What PTSD Means for Me as Someone Who Experienced Childhood Abuse

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Editor’s note: If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

Every day there’s that worry; that today, I’m going to see or hear something that will stick me in a dark corner of my memory — something that will have me trembling in fear for seemingly no good reason.

It’s not normally something big; it’s the little things, a raised hand, a raised voice. Sometimes it’s just people with blonde hair or with visible symptoms of illicit drug use. Sometimes the look in a person’s eye makes me cross the street to avoid them because they look like “her” eyes and that terrifies me.

Today a raised voice brought tears to my eyes. I, who views my own crying in public as a great shame, fought back those tears with everything I had, only to fail and have my employer mention it later. This raised voice pointing out mistakes, failures — my mistakes and failures. Unacceptable things — things that make me furious at myself in place of the expected pain I would once receive both mentally and physically from “her.”

I message to my girlfriend, telling her about it, the feeling of shame then met by calming, caring responses. Every time something is hard, I am so glad I bring myself to reach out and there is a hand there for me to hold. I’m so glad I don’t have to sit there anymore, going over and over and over and over in my mind how things should have been so I could have avoided the problem — how I should have been in order to be “perfect.”

Some days I worry it’s a hassle for her, to have someone who has been shattered at a young age, trying to hold the pieces together with glue that gets weak when touched by tears. To have someone who tries to add new pieces and sometimes struggles, who sometimes needs help. She is so caring though, I don’t think she realizes how amazing she is.

I worry it could be viewed as “co-dependency,” or unhealthy, to require someone else to be OK sometimes.

Don’t get me wrong, I can be OK on my own. Sometimes I just trip and some of my pieces come out; they can be hard to fix alone, but I can do it. It just helps to have people around me to help stop me from tripping, to help me up when I do. Even the most well of people need others sometimes.

Just yesterday I asked if she could come with me to do something I should easily be able to do on my own: go into the vet with my cat. But see, I haven’t been back to a vet since I had to make a call I have questioned every single day since as to whether it was the right one. Because on that day, I couldn’t fix everyone else’s everything.

Not only is it important to me to fix myself when needed; I always try to fix other things, people’s problems, objects, things I feel I should just keep my nose out of. This is probably because I can’t fix the one thing I needed to in my life. If “she” weren’t so broken herself, maybe she wouldn’t have broken me, her own child.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for someone like me is having to live with those memories. Sometimes they come to me like a highlight reel: “Sam’s Crappiest Life Moments!”

But then sometimes it feels like I’m there again, stuck in the horrors of my childhood. I feel it all: the fear, the sadness, the cold air in most memories. The tears on my cheeks. I see it play out before me, looking through my own eyes. I hear everything: the yelling, the banging, my muffled sobs as I hide from the threats being screamed at me through the door.

For me, PTSD is shying away at a pet store when the attendant offers for me to hold the rabbit I had been admiring for a few minutes, because I’m scared of holding them now — because of what she forced me to do to the ones she didn’t want to keep.

For me, PTSD for me is being scared that a “no,” or “I don’t want to,” will be met with anger. These days I can manage it better. I can say I don’t like things; I can say no, but the second they are met with anything other than acceptance, I lose my will to fight for it. To me, a conflict avoided means another day I’m safe.

For me, PTSD is having annoying, irrational fears about upsetting others, and that they would then attack me even though those days are long gone.

For me, PTSD is being scared that all these little things I do are big problems or annoyances for other people, just as little things set me off.

For me, PTSD is crying when I get stuck in my own head, scared that if I’m not 100 percent, or I’m not “perfect,” everyone may leave me.

For me, PTSD is being scared of being judged for not being “normal.” Being treated differently, like I’m “less.” It’s being scared of telling people because then they’ll see me differently. I feel they won’t see me for me, and it will always be “Sam with PTSD.” It’s being scared of facing the reaction of “how dare you say you have PTSD, you haven’t suffered enough to deserve it” like it’s some great achievement. It’s not. I hate it. I wish it wasn’t a thing. But it is.

For me, PTSD is the fact I survived. The ordeal will never leave my mind, but I lived. I’m not some war hero, but my life was in danger at times. At other times I saw things no child should be forced to see. I met with a side of the world that made it hard to see the good in some parts.

For me, PTSD is the fact that I am scared to have this read. I’m scared it’s not good enough, that it might upset someone, that someone who has caused me a great deal of pain will see this and know they have left such a great mark upon me.

For me, PTSD is typing this regardless, through the tears, in hopes it helps someone else. Feeling useful and loved are the only two ways I can validate my worth as a person after I spent my entire childhood being shown by one of the people who should have encouraged and supported me most that I meant nothing to them. I was told by them, “I’m going to kill you.” They made me feel useless, weak and scared. Every time they contacted me, I was always torn down. Every time I would start to move forward, their voice in my ear made me freeze.

Once I was diagnosed, once I found out that everything that was done to me by my mother was wrong — once I cut her out of my life to start actually living my life — I stopped waking up in the middle of the night, adrenaline pumping through my veins with the thought “I’m going to die, I have to get away,” only to be confused as my vision begins to focus on my room, safe, miles away from her.

I still avoid many things that remind me of her; I still flinch sometimes when people raise a hand near me — a hand not raised in violence may I add. I still sit and question my self-worth sometimes. I know this all won’t just go away — that just because I’ve accepted it all for it was, it doesn’t fix anything. It just puts the pieces into perspective.

For me, PTSD is living my life knowing that sometimes, things are going to be scary and will put me back in a dark place. But I’m getting better at fighting my way out of there each time.

If you or a loved one is affected by domestic violence or emotional abuse and need help, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

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Thinkstock photo via mg7

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How I Responded to Kesha's New Song 'Praying' as a Sexual Assault Survivor

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My sexual assault left an awful taste I can’t get rid of — something that just doesn’t sound right no matter how much time passes. I don’t know if there will ever be a day when speaking about my assault will ever sound “normal” coming out of my mouth. Even after (almost) six years, I still find myself struggling daily, learning how to cope with my past and how to keep it there. Even worse beyond the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)depression and constant anxiety my sexual assault left me stranded with, I also learned to be good friends with guilt and anger.

Advocating for other sexual assault survivors and those struggling with mental health has always been my passion. However, whenever it gets to be my turn to share, I can’t help but tremble when people respond, “I wish I could cope like you” or even worse — “I’m so happy you’ve forgiven the person who assaulted you.”

I tremble because I know it’s a lie.

I haven’t forgiven him. I spend nights raging with anger. I spend mornings stuck in bed wondering how I could have let something like this happen to me. I find myself in a whirlwind of depression I can’t shake, and I end up hating myself for it later. I allow it to control my life and I have no power over it some days.

Kesha’s new song, “Praying,” has struck something in me that no amount of therapy, antidepressants or good friends could help me get through.

For me, the worst part of a sexual assault isn’t living through the trauma. It’s the fact that years later, nobody understands why you can’t move on. Why you are unable to function like everyone else, why someone who isn’t wasting any of their time thinking about you is controlling your life.

After listening to “Praying,” I’ve finally found something that has given me the validation I haven’t found anywhere else. I felt understood, empowered and deeply moved by the Kesha’s lyrics:

“‘Cause you brought the flames and you put me through hell
I had to learn how to fight for myself
And we both know all the truth I could tell
I’ll just say this is I wish you farewell

I hope you’re somewhere praying, praying
I hope your soul is changing, changing
I hope you find your peace
Falling on your knees, praying

Oh, sometimes, I pray for you at night
Someday, maybe you’ll see the light
Oh, some say, in life, you’re gonna get what you give
But some things only God can forgive.”

In a little over three minutes, my perspective changed on an event that has so deeply impacted my life. I know there was something broken in you that allowed you to hurt me. I am not angry with you, I am sad for you. I am so sorry you are unable to love another human enough to consider how life threatening the consequences of your actions could be. And as much as my whole mentality has been based around me being the “victim,” I’m nowhere near that. I’ve won. I am proud of the compassionate, strong and brave woman I have become, no matter what I’ve gone through to become her.

It is amazing how someone else’s story in whatever form we hear it from — music, song, dance, poetry, articles on The Mighty — can bring us so much peace and understanding. We begin to heal the moment we feel we are heard.

I hope you’re somewhere praying.

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Screenshot via Kesha’s YouTube channel.

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3 Reasons I'm Afraid to Admit I Have PTSD

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It’s strange that one of my friends saw it before I did. Despite my well-placed poker face, she has always been the one to see that I wasn’t OK, even when I didn’t know it myself. At the time, I talked her out of the diagnosis. Certainly, my experience represented “trauma,” for me, but I thought post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was going a little far. After all, I chose to stay in the situation I was in, as did many others. I know some of them have mental health struggles too, but it is still too easy to blame myself for being weak.

Major depression… I accepted that label a long time ago, but PTSD, that just couldn’t possibly fit me. I didn’t survive assault or a severe accident. I’m not a veteran. Yet, a licensed professional is telling me I fit all the diagnostic criteria without me even bringing up the possibility of it.

The first reason I am afraid to admit I have PTSD is I’m afraid I don’t deserve the label. It feels like I’m cheapening the hardships that veterans and rape survivors experience as they pursue recovery and deal with severe trigger reactions. I fit all the diagnostic criteria, but I don’t have night terrors or trigger reactions serious enough for others to notice. It feels like I can’t compare to symptoms like these.

My symptoms show up primarily as an internal response, sometimes to an identifiable trigger and sometimes to nothing at all. I feel like I can’t breathe, as if something heavy is resting on my chest and restricting my access to air. I can feel myself internally panicking, even though I can’t identify a reason why. Sometimes when it gets really bad, it can feel like I’m dying, even though I can logically recognize I’m not. I feel unsafe, for no apparent reason. I feel useless. Worthless. Invalidated. 

Invalidated from the insidious abuses and hurts I experienced over the course of time and circumstances that triggered my depression and PTSD.

I also very deliberately avoid places and people related to that time period. Even someone who looks like someone I knew can trigger my internal response. Emails from certain individuals hurt me. I refuse to go to the city I lived in at that time. I did not want to go back for graduation. I refuse to even live in that state in the future.

But, my symptoms aren’t obvious. They look like a bad attitude or a quiet personality.

Another reason why I’m afraid to admit I have PTSD, is I don’t think people will believe me. Others’ knowledge of PTSD rarely extends beyond veterans or one occurrence of intense trauma.

The causes of my PTSD are more subtle, built up over time — perhaps emotional abuse — but not in the typical sense of the phrase. There is no one person to blame. There are many and I presume most of them had good intentions. There is no one intense experience I can point to, although there a few moderately hurtful experiences I can describe. I suspect some discrimination, but would have difficulty proving it. I was judged and hurt, but quick to blame myself for any wrongs. Perhaps worst  of all was no one stepping in to help when it got bad.

My PTSD developed in everyday life. The circumstances are not that unfamiliar or abnormal, though the level of emotional and psychological stress I was exposed to probably was.

The last reason I am afraid to take on the label of PTSD is I’m afraid it means I’m weak. Someone else who experienced “real trauma” might be strong. But because other people made it through similar circumstances without developing PTSD, I feel like I am overly sensitive or not resilient enough.

I recognize I am probably genetically predisposed. I know the depression and physical illness probably left me vulnerable. And yet, it will take time to accept I have PTSD and that such a diagnosis does not have a negative reflection on my character.

This is all new to me, so I hope to keep learning and reduce my own stigma against myself. I’m hoping to connect or hear more about other individuals with less “typical” PTSD. Through story sharing and connection, both myself and others will feel validated that their experience and pain matters, even if it is different.

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Thinkstock photo via Grandfailure.

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Finding the Positive Side of PTSD: Awareness, Love and Connection

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I spent much of my healing aware of the havoc that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can wreak on a life. Insomniaanxiety, acting out and hurting myself were just a few of the things I worked so hard to heal from. At the other end of all the healing, I’ve found there are some blessings to be had as well. It took a long time to get here, but I’ve found I live with a greater degree of awareness about the world, a large capacity for love and a deeper connection to the spiritual side of life than I had before the trauma.

Awareness

When I was first traumatized, the world became very bright as if I’d been pierced by a thousand needles and had thumbtacks mixed in with the blood in my veins. All colors were technicolor. All noises were loud. I noticed more than I had before. Before the trauma, the world had existed in one bland, continuous season, amorphous and undefined. The pain of the trauma set my world alight.

It hurt, but at the other end of healing, it no longer hurts, and the world is still full of color, depth and nuance.

Though I now consider myself largely healed and functional, I still see all the intricacies of the world I was awakened to post-trauma. I notice more. I see more of the people around me, and I can see more of the world, glasses off, fully awake. Before, it was tinged with pain and loss. Now, from a healed and whole place, it is full of concern, love and awareness that things aren’t always as they seem.

Love

My trauma swung the pendulum so far into pain that healing has allowed it swing that much further into love. The space the pain carved out in me was so large that I am left with more space for love in its absence. A heart stretched so large into sadness can never become its original size again, but it can learn to find love in the places where pain formerly reigned. It takes time to let the light in — time and trust — but when it happens, there is so much room that needs so much light.

Connection

“When the physical world doesn’t take care of you, the spiritual world does,” the shaman told me during our first visit. I had initially made an appointment with him because I had begun seeing things: I saw a light that spoke to me, I started having premonitions in dreams, and I felt angelic guidance, to name just a few. In the world I had been raised in, all of these things were cause for concern. In the world that helped me heal, these were spiritual occurrences that I believe were entirely “normal,” helpful, and fine. 

I thought I was going “crazy,” but I believe I was just getting spiritual. The shaman, and other healers I worked with, helped me to see that sometimes, our spiritual abilities are enhanced when we live in a painful physical reality. In truth, I believe we all have these spiritual abilities, but they become dull from disuse. Trauma and healing from trauma had heightened my spiritual sense; I just needed to learn to access it in a healthy way, that benefited my life and the lives of those around me.

Healing took me on a journey beyond what I considered possible. The trauma and its aftermath were painful — enormously so. My whole world died, along with my heart. But with courage to heal, it was not all bad in the end. I get a bright world, a great capacity for love, and I believe I can see a typically unseen side of life. For these things I am grateful. I can’t say it made the pain worth it, per se, but it did make it meaningful.

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Speaking the Language of PTSD

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June was National PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) Awareness Month. This encourages me to write of my own experiences and some lessons I’ve learned along the way.

I was diagnosed about six and a half years ago, although it often seems like an entire lifetime. Everyone’s story is different. A variety of things led to my PTSD diagnosis, but there may be some commonalities between myself and others struggling.

One thing I realized after a lot of frustration was that I speak a different language, or no language at all, when trying to express myself. It’s as if I’m an alien who has been dropped into a foreign land. This leads to the feeling of being misunderstood.

There are so many things that feel virtually impossible to explain to someone without PTSD. For example, hypervigilance. It’s noticing everything and constantly scanning my environment; being alert even when I’m trying to sleep — it’s depleting and it never stops. Or trying to explain how noisy the world is to me. Today, I had to banish the food dehydrator to a closet because I could not take the noise. The suggestion of a white noise machine is just one more noise to add to an already overwhelming cacophony of sounds. How do I explain the pain in my body from reliving trauma?

I also notice a difference in my experience with the world. I used to be so angry at hypervigilance. I have also found a sense of gratitude toward hypervigilance. I get to see things that other people take for granted. or more likely don’t even see; like the ladybug on the sidewalk.

Humor and gratitude are vital in other aspects of learning to cope and move forward in life. I keep a daily gratitude list. Even on the worst days I can find something to be grateful for. Recognizing success is also key for me. Some days, success is getting out of bed or taking a shower; but other days are more significant. Noticing moments of joy and what makes me smile are other crucial elements to fighting against PTSD — maybe it’s something in nature, a color, my dog or a card in the mail. I then take it one step further and recognize how my body and mind feel different in that moment. I then try to recreate that feeling more and more.

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The trauma that lead to PTSD left me without words to express myself. It is in that frustration I discovered art. I had never considered myself artistic. It started with scribbling to get out anger and frustration; or using certain colors to describe my mood. I have created art using mediums involving my body, such as finger painting; splattering or spitting paint through a straw and tearing paper. I had to learn the the outcome didn’t matter. It was vital to be nonjudgmental — it’s about the process. I have used art to express the noise in my head and body.

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Throughout my journey, I sometimes feel overwhelmed with emotions. I’ve learned I can have more than one emotion at a time, even two that seem polar opposites; sad and happy, anger and joy. I’ve also learned to acknowledge what I am feeling, to give myself space and time, and know that it’s OK to feel whatever I’m feeling. It is OK to grieve the life I “lost.” It is OK to be angry. It is also OK to have times I must sit with being miserable and honor that feeling. In those times, it is OK to tell others to sit with me, and to tell them I don’t want to hear their advice, or that, “Time heals all wounds,” or similar platitudes. It is OK to tell others that maybe tomorrow you can acknowledge growth, but today, you just need to sit with it and feel it; give it space and honor it.

I will continue on my journey of healing. It is not a straight path, but a very circuitous one with ups and downs. I keep moving forward, or try the best I can, one day at a time; sometimes one hour at a time and sometimes just one moment at a time. Many battles have been won, but there is still a war going on and I will keep fighting.

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6 Ways My PTSD Is as Much a Physical Condition as It Is a Mental One

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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is considered a mental illness. While I don’t disagree with this, a more complete description of my experience with PTSD is that it’s a mind and nervous system condition that affects me mentally, physically and spiritually. Some of the ways PTSD affects my body are:

1. Disrupted sleep.

I have nightmares every night, and wake up with a nightmare between two and 10 times a night. In order to get enough sleep, I need to spend more time in bed than most adults I know.

2. Varying, unpredictable energy levels.

Sometimes I’m so restless that I hardly sleep and have trouble sitting still for any length of time. Other days, I sleep for 12 to 14 hours and still feel exhausted. While I tend to cycle between these states (maybe because after being revved up my body needs to crash), it’s impossible to predict whether a particular day will be one when I walk seven miles because I have so much energy or a day when I feel wiped out walking half a mile to the store. Of course, it’s also impossible to time these shifts, so I have energy on, say, a day I have to work.

3. Migraines.

Migraines aren’t well understood, so I don’t know whether I’d have them or not if I didn’t have PTSD. However, one thing that sets them off is lack of sleep, which is sometimes outside of my control due to the previous two factors.

4. Tooth pain. 

This is due to receded gums, which dentists have told me are probably due to clenching and grinding my teeth during nightmares over many years.

5. Urinary incontinence. 

Sometimes I lose control of my bladder when I have nightmares or panic attacks. Getting past shame about this has been more difficult than the problem itself, which mostly just requires planning to wear incontinence pads in situations when this is likely to happen. 

6. Endometriosis.

Like migraines, the causes of endometriosis aren’t fully known. However, the fact that my endometriosis has progressed to the point where I have organ adhesions and am infertile is related to the environment I was raised in. I wasn’t allowed to seek medical attention when I started to have pain as a teenager. I was told the pain was my fault because I was “thinking the wrong thoughts” and I “wanted to be sick in order to get attention.” It’s been a process to learn pain is a sign something is wrong rather than a sign that I’m being punished for doing something wrong.

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Of course, other people’s experiences of PTSD are different than mine. However, I hope this sheds some light on how PTSD can be a physical experience as well as a mental one.

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Thinkstock photo via bilalcinar.

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