It was so frustrating. Liz got up every morning, sometimes at 4-5 a.m. Sometimes at 7 a.m. It didn’t matter the time. She never slept more than three or four hours a night. Still, she managed to function normally. This had been going on since she had been a graduate student. She blamed graduate school. Liz and her fellow students had stayed up late night after night studying, often at her dining room table. Then, she woke up only a few hours later to go to work. She thought she had developed this bad sleeping habit then. Thirty years ago.
There were brief periods during the thirty years when she did sleep somewhat normally, but thinking back, she couldn’t isolate them. She only knew of one. After her divorce, but that was short-lived.
The problem? Liz talked to her doctor. She talked to more than one doctor but that was before the days when sleep studies were popular. Before the days when doctors got specialties in sleep disorders. Liza knew this could not be a healthy lifestyle but she didn’t know what to do without a doctor’s help. She tried to sleep. Her brain just wouldn’t shut off.
There was something else. Liz had recurring nightmares. They were worse than nightmares. She had heard them called night terrors. Her nightmares were so terribly severe she imagined she must be having night terrors instead of nightmares. She had the same night terror every night and it woke her every morning. She could make no sense of it. She always remembered it. Recently, a second night terror had been added to Liz’s repertoire. It was more horrifying than the first. Still, Liz went on with her life. Reasonably normally.
As Liz got older, the sleep deprivation and night terrors started affecting her more and more. It became harder to concentrate during the day. She seemed to be able to nap, although briefly, during the day, but her sleeping problem was just as bad at night. She started having other physical problems. One was a problem with her shoulders. A painful orthopedic problem. Her orthopedist gave her a mild painkiller. Not a narcotic. Just something mild. It helped with the pain.
Liz began to notice she was sleeping even worse than usual. She could trace the decline in her sleep back to when she started taking the painkiller. She had to go off the drug. Apparently, she was having the opposite reaction to it that it was supposed to cause.
Liz was starting to feel desperation. She was showing increased symptoms of sleep deprivation. She was falling asleep at inappropriate times. She was increasing irritable and was showing poor judgment. Her performance was not what it used to be. At about this time, Liz heard of a doctor who had joined the neurologists in the practice in which her own neurologist practiced. This new neurologist had three specialties. He specialized in neurology, psychiatry, and sleep disorders. Liz made an appointment to see him.
This new neurologist had her file from thirty years past. He walked into the examining room the day of her appointment. He said he had spent hours examining the plethora of information contained in her file. He knew, without further ado, what her problem was. Liz practically jumped for joy. If he knew the problem, they could fix it. Couldn’t they?
He diagnosed her with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He was absolutely sure of his diagnosis based on her medical records. Liz sat back in her chair. Of course, she knew about PTSD. So many of the veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan were coming home with it. But, wasn’t PTSD an ailment of war veterans? What would have caused it in her?
The doctor asked her if she had any trauma in her life. Of course she had. Hadn’t everyone? He explained that some people reacted to it differently than others. He also explained that there may have been trauma that she could not remember on a conscious level which would explain the nightmares. Often, only one traumatic event, if it is bad enough can trigger PTSD. Often, people have more than one event in their lives. Liz could remember perhaps two events that met what she thought were traumatic enough to cause PTSD. She could remember one of them distinctly. The other was back in her childhood and she had only vague memories.
Liz’s doctor said he suspected there were memories she was repressing. He told her that those memories would be hard to tap into and he suggested, at first, they try to deal with the sleeping problem. He prescribed medication. After they conquered that, they would decide what to do about repressed memories. He based his opinion on the fact that Liz could not remember large parts of her childhood and teenage years. There were even blocks of years as an adult she had blocked out.
For a few months, the sleep medications worked wonderfully. As time went on, they worked less well, until now, they weren’t working at all. Back were the sleepless nights and the night terrors even when taking the medications. Liz was not young anymore and this was bothering her more than ever.
This is only part of the story of an unlikely woman who has Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). It is prevalent among veterans, but not exclusive to veterans. Many people who have PTSD don’t know they have it and never know why. If you have some of the symptoms mentioned in this story, seek help from your doctor. Keep on seeking help until someone helps you. Stay tuned for the story of Liz.