Why it’s neither kind nor helpful to respond to PTSD sufferers with “grow up” | Trauma Tuesday

Recently I watched a video which I don’t care to identify or link to, because I don’t want to to carelessly indulge, even in the slightest way, a possible attention glutton. Besides, this really isn’t about that particular person; it’s about an attitude he shares with far too many other people.

But before I get to that, let me offer my thoughts and understanding of what it means to be “triggered”. I may step on a few toes here, and I want to make it clear that I am speaking for myself and not for all survivors.

For those unfamiliar with PTSD, or needing a quick review, here is a fairly concise explanation. When those of us who suffer with PTSD talk about being “triggered”, we tend to mean that something brought on an episode of emotional and physical PTSD symptoms. In other words, we were forced to relive our trauma. Maybe it was “just” that our emotions, heart rate, endocrine glands, and nervous systems reacted as if the trauma were happening again, right at that very minute. Maybe we dissociated. Maybe we had a flashback, during which our bodies and minds were convinced the trauma was happening again. Maybe all this was followed by night after night of terrorizing nightmares, and days of anxiety, during which we constantly felt as if about to jump out of our own skin, until we were utterly exhausted and spent.

What we experience can be far, far worse than I am describing.

If you have ever undergone something truly horrific, devastating, life threatening, or terrifying — torture, a violent assault, a particularly frightening accident, or something similar — you no doubt remember how you didn’t just “get over it” the instant things stopped. Even if you didn’t end up with PTSD, you felt shaken and distressed for quite some time. When those of us with PTSD are triggered, we don’t suddenly feel back to normal once we realize, “Haha, it wasn’t a real threat after all, and my nightmarish assault wasn’t happening all over again! Silly me!” (No, I don’t think it’s silly to be triggered. Nor is it a sign of weakness or fragility, despite what some may think.) It can take us a while to recover, and for our bodies, instincts, thoughts, emotions, hormones, digestive systems, cardio-vascular systems, brain chemistry, and nerves to catch up with present reality.

Now I realize that not everyone uses the word “triggered” in that way. Some non-survivors have co-opted it for their own use. However, when they say they are “triggered”, they mean that they are reminded of something sad or painful. A smell of perfume may prompt someone to feel grief over the loss of their beloved grandmother, or even to remember her death quite vividly, but that is part of almost everyone’s life in our world. Remembering and being upset over bad memories is a far cry from feeling like you have been pulled back into and forced to relive the most traumatizing, dehumanizing, terrifying experiences of your life. When those of us with PTSD are triggered, it’s as if our trauma is happening all over again. Past and present collide.

At the risk of offending survivors who disagree with me, I think the word may have been misused and overused by some of us. But, whether I am right about that or not, the thing we need to remember is that we are all at different places in our healing journey, and we all have different triggers. So we should be careful not to judge or belittle other survivors for being triggered “more easily” or by different things. (And, yes, mere words can be triggering.)

To make things more complicated, what might be triggering one time may not be triggering another time. It’s the seemingly unpredictable nature of PTSD that made many of us feel like we were teetering on the edge of “going crazy” until we were finally diagnosed  and given tools to help cope with the aftermath of our trauma.

Many of us in various survivor communities become fiercely protective of one another, not because we view each other as fragile, but because we place such a high priority on healing. Part of that process is learning self-care, and “trigger warnings” are a way of helping each other with that. My friends and I don’t avoid using the word “rape” or talking frankly and even graphically amongst ourselves, often to a far greater degree than we can with most non-survivors. However, if we are heading into potentially difficult territory, we will caution each other along the lines of, “Make sure you are in a good place, and be prepared, before you read this…before you watch this movie…before you go to this place…before you listen to what I am about to say…” In other words, we’ve got each other’s backs.

My healing journey has involved a lot of hard, painful work on my part. I was blessed with a wonderful therapist who shares my faith, some amazing survivors I call my “tribe”, and some truly remarkable people who have loved, encouraged and taught me along the way. Some of those people have done so in person, and others through books, art, music, sermons, and the online world. Most of all, it has been the grace of God and His love as my Heavenly Father that has brought me to where I am today. I am thankful that things that used to trigger me no longer do. In fact, it’s been quite some time since I’ve had any noticeable symptoms of PTSD, depression or anxiety. Even the recurring nightmares are gone, as are the flashbacks. I’m able to go places, do things, and minister in ways that would have been unthinkable as recently as two years ago. (I’m hoping my symptoms are gone forever but recognize that may not be the case.)

I didn’t suddenly “grow up”. It was a long, hard road to get here, and the people who dismissively urged me to “get over it” were not only unhelpful and unkind — I believe that the enemy of my soul tried to use them as roadblocks to my healing. After all, the Bible says that Satan came to kill, steal, and destroy. He hates having his damage undone. He hates redemption and reconciliation. He hates God.

Does that mean I think that anyone who fails at loving survivors is someone who hates God? No. However, as I used to tell my kids, when we don’t treat others with love and compassion, it’s as if we are playing on the wrong team in this battle of good versus evil.

In my more idealistic days, I used to think that if I could just explain this sort of stuff, people would treat trauma survivors with more compassion. I saw the main problem as a lack of knowledge. Perhaps I’m becoming cynical, but I’m realizing that more and more people simply do not care — and that includes some of the very people who should be setting the examples for compassion, gentleness, and kindness. Sadly, not everyone wants to love as Jesus does…or maybe they just don’t want to love us that way.

That brings me back to the video that inspired this post. In it, a man mimics and ridicules those who say, “That’s triggering”, and responds with a dismissive smirk, “Well, grow up.” I fully recognize that there are people who, while they are right to value freedom of speech, mistakenly think it should be best expressed and protected by saying anything they want, no matter how cruel or offensive, and refusing to be held accountable or to apologize. I know all too well that there are people who mock the very idea of compassion and who accuse anyone encouraging kindness and gentleness as being overwrought and overcome with emotions. I know that there are men who will grow irate if anyone objects to their “jokes” about rape, and that there are people who seem to make a sport of threatening, intimidating, mocking, and harassing sexual trauma survivors. I know that there are also people who aren’t malicious, but are simply lacking in empathy. I know that there are some people who mean well, but are unfortunately clueless and oblivious.

To be clear: I’m not arguing that we should legislate away free speech or legally mandate trigger warnings. To put it another way, as much as I might feel like outlawing shock jocks and blasphemers, I’m not sure I’d like to live in a society (at least not here on earth) where they are outlawed. At the same time, of all the things I’m willing to advocate for, being an insulting jerk without being called out for it is certainly not one of them.

And, I’d like to add, if you are going to insist on being an insensitive clod, please confine yourself to a line of work where that is an asset and not a liability. In other words, stay out of the helping professions and out of any sort of ministry where people might actually think you are supposed to represent Jesus. (Perhaps, if you are that fond of and prone to offensive speech, consider becoming a shock jock. Then my friends and I will know not to listen to you.)

It seems that I can’t bring myself to end this post without including my two favorite stories about PTSD.

The first one was told to me by a Viet Nam vet. After a tour of duty, he was taking an afternoon nap at his grandparents’ house when something triggered a flashback, during which he ran outside and shot up the backyard. His grandfather had been watching the whole scene from his easy chair. I suppose some would think that the grandfather should have, at the very least, urged, “grow up!” But he was himself a combat veteran, having fought in World War 2, and he understood what used to be called “shell shock”. Very calmly he asked, “Well? Did you get ’em?”

“That’s why I loved my grandfather so much,” this tough former Marine told me years later, his eyes shining with tears. “He understood. I shot the heck out of his nice backyard and he never said a word about it…just sat with me and calmed me down.”

My second favorite story is one I read in a book somewhere, and it also involved a Viet Nam vet. He was at the dry cleaner’s when a car backfired out front. Next thing he knew, he was face down on the floor. To his surprise, so was the young woman who had been waiting on him. Rather sheepishly, he said, “Saigon,” followed by the year he had been there. She nodded and replied, “Beirut,” followed by the year she had left. They both got up, brushed off their clothes, and tried to go on as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. (And, by the way, I’m fairly certain neither of them urged the other to “grow up”.)

Maybe it’s because I have a weird sense of humor, but both stories crack me up…at the same time that I find them sweet and endearing. Those of us with PTSD, whether our symptoms are in the past or not, want what most people want — compassion and understanding. We are glad when those things are extended to other trauma survivors, and disheartened when such human kindness is withheld.

There was a time, some years back, when I felt compelled to explain to someone why I had an overreactive startle reflex, why I was hyper-vigilant in certain settings, why I acted “wacky” sometimes, and why I had a weird set of “quirks”. I offered this explanation: “You know how some people who fight in wars get PTSD? Well, I fought in a different war, a private one, and I lost.” I didn’t want pity, or to be treated with kid gloves. What I hoped for was understanding: I’m not this way on purpose. It’s a boatload of fear and pain that caused this. If I could be any other way, trust me, I would. 

It’s always a risk when we disclose the trauma in our past. We don’t always know what to expect. Sometimes we get a dismissive, “well, grow up!” — or far worse. Sometimes we get shrugs. Sometimes we get awkward silence. Sometimes we get a “me too”. And sometimes we get someone who views us as their neighbor and loves us, as much as humanly possible, the way Jesus taught.

That last type of person? They are the ones who God can use to “bind up the broken-hearted” and to “comfort those who mourn”. They are the ones who do what the Church should be doing. They are the ones who help us heal.

And they are the ones who would never dismiss a PTSD sufferer with, “Well, grow up.”

2 thoughts on “Why it’s neither kind nor helpful to respond to PTSD sufferers with “grow up” | Trauma Tuesday

  1. “Many of us in various survivor communities become fiercely protective of one another, not because we view each other as fragile, but because we place such a high priority on healing.”

    YES! This is a key to gentleness. It’s not begrudging – it doesn’t feel superior – it comes from a desire to help, and if possible, to understand. It’s putting your highest priority on the well-being of the other person. It does not insist on its own rights.

    1 Corinthians 10:23

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