Moving Forward with PTSD

September, 2008

by Elvia R. Arriola

Associate Professor, NIU College of Law


ÒI just wanted to let you know before you hear it on the national news. ThereÕs been a shooting on our campus. IÕm in the library at the law school, and theyÕre asking us not to leave until they can secure the campus. IÕm O.K.Ó

                                    – Phone call to my life partner about 4 p.m., Feb. 14, 2008 


I knew that the tragic events of Feb. 14 would have a profound impact on me, that life would be physically and emotionally hard for a while. I expected to cry, mourning the loss of life, and to possibly struggle with reminders of previous traumatic events in my life.

But I never expected my pancreas to go into a coma.

In May – three short months after the shooting – things on the outside of life seemed to return to normal: Temperatures were warming. Students were beginning to take final exams. And I had more free time. But I knew something was wrong.

I wasnÕt sleeping. I was exhausted all the time. And in April, I struggled with bronchitis and sinusitis following a 10-day bout with a vicious viral flu.

Getting over the flu was harder than usual, but I didnÕt think much about it until my doctor poked her head into the examination room during a regular check up in early May. Her eyebrows furrowed.

ÒWhatÕs happened?Ó she said. ÒYour sugar levels are very high. WeÕre checking the machine to be sure. This makes no sense; your blood work was great in January.

I had been diagnosed Type II diabetic since 2006 and had controlled it through diet and exercise.

Another finger stick. Another drop of blood on a small strip of paper. Another number on the monitor.

This time it was even higher and Òoff the charts,Ó according to the doctor. Plus I had lost almost 7 pounds in less than a month,

ÒWhatÕs changed between January and now?Ó she asked, looking up from my chart held in her hands.

IÕd replied that IÕd felt very stressed out since the shooting.  Inside I mostly felt I was going through the motions of my job, daily wanting to be anywhere but in Illinois.  This I didnÕt share with my doctor.

 As she asked a litany of questions relating to classic symptoms of uncontrolled diabetes, I realized that in addition to the fatigue, IÕd had problems seeing at night and had been urinating more frequently.

I didnÕt understand the critical nature of the numbers or the gravity of my condition. I didnÕt realize hyperglycemia, or uncontrolled diabetes, can be life threatening And I certainly didnÕt think Type II diabetes could turn into Type I, a diagnosis that eventually came back from the lab work performed by the Rush Oak Park Diabetes Center.

Then again, I didnÕt think a young disturbed man with a gun would walk onto our campus and kill people, either.

I donÕt like being on insulin, but subsequent lab results confirmed that I now needed helpl processing blood sugars because somehow my body had made a rare transition from Type II diabetes – to adult onset Type I diabetes.

But how exactly does this happen? I had no immediate family history of diabetes.

When Dr. Carter, the endocrinologist at the Diabetes Center asked about events in my life, out poured details about working and living under high stress following the campus shooting. It seemed a perfect storm of events – external stress, combined with my manner of responding to change, trauma and illness – weakened my immune system and invited a viral infection in April, which threw my pancreas into submission.

ÒWell, maybe you shot your pancreas,Ó the endocrinologist said.

I stared in disbelief at this brilliant, petite doctor, who obviously had no idea the significance of her Òshot your pancreasÓ comment as I sat feeling vulnerable in the pink paper gown IÕd donned for her brief twenty minutes with me.   I wanted to slap her.

Looking back, I shouldnÕt have been surprised by my illness. After the shooting, it seemed students and faculty were getting sick all the time.

Almost every term, some student has an illness or a death in the family. Absences like these are common. But I estimate that the absence rate for my students quadrupled after the shooting.

ÒIn all my 20 years of treating diabetics, youÕre the first 57- year-old to get a Type I diagnosis and so out of the blue,Ó the doctor said.

Not so out of the blue, I thought.

I know now that I kept too many feelings inside after the shooting. I felt emotionally conflicted about how much or how often to talk about Feb. 14Õs events – from the public mourning, to the visits by volunteer counselors to the slogans and banners everywhere encouraging us to move forward together.

Personally, I think I didnÕt cry enough – not alone nor with others – over that horrific event of ValentineÕs Day 2008. My years of therapy long ago and support groups that had taught me about the importance of not suppressing emotions had seemingly been tossed out.  I was in the middle of the teaching term, with a large group of 1Ls.  It seems nothing stops the rhythm of the academic term.  But on February 14, 2008 at around 3 p.m. thousands of us were forced to confront the cycle of life and death.  No, I didnÕt scream, cry, moan, grieve enough. Nor did I  feel safe enough to feel my sorrow, terror – and utter relief and gratitude that a rifle was not pointed at me while in the middle of teaching a class.

            But more than anything, the shootings brought up old, unresolved traumatic issues residing within the entire cellular system that is my physical body. In the counseling sessions I eventually started in late April I came to  understand that my pancreas, an organ viewed by holistic practitioners as likely to shut down under times of stress, went underground because I was experiencing another bout with post-traumatic stress disorder,

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), popularized by the mental health treatment for Vietnam War veterans, is a condition in which a person looks normal on the outside but internally is silently suffering with feelings of fear, helplessness and horror. It occurs when a person either was personally threatened with death or serious injury or witnessed such a threat to others.

The symptoms – flashbacks, nightmares, erratic behavior – do not always surface right away. In fact, they often surface much later, when the trauma has been over for a while or even years.  They emerge as a person tries to push away the memories, or to stay away from people, places or things that represent reminders of what happened.

By late April, I was depressed about all of my life. I felt at times like I was running away from everything. I couldnÕt write – something I usually love to do. I had no energy for anything, and I couldnÕt understand why I constantly felt like I was trapped.

            The campus shooting wasnÕt the initial source of PTSD for me. Rather, it triggered older traumas – ones I thought IÕd healed 20 years ago.

As a 6-year-old, I was attacked by a child molester in our neighborhood while on my way home from the corner grocery store. A year later, I was repeatedly sexually molested by a cousin who lived temporarily with our family. This abuse lasted for two years. Recurring nightmares plagued me throughout most of my childhood and early adulthood.

I grew up in the 1950s, when psychology and mental health treatments were in their infancy. I didnÕt have the resources people have today, so I coped the best way I could. I never smiled. I distrusted people. I woke up sweating from nightmares of the attack. I forgot parts of my childhood.

I lived with the symptoms – irritability, sleep disturbance, irrational fears of not being safe, distrust, recurring nightmares, defensiveness, a sense of doom and an inability to experience joy – until they became unbearable.

Ultimately as an adult, I began attending support groups, saw a therapist, and began to heal.

            The shooting brought it all back.

            I wasnÕt in Cole Hall that day; I was holed up with some faculty and students in a law library. But I witnessed the aftermath: the police cars driving up; SWAT team equipment being pulled out of trunks; sirens blaring as still more police raced west on I-88 toward the campus.

            Many of my students were within one or two degrees of separation through friendships, lost colleagues, co-workers, and friends of family. One law student saw the killer scoping out Swen Parson two days earlier.

            Reminders of the event continued, even though the university was closed for a week. News crews were on campus daily. Memorials went up. I couldnÕt get way from it, and soon afterward, my nightmares began.

            But I tried my best to cope, and began focusing on others. I had longer conversations with students in my office and in hallways. I wrote more and longer e-mails to students. In my attention to others, though, I began to ignore my own needs. ThatÕs when my immune health suffered, I got sick and then apparently my pancreatic function virtually shut down.

I didnÕt understand then the role that stress, good or bad, can play on oneÕs immune system – that the shooting; university classes, faculty meetings, and events; the brutal winter we endured and getting sick like everyone else had a significant impact on me.

            Like everyone else on campus, though, I did the best I could to cope. That effort continues for me one day at a time as I learn anew how not only to survive, but also to thrive, to show up work and life but also remembering, Easy Does It, one of those life skills slogans I picked up years ago after getting sober. 

            After 21 years, I am still sober. IÕm seeing a therapist again. I visit my doctor – and an acupuncturist – regularly. I continue studying Tae Kwon Do, which has been good for my emotional and physical well-being (the exercise pumps those Òhappy hormoneÓ endorphins into my bloodstream). I also recently discovered a book on yoga and depression, and have renewed a commitment to practice yoga (I am a certified Kripalu teacher) because it helps me stay centered, embracing lifeÕs challenges on lifeÕs terms rather than running away by shutting off my feelings or through addictive behaviors.

            And there is even better health news: The last round of lab work revealed that I although I have antibodies that my pancreas is still producing some insulin. IÕm getting by with a small dose of insulin therapy and after just three months IÕm back to controlled levels of blood sugar.

I continue to heal, and I hope that my story might help someone else heal, too. As a community, we might need to talk and feel and cry for a while longer.

We were all affected by the shootings in Cole Hall. Our lives were indeed changed forever, and some of those changes are oddly good. I have been reminded of the preciousness of the moment – of the need to celebrate the happy times.

A friend of mine who has been a cancer survivor for almost five years recently told me that Òacceptance is half the battle.Ó The other half is to find joy in every single day. IÕm beginning to think sheÕs right.

            If youÕre returning to the university – whether as a student or faculty or staff member – and youÕre struggling, talk to someone. Form support groups. Get mental health treatment. Call your doctor for a checkup. Ask for hugs or ask someone if theyÕll just listen for a while.  Remember, or forget, and heal the best you can. Most importantly, own every part of how you coped, or didnÕt cope, over the shooting and donÕt beat yourself up for one minute over what you did or didnÕt do – or couldnÕt do.

            Find your joy in today. Celebrate your life. And make this as good a day as you can.