The Monkey Metaphor I Use to Describe My PTSD

I’ve been asked a few times — by therapists, friends, well-meaning folks — what my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) feels like. And I’m not entirely sure how to describe it, at least so it makes sense to anyone besides me. And, really, it’s the case with any kind of disorder, physical or mental. Other people aren’t coming from the same place of personal experience you are.

Although, frankly, it’s not like that’s a bad thing. I wouldn’t wish PTSD on anyone.

There’s the question of how it happened. I was raped twice within the span of two years. The first rape happened after a date found out I was a transgender man. The other was by someone close to me. Thankfully, things are a lot better now. I’m safe. My brain doesn’t always think so. I’m on anti-anxiety medication. I go to weekly therapy. Sometimes, I’ll even flip open a self-help book and pretend I feel empowered.

But that’s the thing about my PTSD. Even when I’ve made incredible progress, it doesn’t vanish overnight.

Really, if you want to even begin to understand it, you have to get the pervasiveness of it. It’s always around. It’s a monkey hanging onto my back, arms around my neck.

Now, sometimes my PTSD monkey is a decent little guy. He’s quiet, says nothing. Life’s good. I go about my day — go to college, run errands, write articles for work, volunteer. No incidents, no bad thoughts or memories.

And then other days, something sets him off. Whether it’s the smell of a cigarette or a particular word, or something I can’t really easily identify, the PTSD monkey goes haywire. Panic, flashbacks, disorientation. The PTSD monkey is flinging shit and making a scene. Most of the time, I can leave the room and wait until I calm down or quietly work through things. Other times, I can’t hide anything. I clutch my backpack close to my chest. My eyes glaze over while I hyperventilate.

Really, it’s kind of a wonder I leave the house. Triggers are almost everywhere. You don’t always react the same way to them either. Some days I make it out OK with just a little hint of anxiety. Other times, see above. Haywire monkey. End of story. I have an emergency bottle of prescribed medication that I carry in my backpack at all times. It sometimes helps keep the PTSD monkey at bay when things are bad enough that I can’t do a breathing exercise or find somewhere to sit and calm down. Not always.

The PTSD monkey likes to wake me up in the middle of the night too. I can count the number of times I’ve actually been able to sleep a full night without interruption this year on one hand. I take over-the-counter melatonin because it’s the only thing that actually helps me shut off my anxiety long enough so I can start to sleep, and I’m too skittish to ask for anything stronger. I wake up at least three times, minimum. Most of the time, I don’t have a reason for why and I can usually get back to sleep in about twenty minutes or so. Other times, it’s a nightmare or another panic attack. You can think of this as the PTSD monkey marching around my bed, clattering pots and pans just for the hell of it.

He makes it hard for me to want to be touched or hugged. He’ll throw a fit unless he has a heads up. Same with going out of the house for no reason or walking by certain places, watching certain television shows or films. I’m sure you can imagine dating’s not exactly a picnic either, especially when I go into panic mode when I’m touched in certain ways.

Life with the PTSD monkey isn’t always hopeless, at least with how I make it sound. With therapy and the medication, the good days are becoming a little more frequent. A year ago, I wouldn’t have even been in school. The idea of going to college full-time and being outside of my room, around other people, would have been panic inducing. I’m able to make friends and meet new people, at least when I’m in the mood for it.

As for the monkey, he’ll stick around. But hopefully he’ll learn to shut up once in a while.

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 Marcin Kalinski.

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