. By surviving your ordeal, you showed the world that you are strong beyond anything you’ve ever imagined.

Stay strong, and keep going.

And, above all, breathe.


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