The PTSD Symptom I Didn’t Realize I Struggled With
I have officially been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with depersonalization. But this diagnosis is only recent. I avoided this moment for a long time, partly because of denial, and partly because I didn’t want to know. I was comfortable with not knowing because I thought it didn’t matter. I was comfortable telling people, “I’m pretty sure I have PTSD” because not knowing kept it from being real. It kept the questions at bay. Questions in my head, and from other people.
I avoided counseling because I didn’t want to know what was behind the “purple curtain” of my memory. That dark place in my mind where all the bad gunky lives. The pain, hurt and trauma from my past. I was afraid that if I went to counseling, all that stuff would spill out and I would have to face it head on, instead of hiding from it.
I let the pressure build for years, until this past June, when I couldn’t take it anymore. I caved. I began feeling like a fraud when I would write about “possibly” having this mental health disorder, and I decided I needed to find out for sure, once and for all.
Difficulties with Depersonalization
The difficulties that come with depersonalization are numerous. One of those difficulties is, I have a hard time distinguishing what is real and what is not. An example of this is, my heart knew I would feel better with an official diagnosis. But my head said otherwise. It told me that I was making up my past struggles, that I was making up the feelings that arose when I was triggered. Every time a painful memory from past trauma would rise to the surface, and the feelings that accompany those memories, my head would tell me I was making it up for attention. My head and heart are often on two different levels.
This voice in my head would tell me I didn’t need counseling because I was “fine.” And when my anxiety became worse and worse because of my job, my head said it was because the store was slow. Just hold out until the holidays get here and it’ll get better. But my heart knew better.
You see, my previous role was a door greeter. The person that stands at the door, greets people coming in, and checks receipts going out. I held that role for three months. Slowly, but surely, my anxiety grew worse and worse, until the mass shooting at the Walmart in El Paso, Texas in August 2019. It took two days for my mind to catch up, and then the panic set in.
I was afraid to go to work that day because I feared that someone would come to my store and do the same thing. What I didn’t realize at the time was, I had been triggered by a previous traumatic event.
The past traumatic event was an auto accident that happened down the street from my house, years ago. I was the first one on the phone with 911 (emergency services), and I relayed everything that was happening at the scene of the accident. The man who caused the accident tried to get away, and when my neighbors surrounded his car, he said he had a gun. We didn’t know he did not have a gun until the police arrived, but it was still traumatic for me. After the accident happened, I couldn’t hear the siren of a fire truck or ambulance for months without having flashbacks to the accident.
Slowly but surely, after the shooting in Texas, my anxiety grew worse and worse each night when I thought about going to work the next day. I didn’t know why my anxiety was getting worse, because I had already been experiencing anxiety leading up to that moment. It grew and grew until finally I broke down mentally. I had to force myself to eat. I was wracked with anxiety and fear, and I wanted to bawl my eyes out. I went over to visit my sister to talk about everything, and that night when I got home it clicked.
One month and one week after the shooting in Texas, I realized that incident triggered my memory of the accident. It took so long to realize it because of the depersonalization. My memory shuts down or blanks out traumatic events, or other memories when I’m overly stressed out. My subconscious mind knew what was going on, but my conscious mind did not.
As soon as I realized what was causing my anxiety, I knew I had to get away from the door. I am very grateful to work for a company that values its employees, and grateful to my manager for her understanding. The next day, I went to work and told my manager what was going on. I told her that I needed some time off immediately, and that I had to get away from the door.
I took two weeks off and set up a time to meet with my counselor. She diagnosed me with PTSD with depersonalization during our session. Hearing her say that was like a breath of fresh air. But it was also challenging because my brain didn’t believe it. I wasn’t in fight or flight mode at the time, which made it difficult to believe it was true.
The next day, she sent me a letter for work, stating my diagnosis, and that was the moment it clicked. Seeing it in black and white made it real. Seeing it on paper made my diagnosis real. It solidified what my heart was trying to tell me all along – I’m not “broken,” I just have a mental illness.
Going back to work after my two-week vacation wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. My first day back, I started a new position: one that took me away from the front door. It helped that my brain had already forgotten about the anxiety I felt just two weeks prior. And I also forgot that I worked up front at the doors.
I have vague, hazy memories of working as a door greeter. Mainly what I remember is working with my co-workers, when I see them. But the job itself? I barely have any memory. It’s like it didn’t happen at all. Like I never worked that position. This, as I learned in counseling, is part of the depersonalization. It’s the weirdest feeling ever. The best I can describe it is: it’s like having a dream, only you’re awake as you’re having the dream.
PTSD as My Shadow
Today, my PTSD is like my shadow. You know how when you stand outside on a sunny day and you can see your shadow? That’s what it’s like. It’s a separate person standing next to me, all the time. I know it’s there when I focus on it, but in the everyday coming and going of life, I forget about it, until something triggers me, and then we switch places. My PTSD takes over while my regular mind and body take the role of the shadow. Once the feelings or memories pass, we switch back, and it’s like it never happened.
I’m slowly beginning to understand and accept this new diagnosis. This part of me that will live with me forever. I know it will be a long journey, but I’m willing to work towards healing now. And I’m grateful I have the opportunity to do it.
Follow this journey on My Sober Ashes.