A few days ago, I read a web article someone posted to me entitled Is PTSD Contagious? Quite a train of thought has pulled out since then.
The main gist of the article is that being constantly around someone suffering from PTSD can lead to you suffering “secondary PTSD”. When I read this, it rang very true for me, because last year, while I was in a relationship with someone as my PTSD really kicked in, I witnessed them beginning to suffer their own symptoms, as a consequence of them being around someone whose emotional states were so unpredictable and changeable. This is one of the reasons why I feel that them breaking up with me, and then wanting no contact for a long while, was very much the right thing for them to do – even though it really hurt, and hurts. Because I know what this is like, this PTSD, and I would never wish it on someone I love.
Since reading that article, though, some other things have occurred to me.
Firstly, I sense that the healthcare professionals (and bystanders) in the article treat the war vet as the one with the “real” PTSD (assuming they ever actually get a proper diagnosis, which is notoriously hard to obtain). I suspect this is partly because most people who actually believe PTSD is real in the first place still don’t imagine it exists outside of the kind of trauma experienced in a war zone (I wish).
But there’s a reluctance out there to take seriously the effect of being around someone with PTSD that somehow reminds me of “passive smoking”, and how reluctant people have been to take that seriously. This is hard for me to say, because I don’t want to over-pathologise myself, or isolate myself – but it still feels true, and therefore needs saying.
I also felt that there’s an assumption that these people experiencing “secondary PTSD” are not dealing with something that’s theirs, but something that’s entirely imposed on them (like passive smoking is). This oddly reminds me of how loads of trans people I know (including myself) have had doctors assume that whatever’s wrong with us when we’re ill is just “because you’re transitioning.” Yes, being around someone with PTSD is in a way the ideal incubator for beginning to experience it yourself, since it’s very likely to make you feel under threat all the time. But that’s not to say you don’t have your own unrelated trauma issues which it dovetails into.
I guess what I’m getting at here is the Buddhist concept of mutual causality, as compared to linear causality. Linear causality is the idea that “this makes that happen, then that makes the next thing happen, and so on…” whereas in Buddhism, there is the acknowledgement that everything is both affecting and affected by everything going on around it – so nothing is the “sole cause” of an event, because this inherent interconnectedness makes it more like an endless constellation of conditions, perturbing each other’s orbits all the time.
So causes are both complex, and reciprocal. It’s definitely my experience that two people with PTSD (or any kind of stress or anxiety issues) can make each other’s symptoms worse fairly easily, if they’re emotionally involved. So it’s my fervent hope that the partners of people with PTSD who have their own symptoms can get support that takes into account their relationship with someone else dealing with it, but also treats them as a standalone person dealing with their own issues.
This is one of the reasons why I find it very frustrating, how hard it is to get help with PTSD – because suffering from it doesn’t just affect me. I find myself, since that last relationship experience, very reluctant to get very intimate with anyone, because is some ways, I am the last thing I’d wish on anybody I love.
I am fortunate to be getting concrete help, although it’s proving a really convoluted business getting financial support to do that. I’m investing in getting this help not just for my own benefit, but for the benefit of people who are or may become close to me.