You’ve probably heard the phrase “Perception is reality” a few times.
As correct as that statement sounds, it’s just not accurate. Perception might be reality, but it might not be. Perception might just be the way you view things. Again , perception might be reality, but it might not be reality at all.
Let me show you…
Let’s say I write a big number 6 on the ground. I write it in large 6’ tall letters, using it to denote the number of biological kids I have who have a birthday before Salter, my youngest kid, who just celebrated his sixth birthday, has another- his seventh. In other words, my 6 is laced with numerous objective facts.
For the sake of illustration purposes, you see me from afar and walk my way.
“Why did you draw a 9 on the ground?” you ask.
“I didn’t. I painted a large 6.” Then, I explain everything I just wrote.
You don’t understand. Looking at the number from your unique vantage point, you actually have the audacity to correct me (I know, it’s just a humorous analogy, OK?). “If Salter is 6 then why did you write… a 9!”
I tell you that you have it wrong. “I didn’t. I made a 6.” I step over and trace it with my steps. “See, it’s clearly a 6!”
“Umm, no. You just walked out a 9,” you reply.
We go back and forth, back and forth, round and round, over and over…
Question: Who’s right?
From one person’s perspective the number on the ground is clearly a 6. From the other’s… it’s a 9.
A politically correct cartoon from which I ripped this example actually said something like, “See, what you see depends on where you stand?”
The cartoon inferred that both people saw reality accurately. But, both people can’t. While there are a lot of things in life in which shades of grey are the norm (i.e., think back to my psych eval and who gets diagnosed as opposed to who doesn’t), most things are actually concrete.
I drew a 6. Salter is 6. It doesn’t matter where you “stand” on that issue, those facts don’t change.
Your interpretation of the facts might change, but the facts don’t. In other words, your perspective- your perception- might not be reality.
For the past 18 months I’ve worked with veterans- particularly in the arena of mental, emotional, and spiritual health (all three areas are unique yet simultaneously connected in ways I’ll outline in this book). These valiant men and women regularly communicate how things they experience now are often colored by things they experienced then, back when they served.
“I don’t like the 4th of July,” one man confessed. “At night when everyone begins shooting fireworks, it seems excessive. One or two might be OK, but the ongoing barrage sounds exactly like the mortar fire that came at us in Afghanistan. I’m obviously proud of our nation and the 4th, but I can’t do those sounds. I go inside, close the doors and curtains… I usually turn on some music or watch a loud movie.”
Another vet offered, “I still lurch when I hear a car backfire or hear any other abrupt sound. My body automatically jolts, and I look to take cover.”
A third warrior told me it wasn’t just sounds that affected him. One day, as we sat at my kitchen table looking at some essential oils, I handed him a bottle of Frankincense. He immediately scooted his chair back, his face froze, and he gently cried…
“You alright?” I asked.
“I just need a moment,” he said.
I nodded, remaining quiet.
A few minutes long later he “came back” to the moment. “I’m fine,” he whispered. “That smell was everywhere in the Middle East when I was deployed. I saw a lot of hard things there, and smelling this transported me back to where I was when all of that was happening.”
Here’s my point: in each of these instances the mind and the emotions- that is, the soul- pulled someone out of this moment and thrusted them into another one. They began interpreting- or, perceiving- the present in light of the past.
Fireworks aren’t mortar fire.
Cars with troubled engines aren’t guns.
My kitchen table isn’t a camel driver’s tent in the middle of war-torn Iraq.
In the same way your perception assured you I sketched a 9 on the ground instead of a 6, their perceptions assured them of something that wasn’t true. In other words, perception wasn’t reality.
I learned from the veterans that PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a lenses that causes people to see the world in certain ways- often misperceiving the way things really are. When the mind and emotions create false impressions that jerk us into an alternate reality- one we perceive to be true rather than one that actually is true- it might be an indication that we’re still dealing with past trauma.
Turns out, this is true for many of us. A lot of the things we see might be related to past hurts, past internal wounds that we carry around. Left unchecked, those wounds can become the filter where by we view the entire world.
Now, my goal isn’t to diagnose you- anymore than it was to receive a diagnosis for myself. In fact, I’m not a licensed therapist or clinician or counselor or any other thing. Ethically, then, I can’t diagnose you.
But I can throw some concepts out there, highlight a few things, and then encourage you to do some self-exploration. That’s what this section of the book is about.
That said, notice the American Psychiatric Association’s definition of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. (And, remember, like the licensed professional told me, you don’t have to be diagnosed in order to be affected by something.) PTSD is-
A psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war / combat, rape or other violent personal assault.
Here’s a graphic to help you remember it-
I want to highlight two things from the definition above-
First, you may or may not have experienced the situation firsthand in order to affected. That is, something might have happened to you or it could have been something you saw.
I highlighted the word might in my examples above, because- as you’ll see- we all respond to the same potential stressors in different ways.
Second, there are a variety of scenarios that can cause the stress. Emotional trauma can come, according to the APA’s definition, from a storm, a car (or other kind of) accident, war, or any kind of physical abuse. Furthermore, their definition includes that open-ended phrase “such as,” showing that those are only examples of things that, again, might cause PTSD. Any stressor has potential.
Again, remember (I know, I keep repeating this) you don’t have to have a diagnosable disorder in order to be affected. Even though you might not have a formal diagnosis, you could still experience- or see- any of these events (or others “such as” them) and have your own form of invisible scars.
The first night I taught this concept to a group of veterans something dawned on me.
“You’re not abnormal,” I said. “You’re normal.” Then- “You’re responding to events completely in line with your training. You’ve been trained that when a loud sound occurs that it’s either mortar fire or machine guns. The present action of wincing when you hear fireworks and the pop of an engine is consistent with your past experience.”
One gentlemen shook his head in affirmation. He saw it.
And yet another.
Then the entire group.
It’s not crazy to take cover when mortar rockets start flying. Or when bullets whiz by. Or when someone has flipped their lid and is about move into full blown rage, coming against you physically. Or when ____________________.
Fill in the blank. You get the idea. Those are normal responses to events that- by their very nature- create traumatic wounds and demand a defensive posture.
I knew I was connecting with the group, so I continued, “The problem is that you’re responding to a different normal than the current normal. You’re perceiving something, based on your experience, that’s no longer true. In other words, your perception is no longer reality.”
Then one of the attenders made the connection for us all. “That’s exactly what it means to be triggered, isn’t it?”
I thought about “getting triggered" and what that means. That guy suddenly made a concept that’s well-worn and tossed around so often that it’s virtually lost any semblance of meaning radically understandable. He helped us comprehend what it means to find yourself triggered.
“Yes. That’s a great point. To get triggered means you suddenly find yourself firing off in a certain direction based on some perceived threat from which you need to protect yourself.”
“Yeah,” one of the women added, “and we don’t even think of it as being triggered unless it’s a false alarm. If it’s a real threat, it’s a threat that you responded to in a healthy way.”
“I think you all are onto something.” Then, after a few moments of processing what they were saying- “You’re really helping me understand some things I’ve experienced but haven’t had language for before. Thank you.”
Think about it. Then look back at the quote box on the previous page:
We might mentally or emotionally react to a different event than the one we are experiencing.
That’s what it means to be triggered. The emotional- or mental- unhealth comes in the fact that we’re responding in the wrong time, in the wrong place, making it the wrong thing for the moment. In other words, we’re “triggered” by something in the present that powerfully connects us to the past- not to the present.
Or, to say it another way, we’re responding to something besides the now.
Or, there’s a disconnect between our perception and our current reality.
One of the warriors concluded, “So in the same way we trained our brains before, coaching ourselves to look for mortars and bullets, and to actually face them while others take cover, we’ve got to train them again to actually hear fireworks and engines.”
“I think so,” I told him. “And I think you can.”
How does it relate to me and you?
In the next episode we’ll talk more.
Claim Your Freedom- the book- (5.5x8.5, 264 pages)- https://amzn.to/2xwQcEY
Warrior Hope- the book- (8.x5x11, 230 pages)- https://amzn.to/2NY0Td2
Take the PTSD Self-Check at https://www.jenkins.tv/PTSD
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