The Misconceptions of PTSD

“The big issue for traumatized people is that they don’t own themselves anymore. Any loud sound, anybody insulting them, hurting them, saying bad things, can hijack them away from themselves. And so what we have learned is that what makes you resilient to trauma is your own self fully. ” – Dr. Bessel van der Kolk

Chances are, if you are reading this, you have heard of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) at some point in your life.

While I have a very personal reason for writing this, I wanted to go over what the clinical definition of PTSD is and just how many people in the U.S. are estimated to be affected. According to the American Psychiatry Association, one in every 11 adults are estimated to suffer from PTSD. So think about it this way – if you have 11 people in your office, one out of them is likely to be suffering from PTSD. Chances are you will not know which one it is, because many people suffer in silence. Why you may ask? It can be extremely debilitating and embarrassing to one’s ego to try to explain the range of emotions that come when a “trigger” takes place. I put the word trigger in quotations, because everyone’s trigger is different. PTSD develops after experiencing a traumatic event and rears its ugly head when the person experiences an event or feeling that reminds them of their trauma. The reaction is not a conscious thing because, since the traumatic event, the way the person responds has been altered. Specific symptoms can range in severity, and is often coupled with other conditions such as depression, substance abuse, memory problems, and so on. It also often takes a long time to be diagnosed. Mainly because it is not as black and white as people would think, and connecting the dots on your own can be hard.

This is where my story comes in. Let me start by saying, the term PTSD was not new to me
when I was diagnosed, as I’m sure it isn’t for you who is reading this. However, if you would have asked me if I was suffering from it, I would have denied it. I work for a Veterans organization as an intake specialist so I hear the term “PTSD” on a weekly, if not daily, basis. However, fully understanding it was another thing and associating any of that to me was definitely not on my radar.

It was not until this past weekend when an emergency call to my therapist took place, that I began to connect the dots of my emotions – the traumas of the past – and lastly, how they manifested into that very moment when I was panicking so bad I couldn’t catch my breath.

For those who do not know me, a little background is needed first. Dating back to when I was little, I have always been a sensitive person. I took things harder than most, and wanted to achieve perfection in anything I tried. This is what I consider to be the first layer in which my life was built. Having that as my first layer of skin, did not set me up well for anything that could potentially go wrong in the future. After taking some time to reflect, to date I have experienced two traumatic events in my lifetime – one being my dad’s death (which I personally witnessed) and the other being the verbal abuse I exposed myself to during my
relationship with my ex-husband. While clearly both affected me hard, I said to myself “other people have experienced worse, so stop feeling sorry for yourself.” In hindsight, this was the worst thing I could have ever said to myself because it did not allow myself to process and nor heal from these events. So when I would constantly break down or be triggered by something minor afterward, I thought I was just weak and emotional.

I honestly didn’t even know how to describe it to my therapist, other than in bits and pieces:

  1. When I felt “stuck” in a situation where I didn’t have control, I would go into a panic attack.
  2. Other people’s yelling or arguing whether at me or not, often made me cry or hyperventilate.
  3. I didn’t like leaving home. I got fearful something would happen to my significant other or one of my pets.
  4. Body-dysmorphia, and overall not feeling “good enough” – which often lead to perfectionist thinking and eating disorder thoughts/actions
  5. Fear of being cheated on – so much so that I become fixated on it, and again I would circle back to me not being “good enough”
  6. Constantly felt the need to apologize for everything.
  7. I would breakdown over small disagreements

I never connected any of these together. I just figured I was a sensitive person and suffer from high anxiety. I never went back to those traumatic events and thought “Oh, these events still affect me and are the reasons why I still react a certain way.” Yes they hurt, but I didn’t realize at what at a large scale they still hurt.

So, let’s flashback to Saturday – I was in a situation where I felt stuck in and thought it could could possibly end badly. I began hyperventilating – crying uncontrollably – wanting to run – and I honestly could not rationalize why I felt that way – only that I felt stuck. As I began describing the situation to my therapist and explaining I don’t understand why I’m reacting this way – she then said “you have endured a lot of trauma in past relationships. What you are experiencing are the same emotions you described to me with how you felt in your marriage.” We talked a little further and I said to her that I did not (in those moments) have any type of flashback or even relive the ten years of verbal abuse. It was instead, just the reaction – and then I got it. I understood what she was saying. The feeling of being stuck in a chaotic situation, in which I had no power, had reappeared and brought back all the same emotions it did every time I wanted to leave the unhealthy relationship I was in a couple years ago. The broken pieces of me were now affecting my current relationship because it was easier to run than to face the emotions head on.

I began processing that a little further and realized the bits and pieces I described to you earlier – were my triggers. The moments that often set me off and had became my new normal was because I had been so broken down from my watching my dad die, and dealing with constant verbal abuse/cheating/lies/etc because my ex-husband was dealing with his own mental illness.

Most people picture hardened war veterans or first responders when they think of PTSD. And yes, they take up a high percentage of those with PTSD. But PTSD can affect ANYONE who has experienced something traumatic. Having anxiety before these events in my life are what most likely made it so I was more predisposed to developing PTSD when these events did occur.

I find it extremely vulnerable and hard to discuss – especially on such a wide scale – but I feel it is important for me to share my story in some aspect, so others realize that anyone can develop PTSD. And more so, that the symptoms are real and cannot always just be stopped through reasoning. As Dr. Bessel van der Kolk states, “the big issue for traumatized people is that they don’t own themselves anymore. Any loud sound, anybody insulting them, hurting them, saying bad things, can hijack them away from themselves. And so what we have learned is that what makes you resilient to trauma is your own self fully. ” In other words, with the help of a licensed professional, the person suffering can learn their triggers and begin to understand themselves better and gain a stronger sense of self. While there is no cure nor one specific treatment, deciding to take the journey toward self-discovery is half the battle.

If you or someone you know is experiencing something similar to what I described, I urge you to seek a licensed professional to help sort it out. For more information on PTSD (such as symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment), please see the Mayo Clinic for more details.


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Anniversary of My Suicide Attempt

The semicolon project: my life could have stopped, but I continued on.

Exactly seventeen years ago, I attempted to take my own life. I don’t talk about it much because I don’t like to remember that day or the events after it. In actuality, I think part of my psyche has blocked it from my memory because I only remember bits and pieces.

I was thirteen. I remember the pain I felt; deep, intense, hopeless. I felt alone. Yet, when I went into the inpatient/outpatient programs, everyone just looked at me and said “You don’t belong here.” It wasn’t out of malice, even though it may sound like it. All the other teenagers around me had severely broken childhoods and families that really did not give a damn. And there I was – with two parents who loved me and who tried to give me the best life possible. It pains me to think of it because the guilt I felt was tremendous. “I didn’t deserve to feel pain”, I thought.

But the truth? Everyone is entitled to their emotions. We cannot compare circumstances. It does no good and it does not solve the problem.

While I did not have a broken family, I had a severe chemical imbalance – most of which I contribute to getting my menstrual cycle early. My body was developing fast, but my surroundings were not and my brain was still one of a thirteen-year-old. I would get conflicted as to how I should be feeling and what I actually was feeling.

In addition, the meds I was put on for my depression and anxiety were not handled properly. The doctor started me off on a high dose and then did not monitor it. My parents did not know any better. After all, they trusted the doctor.

To this day, I remember my dad’s face when he found out I overdosed on pain medication. I stayed home that day because I needed a mental break from school. I felt so alone with my feelings that I just broke – I grabbed the bottle without thinking and continued to shove the pills down my throat. My dad knew I did something. He kept asking, “What did you do? What did you do?” I don’t remember what tipped him off honestly, but he knew. I was honest. Then he called 911.

The cops showed up with an ambulance. I was so scared. I was crying. “I’m fine! I’m sorry. I won’t do it again. Please don’t take me away.” I just wanted them to go away.

Once at the hospital, they pumped my stomach full of charcoal. I met with some doctors who I tried to convince “I WAS FINE”. But since I had made an attempt, I had to be inpatient for a couple days.

Those days were filled with the scariest moments I had seen yet being only thirteen. I was trying to understand my emotions, while also be frightened into seeing the worst of the worst situations. To give you an idea – someone smashed their head through a glass panel on a door in an attempt to end their life.

I wouldn’t understand this experience until much later in life. I never wanted to end my life. I wanted the pain to stop. I wanted to understand my feelings and how to feel better.

Since I refused to deal with it, those emotions just fostered into an eating disorder three years later. I used food as a cop out to control the emotions I felt were out of control.

Now almost two decades later, I have completely done a 180. I’m so glad I failed that day because I had so much to accomplish that God was planning for me. I look at my struggles with mental health as a time that made me stronger and more understanding. I am now able to help others with my story and encourage them to keep fighting. It is no walk in the park; it takes time, dedication, continual therapy, and patience. BUT IT IS SO WORTH IT. I truly believe we were each created for something special. Sometimes it takes others longer to find it and that’s okay. We each bloom at our own time.

When you feel at your lowest, remember me as an example to keep fighting. You have no idea what God has in store for you and whose life you will one day impact. I’m in your corner.

If you or something you know is suicidal, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. Help is available.

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