Revisiting Trauma to Find Recovery
Prince Harry was featured on Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert podcast recently and made a compelling point: “We shouldn’t call it post-traumatic stress disorder—we should call it post-traumatic stress injury.” He argued that injuries can heal whereas "disorder" sounds like chronic label. And, as I’ve written before, labels can be harmful.
Prince Harry is right.
I was diagnosed with PTSD after my wife recovered from a serious brain illness. For years, I was distancing myself not only from my family but from the places and feelings that triggered those memories. Nightmares. Flashbacks. Panic attacks. All of these symptoms were a real part of my life.
I didn’t realize that I was sick. Sure, I was avoiding talking or thinking about what happened, but that didn’t seem strange to me. Why would I want to relive the most difficult moments of my life? We had survived the ordeal. Better, I thought, to leave it in the past and focus on the future.
But past trauma doesn’t go away on its own; it sits below the surface and infiltrates your thoughts and emotions, influencing your behavior. My wife, who knows me better than anyone, recognized its impact. She sat me down and made me confront the problem. Only then did it become obvious. I could experience the fight or flight response just walking through my house and yet, without her intervention, I wouldn’t have acknowledged it.
That’s yet one more challenge of brain illness: we can be sick and not realize it. But after seeking help and starting treatment, I was able to recover. It wasn’t easy; my therapist forced me to talk about what happened, describing in detail the memories that had been haunting me. But in talking about them, I was able to accept them and move on.
Reliving the pain helped me feel whole again. I’m not the same as before—I’ll never be the same—but I’m not hurting. Before, I literally couldn’t talk about the trauma, but now I can discuss it in detail. Hell, I wrote an entire book about it. I can sit for an interview with mental health leader Patrick Kennedy and not break down during our talk.
I’m not arguing that everyone’s trauma can be addressed. Many have been through much worse than I, that’s for certain, and I cannot begin to understand their experiences. But I do think that the human mind is remarkable in its ability to recover. The challenge is to recognize the need for help and find access to it, and that’s not an easy thing to do. That’s why we need a better approach to mental health.
My wife and I made our story public because we hoped it might help people suffering from mental health crises. We thought that it would support families dealing with psychosis or related conditions. The PTSD part of my experience? Well, it didn’t seem less important, but it certainly felt less intense.
Ironically, however, the first positive feedback I received was focused on my recovery. A friend of a friend had been given a preprint of my book. Over lunch, he confided details of a devastating ordeal his family had suffered in the past. Without compromising his privacy, I can assure you that his trauma was greater than anything I’d experienced.
“Your book made me realize something important,” he admitted. “I’ve been living with PTSD for years. I’ve done my research, and it’s clear to me. I think our whole family is living with it.”
He’s now meeting regularly with a therapist, taking the first steps towards recovery. Over time, I’m confident that he and his family can work through the challenges that come with such heartbreak. And, in the end, I hope they can find healing.
As Prince Harry so accurately put it in his interview with Oprah when discussing his own "PTSI":