In 2005 I took a swim lesson or two with plans on becoming a multisport athlete. The swim lessons were interesting. I lost a contact lens in the pool and did not make much progress. That was in late April, and I’d just been given a road bike on which I was starting to put in miles in hopes of doing a triathlon.
I did not know exactly what I wanted from the sport. My sense of purpose was focused on diversifying the sports I do in anticipation of later years when it seemed like being a one-trick pony was a bad idea. If I couldn’t run, for example, how would I stay fit?
That was twelve years ago. Unfortunately, that same spring I re-tore my ACL playing outdoor soccer. That halted any near-term plans for becoming a triathlete.
But it did push me onto the bike more, and in 2007 I purchased the Felt 4C carbon fiber bike that enabled a lot more training. I raced the Felt in criteriums and did some long rides like the Wright Stuff in SW Wisconsin where the hills provide a test of character.
A lot happened in life during the twelve years since I first showed interest in triathlons. Eight of those years were consumed by caregiving for a wife with cancer. My rides often turned into difficult therapy sessions trying to deal with the stress. I wondered to myself if there was a form of PTSD going on. I’ve never looked it up before, but just now I checked online for a definition and this is what it shares about the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“Symptoms of PTSD usually develop within the first 3 months after the event, but they may not surface until months or even years after the original traumatic event. Symptoms may include:
- Intrusive thoughts recalling the traumatic event
- Efforts to avoid feelings and thoughts that either remind you of the traumatic event or that trigger similar feelings
- Feeling detached or unable to connect with loved ones
- Depression, hopelessness
- Feelings of guilt (from the false belief that you were responsible for the traumatic incident)
- Irritability or angry outbursts
- Hypervigilance (being overly aware of possible danger)
- Hypersensitivity, including at least two of the following reactions: trouble sleeping, being angry, having difficulty concentrating, startling easily, having a physical reaction (rapid heart rate or breathing, increase in blood pressure)
- Disrupted sleep, insomnia
There are some who might deconstruct those symptoms and say, “Everyone deals with stuff like that.” But the truth about PTSD is that it feels like a form of brain injury to those going through it. I’ve interviewed a number of military veterans with PTSD symptoms. One of them sat next to me on an airplane coming back from Florida. He told me that he felt like permanently damaged goods.
Concussion of life
But soldiers aren’t the only people who can experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There are all kinds of events that can disrupt the mental capacity for perceiving order and controlling thoughts. A violent car accident can do the same thing. So can childhood incidents of abuse, emotional or physical. There are no rules about who can experience PTSD, or how.
Long-term difficulties and shock from dealing with emotional, financial or health challenges can also induce forms of PTSD. Often these are associated with a person’s relative disposition toward anxiety or depression.
Running and riding or swimming can help us all cope with unstable emotional foundations. Physical exercise changes our brain chemistry just like an anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication.
Stress and commitment
The real challenge is when the source of stress never really relents. To some degree, it has taken me a few years to heal from the emotional stress of caregiving for my wife and others in my life. Some of that was held over in caregiving for my father after my wife passed.
The problem with long- term caregiving commitments is that you literally cannot run away from them. The needs of that person are there no matter where you go.
I have friends now in similar situations to my own. They are taking care of aging parents or spouses. A part of me wants to tell them it will all be okay. But I know that doesn’t necessarily help in the moment.
Over the last ten years, a wide range of people in my life have died. I’ve had a caregiving role in each of their lives. My late wife. My father-in-law. My own father. My mother passed away in 2005 before all of them. I was present when she passed away.
The profundity of death is its ultimate quietude. From all the hubbub and fear and change and distraction and stress that come with caregiving someone who is about to die, there is always the profound quiet that comes in the end. Sometimes I’ve wondered why my grief seems in some ways to be so rational. I’ve learned to accept death. Is that some kind of dispassionate personality trait, or a rational response to the unavoidable?
I stood in the hospital room alone with my father after he died. I was the first one to be called, and I walked in and heard soft music playing. The hospital rather prefers that people would die at home. Perhaps it is a black mark on their books to have patients die. But people have to die somewhere, and it’s not always convenient or possible to get them back home after a major health failure. So when death happens hospitals have a definite plan in place. Still, they never know how people will react.
An hour after my father passed away, my father’s caregiver Leo arrived. I had called to tell him that Stew had passed away, but Leo did not always understand English perfectly. So when he arrived he was under the impression that Stew was still alive.
I watched the shock of realization cross his face, and knew that his attachment to my father was as real as any family member. Leo had been “The Man” for five years in caregiving my father. 24 hours a day. Seven days a week. 365 days a year. He took my dad on trips and tended to his every need. Truth be told, my father could be a difficult, demanding man. Unforgiving at times, and impatient at others. Yet he also had an amazingly tender side to his personality, and loved people.
So I knew that it hurt Leo deeply to lose my father as well. It also meant that Leo would have to find a new gig. Never an easy deal for anyone, but even more difficult for a former tradesman with no degree and a Green Card Visa.
So we gifted Leo with a couple months pay, and as it happened, I found him a new caregiving assignment. Now I see him occasionally and he is full of warmth and thanks. He is grateful, in other words, both for his time with my father and for the opportunity I helped him find.
Do for others
Sometimes that’s the best thing we can do for others. Help them find that next stone on the path of life. Keep them from a complete dropoff and the massive stress that can take over people’s lives. No PTSD.
But it’s also true that it is nearly impossible to help everyone. When I commute to the city there are homeless people on every other block. One man sits against a wall just north of Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue. A couple weeks ago I was walking back to the train from the office. I was feeling good, grateful there were positive things happening. As I passed the homeless man, I looked at the sign next him and read it: “Military veteran. PTSD. Bi-polar. Need help for wife and family.”
A wave of compassion washed over me. I took $20 from my wallet, looked him in the eye as I walked over and said, “Hey man. Here you go.”
I’ve been helped
I don’t know if it helps, but I know that I’ve been helped. And it mattered. People have reached out to my family and I in hundreds of ways. It took a few years to get over the relative effects of PTSD as they impacted my life. That’s not an official diagnosis of PTSD by any means. I just know how I felt, and it matched many of the symptoms described. They were part of my life for a time. I am happy to say that they are largely gone now.
There are still moments when I feel a pang of guilt about the fact that my late wife died. I feel pain for my children as well because losing a parent is so difficult.
So the best thing I can do is remain aware and sensitive to their needs. It was confusing for a while, I’ll admit. But when I’m out running and riding or swimming I try to let the thoughts flow and try to figure out if their potential to heal is real.
So I sat in church last Sunday and let a few prayers loose in the universe about all these things. Somehow it helps.
I think back to that moment four years ago in April when I attended church on Good Friday the week after my late wife passed away. My brother asked me why I thought that was a good idea. “I’m walking right into the pain,” I told him.
Walking out of church that evening, I felt a calm that transcended human thought. There was a plausibility to death that I could not explain to anyone else at that moment.
We all go there eventually. Somehow knowing that has been a baseline for finding new love and loving life as a result. This worldview accommodates both the facts of reality and the hopes and dreams of time now and later.
It is a strategy, as they say, for the long run.