PTSD Awareness Month: My Story
Hi everyone! Happy Pride Month! Did you know that, in addition to being Pride Month, June is PTSD Awareness Month in the United States? The goal of PTSD Awareness Month is to teach more people about what PTSD is, in hopes that people who might have it will seek treatment.
Guess what! I have PTSD. I want to share some stuff because I can’t imagine my experience is unique to me. While PTSD Awareness Month focuses on veterans, it's just as important for civilians to recognize possible PTSD symptoms. The topic is particularly relevant to queer people and women in general.
I always thought PTSD was exclusively linked to Big Traumatic Events: war or assault. I had never experienced either of those things, so according to my internal logic, I was immune to PTSD. Last year I struggled with something that happened to me, but this Event didn’t seem to fit the list of PTSD-triggering trauma. Even as I had months of painful, intrusive thoughts, weekly nightmares related to the Event, insomnia, constant rage, and panic attacks, I didn’t realize I needed treatment. Here’s something weird: I started writing stories about war veterans suffering from PTSD, using my own experiences to inform the narratives. And yet I still couldn’t consciously make the connection. I just didn’t see myself as someone with PTSD.
Here's what PTSD looked like for me: I was simultaneously avoidant and obsessive when it came to the Event. I was unable to eat food that reminded me of the Event. I couldn’t wear the clothes I wore on the day the Event happened. I bought new shoes. I was in the middle of a book when the Event occurred; I later left the book half-read on a park bench (I still wish I could read V.E. Schwab; I still can't.). I couldn't listen to songs that I had listened to during the month of the Event. I went out of my way to avoid reminders, even though I still thought about it constantly, and remembered it with terrifying clarity. I talked about it with my friends, thinking that telling the story might help me let go of it. I never acknowledged that any of these behaviors were occurring, because, according to my internal logic, the Event wasn’t that big of a deal, and people who couldn’t get over Not Big Deal Events were weak, histrionic, melodramatic, and attention-seeking. I didn’t want to associate those words with myself.
Funny how you can never be a right-wing millennial hater, and yet somehow that propaganda seeps into your pores without you realizing it. “Special snowflake” isn’t an insult I’ve ever used, but somehow I wanted to distance myself from the “special snowflake” image anyway.
I have always been pro-mental health treatment. I had sought it out in the past, and it helped me get through depression. But this was a completely different experience, and precisely because I already knew I had depression, I didn't want to admit that I might have something else, too. It felt like a growing list of character flaws, and I wanted to keep the list as short as possible.
Also, I was still going to work every day. I had one weird episode where I called my coworker at midnight during the middle of a panic attack, having convinced myself that I was dying. She was really supportive, because I think she's had similar experiences, but we've never talked about that call. Besides this one slip up, I didn't do anything that alerted the people in my daily life that I was struggling. There was no one to tell me to get help.
I finally sought treatment after reading John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down (does that make me basic? I dunno). I don’t have OCD like that book’s main character, but something about her story rang true to me. The first time I had a panic attack, I pictured my anxiety as being the alien pathogen that gets into people's skin in Prometheus. (If you have anxiety, please do not picture it in this way. It will shockingly not calm you down.) I imagined that a foreign body was hijacking everything from my thoughts to my lungs. Like I was tainted. I felt as though I had descended a few notches down the Totem Pole of Worthy Human Beings. Reading about John Green's character having similar panic attacks made me realize that my experiences weren't that uncommon. No SciFi beast had invaded my bloodstream; this was my own body, struggling to cope.
I realized I needed a therapist. I still had no idea I had PTSD, but I knew I needed treatment, and that’s actually way more important than putting a name to whatever symptoms you’re experiencing. I think I need to repeat that: Getting help is more important than getting a diagnosis.
Even though I wanted treatment right away, I was in a foreign country where no nearby therapists spoke my native language. Additionally, to be reimbursed for the cost of therapy, I would have had to tell my employer that I was seeking treatment, which I didn’t feel I could do without risking being fired. It’s an obviously flawed system, and many people who need treatment deal with similar obstacles.
Unable to receive therapy in person, I sought help online. I went through three therapists who weren’t matches for me.* One was so excited about me living in Japan that she asked for access to my social media. She wanted to see my Instagram, which I thought was unprofessional. She asked me to take pictures of my neighborhood, even though at that time I had so much anxiety that leaving my apartment was really hard. Actually, my camera was at the bottom of a closet full of stuff I’d hidden away because it all reminded me of the Event, so asking me to take pictures triggered me. I remember thinking, I’m a real person who needs help. I’m not your vicarious vacation. I switched to another therapist.
My first meeting with therapist #2 had to be cancelled due to technical issues. Then she didn’t show up to our second appointment. She apologized later, saying she forgot to put it in her calendar. I doubted she would do that to a new patient she was seeing in person, which told me that, like the first therapist, my problems weren’t real to her.
The third therapist offered inspirational quotes like she was talking to a Hallmark card writer. She wanted me to pour my heart out about the Event from day one, which is not how in-person therapy would ever go. Again, because we were online, she didn’t see me as a real person.
I think it was hard, maybe especially for older therapists, to understand that just because I was seeking therapy online didn’t mean my problems were small or simply solved. And just because I was a face on their screen and not a body in their office didn’t mean I was less real than their in-person patients.
Even though I’m summing this up in paragraphs, it was a painful, two-month-long process. It was so hard to prepare to talk about the Event. I would fight through rising panic attacks to make sure I could meet with my therapist, so when therapists didn’t show, or wanted to see Instagram pictures instead of help me, I was left with no way to release that built up energy. I could only cope with it by sobbing alone for hours. Every single time I had a failed session, I bawled. My symptoms got worse, exacerbated by the carelessness of licensed professionals. I needed help so desperately, and I was reaching out, but I wasn’t getting it.
Fourth time’s the charm. A couple months after first reading Turtles All the Way Down, I found the one who “got” me. She has never shown any kind of curiosity about Japan, because she gets that that’s not the point of my therapy. She helps patients from around the world and doesn’t get stuck on cultural differences. She has never missed an appointment. I saw a great therapist in high school, and my new therapist’s sessions feel pretty much identical to the ones I had years ago.
It actually took me months after she diagnosed me with PTSD for me to accept I had it. In that time, my therapy didn’t stop, nor was it centered on me “accepting” that I had PTSD. When I voiced my belief that I couldn’t possibly have PTSD because “I was never in a war,” she accepted my preconceived notion with grace and continued her treatment plan.
Finally accepting that I had PTSD wasn’t the climax of a linear narrative. It was just a gradual acceptance that came with understanding my own symptoms better, internalizing parts of my therapist’s unwavering attitude of non-judgment, and realizing that her treatment plan, made for victims of trauma, was working for me. Really, the PTSD label was just semantics. It’s nice that I recognize I have PTSD, because it means I can write this post, but even if I didn’t, I would still be receiving appropriate treatment and benefiting from it. That’s why getting therapy, if you realize you might need it, is so important. The diagnosis isn’t a label you need to internalize and come to terms with; it’s an arrow that guides your therapist to the best plan to help you with your symptoms.
It’s been a year since the Event happened. I’m starting trauma work now. This means that, after months of learning how to manage my day-to-day symptoms, I'm at a stable enough place to deal with the root cause of my PTSD. One thing that’s very important to me is that everything my therapist does is evidence-based. Her treatment plan was formulated on a foundation of research. There are a few different paths for releasing the pain of a traumatic event, and I’m sure that, if you seek therapy, a good therapist will help you find the best path.
I went to therapy because I didn’t feel "like myself." I had a treatment plan in mind: I wanted my therapist to tell me what I should do, thinking that if I “solved” one particular problem then I would be okay again. I wanted her to make decisions for me so that I didn’t have to. There was actually a moment in the beginning of our sessions when I snapped at her. “Just tell me the answers!” Yeah, she didn’t.
Except she kind of did. We’ve done everything from working on short and long term coping strategies for managing anxiety to shifting core beliefs about myself. I used to think I sucked, and with therapy, I now think I don’t suck. I’ve learned how to apply the generosity I used to have exclusively for other people to myself. I’m nicer to myself, and the things I learned aren’t inside the magazines that say self-care is a frothy bubble bath and telling yourself you’re pretty when you look in the mirror.
As for wanting my therapist to make decisions for me: I don’t need people to make decisions for me, because I’ve gotten so much better at managing personal conflicts myself. I’m not saying I’m a guru. I’m saying I just might be one by the time I’m done therapy.
Currently, my panic attacks are gone. I'm not a walking rage machine. I sleep well at night. I still have constant nightmares. If you're ever wondering what I'm thinking about at a particular moment, it's more than likely that I'm thinking about the Event. My ability to talk about the Event or be around things that remind me of the Event varies day-by-day. That’s why I’m doing trauma work, which will let the Event turn into an event. You know how people say every American remembers where they were on 9/11? That’s how the Event stands out in my mind. After trauma work, the Event will hopefully become a normal memory; one that won’t consume my focus and will fade with time.
Months before starting trauma work, I learned coping skills that allowed me to function in my everyday life. I stopped having panic attacks, I stopped being constantly short of breath, I’m no longer afraid of isolating myself or missing work because of my anxiety. I’ve stopped feeling like I’m a human garbage can. (The online normalization of self-deprecation really bothers me now, but that’s a whole other rant.)
I have no idea if this story is useful to anyone, but I want it out there. You don’t need to go through a Big Traumatic Event to have PTSD. Or sometimes you do go through a Big Traumatic Event, but you’re so used to telling yourself to get over things, or invalidating your own experiences, that you won’t recognize the Big Traumatic Event for what it was. I’m not telling you to self-diagnose. All you need to do is ask yourself whether you’re functioning in your daily life as well as you could be, or as well as you used to. If you're not, then I encourage you to seek professional treatment.**
*They were all on Talkspace. In my opinion, Talkspace is trash. Even though betterhelp.com, where I receive my therapy, seems nearly identical, I recommend betterhelp.com and not Talkspace.
**As this post should firmly confirm, I am not even remotely a professional, so please excuse me if I got terminology wrong.