It’s been a week since the Seal Beach shootings that left eight people dead. It will take much longer than that for witnesses, family and friends to shake off the psychological wounds.
It’s possible they’ll struggle for a long time with symptoms of PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder.
When you think of PTSD, you usually think of combat veterans. But one-time traumatic events like the Seal Beach tragedy can also trigger symptoms.
Paula Reed knows about sudden, awful tragedy. She’s an English teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. She was working on April 20, 1999 when two boys in the senior class brought an arsenal of guns to school and killed a dozen classmates and one teacher. Reed says the rampage — the worst ever at an American school — profoundly affected her ability to function.
"I just kept thinking… this is the longest, most vivid dream I’ve ever had and I just kept thinking I’ve got to wake up sooner or later. You know it really did take a long time to just realize the world is different. Forever," Reed said.
Reed says for several years after the massacre, teaching class and caring for her husband and her two young children became too much.
"The first year is hard for me to remember very well. I just remember a lot of being very detached and feeling very self destructive and sort of life falling apart,” she says.
That’s a pretty accurate description of PTSD. Joshua Taylor is a psychologist with the Orange County Health Care Agency in Santa Ana.
“If left untreated, you can certainly have flashbacks of the event, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, difficult reactions… to it. It can be an exaggerated response or being irritable all the time," Taylor said.
Former newspaper reporter Kenneth Braiterman of New Hampshire suffers from PTSD. He says it stems from a childhood trauma and manifests itself in angry outbursts. He occasionally writes about it in his blog.
"When a person with PTSD is triggered, all the feelings connected with all their previous traumas come back as if they’re happening now," Braiterman said. "You don’t know that that’s what’s happening. But that’s why you overreact. You’re not just reacting to what’s in front of you."
Janie Lancaster of Riverside County knows that feeling well. She was six when she awakened to witness the aftermath of a murder in her family home. She says her journey of healing led her to author a book about dealing with PTSD through expressive, therapeutic writing.
"When we’ve been traumatized, we just keep ourselves so busy so we don’t have to think and we think it’s going to help us but it doesn’t. It’s just pushing things deeper and deeper inside," Lancaster said.
That was the case for Reed. After Columbine, she began writing and has published four novels. She credits her writing career with helping her shed the first layers of trauma. Anti-anxiety medications, she says, were also key. They let her return to teaching at Columbine High where she continues to work.
"Someone with PTSD can no more completely control what happens in their brain than a diabetic can control how much insulin his body produces naturally," Reed said.
Reed says PTSD symptoms are an expected response to an abnormal situation. And seeking help sooner than later, she says, is the key to healing from such tragedies.