I don’t remember the exact moment when I lost the ability to handle everything emotionally; that instant when the invisible threads holding all of my emotions in place, like an intricate web snapped. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder caused by a traumatic event, and it never completely goes away. PTSD is the panther crouching in the shadows, waiting for the exact instant you are at your weakest to pounce. 6 of every 10 men and 5 of 10 women experience at least one trauma in their lives.
Anything traumatic can cause PTSD; sexual assault, child abuse, physical assault, combat, injury, accidents, divorce, witness to death or injury. For me, the initial cause was childhood trauma, compounded with early adulthood traumas, and then as I got older and other events occurred, my threshold for coping became smaller with each experience. Once I went through my divorce, my emotional web started untangling one cord at a time.
When my symptoms are at their worst: I wait too long to use the restroom at work, (I am not allowed to lock my front door until lunchtime). I become so anxious about closing the bathroom door, walking out and finding someone waiting for me, I would rather wait. At home, I lock the bathroom door, and shower with the curtain open, with my back against the wall. I need to be able to see what is happening.
As I walk a new place, I make a mental note of all exits, every seat option against a wall (so I can feel something solid behind me, and can see people come and go). If walking or standing alone in a line, I am extremely uncomfortable with people standing directly close behind me, especially men. There are certain movements, and touches that also trigger symptoms as well, and I have specifics (I believe all of us do) of a different variety, depending on my environment. Many of us are also triggered by certain types of sounds, language, and smells as well. I can go months without many symptoms, then I can suddenly have them all the time. I have recently had one of the worst flare-ups in years.
When I am already stressed to the maximum level or having other minor PTSD symptoms, something minor might be the thing that triggers some of the major symptoms. Maybe someone yells at me (and it could even be in traffic), which is something I really don’t respond well to, and my body sends my mind the fight or flight signal. My stomach ties itself into knots, my heart thuds wildly, and my clothes become damp with sweat. Every movement around me feels hostile, and I feel like I need to get away. Now! Each little noise, every branch that scrapes against a house, and every footfall is coming toward me. Nothing is logical anymore. That part of my brain has gone to sleep, so telling me to calm down will not be heard. There are other times when I am unable to deal with reality at all, so I detach completely—my brain just shuts itself off, similar to a computer rebooting itself. I want it to work, but I have to wait for it to restart again. If things are really bad, the insomnia, nightmares, and flashbacks return.
As I stand in the grocery store, feeling the breath of the stranger behind me on my neck, every hair on my body rises, like antennae. The cashier smiles at me, oblivious. The man behind me takes a step closer. I feel the heat from his body, and the graze of his jeans on my bare leg. As I swipe my card through the machine, my hand trembles so violently, it almost tumbles to the floor. Flashes careen through my mind. Ripping. Tearing. Being held down. Hot tears. The cashier asks another question, but I don’t hear it because the stranger’s leg keeps brushing against mine. The rancid alcohol on his breath envelopes me, and bile rises in my throat. The second my receipt is printed, my legs are moving toward the door, and my shaking hands are tightly gripping my plastic grocery bags at my sides. I don’t remember if I grabbed my debit card or if I even have my purse, nor do I care. I no longer see the other customers sailing past with their full carts. The only thing I know is I have to get to my vehicle right now before I am hurt again.
The next time you come across a man or woman who appears to be agitated, irritable, panicked, terrified, angry, or detached, remember we can never assume to know another person’s situation by appearance. Just beneath the surface is a woman feeling her attacker’s hands on her; a man hearing bullets whistle past his head; a woman screaming for help as her child takes his last breath in the back seat of a crumpled car on the side of a highway; or a child who has been tormented day after day by bullies. As survivors of trauma, we are not always in control over our own bodies or brains, but it does not make us weak. It makes us human.
Trauma strips away your life one piece at a time, leaving you ragged and scarred. When the webbing snaps, it can be weaved back together. It might never quite look the same, with more knots than sparkle, but it will be whole again. My scars are a daily reminder of how lucky I am for everything I have, and of how quickly they can be ripped away.
Remember always, you are more than what happened to you in your past. You are worth cherishing, no matter what anyone says or thinks about you.
Helpful Links Below:
PTSD Symptoms and Help-for more information about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and information about finding help.
PTSD in Teens-After the Injury-Every year millions of children are injured or are subjected to a trauma. This site is for children and teens who need help recovering from the emotional trauma.
How to Help Someone You Love with PTSD– This website is a wonderful resource for anyone who loves someone with PTSD, and is looking for more information, and support.
The Positivity Blog– this is the best site when you need anything positive and inspirational.
PTSD for Veterans in Your Community-This website is primarily for veterans suffering for PTSD, and is a fantastic toolkit to find help all over the country.
PTSD Crisis Help-This link can offer some additional resources.
If you are ever thinking about suicide and feel unsafe: Call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day.
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassions, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” – Elizabeth Kubler-Ross