Christmas & PTSD

Despite Christmas being this month, last week I sat face in palms crying in a kitchen chair beside the stove as my roommates tried to diagnose my random outburst of sadness.

I never asked to walk the road of grief.

At least I can say I survived another year of graduate school, two years at the same job, and a few awkward dates (#ForeverSingle) But to be honest, none of these brought me to tears last Friday.

“I can’t be sad,” I told myself. “It’s almost Christmas.” My office has gone ballistic with the holiday festivities. And the chaos only follows me home. One night it was a church concert, then a trip to the German Christmas market. Next there was cookie baking, gift exchanges, caroling, choir practice, and still I was brought to tears in the midst of it all.

But for sadness I was not brought to tears. They were somehow triggered by what I saw as I drove home from work. It was simple, mundane, and even typical. In the wet December streets there was a man in front of me, riding a bicycle.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for cycling. It’s one of the shared traits of Millennials. That along with drinking coffee and mastering social media, and a host of other unimpressive skills.  (#NotMyGeneration) But I’ve had this sort of reaction to cyclists lately. The first time it happened was during my last night of classes. In the dark streets I saw a man riding his bike under a bridge. It was as if his body was just a silhouette waiting to be hit.

I’ve written before about my friend who was killed fourteen months ago in a bike accident. But it’s beyond me why a year later it’s hitting me this way.

“A year is nothing,” my friend D. said from the passenger seat of my car. I tried to explain the PTSD to her in hopes of normalizing the episode. Her response seemed to empathize with my lingering grief.

My friend D. loves to cycle more than I love to write. She’s the international student who bought a bike without knowing how to ride, and now talks of nothing else. She was telling me about her project for a public health class in which they were asked to create more incentives for people to bike in the city. Her project explored ideas like protected bike lanes and bicycle expressways. Obviously, I don’t share her enthusiasm, at least not at this point. But I do appreciate it.

After reading up on PTSD, I discovered that symptoms may not occur or become problematic until years later. I’ve had episodes of PTSD twice since John died. It first happened a few days after my car accident last January, and the second time was when my brothers suffered a car accident last spring. According to Mental Health America this disorder is common in people who “have learned of or experienced an unexpected and sudden death of a friend or relative.” Symptoms include repeatedly thinking about the trauma, becoming upset when something reminds you of the event, rapid breathing, muscle tension, and rapid heart rate.

But I really think there was more than just seeing a biker, which triggered my PTSD. It was the recollection that my friend was hit while riding a bike. It was the remembrance of how I responded when I heard it. And most importantly it was the realization that he is in fact gone.

This is a new area of grief, I suppose.

“Do you need a paper bag?” my roommate asked. It wasn’t a bad idea. There I sat, my hands shaking as if I had Parkinson’s and my lungs gasping for air.  But I didn’t even realize I was struggling to breathe until she mentioned it. Steam billowed from the kitchen stove, where pots of chicken soup were boiling.  And what do you know, moments later, the shaking, the heart rate, the gasping for breath had all passed.

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