beautiful girl, her eyes closed. watercolor fashion illustration.

The Most Important Advice I Can Give to Someone Struggling With PTSD

317
317

Four years ago, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Despite therapy and treatment, I continue to experience flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety and periods of dissociation. For every symptom experienced, there are consequences. The most difficult consequence I have encountered and remain affected by is the loss of relationships with family and friends.

Disconnection and avoidance are symptoms that not only affect the person with PTSD but their loved ones as well. If ever there was something I feel vital for other people experiencing PTSD to be aware of, it would be these symptoms. Having to accept the effects of this condition is difficult enough, but having to deal with additional feelings of loss only intensifies it.

I don’t know why PTSD entered my life, and I don’t like what it has done, but I have accepted it is now part of who I am and I am learning how to deal with it. I no longer mourn for who I used to be or the life I once lived, instead my energy is spent learning to live with who I am today and finding things I am able to do despite the barriers I face caused by PTSD.

PTSD usually happens because we experience or witness a traumatic event our brains are unable to process. It is so severe of an event that the shock almost causes our brain to freeze and results in it being able to shelf the experience in order to continue. We do not intentionally cause this to happen, and it is in no way our fault. It results from trauma and is the brain’s way of telling us it needs time to recover. I believe to accomplish this, our brain forces us to relive the traumatic event until such time it is able to process and manage it, finally finding acceptance, which leads to its ability to recover from it and return to “normal” once again. For some, this process can happen almost immediately, but for others, it can take an undetermined amount of time with progress being very slow to occur.

I am still in recovery, and with every two steps I take forward, I find myself taking one or more back. But I continue, knowing although slow, I am making progress. Be active in your treatment and believe you can get past this period in your life. Understand you in no way caused this to happen and it was beyond your control. You are brave and you are a survivor and you made it through what caused it, now I believe you must continue to be brave on your path towards recovery.

No matter what you encounter on this journey, I believe the most important thing is to ensure you remain connected with your loved ones. Write reminders on your calendar or set alarms on your cell phone to remind yourself once a week to keep the line of communication open. You don’t have to have contact in person to achieve this. We are fortunate to have many methods available such as text messaging, email and even the old method of writing a letter and mailing it. I believe what matters is that you don’t allow disconnection from your loved ones to happen.

If you are the loved one of a person who has been diagnosed with PTSD, learn to find ways to ensure contact is maintained. Respect that they may not want to actually have in-person contact, and do not take this personally. Their condition has nothing to do with anything you have caused or done, it is something that has happened to them and you must give them the space and time necessary to work through it. Text, email, write a letter and mail it, use whatever method you choose.

Don’t try to “fix” them or tell them you understand exactly what they are going through. You can’t “fix” them, they must do it on their own. Remember, you don’t understand exactly what they are going through because it is their individual experience. Just remind them how much you care, that you respect their need for time and space and assure them you are there when they are ready.

For people with PTSD: you are on the journey towards recovery. You have endured something traumatic, and survived. Never forget you are brave and you are worth the fight. Don’t give up.

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

Thinkstock photo via Natalia-flurno.

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES
317
317

RELATED VIDEOS

TOPICS
JOIN THE CONVERSATION

After My Sexual Assault, I Learned the 'Fight or Flight' Response Had a Third Option

45
45

Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

For the longest time, I berated myself because I didn’t feel like I fought back “hard enough” when I was raped. If I look back, in truth, I did fight back. I tried to get away, but he was bigger than me. He was taller than me, and he was stronger than me. There was nothing I could do, so I stopped fighting. I stopped fighting and just froze.

This wasn’t me saying it was OK. This wasn’t me “giving up,” as I had thought for so long. No, this was me doing what I had to do to survive and protect myself.

We’ve all heard so many times about the “fight or flight” response. That’s what I thought I had to do. I felt like I didn’t really “fight back,” if I didn’t choose fight or flight. What most people don’t know — what I didn’t know — is that the fight or flight response has a third option: freeze. In situations where you can’t fight the attacker off, or when you can’t run away, the only option you’re left with is to freeze. When it showed that fighting back would make my attack worse, I froze. This wasn’t me giving in. This was me surviving. When you freeze, your mind takes you away from the situation you are in. You dissociate as a survival technique to get through whatever is happening.

The world needs to remember the freeze response is totally normal and a completely understandable response to trauma. When I was questioned by a police officer, some of the first questions he asked me were: “Did you fight back? Did you scream? How hard did you fight back? Did you try to run?” I understand the police need to know these things to get the full picture, but he made me feel like I didn’t do enough to prevent my attack.

This was not true for me, and is not true for any other victim of sexual assault. It is never the victim’s fault no matter how much she fought back. Freezing is a normal brain response to trauma, and for me, was safer than fighting back. So, next time you hear “fight or flight,” remember the third “F”: freeze.

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.

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

Thinkstock photo via Transfuchsian.

45
45
TOPICS
JOIN THE CONVERSATION

What It's Like to Travel When You Have PTSD

6
6

I love the ocean. The sound of it feeds my soul and grounds me. I can sit and watch the ocean for hours. It touches something deep, deep inside of me. A knowing, a presence, a connectedness.

I live in the Midwest, which is nowhere near the ocean. When I get close to the ocean, and my senses begin to come alive, I know I’m now on vacation. Ahhh, vacation! I was once that person who worked to go on vacation. Road trip? I was the first person to raise my hand and jump in the car. I love to explore, I love new places, I love new people. I understand my little corner of the world is not the be-all, end-all, and I want to see the world.

Traveling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is certainly a challenge, but not impossible.

My trauma occurred in many different places throughout the world. I can be triggered by certain smells, sounds, the way the wind blows, dialect and many other things. Sometimes, that can start a flashback. Sometimes, I get disoriented and anxious, and sometimes it’s just a general feeling of knowing something’s off. When I’m at home, I can figure out ways to ground myself, get support or use one of the many tools in my distress tolerance toolbox to ride out the wave. When I travel, things are unfamiliar and it takes longer to come out of a trigger.

Another symptom of my PTSD is that I become overwhelmed in busy, loud places — restaurants, for example. It’s very easy for me to get flooded by too many menu choices and a voracious appetite can become nonexistent. Before PTSD, I loved trying new food and going to restaurants I wouldn’t have visited in my hometown.

Airports are triggering for me. The noise, the crowds, the upheaval, the lines. The anticipation of sitting in a tiny chair for a four-hour flight. The same anxiety most others feel at airports is more pronounced for me. My anxiety is ramped up because my perpetrators often put me on a plane and sent me all over the world. So just by walking into an airport, it’s triggering. And yet, I love the speediness of getting to your vacation destination by flying, and how wonderful to be in this machine that flies in the sky. It’s part of the travel experience.

My support system is different when I travel. For my family, it’s often a good respite for them when I go out of town for a few days. It’s not an easy decision for them to let me go off without one of them accompanying me. So, a lot of moving parts must happen before I can hop on the plane. My support works together to provide text, phone or Facetime calls with regular check-ins. I must be mindful and respect the times that are available, especially with a time change. It feels uncomfortable for me to know I require this support.

I just want to jump on a plane, hide out at a beach for a few days and think, write, read and relax. It’s part of my fantasy travel experience. But the extra support is part of the give and take if I’m to travel right now, and I’m grateful for the opportunity and the support.

I understand that traveling with all my PTSD symptoms is a huge challenge. But, I’m determined to have a great time, get my spirit renewed at the ocean or spend some wonderful time reconnecting with an old friend. My intention is to look at the beautiful palm trees and fill my senses with the healing ocean air, and for just a few perfect moments, breathe with ease.

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

Unsplash photo via Farsai C.

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES
6
6
TOPICS
JOIN THE CONVERSATION

The Part of My PTSD Journey I'm Most Unwilling to Reveal

11
11

Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

I often wonder what would happen if I told people the truth. If I had the courage to share a part of my story very few know. This is the part of my post-traumatic stress disorder journey I am most unwilling to reveal to those I love.

I just don’t know how to explain that I was sexually abused as a child. I know the next questions would likely be: By who? How old were you?

“I don’t know,” I would reply, and I wonder if at that point people would lose attention, or think I was trying to get attention by making up a lie. It is true — I do not know who hurt me, or how old I was at the time. But what I do know is that when I close my eyes, or stay still for too long, I feel hands grabbing at me, touching me in places they shouldn’t and flashes of blurred images, sensations in my body that just… shouldn’t be there. I feel what happened to me, even if I cannot give clear details — even if I do not have a name to offer up to legitimize my abuse.

I grew up not understanding what all of this meant. Honestly I wasn’t even afraid of it – I assumed what I was experiencing was normal, and was part of growing up. However, as I got older, I got more afraid. I started realizing what my mind was telling me was not as OK as I thought it was, that people my age shouldn’t have these thoughts. I also knew more than I was supposed to about sex at a young age, even if I didn’t yet have the words to identify properly what I knew. We once had an assembly when I was in primary school that discussed appropriate vs inappropriate touch, and I vividly remember feeling a chill go down my spine, and I sat there trembling next my peers.

I began to feel ashamed of my thoughts, believing I must be disgusting for not identifying what I had been through was wrong. It felt like there was something broken inside me that couldn’t be fixed. As I started to understand the severity of my past I felt so isolated, and I didn’t know how to tell anyone. I felt truly alone.

At 13 this isolation led me to the internet, where I started sharing my experiences on chatrooms, in an attempt to validate my pain. Those most interested to listen identified themselves as adult (mostly middle-aged) men. They told me I was brave and beautiful, and that “real” men would treat me well. Apparently they were these “real” men. They made me feel safe and secure and then started asking for photos — inappropriate ones. It felt weird and I was a little confused — but I didn’t want to be alone. So I sent them.

I know what you’re thinking: Why would she do that? Why would she put herself in such a vulnerable position? Trust me I ask myself that every day and I’m still not sure I have the answer. What I did know is that I was lonely, so incredibly lonely. My father was also dying of cancer at the time all this was happening, and this didn’t help my mental state.

Eventually one of these men demanded I send a recorded video or have a live video “session” with him. He said if I didn’t he’d send the photos I had given him to my family, or release them publicly.

I was terrified.

I’d had nagging fears at the back of my head ever since I had started going into these chatrooms, which flew to the surface in response to this threat. I went into “protection” mode and blocked him, as well as the other men I had been talking to. That was the last time I ever talked to them again. I tried to tell myself I hadn’t known it was dangerous, that I didn’t expect it to go so far. In reality I had never given these men my name or address — perhaps on a subconscious level I knew to be cautious even if I didn’t want to admit it to myself.

I was terrified for over a year that this man would find me and hurt me. It has now been around seven years since I went on those chatrooms, and I am fortune and grateful to report I have never again heard from any of those men, and I am free to go about my life without fear that they will somehow get to me.

I thought that was the end of this story, that I would just move on with my life and forget everything that had happened. I thought I could leave my childhood physical and online sexual abuse in the past.

But last year my sister came to me weeping. This was startling to me because she hardly ever cries, so I knew something must be wrong. Through sobs she told me she thought she had been sexually abused as a child. I looked at her for a moment in stunned silence, before I replied, “Me too.” Then we didn’t talk about it for another eight months, until my sister broached the subject again around Christmas last year. That time we talked about it for about three weeks, and I didn’t realize I had craved to share my story so much until then.

My sister and I have reacted so differently to our experiences. She is angry all the time — she snaps at the slightest provocation, and yells for hardly any reason. It can be exhausting to be around her, but she is my sister and I love her deeply and I am determined to help her get through this.

I have been constantly afraid for years — of everything, and especially of men. My terror seems to know no limits and this makes me shy, and nervous and vulnerable. However I have started to share my story with my therapist, and it has been helpful to be able to be heard by someone who is trained not to freak out. She has been very supportive, and I am relieved she reacted so well to my revelations. I hope to be able to encourage my sister to get some professional support in the future also, but so far she has been reluctant to get therapy. I will not push her too hard, but will gently support her to find better coping avenues.

It makes it even harder to share my story because I come from a privileged background — my family is wealthy, I had private education growing up and my parents owned their own business. I do not fit the “abuse stereotype” and I am afraid of how people would react. I am so grateful for everything I have been blessed with, and I do not want to hurt my family by explaining that despite all my privilege I slipped through the cracks. That I still got hurt, despite everyone’s efforts to ensure I had the happiest and most fulfilling childhood.

I am 20 years old now, and still hope to share my story with the people I care about, especially my mother. I hope to break my silence on the sexual violence that has shaped me, and to support other survivors. I am in my last year of university and as part of my major I have a year-long paper I can apply a chosen theme to. I have chosen to look at the online exploitation of minors, and hope that I am able to carry on this work in the future to ensure better outcomes for today’s youth.

My message here is not to share the story of another abused girl, one of thousands of similar stories. My message is to tell you that abuse stories have power. That the more we speak up about what happened to us, the more people will be forced to listen.

No one deserves sexual abuse. And maybe if everyone read this story, there wouldn’t need to be another one. Maybe if I can say loud enough, “This is not OK,” the world will finally listen.

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.

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

Thinkstock photo via Ryan McVay

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES
11
11
TOPICS
JOIN THE CONVERSATION

Why I'd Call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder 'a Disorder of Doubt'

8
8

If someone came up to me on the street and wanted me to give post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) another name, I would probably react with bafflement for a few reasons:

1. I am not often approached on the street.
2. I don’t actually like being approached on the street.
3. A random person approaching me on the street should not know such personally relevant information about me.
4. Even if they didn’t actually know this about me for a fact, the coincidence is too much for my paranoid mind to let go.

But let’s assume I went by Target and picked up the ability to react to such situations with intelligent and thoughtful discussion. (Target, incidentally, is a great place to pick up things you wish you could have.) And let’s assume that someone did ask me this question.

If I had to call it something else, I would call it “a disorder of doubt.”

I blink, and suddenly feel like nothing around me is real. Like I didn’t really move here. Like I’m going to suddenly wake up and find myself back where I used to be. Like the last few months of adjusting to a new address and a new climate and a new diagnosis were all just a strangely elaborate dream, a dream I’m going to have to wake up from at some point.

And then the incessant questions start: Is what I’m feeling real? Was what I used to feel before this real? Was there a time when I didn’t feel like this? Am I just imagining this feeling, or was I imagining something in the past? Did all the stuff that led up to this actually happen or was I just imagining it? Is any of this happening right now?

And then, even when it passes and I start to feel capable of rational thinking again, there’s a little doubt lingering in the background: This isn’t going to last. You know it’s going to come back. It will come back and you aren’t safe from it. You aren’t safe from anything, anywhere, not ever.

It feels like I’m made up of two different people. There’s the depressed half — the one who doesn’t want to go outside and is quite convinced getting better is a hopeless proposition. There’s the rational half — the one who still remembers at least a few things learned from therapy and makes desperate steps toward productivity no matter how painful. The two halves don’t get along very well, and when one is active, it’s because they’ve locked the other in a closet and hidden the key. Whether from therapy or from overexposure to my own brain, I’ve gotten good at noticing when I’m in one mood or the other, and no matter which one I’m stuck in, the other one feels like a distant memory that didn’t even happen to me. A lot of my memories feel like that, actually — like they didn’t happen to me but to someone else wearing my skin and my bland smile.

Having started delving into some of the science on it, though, I actually kind of like the idea that my brain was trying to keep me safe all that time by repressing the things that weren’t yet safe for me to deal with. Granted, I can’t help but be unhappy that it did eventually have to spring it all on me, and I take issue with its decision that I was finally safe enough to try and handle this, but I suppose I have to start somewhere.

At the time of writing, my onset of symptoms and subsequent diagnosis are very recent, and so, to put it lightly, I am not in a good place mentally right now. I have no idea how long it will take me to “get better” or if I even will. I feel like I’ll never be safe again, like I’m always hiding from something. I have no idea how to feel like a human again or how to process any of the thoughts I can’t get out of my head. I desperately want to shut my brain off and sleep for a very long time. And above all, I am constantly overwhelmed by doubt. Doubt in myself, doubt in my perception of the world around me, doubt in my memories. There are fleeting moments when I don’t know with certainty what’s real and what isn’t, playing over and and over again like a broken record, and that terrifies me.

Maybe that’s why I’m still stuck on blaming myself for what happened to me — as negative and self-destructive those feelings may be, I’ve certainly never doubted them.

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

Photo by Joshua Newton, via Unsplash

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES
8
8
TOPICS
JOIN THE CONVERSATION

Why Healing From My PTSD Means Living in the 'Gray' Instead of the Black and White

104
104

“Nothing’s black or white. That’s childlike thinking.”

That’s probably the first thing I was told in therapy. Children who have grown up with trauma often view the world as black or white. It’s how they coped, how they survived. It made sense out of an otherwise chaotic world and made things seemingly less complicated.

I spent a lot of my childhood being the grownup: taking care of everything, making sure everyone and everything around me was OK, so I was OK. I suppressed negative emotions so I didn’t stress my mom out, pretending I was perfect and everything was perfect. From the outside, by all appearances, it was working. I functioned quite highly in the black and white for a long time. The black and white world was the illusion of safety I enveloped myself in. A little pretend bubble that protected me from pain, kept me functioning and allowed me to succeed in many aspects of my life.

That bubble was burst, however, when I began therapy. This was when the world of gray was introduced to me. There was no longer the safety of clarity, of “either or.” All of a sudden I felt lost and confused in a new world with no clear boundaries, no clear good or bad, no clear right or wrong. And I’ve been trying to figure this world out ever since.

The longer I’m in therapy, the more murky and confusing this world becomes. Today was the perfect example of the unease, displacement and vulnerability that exists in the gray. I woke up “feeling my feelings” as I have been coached by my therapist for the last two years to do. It took forever to identify and allow myself to feel them, but now that I do, the intensity is almost overwhelming.

By all outward indications, I “should” be happy. My business partner and I have been busy with our business. We recently won a national contest, we had a successful inspection which insured our inclusion in an elite directory for lodging, we have had local TV coverage, other media coverage and plenty of business success. I’ve worked hard at finding a circle of friends and trying to nurture those relationships. I have a stable and loving (although at times challenging) relationship with my husband. I have relatively good health, a roof over my head. The sun is shining, the gardens are blooming, everything around me should be multidimensional, colorful and alive. But inside, all I feel is gray. I wake almost every day feeling sad, angry, frustrated, helpless, vulnerable, scared and abandoned — a shell of a person who is functioning at an extremely high level on the outside, but is feeling more and more murky in the inside. Part of it is lack of sleep due to nightmares and insomnia, part of it is the ongoing anxiety and intrusive thoughts I can’t get out of my head due to my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but a lot of it is the gray.

Everything feels vague and unclear.

Have your feelings, all of them, but if you express them, people around you are uncomfortable. It’s impossible to run a hospitality business when you feel like crying all the time. So you compartmentalize your feelings to function, but you shouldn’t compartmentalize too much because then you are avoiding feeling your feelings.

Having needs is normal. You didn’t get those needs met as a child, so it’s OK to want to get them met now, and it’s normal to rely on others in general to get your needs met. But don’t be too needy because you might overwhelm people and push them away, and anyway, some needs are impossible to meet because you aren’t a child anymore.

Being attached to your therapist is normal and necessary. It’s the only way forward in therapy and it’s the function of the therapist to help to “re-parent” the child inside you. But don’t be too attached, or you will violate your therapist’s boundaries and make them resent you.

Reach out to others to both help them and to get help when you are feeling badly, but don’t do it too much because it can overwhelm everyone.

Rely on friends, family, spouses and pets for comfort and soothing, but really, you should soothe yourself and learn to be self-sufficient.

Which brings me back to square one. I started this journey self-sufficient, afraid of relying on anyone, afraid to trust anyone, afraid to need anyone and afraid to attach to anyone. It worked. Kind of. Even though the angst was always churning underneath, waiting for just the right opportunity to explode like a volcano — which is exactly what happened. Once it did, I become covered by the gray ash between too much or not enough and it is overwhelming me. I feel like I’m on the edge of a precipice.

I want to be “normal,” healthy, emotionally well-balanced. But I haven’t a clue what that looks like or how to regulate myself. Some weeks I feel like I’ve made so much progress, and that is validated by my therapist and those closest to me. Then the next week, I feel like I’ve stagnated or regressed and all of a sudden, I’m told things aren’t working and I’m not progressing like I should. It’s all just so confounding and painful.

Maybe the gray is the inside of the cocoon I’m in. Maybe it feels dark and confusing because inside the cocoon, I simply can’t see the transformation going on. I can’t envision the colorful butterfly I can and hope to become, and I have no reference or time frame to rely on to know when I might get there. So for now, I just have to sit with the gray and hope I don’t dissolve into nothingness while awaiting my transformation.

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.

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

Thinkstock photo via panic_attack.

104
104
TOPICS
JOIN THE CONVERSATION

Real People. Real Stories.

7,000
CONTRIBUTORS
150 Million
READERS

We face disability, disease and mental illness together.