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Why Living With PTSD Doesn't Make Me 'Strong'

There’s plenty of negative stereotypes about people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); I often encounter the idea we’re all violent. On the seemingly positive side, I read narratives that describe people with PTSD as “strong”, suggesting we’re somehow superior for struggling with the aftermath of horrors. I don’t mean to criticize anyone who finds the word “strong” to be a helpful part of their self-concept. However, I think it can be problematic to throw around this word to describe people with PTSD (or any disability) without considering its implications. 

I dislike the word “strong” partly just because it’s a personal trigger. It reminds me of how those who abused me told me I wasn’t strong. It brings back being made fun as a child for my sensory sensitivities and difficulty with emotional regulation. I grew up believing I was weak because I lacked an even-keeled personality. 

I’ve come to accept my temperament as just one of the range of personality styles in the world, with advantages and disadvantages. But this isn’t the same as saying, “Actually, I’m not weak, I’m strong.” For describing my traits or behavior as “strong” suggests the alternative wouldn’t be strong, and I’m not comfortable implying that.

I could say I’m strong for showing up to my part-time jobs while struggling with paranoid thoughts. But is someone unable to work due to their psychiatric disability weak?

If I’m strong for living so-called “independently” in an apartment — also a misnomer, since we’re all interdependent — is a person who lives in a hospital or residential facility long-term weak? 

If I’m strong for living with PTSD, is someone who dies by suicide weak? For these are my options; I can’t just decide not to have PTSD anymore. 

You get the idea: my problems with the paradigm of being “strong” are a) it implies a judgment of other people and b) it ignores the fact that PTSD isn’t a choice.

I didn’t decide to be born into an abusive situation, and therefore having PTSD now is neither a positive nor a negative statement about my character. I’m neither strong nor weak; I’m just a person trying to act with integrity and simultaneously struggling with a mind and nervous system damaged by violence. I can respect myself for this without needing to compare myself to others.

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Thinkstock photo via Hemera Technologies