“The past is never dead; it’s not even past. If it were, there would be no grief and sorrow.” William Faulkner
The term “PTSD” is thrown around a lot these days, but is often misused. It’s either ascribed to something it isn’t, or discounted for what it is. Often, people believe that any bad experience they have, and still remember, is PTSD. Sometimes, GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder), bipolar disorder, paranoid schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, or various personality disorders, are confused for PTSD, but they’re separate issues and can all be genetic. PTSD is environmental. Approximately, 8% of the American population have PTSD, and women are twice as likely as men to have it (NDVA).
“Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event” (MayoClinic Staff).
If these symptoms continue for you over a period of years (more than weeks or months) you could very well have PTSD. It’s triggered by a single event, not a series of them. A soldier can experience a year’s worth of terrifying events, but it’s that one event that triggers a repetitive” fight or flight” response in his/her long term memory that causes the PTSD. Other dark experiences can influence PTSD, but it’s a “one event” creation, like a broken bone. There may be subsequent arthritis in your arm from that time you fell out of your treehouse when you were a kid, but it’s the initial break that created the injury. It’s the same with PTSD.
When I was seven years old, I was hit by a car. For years, I couldn’t cross the street. I’d run all over the neighborhood with my brother and our friends, playing from dawn till dusk, but whenever I approached the edge of the sidewalk, I’d shut down completely. That moment, that harrowing memory of the car, my cracking bone, the terrified look on my mother’s face, it would all come back to me as my nervous system drew the moment out of my long term memory and forced me to relive it again.
My palms would sweat, my heart would race, and I even passed out twice when pressed by my mother or father to simply move forward. Even if I was carried, I’d kick and scream. I couldn’t cross the street without being driven across.I became blinded by the trauma and experience of having narrowly missed death at so young an age, that I was 15 years old before I could cross the street on my own.
My mother dropped me off at the dentist’s office and told me that she couldn’t pick me up, that I’d have to walk home. I remember the experience of overcoming very clearly. I stood outside the doctor’s office for two hours, sitting on the concrete bench in the rain, plotting and mapping the quickest route, and assuring myself that I would not get hit again. I’m not sure if it was the danger of that particular neighborhood that finally urged me home, or just that the PTSD that had haunted me for so long had finally quieted enough in that moment to allow me a window, but I walked home. I was able to push my overworked nervous system aside to cross the street.
It seems stupid, really, to be a teenager and still be terrified to cross safely within a crosswalk and signals, but I was. It took me years to understand why this was, that I had PTSD. My formative years were deeply affected by the experience of having been hit by a car that was going a normal speed, when we both had the right of way. It was the unfairness of no one having done anything in error - not me and not the driver - that made the memory the scariest for me. I hadn’t run out into the street after a ball, like a little girl on that same street had done only hours early and had been killed because of it. The driver wasn’t drunk or speeding. It was just an amalgam of uncanny circumstances that came together at the wrong time, and I was hit.
The sensations of trauma have been pressed into my brain like dry hands into wet cement. My brain has stored that experience, as a protection against its repeat, and I can’t completely rid myself of it. This is what victims of sexual, war-related, and psychological trauma experience as well, but their terror has the added weight of shame and secrecy. If my PTSD had been from sexual trauma, I would have felt compelled (as many do) to cover up my fears before they could surface. I was lucky, because it was not hard to talk about being hit by car, and that helped me as a child.
A PTSD injury is the kind that gets re-committed with every trigger. If a woman was raped 20 years ago, and her PTSD injury is triggered, she is raped again even if she’s simply sitting alone in the library, reading a novel. If a young veteran is watching a fireworks display, he or she may start dodging bullets all over again.
Often, the logical part of the brain understands that it is only a memory, but the nervous system does not. The body feels it all over again. Sometimes, the damage from PTSD can be so severe that the logical part of the brain is shut off, and the victim is completely transported back to the event, and it becomes a very lucid hallucination. This is most common with war victims, but it can happen to anyone who’s suffered a combination of deep emotional and physical trauma.
PTSD is a strange animal. It can lay dormant for a good many years before it pops up again. You can overcome its initial intrusion into your life and find it sliding back in through another cracked window and not even recognize it as such. I eventually was able to cross the street and began to love taking long walk again.
But PTSD sometimes returns, and after being involved in a serious car accident (where I was the passenger), all the symptoms returned and I fight bits and pieces of them to this day.This time, however, they reappear, not when I’m walking along the street, but when I’m riding in the car and the circumstances trigger the memory of the day, the entire front end of my car was torn off by a distracted driver. This trauma, however, would probably never have resulted in PTSD for me, if I had not been hit by a car all those years ago in the fall of 1981. It was the resulting “arthritis” that happens when you’re already jumpy from something far worse.
I visited a therapist for my symptoms once, thinking I was going nuts, but after 30 minutes with the doctor, he said, “You’re not crazy, not remotely. You’re quite sane. Not even paranoid. What you’re experiencing makes perfect sense. You fear car accidents, because you had a terrible, potentially life-threatening one, and you were nearly killed by a car when you were a child, during the years when your brain was still in its earliest stages of development.”
I felt empowered at knowing what was going on with me, that I wasn’t the weirdo I always thought I was. But my PTSD is very mild in comparison to those who, say, experience war-related PTSD, and this realization has impacted everything that I do.
PTSD is not the reason I finally decided to pursue a BA in Cognitive Science, that was inspired by my son with Autism Spectrum Disorder. But I didn’t shy away from investigating the disorder during my research, and I have tried to bring as much awareness to more serious forms of it as I can, through my writing.
Can people with PTSD be completely cured? No. Can people with PTSD overcome? Yes. The truth of PTSD is that it leaves a mark, like a birthmark. It can’t be fully removed, but it can fade over time. It helps to talk to others in a support group, to participate in activities that calm your nerves, and you may not know what those things are until you bring your ordeal into the light and ask for help.
I have inadvertently written about various forms of PTSD in every single one of my novels, short stories, and essays. I can’t seem to get away from it, but each time I write about it, I feel less traumatized. While my experience with PTSD is not remotely as terrible or serious as many people’s, it has allowed me to sympathize with those who are returning from war or rising from the deep shame of sexual abuse. It has taught me that it’s not really all that unnatural to be afraid of an uncontrollable world, and it has taught me, also, to embrace some of that unpredictability. Peace sits in the space between the terror of memory and the uncertainty of letting go.
MayoClinic Staff. (2015, January 1). Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Retrieved
February 3, 2015, from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/basics/definition/con-20022540
NDVA. (2007, January 1). Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Retrieved February 3, 2015,
Bio: Tiffani Burnett-Velez holds a BA in Cognitive Science from Ashford University. She studied English Literature at Harvard University and is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing. Her non-fiction work has appeared in Pennsylvania Magazine, Country Discoveries, St. Anthony Messenger, Yahoo! News, Health.com, and many more online and print magazines in the US and Europe. Her first novel, Budapest (LFP 2007) was featured at the New York Book Festival and the Conference of Jewish Librarians. Her second novel, All This Time, will be released by Booktrope in 2015, and her short novel, A Berlin Story (KDP) has been an Amazon bestseller since its release in late 2014. She frequently writes about trauma and its effects on the human psyche.