How PTSD Affects Family Members

Annie Spratt on Unsplash

As a society, we are finally realizing that trauma survivors need help. I’m glad to say that help is more forthcoming and that the medical and mental health professions are taking trauma more seriously.

However, we often don’t see the subtleties, or the less obvious. What I’m addressing here are the secondary effects of trauma on family and friends.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t realize that these are victims of trauma as well!

Especially the survivor, forced to deal with the horror and confusion of PTSD, cannot be aware that those around him/her are also suffering. Believe me, I know this all too well as a survivor myself.

I  have suffered from PTSD since I was a child, even though I never knew what it was. I couldn’t understand why I had so many nightmares, why awful moments of terror would suddenly come upon me accompanied by dry sweats and rancid fear in the pit of my stomach.

Many of my clients have expressed similar outrage at what they are going through. Some have even told me they felt were being punished, but didn’t know why. When a survivor is enveloped in PTSD symptoms, they cannot even begin to consider anyone else.

When these symptoms come upon me, I am not my chronological age. I’ve stepped back into the past, where I feel terrorized all over again. I am no longer here. Unfortunately, my children feel most the brunt of my trauma.

I am not the mother they know and trust.  I become a stranger to them. They have told me that they feel abandoned, that I don’t carry through what I’ve told them I would do. They have accused me of lying to them, that they can’t trust me, so they feel they have to take over the role as adults and figure things out in a crisis.

My children have told me many times over the years that when I have bouts of anger or periods of regressing back to a terrorized child, they feel absolutely helpless. They don’t know what to do to help me. Over time, this helplessness has turned into resentment. They don’t understand why I can’t just get over it — it’s been so long. There are times, I’m sure, that they feel I’m using this to control them — which only adds to the resentment.

It is only after some recovery that I am able to hear them, to see how my trauma has affected them. And, how the effects of the trauma gets yet passed onto the next generation. My children learned that, when I “space out,” as they label it, they have to be the adults. In many ways, this has happened since their childhood.

As for me, I just want them to understand that the symptoms appear sometimes out of nowhere, and I feel like I’m defenseless, that no one and nothing can help me. But, of course, they don’t. And, logically, I can’t expect them to. I want them to understand that it’s not something that I want to have happen, that I feel like I’m going to die in there. I really make an effort to return to the present moment. Some times are easier than others. It depends on what gets triggered.

Even as I am learning more about PTSD and how these symptoms have defined my and the lives of so many others, the labeling of my periodic states brings up another scare for my children, my daughter especially.

She reacts angrily when I label myself. She is afraid that the label gives me more reasons not to heal; that I am using the symptoms to control.   However, for me, understanding what has been happening to me all these years and why has helped me to name the symptoms faster. Once I name them, I am able to come out of it much quicker. And, the quicker I can come out, the less adverse effect it will have on my family and friends.

Close family members, especially if they are caregivers, need to also have a support system. Find others who are undergoing similar circumstances. It helps to know that you’re not alone.

I strongly urge counseling to families, either together and/or individually. When tragedy befalls one family member, there is no way that others will not also be affected.

My family and I have all gone through counseling through the years, together and individually. Now, they know what’s happening to me, we have a code that helps me to come back into the present moment.

This helps me to recognize what’s happening to me. And, even better, my children don’t feel as powerless because they are part of the solution.