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How Underlying Trauma Can Change Your Diagnosis


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.

Whenever I sought out counseling, I had a clear goal of what to accomplish and confidently thought, “OK, I’m getting help. I’ll fix the problem.”

When multiple problems were occurring, I would just focus on the one I thought was most time sensitive and rarely strayed from it, even though they were all connected. I never realized that putting the others on the back burner would later change my diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and major depressive disorder (MDD) to GAD, MDD, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I feel both relief and grief with my new diagnosis; I understand why I physiologically respond in certain ways and I now know the different kind of support I need. However, I hate seeing myself as a “victim,” and I constantly struggle with feeling like my trauma is my fault and what PTSD is perceived as doesn’t apply to me.

According to the Sidran Institute, “an estimated 1 out of 10 women will get PTSD at some time in their lives. Women are about twice as likely as men to develop PTSD.” PTSD is often associated with combat; however, I have PTSD and I have not been in combat

When I was 19, I was sexually assaulted. I didn’t even remember it happened until nine months later when I saw the person I thought was my abuser and had a panic attack that left me bedridden for the next two days. The grief I experienced at that time turned into anger and I felt betrayed by my own brain for somehow blocking the trauma. I originally thought if I was able to forget about it and ignore the self-destructing behaviors subconsciously stemming from it, it couldn’t actually be assault. I didn’t know anything about the way the brain physically changes after trauma to understand what was happening to me.

I only brought it up in counseling once and never pursued it; I guess I wasn’t ready to acknowledge it for what it was. I attributed my episodes to my depression and anxiety because that was what I was always told I had. But, why would they tell me otherwise if I wasn’t always honest about what I was experiencing? I assumed it was “normal” to have debilitating disassociation or panic attacks when I was touched, anyone was too close to me, my skin was bruised or the words “sexual assault” were mentioned/joked about — because I had depression and anxiety.

The way my episodes transformed rapidly during the last few months finally made me realize something different was going on, so I talked to a friend of mine who had witnessed the changes intensify. The frequency of triggers only increased as my stress with school increased. I felt great in the beginning of the semester, but after an incident, I imploded and was quickly in a constant state of tension 24/7, creating jaw pain and headaches.

I was crying almost every day, feeling sheer panic, having nightmares and flashbacks and disassociating within seconds at any given moment. I could literally feel my brain fog over, which disrupts my speech and comprehension. I felt detached from my body, like I was seeing myself from outside.

I stopped talking to my family and some friends entirely. My inability to focus on anything, along with dissociative amnesia, interfered with work and school.

I started having bouts of rage I have never felt before.

I started falling behind in classwork, and even when I caught up, I felt like I was failing at everything.

My high-functioning abilities were now barely functioning, day after day. I kept telling myself I couldn’t “afford” a breakdown with graduation right around the corner, even though I desperately needed to save myself. After feeling like I’d been in an intense fight or flight mode for a long period of time, I knew it was time to get the help I should’ve gotten a long time ago.

Now, I am back in counseling, only this time I have no choice but to acknowledge what has caused my spiral, and from what I now realize were my other spirals. I know the work is going to be harder than it ever has been, but I have hope that, with this new diagnosis, I can create a dialogue with my loved ones about what I am experiencing and move forward.

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