“You can’t patch a wounded soul with a Band-Aid.” ~ Michael Connelly
So, actually quite some time ago now I wrote about things that I’d found it unhelpful of people to say about my PTSD. That post has been far and away the most viewed thing I’ve ever written and so I’ve decided to write some more posts about supporting people with mental health problems.
With that in mind here are some more things you probably shouldn’t say to people with PTSD.
1. Calm down. Saying this has never, ever, in the history of human interaction resulted in the person it’s being addressed to spontaneously calming down, snapping out of their flash back, coming out of their panic attack or whatever it is that the person addressing them wanted them to do. So just don’t waste your breath. The person you want to say this to is aware of the state they’re in and if they could just ‘calm down’ and get out of it they would. But they can’t. So try saying something useful and empathetic instead. Let them know that you’re there for them, reassure them that it’ll be okay, or offer to get them a glass of water or paper bag.
2. Just don’t think about it, watch TV or something instead. This is unhelpful for two reasons.
First of all it’s impractical. People with PTSD experience vivid dreams related to their trauma. You can’t turn off your dreams, nor does your unconscious body have enough control over your subconscious imagination to change what they’re about. So there’s that.
There’s also the little problem of what are known as ‘triggers’ – which is where a person’s subconscious has created a link between a certain object, situation, smell, or sound and the traumatic event(s) that caused the PTSD. When a person comes into contact with that trigger their mind then snaps them right back to the trauma so that they feel like they’re still experiencing it. The person zones out from their immediate surroundings and may experience visual or auditory hallucinations of previous events. Unprogramming those triggers can be a long and difficult process and usually involves therapy. A box set marathon isn’t going to fix it.
The second issue is that avoiding thinking about it is potentially counter productive. PTSD is about the mind’s inability to process traumatic events neatly into the narrative of your life. It’s like a psychological injury and it needs to be dealt with in order for it to heal properly; otherwise it will keep flaring up and causing problems. So, like the proverbial elephant you’re going to have to take a look at your demons eventually and work out how you’re going to exorcise them. Ignoring them won’t make them go away. Neither will Netflix. Even if this is how your loved one wants to deal with the problem it’s not wise to encourage it as though it’s an actual solution.
3. But your medication’s just a placebo really isn’t it, this is all just in your head. Okay, so I’m not any kind of doctor or pharmacist. I’ve had no clinical or pharmacological training, so my knowledge of how my medication works is based on the information leaflet that came in the box and what I’ve read on Wikipedia. But I know my medication works.
I know that my medication works because a bunch of people who are much smarter than you told me so.
I know my medication works because it alleviates my symptoms. I know my medication works because it causes physical side effects. I know my medication works because when I don’t take it I’m suicidal and when I do take it I’m not.
And that’s good enough for me.
So arguing with me about it will just make me think that you’re ill-informed; and that you’re deliberately being insensitive by trying to minimise my very real, and very life threatening, mental illness to an affectation that can be mended by a box of Tic Tacs.
4. You have to want to get better. I do want to get better. But you implying that the reason that I haven’t yet is because I’m not trying hard enough really isn’t helping. I’m trying, you’re just going to have to be more patient.
You’re also perpetuating a misguided attitude that makes people who love me question whether there’s something they either have, or haven’t, done that has resulted in my choosing to spend my days grappling with thoughts of suicide. You know, as opposed to choosing to get better. That’s actually kinda heartless of you. So just stop it.
5. So what caused this PTSD then? Just don’t go there. Don’t make the traumatised person talk about, or think about, their trauma. Let them know that you’ll be there to listen and let them open up to you in their own time. Unless you don’t know them well enough to do that, in which case what are you even asking for? Mind your own damn business.
I realise that there’s more to supporting someone with their mental illness than just avoiding saying the wrong thing. I’m going to write some practical advice posts in the near future. So the next installment will (possibly) be X Amount of Things That You Probably Should Say to Someone With PTSD.