Forward: Our life literally changed forever when, in 2011, my paramedic husband was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As a result, he is no longer able to work in any profession that may trigger his symptoms, and unfortunately many aspects of day-to-day life cause him intense anxiety.
Speaking with children about illness (in our case, mental illness) can be extremely difficult, trying to find the right words and appropriate level of detail. However I believe it’s important to answer questions from my children honestly, and I use my writing to show how I approach sensitive topics. You can read more about how our young family lives under the dark shadow of PTSD on my blog Away With Her Words.
“Mummy, why is Daddy so angry?”
I feel my throat tighten as familiar tears prick at the corner of my eyes. My daughter sobs into her pillow, she doesn’t see me trying to empty my face of the distress that rattles me. The turbulence of my husband’s anger still hangs in the air, even though he left the bedroom – and the house – a while ago. “He really frightened me, Mummy.”
My children do not deserve this, and neither do I. But this is their father, the only one they’ll ever have. And this is my husband, who I vowed to love and support. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is part of our lives now, and we live with it as best we can. No more playing it down. I need to be honest in admitting that these rages affect us all. And no more making excuses for him. It’s true that he didn’t ask for PTSD, but he is in control of his own recovery.
I stroke my daughter’s soft hair, soothing the anxiety that lingers in us both, searching for the words that might make sense to a 7-year-old. “Darling, I have a story to tell you about Daddy, but it’s not a happy one.” She rolls over to look at me, her eyes and face still damp from her tears, and I feel that she already knows a lot of what I’m about to tell her.
“Daddy has been a paramedic for a lot of years, many more than you’ve been alive, and over that time he has helped a lot of people. Most of the people he helped were very sick or very badly hurt, and some of them even died.” Her eyes widen at the word. For a 7-year-old, death is becoming a very real concept, something tangible, something to fear. “Even though your dad is an amazing paramedic, not everyone can be saved. Some of the people were old, but some of them were little children or babies.”
She doesn’t speak, but fresh tears begin to well. I move in closer to keep stroking her hair, and carry on with my story. “The sadness and hurt from all the people Daddy helps stays with him in his mind. And that’s why he no longer works on the ambulance, because he simply cannot bear any more sadness and hurt. When this happens to someone, the doctors call it PTSD.” I notice a flicker of understanding. She recognises the term, she’s no doubt overheard it in passing conversations.
“PTSD can affect anyone, but it can be more likely with people who work in ambulance, or the police, or firefighters, or soldiers who go to war, who all see a lot of sad and scary things.” I pause a moment, mindful of the emotion beginning to engulf my voice. “The sadness and hurt in Daddy’s mind sometimes gets overwhelming, and it rushes out as a loud angry shouting voice, lots of stomping and banging, and a very scary face.”
Her little voice tentatively cuts in. “Is that why Daddy had to go to angry school?”
“Yes, that’s right. You remember? Angry school is what we called the place that Daddy went to to learn about why PTSD makes him feel so sad and angry. There were other people there too, with PTSD like Daddy, having a break, and the doctors taught them ways to get their bad feelings out safely. They also worked out which medicines might help with Daddy’s PTSD.”
She absorbs every word I say, her little brain processing this very grown up topic, and I feel a sudden flood of dread in the pit of my stomach. What the hell am I doing? Isn’t she too young for this? Isn’t it all too much? But I’ve already come this far, and honestly this is as much about her life now as it is ours. My daughter deserves the truth. And she deserves to hear how it ends.
She waits for me to continue. “So when Daddy’s PTSD is triggered, it often comes out as a lot of anger. But sometimes it comes out as crying, and sometimes it comes out as nightmares when he’s sleeping, which make him upset the next day. PTSD makes Daddy very tired, and you already know about how he needs time on his own when he’s feeling stressed.” I look down at her and see her give a small nod. Her tears have dried now, and she snuggles a little further into her bed.
“But although PTSD will be with him forever – because no one can block out bad memories – there are three things you must always remember. PTSD is something that has happened to Daddy, nothing you did made it happen and nothing you do will ever make it worse. PTSD might make Daddy scary and loud at times, but his rage is never your fault.”
I turn my gaze to meet hers in the now darkening bedroom. “And PTSD will never ever stop Daddy from loving you to the stars and back. We are the reason Daddy tries his best to overcome all that PTSD brings.”
She throws her arms tightly around my neck, thankfully not seeing the tears spill down my cheeks. I could easily hug her forever.
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