Women Are Posting Pictures to Challenge a Stereotype About PTSD

The idea started with a disappointing online search. While researching for a piece about trigger warnings, Cissy White realized when she searched for images under “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD), the top results showed exclusively men in uniform.

Google results show only soldiers.
source: Words Through Thoughts

Given that women are more than twice as likely to develop PTSD than men, White, a writer and advocate, wasn’t only troubled — she was mad. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, trauma that could lead to symptoms of PTSD also includes experiencing sexual assault, child sexual abuse, living through a natural disorder and witnessing death or injury. Already in contact with women who live with PTSD through the online community Trigger Point Anthology, based on a book by the same name, she realized if they wanted to be seen on the Internet, they’d have to do it themselves.

Using the hashtag #FacesofPTSD, White, along with Dawn Daum, Joyelle Brandt (co-editors of “Trigger Points”), Arwen Faulknera and Jodi Ortega, started a campaign to do just that.

Now, woman who have PTSD are filling social media with their pictures, hoping next time a woman searches “PTSD,” she’ll land upon a familiar face.

Daum said when she first started doing research about parenting as a survivor of trauma, she found nothing — no advice, no pictures, nothing to let her know there were others like her out there. “I can’t even tell you what that did to my spirit,” she told The Mighty. “I think we associate feeling with what we see, more than we what we feel or hear. We want to look at someone who looks like us to validate how we’re feeling.

In a blog post explaining the campaign, Daum noted that even when you Google “women and PTSD,” you’re left with stereotypes — a woman falling apart, barely holding herself together:

search results for "women and PTSD" -- all the women are clearly distraught.
source: Words Through Thoughts

“Those who suffer with PTSD usually do so while raising children, working nine to five and/or taking care of necessary day-to-day tasks,” she wrote. “Survivors are professionals at looking ‘normal’ on the outside… They need to see the real #FacesOfPTSD. Faces that look like mine.”

Check out some of the faces of PTSD below:

To join the campaign, use the hashtag #FacesofPTSD.

What’s one misconception about your mental illness you want to see busted? Tell us in the comments below.


A Defense of Trigger Warnings, From Someone With PTSD

I am one of those hopelessly naïve people who tries to reason with people on the Internet. Logically, I know these discussions only make people dig their feet in further. Providing peer-reviewed research is not going to convince some dude-bro on the web that the wage gap does exist, no matter what that meme he saw last week told him. I rationalize it by thinking that maybe my comments will reassure others who either sympathize with me or are on the fence. So, I fight the good fight, no matter how useless it really is. People say awful things to me, but I have thick skin. I generally feel rude comments reflect poorly on the commenter.

This made it all-the-more startling when someone pulled out this doozie in an online debate with me a couple weeks ago, and it actually made me upset. I had commented on a video that claimed to “DESTROY FEMINISM,” saying I could easily dismantle the argument if the original poster (OP) was willing to engage with me. Instead of responding, he posted this meme, which a quick Google search will tell you depicts Melody Hensley, a victim of cyber-bullying, and a person with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Under the photo of Hensley is the word “triggered.” It’s meant to be ironic, of course, because many people don’t believe Hensley has a real reason to be traumatized. The meme is often used now to delegitimize another person’s argument by saying they are simply too easily offended.

trigger warning meme

I am a loud mouth. I always have a lot to say, an opinion to give. But seeing this meme temporarily made me speechless. First of all, it was illogical. I was not hysterical or even visibly upset. I hadn’t even told the OP my issue with the video. But I felt this meme served the purpose of shutting down my argument before I had even given it by making fun of mental illness.

After several minutes of staring at my computer, I decided to bench the feminist in me for a second and instead speak from another not totally separate part of me, the part that suffers from PTSD. Three years ago, I had a traumatic experience, the kind of thing I thought only existed in melodramatic crime shows. I have been struggling to cope with the incident ever since, undergoing thousands of dollars’ worth of psychotherapy and seeking just the right balance of medications. The first emotion I experienced when I heard those words come out of my psychiatrist’s mouth was embarrassment. The incident had not directly threatened me. So why was I so upset? I thought of rape victims, of veterans, people I believe have a “true” right to their suffering. I felt silly and fragile for having an extreme reaction to an event that did me no physical harm.

And yet, I had been harmed. Just two days ago, I was triggered by an episode of a travel show. A scene depicted an animal sacrifice, and the unexpected violence made me inconsolable for the better part of an hour. This is why I am an avid defender of trigger warnings

Some people feel like trigger warnings coddle sensitive people. I don’t see it that way. I see trigger warnings as a common courtesy to help prevent sufferers of PTSD, like me, from reliving our trauma. I recognize it is not fail-proof, and getting upset by our memories is a part of life. But what is so wrong with making an effort?

It took me a while, but eventually I realized that feeling like it was shameful for me to be suffering was the result of living in a society that correlates mental illness with weakness. This meme fails to recognize that everyone copes with pain differently. We all have struggles. But we should not compare our pain to others’ or silence those who speak openly about their anguish. Instead, we should recognize that to survive, we have to share the pain and help each other through it.

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Describe the moment someone changed the way you think about disability, disease or mental illness. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

PTSD Is Not Just for Soldiers

If you are anything like I was 10 years ago, when you hear the term “post-traumatic stress disorder” or “PTSD,” you picture a soldier coming back from war. You picture this soldier with night terrors and rage as he or she deals with the traumatic images and experiences he/she may have encountered on the front line.

I talk with a lot of medical students and new parents about some of my earlier experiences with my daughter, but I don’t talk about them a lot publicly. There are a few things that happened in the first two years of being a mom that took me to a dark place. Once I found my way out of the darkness, I began trying to help others find the light as well. I’ve talked before about grief and the Stages of Adaptation and how these have an impact on parents of children with complex needs. Today I want to talk a little about PTSD.

When I used to tell our story, I could not get through it without completely breaking down. As I would tell people about her birth and the first time I saw her, it would feel like I was reliving the entire thing. I could smell the juice the nurses would bring me to help hydrate while pumping, I could smell the alcohol they used to wipe everything down, I could hear the 10 different alarms all chirping their own melodies, I could see the pain in my husband’s eyes. Everything was vivid and so real. As I told the story time after time, I was taking myself through it all over again. This happened for about the first two years. I would be at the grocery store and hear a sound that would set me off, or maybe a family member would say something that would trigger an episode. I avoided places and people I knew would trigger an event. I had no idea what was wrong with me. I thought I was just sad and didn’t know how to get past it.

One day someone told me I was experiencing PTSD. What? I am not a soldier, I am a mom. I had no idea someone like me could end up with that diagnosis. Trauma is a scary and real thing. My daughter’s intense delivery, and being told day after day that my child would not survive the night, was traumatic. With a diagnosis, I realized I was not alone and that many parents of medically complex children, and many parents of children who start life in the NICU, suffer from PTSD.

If you are reading this and thinking “That’s me, that’s what I am going through,” please know you are not alone and you can get through this. Once I understood why I was not able to get past the early events in my daughter’s life, I was able to address my issues, and I did eventually get to a place where I can tell our story without reliving it. Some people are able to work through this on their own, but therapy may be needed in many cases too. There are many therapists who specialize in helping parents of children with complex medical issues. If you are having a hard time getting through it, there is no shame in asking for help.

When My Invisible Illness Is Invisible to Me

As someone who lives with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I’m well aware it’s largely an invisible illness. Comments I’ve received such as “But you look well!” (said while I was attending a day hospitalization program) and “You don’t look like someone with PTSD!” have made this clear.

 At the same time, some people see something; my supervisor offhandedly referred to “your disability” before I’d ever disclosed that I had one. What people read in my body is mysterious and ever-shifting. Most of the time, I’m a book that’s barely cracked open.

It’s hard to have my suffering go unseen. What’s harder, though, is that the PTSD slides in and out of visibility to me. It’s a shape-shifter that readily portrays itself as mere reality.

People watch me at the Laundromat and whisper. Friends give me compliments, but I can sense the subtle negative messages they’re trying to convey. I watch everyone’s body language and eyes in order to read their minds. I need to know what they’re thinking in order to protect myself. I have highly tuned psychic radar that lets me know when something bad is going to happen. I can tell something terrible, worse than anything I’ve yet experienced, is imminent.

I’ve been awaiting this looming catastrophe for the past 10 years. I have multiple “prophetic” nightmares every night, none of which have yet come true. Yet, when I’m having these experiences, they don’t “seem” like PTSD. I feel like I’m in the present, trembling with terror at these visions of ghosts from the future.

It’s a lot of work to remind myself: These are memories. Of course you  feel this way; you were tortured. Part of the nature of PTSD is that things that have happened feel as though they’re still taking place. I don’t sit apart from “mental illness” as an observer, and it doesn’t have clear boundaries like a neatly wrapped package. It’s more like an invisible shroud that descends over everything and surreptitiously alters my perceptions of reality.

I’m a creature adapted for danger. I’ve found myself a new habitat, but my mind has yet to catch up.

I’d love to look at myself and see someone with PTSD. I hope that someday the truth about my suffering is consistently visible to me.

The Mighty is asking the following: For someone who doesn’t understand what it’s like to have your mental illness, describe what it’s like to be in your head for a day. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

When PTSD Forces You Down Memory Lane

Editor’s note: The following may be triggering for anyone who has experienced sexual assault.

As I sit in a coffee shop, enjoying my beverage, relaxing and reading, a song comes on from the music being played above me. They’ve been playing all kinds of music, but this one is different. I hear this one and I freeze. My body stiffens. I can no longer read. I can’t think as my mind is like a whirlwind of various image from a time long gone. Gone until this song comes on.

I sit in my seat and pray no one is looking at me, as I can feel my stiffen body trembling. I don’t need intervention. I don’t need anyone to touch me.

In my mind I go from the memory of that song to happier times in my life. Like the birth of my two sons. Like the different time I rescued the various doggies in my life. All happy thoughts. And every few seconds in slips a memory of time when I wasn’t in control. A time when I was unknowingly drugged by a long-time family friend. A time when he offered to take me home since I couldn’t drive. And then the place that he drove to and stopped. I said no. It may have been groggy but I said no. It may have been sleepily but I said no. Then one swipe to the head and all is forgotten.

I wake up in my bed, at my parents’ house. I ached from head to toe. It’s hard to get out of bed. And when I finally do I go to the bathroom. Looking in the mirror my makeup is smeared. The side of my face slightly bruised. My wrists and arms, also bruised. And when I pull my pants down my underwear are missing. An image pops into my head. “I’m going to keep these,” he said.

My head is spinning and the grogginess is clouding my thoughts. I strip down and shower.  My body hurts as I move the soap over it. My thighs are also bruised. My knee, swollen.  The song in the coffee shop stops. Now there is a peppy tune. But not for me. I just went down memory lane against my own will. But that’s what post-traumatic stress disorder does to you. Just when you think it will no longer bother you it swoops in, just long enough for you to remember.

The key is afterwards. You have to let it go. You have to make friends with your ghosts. You have to agree to give them your attention, but not all of it. Because now you know how to come back from it. You know that one little moment in time does not define you. It is not who you are. It may have helped make who you are today. But that’s good. Because now you are strong. You can move onto the next song, feeling each muscle in your body relax. Your mind hears the new song and it sings along. Next thing you know you’re tapping your feet. You have made it through the storm. You have the ability to say enough is enough. You have survived.

If you or a loved one has experienced sexual assault or any other type of abuse, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

The Invisible Illness I Never Expected as I Healed From 27 Surgeries

I’ve always thought myself capable of overcoming anything. I was invincible. I was a dangerous woman, out to change the world.

Overcoming illness meant waiting for a fever to go down. Illness was a stuffy nose — a sick day, an excuse to miss a day of school. At 18 years old, “illness” took on an entirely different meaning. Illness meant waking up from a coma, learning that my stomach exploded, I had no digestive system, and I was to be stabilized with IV nutrition until surgeons could figure out how to put me back together again. Illness meant a life forever out of my control and a body I didn’t recognize.

What happened to me physically  had no formal diagnosis. I had ostomy bags and gastrointestinal issues, but I didn’t have Crohn’s disease. Doctors were fighting to keep me alive, but I had no terminal illness. There was so much damage done to my esophagus that it had to be surgically diverted. I didn’t fit into any category. Suddenly, I was just “ill.”

I became a surgical guinea pig, subject to medical procedures, tests and interventions, as devoted medical staff put hours into reconstructing and reconstructing me, determined to give me a digestive system and a functional life. I eagerly awaited the day I’d be functional once again — the day I was finally “fixed.” Once I was all physically put together, I’d be eating, drinking, walking, and feeling just like myself again. Right? I desperately dreamed about the day I’d be discharged from the hospital. I’d be happy, healthy and would finally know who I was again. I’d feel real. I’d feel human. From there, I could do anything.

painting of orange silhouette of person on dark background
Amy’s artwork

However, after 27 surgeries and six years unable to eat or drink, I learned that the body doesn’t heal instantly. Stitches had to heal one by one. Neuropathic nerves grew back one millimeter a month. Learning to talk again took weeks. Learning to walk again took months. My skin’s yellowish glow from the IV nutrition I was sustained on took years to fade. Not only was there no “quick fix” to healing, there was no “permanent fix,” either. Wounds reopened. I became accustomed to new “openings” in my body leaking at any given moment. I learned that the body is delicate, precious, but incredibly strong.

My body never went back to normal. With no other alternative, I learned how to accommodate it and embrace it for the amazing things its extraordinary resilience. I was shocked and saddened that I could never get my old, unwounded body back.

But what really startled me was realizing what had happened to my mind. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I had never heard those letters put together before. I knew what “trauma” was, but I didn’t know it could cause so much internal dis-ease and dis-order — illness that I couldn’t see. But that was the biggest shock to me — waking up in a new body and a new mind, troubled by PTSD.

Not only had I woken up in a new body, I now had a mind troubled with anxious thoughts, associations and memories. Overwhelmed with confusion, I used the best resource I could think of — a search engine. I didn’t realize I was suffering from PTSD until the internet defined it for me. Reading about the symptoms of PTSD, I was able to realize there were reasons why I was experiencing so many strange sensations — sensations that made me feel alienated from the rest of the world.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), these are common symptoms that I experienced as a PTSD survivor:

Intrusive Memories. Gaining back my physical health, I was unprepared for flashbacks, images and memories that I thought I had repressed. I’ll never forget the first time I had a French fry. I had been unable to eat or drink for years, and now that I was surgically reconstructed, the world was my endless buffet. I expected relief, fullness and normalcy. Instead, I was jolted back to life with every emotion I had not wanted to feel for all of these years. I learned that the French fry was my “trigger.” Putting food back into my body felt pleasant — it made me feel. Now that I could “feel,” I was feeling everything — including the pain I had tried to swallow for years of medical uncertainty, surgical interventions, and countless disappointments.

Soon, intrusive memories were unavoidable. I would be sitting in a car, buckled into a seatbelt and all of a sudden I would start to panic. I felt locked in, restricted, confined and unsafe. Suddenly, I was remembering what it felt like to be chained to IV poles, unable to move and constricted to a tiny space. My heart started beating rapidly and I started to panic as my memories intruded on what appeared to be a perfectly calm moment. It wasn’t as if I was recalling a painful time. It was as though the doctors were right there with me, peering over my open wound, dictating my uncertain future, and confining me to a world of medical isolation.

Avoidance. When I started to feel these scary memories at any given time, I felt like I had to avoid any stimulant that might make me feel anything at all. Nothing felt “safe.” I lived my life like I was constantly running or fleeing. I spent years locked in my room, journaling for hours with my blinds shut, careful to shut out any outside stimulation that might make me feel. When I was unable to eat, this was a survival mechanism — if I felt, I might actually feel the deadliest sensation of all — hunger. It was too painful to remember every setback and struggle, too overwhelming to recall everything I had lost with every surgery — my innocence, my old body, my sense of self…

Dissociation. Once I started avoiding my intrusive memories, I got used to the feeling of numbness – so much that I became dissociated. When trauma left me emotionally and physically wounded, I froze to protect myself. I went numb so I didn’t have to feel pain. I went numb so I didn’t have to re-experience what had happened to me and mourn my losses. Becoming numb made my world a blurry haze. The world didn’t feel real anymore (de-realization) as I learned to stay “out of my body.” I would walk around almost like a zombie, compulsively pacing hallways and walking in circles — anything to keep my feet moving rather than my thoughts. Through dissociating, I could avoid really feeling what I need to feel — grief.

Hypervigilance. Staying out of my body and dissociating was how I coped with anxiety. Feeling tormented by my memories, which felt like present realities, I was extremely anxious and irritable. If I couldn’t constantly fidget or find another way to “numb out,” I would start to panic, and would be overwhelmed with even more intrusive memories and raw, forgotten emotions. My anger would end up being misdirected at others, when really I just wanted to shout at my circumstances. My anxiety manifested in all the wrong places — I couldn’t sit still in classes and couldn’t function as a calm, responsible adult. Soon, these symptoms were controlling my life.

This was a list of beliefs I created for myself that helped me stay “numb:”

– If I don’t keep moving, I will feel awful emotions.

– I cannot pause to look at anything. If I do, I’ll remember awful things.

– I must keep doing, and I must always know what I am doing.

– I get a nervous feeling inside if I am in a small space.

– When my body feels pain I am in surgery.

– I cannot stop moving. If I do, I drown.

– If I go outside I will feel too much and it will hurt.

painting of woman with brown hair on orange background
Amy’s artwork.

My life changed when my stomach exploded, 10 full years ago. PTSD is something I still struggle with because my traumas happened to me, they have affected me, and they will always be a part of me. But, I’ve learned how to thrive in spite of what has happened to me and for the first time, my life feels bigger than my past. I’ve found healthier ways to deal with memories, flashbacks and emotions.

To live a healthy thriving life, I’ve had to befriend my past, embrace my experience, and express what had happened to me. I needed to tell my story in order to heal. But first, I had to hear my story for myself, rather than avoid it. Once I learned how to hear my own heart-shattering story, and feel the pain, the frustration, the anger, and ultimately, the gratitude, I was able to speak to it. I was able to gently teach myself how to live in the present moment rather than in the world of the trauma. Healing didn’t come all at once. Every day I tried to face a memory a bit more. I called it “dipping my toes” in my trauma. Finally, I could put words to my grief. I was able to write, “I am hurting.”

As soon as I was able to write words like “sadness” and “pain,” I allowed myself to explore them. Soon, I couldn’t stop the words that flowed out of me. My memories started to empower me, and I wrote with feverish purpose. I started to journal compulsively for hours as every memory appeared in my mind. Soon, the words couldn’t do justice to my traumatic experience — I needed a bigger container. I turned to art, drawing, scribbling. I filled pages with teardrops, lightening bolts and broken hearts. For me, creativity became a lifeline — a release. It was a way to express things that were too overwhelming for words. Expression was my way of self-soothing.

Once expression helped me face my own story, I was able to share it. And the day I first shared my story with someone else, I realized I wasn’t alone. There were others who had been through trauma and life-shattering events. And there were also people who had been through the twists and turns of everyday life. Being able to share my story emboldened me with a newfound strength and the knowledge that terrible things happen, and if other people can bounce back, then so can I.

I found wonderful resources: the National Alliance of Mental Illness started as a “small group of families” and has blossomed into a supportive, educational organization with local chapters throughout the country; Active Minds educates and empowers college students through nation-wide chapters; and The Jed Foundation offers coping strategies for college students through mental health awareness and suicide prevention programs.

My perspective on illness has changed since my earlier days, and it’s also changed since my last surgical intervention. I’ve learned that illness isn’t always in the physical scars. I’ve learned that some wounds aren’t visible, and some wounds even we don’t know we have, until we choose to take care of them. But I’ve also learned that I’m resilient, strong, broken and put together again, differently, yet even more beautiful — like a mosaic.

PTSD has not broken me. It’s taken me apart, and I’m reassembling myself day by day. In the meantime, I’m learning to love what I can build.

Follow this journey on Amy’s website.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us about the first time you reached out to someone about your mental illness. Whether it was a friend or a professional, we want to hear about why you opened up, how it went, and why you’re glad (or maybe not glad) you did it. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines. 

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