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This Is What My Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Looks Like

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This is what my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) looks like:

It’s 4 a.m. I am still awake. My brain won’t shut off and my thoughts are racing so fast, I can’t catch them. I sit up on the edge of the bed and cry quietly so I don’t wake anyone up because I can’t even pinpoint why I’m crying and telling someone whom I don’t know just feels fake.

I text you in the morning, and when I don’t get a response by afternoon, you hate me and never want to speak to me again. I’m convinced I’ve lost another friend.

This is what my PTSD looks like:

I wake up covered in sweat after finally falling asleep and can’t remember my nightmares, but my heart is rapidly beating and my chest is tight.

I find the energy to pull myself out of bed and stare at the basket of dirty laundry I haven’t washed yet, and my chest is tight again. I feel like I’m not in control.

This is what my PTSD looks like:

I’m watching TV. A violent scene that would send me into flashbacks comes on and I disassociate. I’m no longer even “there” to react.

I make plans and then spend an hour before thinking of ways to back out because the anxiety of being around people is almost overwhelming.

Shopping during busy times makes me dizzy and short of breath.

This is PTSD. I am not a combat veteran. I never served in a war.

I am one of the millions of people who struggle in silence because it’s easier than explaining it over and over.

This is what my PTSD looks like:

Panic attacks, nightmares, insomnia, wanting to be left alone, disassociating from reality, memory lapses, feeling detached.

It doesn’t have a look, and the scars it leaves in its wake are invisible, but that does not make them any less real.

If you don’t understand it, please ask us for help instead of acting ignorant and invalidating our feelings.

It might be a curse, but it is never a weakness.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via Giulio_Fornasar

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What the Autumn Leaves Taught Me About My PTSD

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I love all the seasons, but the colors of autumn make me love it the most. Here in Australia we are well into autumn — nature is becoming vibrant, filled with bold hues of red, orange and yellow, right before the starkness of winter covers over what is left with its blankets of frost and snow.

Though, as someone who has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), there is another reason I love autumn. For me, nature’s beauty has a way of soothing my soul and reminding me what is important. The trees of autumn show me how truly beautiful it is to let the dead things go. Their leaves, although dying and wilting away, bring warmth and delight, then once the last of the life drains from their veins, the tree lets the wind carry them away.

If the tree was to hold on to the dead things, there would be no room available for the buds of spring growth or the shadow of the fully grown summer leaves. In the simplest of ways, I can see letting go of what I no longer need, the things that no longer serve me, is important for my survival.

PTSD is thought to be from toxic stress caused by trauma and exposure to an event when the victim felt there was no escape. There are an infinite number reasons why someone may be traumatized, and there are just as many ways people display the many symptoms. Just like no tree lets go of its dead leaves the same way, no human can either.

However, it can be so very hard to let the dead wood go. I know it is something I find difficult. The nightmares do not help me to heal, and my near constant state of alertness and anxiety only wavers in severity. To let go of the past is difficult, but learning from nature, I can see without doing so, I am never going to get to experience the joy of growth either.

So this year, as autumn melts into the blur of beautiful colors, I will be paying special attention. I will long to let my painful past go, to let it drift off on the coolness of the wind and to allow myself to be stripped bare and vulnerable for a season — before sprouting into beautiful new growth, ready to embrace the new seasons of recovery!

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10 Reasons Why I Can’t Just 'Get Over' PTSD

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I’m scared of my husband. He’s a sweet, gentle man, but sometimes when I see him, my body falls to the ground. I huddle in a ball on the floor protecting my neck.

Intellectually, I know — or at least part of my brain knows — he would never hurt me. But, my body doesn’t know that.

My body is stuck in a moment, over 10 years ago, when someone that I was in a relationship with — someone I cared about — raped me.

Now, my brain sees my husband as a threat — as a potential rapist. And I live with him. This means I live in fear.

Let me be very clear: my husband never raped me. But post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a strange thing. Because my husband is a man that I am in a relationship with — and someone I care about — my brain sees him as someone who might be potentially dangerous.

PTSD has created a disconnect between my brain and body that is maddening.

I want to get past my trauma. I really do. But PTSD, which is as real as a towering brick wall, stands in my way. Here’s why I can’t just “get over” it:

1. My brain is injured.

When I broke my foot several years ago, no one thought that I would just “get over it.” I wore a pink cast and used crutches. I had a loud rolling knee scooter. Everyone knew I was struggling and offered to help out. PTSD is an invisible monster. No one can see it so they don’t know to help. But my brain is truly injured. Like my broken foot, my brain can heal, but it needs time.

2. My world is constantly ending.

My injured brain sees the world through “PTSD glasses.” As much as I want to, I can’t just take off the glasses, not until my brain heals. These glasses are constantly scanning for danger. All. The. Time. Again, no one can see it. To me, everyone and everything — every day, even in my dreams — is out to get me. What is most confusing is that, with the glasses on, I can’t tell fact from fiction. That, of course, adds fear on top of the fear.

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3. I think I am a horrible person.

My injured brain tells myself negative messages this all day long. I know it’s the PTSD glasses talking. But it feels real. And it is so hard to move forward when you feel like you don’t deserve to take up space. I didn’t always feel this way. In fact, I sometimes look at the books I’ve written about personal growth and wonder where in the world that person went! Because, when PTSD takes over, I don’t feel like someone who has a lived a life worth writing about. I feel like a monster.

4. I am enraged.

PTSD drives me to do things completely against my core values and beliefs. I worry that even my friends in my PTSD support group won’t understand my outbursts, as many don’t experience this type of anger at all. Worse yet, I am afraid that I will remind them of their abusers. In fits of rage, I become my biggest nightmare. Sometimes I think I’d rather be in a terrifying nightmare than constantly be living in a real one.

5. I am exhausted.

The PTSD glasses don’t even come off at night. Sleeping is quite a challenge when I’m always on alert towards impending danger. And, when sleep does happen, it is only to be interrupted by sweating and screaming. I wake up in a panic — exhausted from drowning (again), being chased by snipers, and from riding in runaway trains and cars. This all makes me so, so tired.

6. I have flashbacks.

And then there are the flashbacks: how can I be re-living a part of my life that happened years ago — over and over again? Somehow my brain will not let it go.

7. I am sad.

I have been hopeless before in my life, but this depth of hopelessness is new to even me. Sometimes, I cry like someone might cry after losing a child — a pain I have never even known.

8. I have no idea who I am right now.

The former me, the one who wrote those books, knew how to navigate life, but that version of me seems all but gone. I am trying to pick up the pieces of myself and put them back together. With an injured brain and PTSD glasses, this is very difficult.

9. Sometimes I am not even in my body.

It is hard to explain what this is like. I can be yelling at my husband, but I’m not really there in the moment. It feels like I am watching myself do it. I am just above and to the right of my body, as if detached and floating. “Who is that person?” I question. I realize it is me, but I am so confused inside.

10. I am so ashamed.

Shame is heavy. It is hard to move even an inch sometimes when weighed down by shame. The reasons I feel shame stretch far and wide. I am ashamed of what PTSD drives me to say and do. I am also ashamed that I experienced this trauma. I feel guilty — like it was my fault — even though I have been told by plenty of people it wasn’t. Again, this is the PTSD glasses, the injured brain. I need time to heal.

Thankfully, I took the time that I needed to get better. With professional help and support from loved ones, I overcame all of the above. I overcame these horrible things that made me want to die — these horrible things that I thought might kill me.

I once thought being dead would be better than living with PTSD. But I refused to continue living like this — living a life ruled by fear. Thankfully, I made it.

My marriage was unable to survive PTSD, though. My marriage was the casualty. I have deeply and fully grieved that loss.

Writing this today feels surreal. It took time (lots of it) but I was finally able to take the glasses off. I am now able to breathe. I sleep. I feel joy again. My brain healed and I found my body again. I found me. I now realize that the trauma wasn’t my fault. However, to heal, I needed to become accountable for my actions. My job was to take steps to break down that PTSD wall.

What makes me most happy now is that I’m no longer afraid.

Jenni Schaefer is a bestselling author, popular speaker, and a National Recovery Advocate for Eating Recovery Center’s Family Institute. In partnership with Insight Behavioral Health Centers (877-737-7391), Eating Recovery Center (877-957-6575) provides specialized treatment for eating disorders as well as related disorders, including PTSD.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month (SAAPM).

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, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

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The Washing Care Label for My Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

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When purchasing an item of clothing, particularly hoodies, I always check the label for the cotton/polyester blend. As although the polyester makes the hoodie soft at the time, after one wash it loses its new softness and starts to bobble. Less than ideal. The label tells you what it’s made out of, how to wash it, how to dry it, what not to do with it and the size. Very informative for such a small add-on. Without the label, you have to resort to trial and error and a bit of guesswork.

There are many pros and cons when it comes to mental health diagnosis and labeling. Diagnosis can help people feel understood and get the appropriate treatment; however, it can also come with stigma, the feeling of being reduced to a label and in real terms may be seen as little more than the psychiatrist’s opinion about the information you have made available to them.

With this in mind, I feel it is extremely important for people to feel empowered by their label and associated “washing instructions.” My hope is they feel they have worked collaboratively with the psychiatrist in sewing on the appropriate label. Instead, if someone feels as though they’ve been attacked by a rogue sewing machine, they might find themselves in a washing machine when they felt they were dry clean only.

When I was 13 years old, I was given the label of autism, more specifically Asperger’s syndrome. I wasn’t told I was wearing the label until I was aged 15, and for some reason my parents thought it a good idea to tell my friends about my washing instructions before they told me. Not only that, but they would brandish my label at anyone I was likely to come into contact with. Can you imagine? Telling someone how to wash the clothes you’re wearing even when they haven’t complimented you? “Hi, I’ve got Asperger’s syndrome, oh by the way did you know my name is Trevor?” Worst part about it was, I wasn’t wearing the right label. This meant I ended up being on the wrong wash cycle for years. Years. Like wool on cotton wash, I became damaged, felted and had feelings of being unwearable, unlovable.

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Before I received my diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) I had no idea what was going on. To put it bluntly, I just thought I was going “nuts.” To say it was distressing is an understatement. When I met with the psychiatrist in April 2016 and could answer “yes” to all of his questions, I was like, “He is flipping reading my mind, man.” Finally I felt understood. Being given this diagnosis label helped me to apply a structure of understanding to what I was experiencing. I wasn’t to be tumble dried.

So what does my C-PTSD label say?

What my CPTSD is made of:

I was once washing the pots up after a curry at a friend’s house, and I noticed the tea towel had picked up a curry stain. I felt completely humiliated, guilty, frightened of any perceivable consequence; my heart was going ten to the dozen, with shallow breathing and a heightened awareness of my surroundings. I did not feel safe. I was panicked.

On another occasion, I was at the same friend’s house. The kitchen door got closed. Not slammed. Closed. I had a huge influx of adrenaline and a fight or flight response at the same time as feeling powerless, constantly assessing my surroundings for potential threats, whilst experiencing vivid emotions telling me something bad was going to happen.

Early on, again when I was staying with a friend, I woke around 5:30 a.m. Terrified, no other word for it; terrified, overwhelmed by the feeling of needing to run away. I got dressed and headed downstairs. I was putting my shoes on when my friend came downstairs and could see all was not well. I was so intent on leaving that very second I shoved my slippers into my shoes and went out the door; my friend followed me, linked my arm and walked me up and down the surrounding rural roads until I stopped hysterically and uncontrollably crying and trying to get away. Tears and snot everywhere. My friend was only wearing her pajamas and dressing gown. We both sustained blisters. We both had a cup of Yorkshire tea on our return.

These are a few examples of my experiences. I actually found them quite difficult to write about. When I first wrote them down, I included the reasons behind why I was “triggered.” The thing is, when it’s happening, I don’t often know why.

How to wash my C-PTSD:

I have been really lucky in that since day one of my mental health deterioration — when I was prescribed antidepressants and signed off work — I have had a consistent and caring GP working in an outstanding medical practice. This has not only meant I have had continuity of care, but also a cracking working relationship. He even waited with me after hours for the ambulance to pick me up when he admitted me to hospital, though I have to admit — at the time — I wasn’t his biggest fan.

How to dry my C-PSTD:

For the last year I have been attending weekly integrative counseling sessions. Primarily we have worked on stabilization techniques such as self-soothing, grounding and being aware of where I sit in the window of tolerance.

I’ve become obsessed with the process, reading all the books that appear in my Amazon recommended reading list. My particular favorite is “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving” by Pete Walker.

Since my hospital admission, I now have a Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN). She is recommending I attend group work specifically tailored towards learning coping strategies for PTSD. We are going to work on crisis planning and in the future I hope to be referred on for psychology.

I’ve had Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. Very weird but weirdly effective.

What not to do with my C-PTSD:

Way back I sought counseling but it turned out he was not trained in trauma. My label: do not see a counselor who is not trained in trauma work. Do not bleach. Do not pass go. Do not collect £200. This resulted in me being destabilized and re-traumatized.

If you know my triggers, avoid them. I’ll work with them in my own time at my own pace. Do not force me to confront them.

The size of my C-PTSD:

Day by day, month by month, I’m learning more about myself, learning more about my trauma, where it comes from and how deep it runs. I’m not sure at any point I will be able to quantify the size of the abuse I experienced but I definitely understand it a lot more.

Remember though — this is just my label, which is on the inside, tucked away. I’m actually a complete item of clothing … but now you know I need to drip dry.

Mental health diagnosis or not, what does your label say about you and your washing instructions?

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

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young man hiking

When Recovery Isn't a Road, but a Mountain

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Too often you find yourself reading “the road to recovery”… but what road? A road makes it sound so simple, like a straight horizontal path. What’s the problem? Why haven’t you finished the road already? I would like to suggest the road is more akin to a mountain climb, on undulating and rocky terrain with a hard slog of an angle to walk up.

First of all, learning you’re on a mountain is a good place to start. This prevents disorientation, not understanding why the path is so hard and why you keep tripping over rocks. When I got my diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), I felt much more able to orientate myself and understand my symptoms and the reasons for them.

“Noticing and identifying these C-PTSD phenomena is more progressive than just being blindly lost in them.” — Walker, P. (2013). “COMPLEX PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving.”

I’m lucky enough to live just outside of the Lake District, England, which despite its name, has 214 peaks, called fells, of varying sizes. Hiking is one of my favorite past times and often helps me reflect on my recovery. With different sizes in mind, when we are at the ground level looking up, the mountain of recovery can seem overwhelming, like it’s too big to climb, a challenging journey ahead. Sometimes there can even be cloud cover where we can’t even see the top or the way ahead, we can’t see the trauma for what it is or the size of the trauma.

“De-minimization is a crucial aspect of confronting denial. It is the process by which a person deconstructs the defense of ‘making light’ of his childhood trauma.” — Walker, P. (2013). “COMPLEX PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving.”

The trauma you and I went through was not small and neither is the mountain.

The right walking attire is required for walking up mountains, sturdy shoes especially and a compass to make sure you’re on the right path. Different people like different clothing. You might have therapy trousers, an EMDR belt, a mindfulness jacket and medication woolly hat. With this in mind, it is also important to set the right pace up the mountain. Not too fast, choosing the best route which is seldom the most direct. Sometimes there are times for walking and other times will be for resting and taking stock. This is called the “equilibrium between doing and being.”

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Not going to lie, I’ve personally had the experience where I have considered jumping off the mountain side. The going can get pretty tough, not only that the weather on the mountain can be changeable and relentless; from rain to sleet to snow, from a breeze to a gale and a range of temperatures and humidity, but cloud cover can surround at any given second.

“Recovery involves learning to handle unpredictable shifts in our inner emotional weather.” — Walker, P. (2013). “COMPLEX PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving.”

Doesn’t sound so fun so far. But then, after all this effort, you can stop and look at the route you’ve covered. Wow. What stunning views. Glorious. Look what you have achieved.

“Survivors in the early stages of recovery often fail to notice or validate their own actual progress. If we do not notice the degrees of our own improvement in our recovery work, we are in great danger of giving up on recovering.” — Walker, P. (2013). “COMPLEX PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving.”

When you’re climbing that mountain and feel disheartened, stop and look at the where you’ve been. Sometimes we take longer routes, but we are always making progress and the view from wherever we are is an encouragement.

I suppose when talking about a road to recovery it’s less clear where that roads leads to, whereas on a mountain there is a clear aim. What if I were to say climbing the mountain isn’t about getting to the top? Are you disappointed? Annoyed? Want to give up? Hear me out.

“It is exceedingly difficult to accept the proposition – the fact – that recovery is never complete. And although we can expect our flashbacks to markedly decrease over time, it is tremendously difficult and sometimes impossible, to let go of the salvation fantasy that we will one day be forever free of them.” — Walker, P. (2013). “COMPLEX PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving.”

The higher you get on a mountain, the better the views, and the more encouraged you become, but recovery is not about getting to the top. It’s about sitting down and looking at the vast view and enjoying a decrease in symptoms, a better knowing of yourself and practiced strategies.

“Deep-level recovery is also evidenced by you becoming more relaxed in safe enough company. This is turn leads to an increased capacity to be more authentic and vulnerable in trustworthy relationships.” — Walker, P. (2013). “COMPLEX PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving.”

I wish you all the best with your mountain climb.

Follow this journey on Trevor PTSD.

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The Truth About Recovering From a Condition Society Thinks I Can't Have

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Unlike some of my other diagnoses, “PTSD” is a name most people recognize immediately. However, the amount of inaccuracy that people associate with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is huge. The truth is that PTSD isn’t just for soldiers. It’s not a matter of not choosing to move past an event. PTSD is not a choice, it’s a serious mental health condition. No one is too young for PTSD. PTSD looks different for everyone who has it. PTSD doesn’t automatically occur when an individual experiences trauma. There are so many things I wish society would realize about PTSD.

I wish society would realize that people with PTSD can look like me.

I’m a 17-year-old girl. I’m not in the military. I’ve never been in a car accident. I do not have a single bruise or scar to show from the trauma I’ve experienced. I’ve never been held at gunpoint. I’ve never been kidnapped. I’ve never been isolated from society. I’ve never been raped. I’ve never tried to press any legal charges. I’ve never had an abusive boyfriend (or a boyfriend at all). I’m an honor roll student, involved in many extracurricular activities. I look like any other teenage girl. But I have PTSD. I have PTSD from years of abuse that never left a bruise or scar. But I was in fear of my life many times, because being in fear for one’s life doesn’t require tangible remaining evidence after the situation, and trauma is a relative term.

Here’s the truth about my PTSD that society doesn’t see:

I spent my childhood experiencing one traumatic event after the next, and it had been going on for years before I realized that not all fathers do what mine did. Because I didn’t have tangible proof, it took years before I could escape the situation. The legal system in this country holds strongly to the standard of “innocent until proven guilty” for more than just legal charges. They hold to it for any infringement of perceived “rights,” even though the large majority of abuse accusations are genuine, even if they lack tangible proof. This includes visitation “rights,” meaning that regardless of how I was feeling or what he did, if he wanted to see me on the court ordered schedule, I had no choice but to go with him. Apparently, in the eyes of the courts, I didn’t have the same “rights” as he did. I wasn’t given a choice, but if he didn’t want to see me, he didn’t have to do so. Because of my age, my opinion and my feelings meant nothing in the eyes of the law.

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The years in which the setup of this country’s legal system prevented my safety and well-being just made my PTSD hit me worse when I was finally safe from the abuse, although I do remember having some symptoms at least eight years prior. I went from in an unsafe situation with my father’s abuse directly into a situation in which I was a danger to myself, bouncing from one mental health crisis to the next. I experienced all-consuming flashbacks that lasted for minutes each, one flashback triggering another, for months. I attempted suicide. I started to self-harm. I believed that the abuse was my fault and that I deserved it. I went undiagnosed for months after it hit me at its worst because I fell through the cracks in general mental health assessments. I was labeled as “too sensitive” and told it was “just anxiety and depression” because I was supposedly “too young for PTSD” and what I experienced was “not as bad as what soldiers face in combat.” But the lack of an accurate diagnosis didn’t change the fact that it was there. I still had PTSD, I just didn’t have a diagnosis to state it. This added to the pain and confusion as I wrestled with knowing without a doubt that I was experiencing every single symptom of PTSD, but also hearing everyone telling me that I didn’t, that I couldn’t, have PTSD.

I wish I could go back in time and look every single person who said that to me in the eyes. I wish I could show them just five minutes of what my life looked like six months ago. Six months ago I was bouncing from one flashback to the next, and I had no idea how to handle them. I couldn’t function. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t rest. I could barely eat. I could barely sleep. At some points throughout most days, I was so trapped inside of my flashbacks that I couldn’t move, because my mind didn’t know where I was. My mind told me I was in the same dangerous situation all over again, reliving it over and over, without being able to control even my own actions within the flashback itself. I wish I could tell them I needed help. I wish they’d listen. I wish they’d understand. I wish I could change things, not only for myself, but for everyone like me. Maybe I can. Maybe we can. Maybe, if everyone who understands the reality of PTSD came together to encourage awareness and support, then maybe, just maybe, we could make a change.

Here’s the raw, honest truth about recovering and healing from a condition that society thinks I can’t have:

Stigma and stereotypes are dangerous. I’ve been receiving treatment for months and my PTSD is far better than I would’ve imagined it could be just six months ago. However, the lack of understanding about the realities of PTSD have made me hesitant to tell my support systems. The lack of understanding has caused many hours spent and tears cried as I questioned my diagnosis and the reality of what I faced. It hasn’t been easy. In fact, it’s been really, really hard. It got worse before it got better as I dealt with many restless nights, torn between staying awake or risking spending all night reliving the trauma without being able to use any coping skills. I preferred to never sleep, but eventually my body would shut down. I spent weeks on end with multiple severe sets of flashbacks a day, barely recovering from one cluster of them before another hit. It spent countless days feeling that I should give up on all of it, my mind telling me that it was hopeless, that I was hopeless, and life was too hard for me because I wasn’t strong enough to handle it.

But I was strong enough to handle it. I was strong enough to do what I had to do to recover and heal. I had to open up about what happened to people I barely knew. I had to face the reality that I was a victim of domestic violence and abuse. I had to try, and fail, many different medications. I had to be painfully honest, not just with my mental health providers, but also with myself. I had to work to break down those maladaptive methods that had previously been the only choice I had to stay safe. I had to stop dodging every personal and painful question. I had to find every little metaphorical band-aid covering up the pain and rip them all off of me. I had to put myself through more pain to get away from the pain. But I’m finally seeing it. The pain has finally lessened. It hasn’t ceased, but it has lessened enough that I can be myself once again, and I can function. I only wish it had been caught before it took over my life. I only wish society understood the truth.

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, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

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