How My PTSD Has Helped Me Practice Self-Care

by Cynthia Hines

Three weeks ago, while finishing up my psychotherapy session, I checked my phone. It was Millie, the all-knowing senior citizen in my condo building. Think Ruby Dee’s character of Mother Sister in Do The Right Thing.

I answered. “Cynthia, this is Millie,” she said. “I just wanted to let you know that your front door is wide open and I think somebody just broke into your home.”

People who have experienced a burglary can relate to this sense of invasion. The terror. The mystery of who (and why) someone would do this to me. It’s always personal. I had a mix of feelings of anger, guilt, shame and a desire to get revenge. But for me, any invasion to my home—in both the physical structure and the temple God has me in—needs immediate attention. I have post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly referred to as PTSD.

Here’s some background. I’m a veteran who, in August 2013, worked as a civilian contractor on a base in Afghanistan. During a well-orchestrated attack, a suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with explosives to the base and detonated himself, creating a hole in the wall where another dozen Taliban members were able to enter. They were looking for soldiers and civilians so they could detonate themselves, taking as many people down with them as possible. Even by Afghanistan standards, the attack was significant. We were sent to the bunker where we stayed for 15 hours, hearing a barrage of explosions and gunfire. Most of us contractors were unarmed. I was terrified, immobilized with fear and certain I would die that day.

“God, I can’t go out like this. You know what? I give in. I’m going to die today. But please God, just let my body be in one piece when You take me. I don’t want my family to see me blown into little pieces.” The incident left me feeling helpless and demoralized. The Taliban took complete custody of my body and they were not letting it go.

What many people don’t understand about PTSD is how terrifying it is to live in your own body after a traumatic event. Sufferers have no way of knowing what body sensation will arise; when we’ll “lose it,” or when we will be “invaded” by intrusive thoughts that come without warning.

Our bodies get hijacked by these thoughts and feelings, making it difficult to concentrate on the present. We are stuck in the past, and the past is a scary place. The intrusive thoughts leave many of us ashamed to talk about them for fear of being seen as crazy and desperate for a way to avoid our collective pain. "[Sufferers] are likely to experiment with anything—drugs, alcohol, binge eating, or cutting—that offers some kind of relief," said Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and trauma expert, in his book The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma.

I was eventually sent home from Afghanistan for medical treatment. Home was a small condo on the south side of Chicago, a neighborhood plagued by its own share of violence. My trip back home left me asking if I had exchanged one combat zone for another.

BOOM! Two weeks after I arrived home, my car was burglarized while parked in my garage.

BOOM! Shortly thereafter, a grandmother and her two grandchildren were shot within 200 feet of my front door.

BOOM! Don’t drive over those manhole covers! They might explode. And while you’re at it, avoid dead animals on the street! The enemy may have strapped an explosive on them! The enemy is everywhere.

BOOM! I hear something at my back door. I think I do. No, that’s my imagination. No, it’s real. Tell someone that you’re hearing sounds! No, they’ll think I’m crazy.

BOOM! What was this dream about the beheaded men invading my body I had last night, and why can’t the ISIS soldiers stop chasing me and trying to destroy my skin and internal organs? They’re closing in on me!

BOOM! Okay, I’m parking on the street now. Why is there a loud sound when I turn on my car? Is it a bomb? No, someone cut out my catalytic converter. Why is everyone trying to do me harm?

BOOM! My father just triggered me. I am the wrong one. I didn’t kill the fool who tried to steal my car but I won’t let my daddy talk to me any way he wants to and get away with it just because he’s my daddy. If he wants to act like an enemy combatant, I’ll treat him like one. Does he know I am one trigger away from killing somebody? THEY won’t go to war with me and be victorious this time. Oh, hell no.

BOOM! Turn off the damn TV. The police are looking for a… there was an explosion in a journalist was kidnapped while... a soldier returning home from Iraq committed suicide… a veteran is being charged with… Turn off the damn TV. Wait. Turn off the damn TV? And what will I do? What is the alternative? Hear the intrusive thoughts in my head?

 I’ll just eat. Yes, that will solve everything. Well, at least for a few minutes.

None of these incidents are remarkable in and of themselves. What has been different since returning home is how just the slightest issue has sent me over the edge, convicted in the belief that someone was after me. This is hypervigilance in its most raw form.

These are some of my experiences on the road to my recovery since 2013. This recovery has gone through hills and valleys, over scenic views as well as dark alleys. It has been complicated by my physical injuries. It has also been complicated by the loss of my mother from ovarian cancer less than a year after coming home.

I now practice yoga, which requires my body to be fully present. I strive to take the skills learned in yoga to remain calm, centered, and present when faced with fearful experiences and disturbing thoughts and images.

I also started acting, something I ironically was too afraid to do before joining the military. Acting allows me to express all my emotions without apology and to engage with other people, which is crucial for those with PTSD.

Most important, I found a church home that offers me an opportunity to have a trusting relationship with God. Trust is everything.

I’ve also learned to do the unthinkable: asking for help. That meant telling my father the pain I was in and asking that he call me from Milwaukee at least once a week to check in on me. It also meant asking friends to help me pack up my modest condo. I knew that in order to heal, I could not stay another night there and moved out that weekend following the break-in. I removed the cape of the Strong Black Woman. I can’t do it alone. My recovery cannot take place in isolation. And my recovery is far from over.

PTSD has given me the gift of recognizing when I’m in fear and seeking help. Like a good soldier, I stayed around to fight a battle that, like the wars we have waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, had no end in sight. I surrender my old self to God and make way for the new me. And surrendering has made me stronger than I could have ever imagined.

Photo: Shutterstock

Cynthia Hines is an Army veteran who served from 1994-2005 and worked as a civilian contractor from 2005 until she was injured during two separate attacks on her base and diagnosed with PTSD in 2013. A Milwaukee native, she currently live in Chicago. By day, she is an HR professional with a goal of one day being a full-time actor and writer. She is currently working on a play about a female vet returning home to Chicago with PTSD.

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