My Experience of Stigma as a Man With Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
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.
As a man, there are many stigmas around mental health.
My recent experience when I walked into the victim services office in my hometown looking for trauma counseling reaffirmed that in a big way:
Them: “Can I help you?”
Me: “Yes, I am looking for some help”
Them: “I think you might have the wrong office.”
Me: “This is victim and trauma services, right?”
Them: “Um, yes…”
Me: “OK then, I have the right place”
Them: “Um, we are normally a service people who have been abused or sexually assaulted.”
Me: “Yes, I would fit into both of those categories.”
Them: “Oh… oh sorry, please come in and have a seat.”
This is why many men will not tell anyone what has happened to them, or share the thoughts they have or explore if their internal climate is normal or not. But I want to encourage men to share their experiences, to share their thoughts, because one of two things will happen.
One: you will find what you face is “normal,” and that is comforting. Two: you will find that what you experience isn’t normal and then you can begin the journey towards becoming healthy. But if you silently struggle and try to survive the war that rages inside you on your own, you will find that eventually, you will burn out.
I am a 6’3” guy. I have a big beard and a shaved head. I drive a big truck, I hunt and I build homes for a living. I have tattoos and for all intents and purposes I am somewhat intimidating – or least that’s what I have been told. I don’t look like I struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and I don’t look like I struggle with abnormal levels of anxiety. I have spent my entire life crafting an image and a persona that acts as a shield. The truth is, I am a terrified person on the inside.
I live a life that could be characterized as internal civil war. I live in a state of hyper-vigilance; my brain is constantly telling me everything is going wrong, that everyone is plotting against me, that at any movement a person twice my size might burst into the room and throw me at the wall. My brain tells me that, at any moment, the man twice my size might grab the people I care about most in the world and hurt them while I watch helplessly. At this point in my life I know this won’t happen — or at least my rational, logical brain knows — but my emotional brain, my survival brain is afraid for its life and the lives of everyone I care about.
I wake every night from dreams that terrorize me — dreams that at some point stopped terrorizing me because I learned to become numb to the dreams of helplessness, of watching the woman I love be hurt in the worst ways imaginable, of my kids being stolen from me, of the person who should have protected me as a boy be the person that is hunting me down. I spend night after night on the run in a world my subconscious is creating and changing, and I realize you can never truly numb these dreams out.
I spend my days watching for signs my boss might want to fire me, and worried my co-workers are talking about me behind my back. I have gone from job to job because of my insecurities and my need to protect myself. I am in the process of losing my family, because somewhere along the way I picked up the belief that, if I could control my world enough, I could rid myself of this never-ending fear. But the more I control my world, the further I get from the thing I want I become.
And so, today, I work hard to let go, to breathe and to remind myself it will all be OK no matter what happens. I choose to send my boss a note thanking him for the opportunity to work when the anxiety around work becomes too much for me to stand. I take a knee at work and shed a tear when I feel my chest tighten to the point I can’t breathe, and then I breathe. Every day is a challenge, but now I go to a support group on Monday nights and counseling every other Monday. I have been honest with my boss about my struggles and I will be getting trauma counseling when I am finished with the cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).
Today I am OK with being “weak” and I now know that these are not “normal” experiences, that the things I face are not something I can just push through — that this belief, this thing I learned to do as a young man to appease my abuser does me a disservice every time I engage with it. When I try to push through, it puts me back in the position of being abused and pushes me further down a path away from recovery.
Today, I give my anxiety room. I choose to honor it and I choose to let the experience come so it can go.
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.
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Unsplash photo via Christopher Burns