Monday was World Mental Health Day. For me, every day is mental health day, but I appreciate bringing mental illness into focus for a day to start a conversation and try to end the stigma. Mental illness comes in many forms and severity. It doesn’t discriminate against ages, soci0-ecomonic status, gender or what country you live in. It is an equal-opportunity illness. We are still afraid to talk about it, leaving many living in shame and isolation. Hopefully, awareness days like this can help. To do my part, I’m writing about what is’s like to live with complex PTSD.
Eight years ago, I was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, after a family tragedy. My daughter was hit by a van at 30 miles an hour as she was crossing the street on her way to school. She is with us, and thriving but has suffered some life-altering effects from the accident.
The year following Aria’s accident I was busy with tending to her health, taking her to appointments, trying to work full time and keep our household running as normal as possible. And at the same time, I kept having these experiences that were making me feel crazy. I had worked so hard to keep my life, my family and their world so protected that the instant Aria got hit, my controlled snow globe world came crashing down. In fact, when my son and I were talking the day of the accident, he looked at me and innocently said, “things will never be the same again.” Extremely prophetic words, that at the time myself nor my family had any idea what they would come to mean.
I was becoming anxious. I started losing time, I was called into meetings at work because my performance was terribly erratic. I was physically sick all the time and kept having these bizarre memories leaving me feeling crazy. I knew something was seriously wrong with me so I made a call to a psychologist who agreed to see me the next day.
When I started working with my first therapist, I was so anxious to tell her everything all at once so I could just feel better and get back to work. I didn’t understand that I was having flashbacks, or that I was living in a constant state of crisis. I was writing her letters from a dissociated state which made no sense to me when she would read them aloud. I would lock myself in my room for hours for fear that I was going to hurt myself and I didn’t want to be around my family.
My first therapist diagnosed me correctly but neglected to start my therapeutic process by teaching me any kind of safety or distress tolerance tools. I was out of control, thinking I was losing my mind, feeling like I had failed my family, and spiraling down a very slippery slope. She did the best she could but was way over her head and within nine months of seeing her, I knew intuitively that I had to find another therapist. I have been working with my current therapist for seven years.
When I first started seeing my therapist I was dissociated most of the time. I was in crisis, I was anxious, confused, and convinced I was going crazy. After a couple of sessions, it became apparent to him that we had to get some safety plans in place. Once that was in place we could begin the process of working on and processing my trauma.
I (sort-of) started to come to terms with the idea that my erupting memories were in fact, true. I was so overwhelmed by my memories and what we would process during sessions that I would remember, forget, remember, forget; until I started to turn a corner and forget how to forget. That’s when I found I could really start taking the baby-steps towards health.
Not only was my therapy about processing the memories, I also had to start accepting that there were some pretty intense effects of the trauma and that influenced how I saw and reacted to the world. I knew I had some pretty deep-rooted trust issues. I also had large, thick, almost impenetrable walls holding back any feeling or emotions that I was willing to let the world see. I also began to understand that because of my trauma I had a pretty significant attachment issues, which for me, has been one of the hardest things to learn and accept. For some reason, the attachment issue fed into my very low self-esteem and it’s something I still work on.
I also had to face down how my trauma effected my relationships with my family, friends, parenting style, and career. In the midst of dealing and coping with the trauma, there were a lot of AHA moments, when I saw how my behavior and ways of coping with life, had been a direct result of my trauma and not because I was a bad person.
Eight years later and one of the biggest reasons I write is because my PTSD symptoms still have a pretty good choke-hold on me. As with many mental illnesses, PTSD can be invisible on the outside. I had always been the master of wearing many masks, and deflecting any conversation away from me, all with a supportive smile for everyone else. But when I couldn’t hide my illness any longer my friends began to ask me, what does it feel like inside. I couldn’t really explain it, so I wrote a poem and shared it with my friends and family. I found that by writing I found a way to share with others and begin to understand what PTSD means for me and find a way to cope with my fear that I would be plagued by the symptoms forever.
My symptoms include (not limited too) flashbacks, concentration issues, becoming overwhelmed and my brain shutting down, not being able to make choices, anxiety/depression, and sensitive to the triggers that start the whole shebang of symptoms. We use the term, triggers, triggers everywhere. The wind can blow a certain way, or fireworks, or a car backfiring, even the moon can bring on flashbacks.
Unfortunately, my symptoms have left me with the inability to work. I went from having a wonderful career with the fringe benefits that provided me with some comfort for the future and the ability to provide for my family. I’m only able to work about 2 hours a day…on a good day.
It seems as if my symptoms (depending on the time of year) can start a chain reaction, so I needed to learn to work within my deficits. This isn’t easy or comfortable for me and because I’m still pretty new at learning how to work with my symptoms, I can find myself becoming frustrated and angry at my PTSD! Actually, most days, if I’m honest, I am VERY angry at my PTSD. But then I settle down and think about what I want for my life and try to rest and reset.
The inability to concentrate can be over-whelming for me. I know what I want to do, what I want my brain to do but I simply am unable to do it. Making choice at the grocery store, or a restaurant can be so uncomfortable that I will just simply lose my interest in eating and shut down. Sometimes as night approaches it feels overwhelming because I know that it’s highly likely that sometime during the night I will have nightmares. Even practicing good sleep hygiene listening to podcasts, all the tricks can’t stop the nightmares sometimes and it gets overwhelming. And sometimes I’m overwhelmed because I’m a survivor of trauma and have PTSD and that’s just the way it is, even though I wish it was different.
Writing gave me the courage I needed to address the pain I was feeling. I would write even when I thought I had nothing to write about. At first, I strictly used it for bilateral stimulation. I would write and send what I wrote off to my therapist. I started to find that I was able to write down what I couldn’t say aloud. It provided distance from having to use my voice at first, but then I found it actually gave me a voice.
What I hope to convey as I move forward: Try to remember to notice those perfect moments. Celebrate each step on the path towards health, know that it is a long and never linear process and that it really is just one foot in front of the other, you need to do a lot of resting, a lot of just sitting and metabolizing. Healing can feel like be a lonely process, but through good support, including a solid blogging community and continued voices speaking out against the stigma, we realize that we are not alone.
I’ve been hurt, I’ve been threatened, I’ve been abandoned, but I wasn’t going to let the effects of what happened to me keep me from trying to have the life I wanted. I never lose sight of my goals. They are to live with my past, live in the truth, and recognize and relish in the feelings of internal contentment. Somedays those goals seem as far away as the furthest star, and other days I can see them just through the clutter, almost there.
I still need therapy to manage my symptoms, and I may need a lot of assistance for the day-to-day grind, but I’m motivated to keep moving forward, spurred on by the hope for a better life. A life where I am living, not just surviving.
When I speak to groups, I’m often asked, “what can I do to be more aware?” My answer is, be aware of others, take notice of those around you, listen to your friends, neighbors, read about PTSD, or whatever illness interests or affects someone you know or love. Try not to perpetuate the fear and shame the person experiences when diagnosed with a mental illness. Show the same kindness and support you would to someone when they break their leg, have a cancer diagnosis or lost a loved one. Stop judging, stop fearing and show concern, understanding and kindness.
Thank you for reading my memoir, Untangled, A Story of Resilience, Courage, and Triumph