How I Denied My PTSD, and What Finally Helped
Editor’s note: If you struggle with self-harm, or if you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
For over 20 years, I’ve engaged in an almost uncountable number of self-destructive behaviors. From the rather “straightforward” ones such as smoking, drinking, driving too fast and spending too much money, to the slightly “darker” ones like self-injury and eating disorders. If there is a way to throw a landmine in my own path, I will. I will quit a job as soon as I get promoted. I will drop out of school with a 4.0 GPA. It’s safe to say I’m scared of success almost as much as I’m scared of failure. It took time (and therapy) to come to terms with the fact that I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and I’ve never served a day in uniform. I denied the diagnosis for a long time as a way to deny that I was ever sexually assaulted in any way, at any age. But the mind betrays even the most valiant efforts at suppressing traumatic memories, and eventually, PTSD became a painful reality I couldn’t deny.
But the connection between various forms of abuse throughout my childhood and my ongoing struggles with self-destructive behavior was always elusive. I never could understand why I would do things to hurt myself now, just because I had been hurt then. I understood the numbing behaviors and bad coping mechanisms, like drinking. But why did I hurt myself as a result of other people hurting me? No amount of therapy ever helped me understand. It took a breakdown to finally see what was right in front of me.
Flashbacks tend to happen when I am sitting quietly, alone, doing nothing. When my brain is not being kept busy, and my body is not in motion. Out of nowhere, I am flooded with emotions and physical sensations that feel so real it physically hurts. This evening was turning into one of those. But for some reason, I started writing — not to anyone or about anything, but I wanted to rip my skin off and pull my brain out of my skull, so I suppose I had nothing to lose. Once I stopped writing and read it, decades of self-hatred finally made sense. I never discuss my childhood or anything that happened during it. But when I read my own words – I knew exactly what they meant.
“I always keep it together, because I know I can’t trust anybody to deal with it. Sometimes I, I want the right to be a damn disaster as if it happened yesterday, because I never had that, I never did that, I never reacted or… dammit, sometimes I just actually want to hurt that badly again, because I never could. I never could let myself… I couldn’t let it be real, even though it was. I had to pretend like I didn’t feel how I felt and just keep going all the time, and swear to God I can’t… I swear, sometimes I think I just want to f*cking hurt as bad as I did then, but this time… this time not have to f*cking pretend like I don’t!”
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Did I really just write that? Yes, I did. My whole life has been spent hiding the truth about how I feel. I do it with my depression, and I do it well. But (finally) I realized that hiding my feelings was a skill I had developed as a child to hide the truth about what was happening at home. I wasn’t allowed to be upset or hurt, and I definitely wasn’t allowed to let anyone else see that I was. So by hurting myself now, I was providing a legitimate, undeniable, and visible source of pain; an “acceptable” pain, one that I didn’t have to deny. All the pain I felt from so long ago, but was forced to ignore and deny, had simply been eating away at me, desperately searching for a way out. No one, including me, had ever validated the pain I felt. It was hidden, denied, ignored. It didn’t happen as far as my consciousness was concerned. Only — it did.
I wish I could say everything changed after that, but it didn’t. In fact, for a while, nothing changed. Then it got worse. It hurt more, it became harder to deny, it consumed more of my thoughts and feelings than ever before. I couldn’t put Pandora back in the box. I couldn’t hide the pain from myself anymore.
Help came in an unlikely package — meditation. More specifically, Headspace. I’m the last person you would expect to catch meditating. High strung, skeptical. I don’t do yoga, I’ve never been able to sit still. I was wrong. In my case, it has become physical therapy for the brain.
I sit with my thoughts and feelings, and that’s it. No running, no hiding, no pain relief — just sitting. No clearing my head; in fact, just the opposite. I have to allow thoughts and feelings to happen, and guess which feelings tend to surface? Yep. So I sit with the pain, and the fear, and the anger, and everything else. For months it caused flashbacks that would keep haunting me the rest of the day and night. It caused panic attacks the moment I sat. Allowing the very thoughts and feelings you desperately want to avoid is not relaxing or pleasant, but it is a skill I had to try to learn.
I’m eternally grateful for the kindness of Headspace founder (and voice) Andy Puddicombe. He has helped me along through the worst of it with gentle encouragement and extremely practical tips, ways to “make it work” for me. I don’t know what I would have done without him.
I encourage individuals struggling with PTSD to try mindfulness, but with caution. I recommend being actively in therapy when you start because chances are high that it will bring up negative emotions. It’s important you know how to deal with those emotions safely.
After a year of “Headspace Therapy,” I can sit for 10 minutes about half the time. That’s a dramatic improvement from the 10-second increments I was having to use before. But PTSD doesn’t go away. Trauma doesn’t just disappear and give up, and self-destructiveness is a hard habit to break. Progress is painfully — sometimes imperceptibly — slow, but trying is what matters. I understand now that I don’t have to hurt. Just because other people did things to me and told me I deserved it doesn’t make it so. I know that with time and hard work, I am beginning to put the pieces of my life together. And even if I can only last for 10 seconds, I’m learning to live with myself.
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 struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.
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Thinkstock photo via Jose Antonio Sanchez Reyes