Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Survivors Are Not Weak
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is anything but a weakness. It is our strength. It means that we kept going. Trauma is common. About six of every 10 U.S. adults experience at least one trauma in their life. Some individuals who have gone through trauma turn out fine, with little to no long-term repercussions.
However, a small percentage of people go on to develop PTSD. Does not speaking up make you weak? No. I didn’t speak up because I was frozen in fear. Like an animal in the wild, I “played dead” when an unexpected predator pounced on me as his prey. When I was molested by my 60-year-old voice teacher when I was 17, I knew nothing about trauma. I had no idea why all of a sudden I felt numb all the time, or why I couldn’t focus on school anymore. I kept going back to lessons, beating myself up for not being able to sing as well. I felt “off,” but thought there was just something wrong with me. I had no idea you could be traumatized by a situation that terrified me, overwhelmed me and felt out of my control. It also took me a very long time to accept a mentor and father figure in my life had violated our trusting relationship. I kept replaying the events that had occurred in my mind, telling myself I must have done something wrong — why else would he have done this? I must have instigated something… I blamed myself, convinced that no one could take advantage of me if I had not invited it. And then shortly after, circumstances like these would make anyone have a long-term reaction to trauma:
After 27 surgeries and six years unable to eat or drink, I learned that the body doesn’t heal in an instant. 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 its extraordinary resilience. I was shocked and saddened I could never get my old, unwounded body back. But what really startled me was realizing what had happened to my mind.
“Why can’t you get over it already?”
Not only had I woken up in a new body, I now had a mind troubled with anxious thoughts, associations and memories. When I finally started reading about the symptoms of PTSD, I was able to realize I wasn’t crazy. There were reasons why I was experiencing so many strange sensations — sensations that made me feel alienated from the rest of the world. For anyone who has experienced PTSD, for anyone who knows anyone suffering from PTSD, and anyone who can find this book, please read “Waking the Tiger” by Peter Levine. It was only when I read this book could I understand the “why” behind how “crazy” I felt inside — and I realized the only madness was the anger I needed to unleash — not anger I should be taking out on myself for being “weak” or taking “so long to heal.”
It takes a long time to heal after PTSD, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push ourselves past that fear a bit more every day. After the countless medical invasions and flashbacks of sexual assault, I had plenty of triggers. But if I didn’t work up the strength to push past them — even if they felt uncomfortable and I would rather hide for the rest of my life in bed, free from all triggers — I knew I would never get back to the life I deserve if I buried myself in trigger warnings. So I did the work. It was tough as hell, with no easy way around it. And that took so much inner and outer strength, that sometimes, I wanted to give up. But I knew I was fighting for my life — not my physical survival anymore, but now it was up to me if I wanted to live functionally, or live free. It started with a little anxiety. Perhaps an overheard phrase might stir up a memory I thought I had repressed. But every day, the anxiety grew. Soon, intrusive memories, avoidance, dissociation and hypervigilance were controlling my life. I healed through finding healthy ways to express my emotions. I discovered art while stuck in hospitals. I wrote a one woman musical about it, Gutless & Grateful. I journaled thousands of pages. Creativity saved my life. I talked about all of that in my TEDx Talk: But, there’s something I don’t talk enough about . What was my greatest strength?
I had my mother’s compassion through all of this. She was the pillar of strength who I trusted with my life, finally telling her I had been sexually abused for nearly a year. We healed together, because she looked up to my voice teacher almost as much as I did. Then, after the hospital, when I could finally eat, she held my hand every time I was too scared to leave my room, petrified by daylight after years of numbness. She lovingly cooked for me as I cried that food might kill me after years of having no digestive system. And she was there to tell me that life was waiting on the other side when I didn’t want to go on any longer. I had my mother’s support to get me through this. And my own. In life, we all heal through support. We all have strengths from different sources, in different ways, different means, different forms. You can call someone with PTSD struggling. I certainly struggled for a long time.
But do not call us weak. We have harnessed the strength of the human spirit to go on and on, weathering through an illness that not only you can’t see, but we can’t see either. We only know it exists and seems to dictate each living, breathing, numb moment.
But when we do get to the other side, it becomes a glorious gift of strength that now, we can see. And it’s something we might even be able to see and perceive a bit deeper than anyone else. It is our Post Traumatic Gift that is uniquely ours. As you read all of this, you might come up with many words to describe my story, and the story that many of us share.
What words come to your mind? Weak? I think not.
A version of this post originally appeared on Amy Oestreicher.
If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.
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