Content warning: emotional abuse, sexual assault/rape, mentions of self-harm.
This isn’t going to be too in-depth as I intend to write more on the subject, but I wanted to go over some facts about PTSD, dispel some common myths I hear, and explain some things from a personal side of the matter.
What Is PTSD?
PTSD is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It can last for a short while (acute PTSD) or a lifetime, and it can have one major cause or several (Complex-PTSD, commonly shortened to C-PTSD).
Post Traumatic Stress is often portrayed in the media and entertainment as a mental illness exclusive to combat veterans, primarily involving flashbacks and confusion. While PTSD is very frequently seen in those who have seen combat, it is not exclusive to them. Any traumatic event, or even witnessing or being told about a traumatic event, can cause PTSD. This includes emotional or physical abuse, sexual harassment or assault, being mugged, or getting into a serious car accident, to name a few possibilities.
I have C-PTSD. I was diagnosed when I was twenty-one and having so many night terrors I was afraid to sleep. Obviously, this is a very sensitive topic, but the key factors of mine are: emotional abuse from a parent, consequently spending most of my life feeling unsafe and unheard, being raped by a boyfriend as a teenager (and later blamed for it by a therapist), other physical violations, emotional abuse from a spouse, and being stalked for years by said spouse after I left. There are many factors that lead into mine, and those who have experienced abuse or trauma at an early age will often display behaviors in line with C-PTSD.
What Does It Look Like?
As with any mental illness, it looks slightly different in each person experiencing it. For example, I’ve never had a flashback like you’d see in a movie. I mostly tend to disassociate, but that’s a discussion for later. My flashbacks tend to be more reactive, so even though I can cognitively recognize what is happening and that the current situation is different than ones in the past, I will still react physically and emotionally the way I did during previous incidents.
For years, I also had night terrors, extreme anger, paranoia, insomnia, and was self-harming.
There were also unconscious aversions to triggers. When I was raped, I was wearing a sundress. It took a decade for me to feel comfortable in a skirt again. I had no idea why – I just thought I was a tomboy, and I never looked into why I felt so unsafe when I wore a dress.
Another example is my aversion to eye contact. My father tended to stare me down when he was being abusive, and now I don’t like being stared at or making too much eye contact. It makes me extremely uncomfortable and defensive. If it goes on for too long, the explosive anger rears its ugly head.
There are also the non-visible effects, the ones my friends and family likely didn’t see:
– Feeling like I can’t trust anyone, even those closest to me
– Feeling like my sense of reality was warped
– Frequent dissociation, causing faulty or inaccurate memories
– Feeling like I was made out of glass and constantly on the verge of breaking completely
– Losing my sense of self so completely I had a gender-identity crisis
Again, it looks different for each individual, but these are the symptoms I have experienced, and the common thing is “reliving” a traumatic experience, coupled with a deep-seated fear.
I’ve already gone over why the disorder is not exclusive to combat veterans, so there’s no need to repeat myself here.
Up until a few years ago, PTSD was considered an anxiety disorder.
It is not.
I had a therapist recommend marijuana to help me calm down and sleep. The first time I tried it, I was convinced that my ex was about to crawl through the window (on the third floor) and get into the apartment, so I ran out the door and was halfway outside before my roommate caught up with me and stopped me. Marijuana triggered the paranoia to an unhealthy extent. For some, it might work. For me, it didn’t.
I am often told to take a few deep breaths when I start to get triggered. This does nothing for me. Grounding techniques for anxiety pull you out of your head and place you back into your surroundings. PTSD is different — the goal is to get out of the past and into the present. There is no body, no head, no surroundings with which to ground myself. This goes back to the feeling of being made of glass, which I’ve also heard equated to feeling “so full I’m going to burst at the seams” and “like a dam that’s about to break.”
Things That Help
We just went over things that don’t work, so what are some of the things that have helped me get my PTSD under control?
I cannot stress this enough — find the right therapist. I have been through five, two of which have done me any good. Two were so harmful they reinforced some traumas, and one was just neutral and didn’t actually help that much. But therapy with the right therapist has been incredible in helping me understand and process the things going on in my head. I didn’t know why I felt like shattering glass until my therapist told me that “lack of physical integrity” — i.e. not knowing my gender, feeling like I’m physically about to burst, not recognizing myself in the mirror — is a key symptom of the disorder. Once I learned that, I used it as a base-point for knowing when my mental illness is acting up again. The right therapist has been instrumental in helping me get the PTSD under control.
2. Safety Net
No matter what time of day or night, there is someone I trust completely that I can call when the PTSD is triggering me. Even just hearing their voice brings me down, so I usually start the call with, “Hi, I’m not okay, please just tell me about your day,” and they know to talk me back to reality. Having someone like that is rare, but it makes an entire world of difference. If you have someone like that, treasure them.
3. Body Awareness
Knowing where I am in my body can tell me when I’m getting triggered, or can redirect my thoughts before I tailspin. The first time I wrote about my PTSD, my hands started shaking and I was taking short, quick breaths. Once I realized what was happening, I knew to take a break and step away from what I was doing. When I talk about my abusers, I tend to curl up into a ball — when I notice that I’m hunching over, I take a moment to sit up straight, roll my shoulders, and replace myself in the present (a place of security and confidence) instead of reliving the past (a place of danger and fear). It doesn’t solve all the problems, but being aware of my body in the beginning stages of being triggered can help prevent a full-blown episode.
4. Physically Changing My Environment
This can mean taking a walk, sticking my head in the freezer, smoking a cigarette — any small change to snap me back into the present moment. Unfortunately, this lent itself to a lot of self-harm before I realized what was happening, but now that I know where these impulses stem from, I know it’s a better idea to just hold an ice cube until I can take stock of my surroundings.
I actually started smoking during the middle of an episode: before I learned the ins and outs of PTSD, the government-mandated shelter-in-place order was announced. I remember going out to the patio to take a deep breath. The next thing I remember is walking back home from the corner store with a cigarette in my hand and the pack in my pocket. When I try to remember the events between the two moments, it’s fuzzy and disjointed. But the taste of tobacco was enough to bring me back to the present. (I have since been able to quit.)
There isn’t a cure for PTSD, so unfortunately there isn’t a fix-all drug, only ones that manage symptoms. I haven’t needed them, however I know doctors can prescribe antipsychotics to those who suffer extreme flashbacks and can’t control the outbursts. If you do need these, there is no need to feel shame. It’s okay to need medications! As always, talk to your doctor about any concerns you might have.
Currently, I’m doing okay. My therapist is helping me unpack all the trauma I’ve long repressed. It’s a difficult road, but has helped me understand so much about myself and why I react the way I do. The night terrors have (mostly) stopped. I don’t compulsively lock every single door (often). I’m not afraid of people, or of sex, or of sundresses. I still feel like glass sometimes, but I know what gender I am. As for the rest… I’m working on it.
I know I’m never going to be the person I was supposed to be, because the traumas started at such an early age. But that’s okay because, despite all the shit, I really like who I am now.
What has worked for me may not work for others. What has worked for others may not work for me. That’s okay, too. There’s a lot I didn’t talk about today, but as I continue on my path, I hope to learn new things to share with you. If you have advice or coping mechanisms that work for you, please share them! If you have questions or want to know more, reach out! Let’s have this conversation.