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You Know Me, but You Don't Know I Have PTSD

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You know me.

I live in your town. I work in your community. I play sports, I support local charities, I work hard and play hard and you say hi to me at the supermarket.

• What is PTSD?

You know me.

You know I never served in a war, but you don’t know about the trauma that changed my life.

I’ve never been in a war zone. Except for the one going on in my head.

The war in my head is where my own body becomes my enemy as I struggle to slow my breathing, calm my shaking hands and stop the panic that invades every fiber of my being.

I couldn’t hold a gun even if I wanted to.

I know the science. Inside out, back to front. I know my body is responding physiologically to a perceived threat. I know that right now, in this moment, there is no threat.

But try telling that to my brain.

My brain is firing on all cylinders. It’s searching for an enemy, sweeping the room for dangers, calculating the safest course, identifying potential exits.

But the enemy it’s seeking out is itself.

My brain is telling my body to go into red alert. Fight, flight or freeze. Fight. Or flight. Or freeze. I can’t choose. I am captive in my own body. And I can be stuck in that mode for days.

You know me.

But you don’t know and you can’t possibly know I haven’t slept properly in five days. If you did know, you’d tell me to get some rest. Switch off. Relax.

What you don’t know is that I can’t. Because my brain is telling me to be alert, stay alert, be hypervigilant. Because science.

I know my reactions to seemingly unrelated issues or stressors can seem excessive to you. What you don’t know is that I know that too. And while the fact that I know this may frustrate you, it is precisely this realization that decimates me every time. And even though I know my reactions are excessive, there are days in my life that I simply cannot control my physiological symptoms.

And you. You don’t even want to go near my head.

Because when I finally found the words to adequately convey my brain processes so you could comprehend the scale of my terror, your eyes widened and your mouth dropped. You responded: “Wow. It’s noisy in your head. I don’t like it here. I want to go back to my own head.”

And you are someone who knows me. You love me. You love me despite knowing that sometimes I can’t talk. You love me even though I sometimes can’t get out of my bed. You love me even when I can’t be the friend or sister or daughter or aunt or colleague people need me to be. You love me even though sometimes all I can do is just breathe.

I know you find it difficult to comprehend. I know you find it excessive. An exaggeration. An impossibility. That if I truly was experiencing these physical symptoms and thoughts for extended periods of time I must surely explode?

But I don’t explode. I implode.

I disappear. I hibernate. I cease to be. I become nothing more than my illness. It consumes me.

And what you don’t know is that I loathe it.

I loathe this label, this illness, this utter lack of control. I loathe the fact that my misplaced sense of invincibility from my younger years led me to make choices, trust people and trust myself when I shouldn’t have.

What you don’t know is that I still find it hard to trust. It’s been 16 years since the event of my trauma. I’ve spent most of my adult life unable to maintain a healthy, positive relationship.

And no, I don’t loathe the human who violated that trust. I only mourn the loss of the person I used to be. But I do not feel anything for that person. I am numb.

You know me.

You might even know that from time to time I have episodes of manic depression. You might have noticed there have been times when I have simply vanished. From my home, my job, my life.

Or maybe you didn’t notice I was gone. Maybe you noticed when I came back that you hadn’t seen me in a while. You might have noticed I seemed quieter, flatter, cautious.

What you don’t know is that even in these times when I am back — when I’m good, functioning and contributing — there is a tiny part of me that is still scanning the room and checking the exits. Sometimes I don’t even realize I’m doing it. It’s that ingrained in my psyche.

And even when I’m managing and am “well,” I’m always waiting for the next trigger, the next episode, the next failure, the next loss. The loss of friendships, relationships, work, control, my independence and my financial stability. The loss of what it is to be me. The loss of emotion. I am numb.

When I’m in the fog, I can’t find my way through because it’s thick and all consuming. But I still look and search for the sun. When it’s sunny and there’s not an iota of a sign of any inclement weather, I’m scanning the sky, almost obsessively, for any sign of the fog descending. And sometimes, I cannot predict its arrival. Suddenly I will turn a corner and will be consumed by the fog. Other times it creeps up and I slowly disappear into it. Fighting, kicking, screaming. Other times silently and without a struggle.

And at these times, you may know me but you don’t see me. You can’t see me. Because I have spent the last 16 years trying desperately to not be seen as a victim, or an illness, or a survivor, or a failure. I try to be seen as me.

Just. Me.

You know me.

I live in your town. I work in your community. I play sports, I support local charities, I work hard and play hard and you say hi to me at the supermarket.

You know me.

And I have PTSD.


Originally published: November 9, 2016
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