Recently, I started seeing my own therapist, and she diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as a result of the many intense situations I’ve found myself in while raising a child with extreme behaviors as a result of his trauma history.
This was a tough pill for me to swallow. If I’m being honest, I’m still struggling to come to terms with it. Here are four primary reasons:
- As a man, there is an incredibly powerful, though unrealistic, expectation that I must always be strong and unaffected, no matter the circumstances. You know what I’m talking about. However, this real, clinical diagnosis from a doctor of psychology feels like an official statement on my incapability as a man and as a human being, a definitive declaration that I’m just not enough.
- We most commonly think of PTSD as something that only afflicts war veterans, the people who have really seen some tough stuff. I’m not a war veteran and I feel like, by claiming PTSD for myself, I’m a pathetic poseur who’s disrespecting the very real traumatic experiences of men and women who have seen actual combat.
- I don’t want to be one of those people who talks about their mental health diagnosis too much, whether for attention, sympathy, or some other personal gain. I’m talking about those folks who seem to bring up their condition, symptoms, or therapist in every conversation or social media post, even to the point where you begin to lose compassion or wonder if they’re just making it all up.
- It doesn’t seem fair. I became a foster (and then adoptive) dad because I wanted to do something good in the world and my passion was for creating permanency for kids in the foster care system, and yet, this is where I am? Surely this can’t be right! I’m a good person from a good family trying to do a good thing.
However, no matter how hard I try to fight it, this is the reality. The diagnostic criteria fit like a glove and it doesn’t matter if I would fancy myself a strong man, have never been in combat, feel awkward talking about it, or believe I deserve better. That’s how mental health conditions work.
Thus, I have two options.
First, I can reject this diagnosis and allow it to remain unabated. Buddhism teaches that this clinging to the way things should be, or the way I want them to be, only causes more suffering, on top of the existing diagnosis.
Or second, I can accept that I have been deeply affected by my experiences, that I can’t continue to handle this on my own, and begin to heal.
As difficult as it is for my pride, I choose the latter. This article, this vulnerable admission of what’s really going on, is a part of that acceptance process.
But this is also a message to my fellow foster/adoptive parents, and especially the dads. Listen to me: if you’re involved in caring for children with traumatic histories, then you need to take care of yourself. And I don’t just mean playing golf with your buddies or teaching yourself to cross-stitch (although those things are important too). I mean you need to really take care of your Self, the emotional baggage you brought with you on this journey and the emotional baggage you’ve picked up along the way.
Perhaps the idea of seeing a professional is off-putting to you because you think it makes you weak or cowardly. I get it. I’ve been there, and as you read above, I’m still there every time I step into the waiting room of my therapist’s office. But here’s what I have to say to that (and pardon my French): fuck that shit.
Do you know how much strength it took to pick up the phone and call a therapist, make an appointment, ask my parents to help me with the co-pay for weekly therapy, attend that appointment, honestly disclose what’s been going on, and then keep going back week after week after week?
Do you know how much courage it took to tell the therapist, “Last week I, formerly an emotional robot, broke down into sobs because I smelled a green apple air freshener that triggered an overwhelming trauma memory”?
Here’s what is true: If you recognize within yourself that you need help, that you can’t do this by yourself, and you actually do what it takes to get the help you need, then you are strong. You are brave.
Read that last sentence again if you need to.
There is no shame in seeking help for yourself. As much as we glamorize the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps loner lifestyle, this is an unhealthy and unhuman way to live. Research consistently shows that humans are wired for connection. We have been able to accomplish so much as a species specifically because of our inherent need and ability to rely on one another.
So if you choose not to rely on anyone, not to seek help for yourself, it doesn’t make you tough or fearless. It makes you stupid, and you don’t want to be stupid.
This is especially true for foster/adoptive parents. Merely allowing these kids from hard places into our homes primes us for vicarious trauma, which is when we ourselves experience a secondary but genuine trauma from being exposed to the tragic stories that these very young survivors carry with them.
But some of these kids, with their belief that they must fight to survive, actually inflict violence on us and our homes, and therefore provide us with our own direct, personal, and intense trauma.
These kinds of trauma, unfortunately, come with the territory of taking care of society’s most vulnerable. We, as foster/adoptive parents, believe in our bones that it is worth that risk if it means we can provide love, safety, belonging, and permanency to kids who need it.
But in those dark times (if you haven’t had them yet, you will), faith and conviction alone are not enough. We need help from outside of ourselves, and that can come from family, friends, community supports, or spirituality.
I would advocate, though, that it’s time to get serious about mental health. Your mom, your best coffee date pal, your Zen Master of choice, and your foster/adoption support group are absolutely wonderful, but they’re not the same as a licensed therapist (unless your mom is actually a therapist, but even then it’s probably best to go see someone else).
Taking care of yourself is not just about you. If you’re married or in a relationship, I’m sure your partner wants to be with someone who values self-care. The same goes for your kids, your extended family, your friends, and your employer.
But also, taking care of yourself is about you. It is for you. Do it for yourself because, damn it, you deserve it. No matter what you think or feel at any given moment, you are worth taking care of.
This is a message I’ve had to preach to myself quite a bit. It doesn’t matter if people think I’m less of a man for going to therapy. It doesn’t matter if a veteran feels disrespected because I also have PTSD but have never been in combat (though I don’t think this would happen). It doesn’t matter if people feel uncomfortable about me talking about my diagnosis. It doesn’t even matter that it seems unfair that I’m dealing with this when all I wanted to do was help.
What matters is this: I have post-traumatic stress disorder and I go to therapy every Monday morning at nine o’clock because I’m worth it. And so is my family, including and especially the child whose behavior brought me to this place.