The Embarrassment of Dealing With Complex PTSD as a Young Person
I have written about my mental health many times before, though sharing this feels a lot more intimidating. That is all the more reason for me to share it.
I did not fully understand post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) aside from war veterans, until I was diagnosed at age 20 due to traumatic experiences in my childhood. I believe I had my first episode when I was 16, though the signs were there for years. My trauma went unrecognized in my ability to smile and laugh, have a good group of friends, and by being one of the quiet students that teachers liked. When my hurt could not be hidden anymore, I gave in and saw a counselor in hopes I could make it through a full class period again without running out in a panic or being in the nurse’s office. The DSM was pulled from the shelf, and I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety. I defined myself by those labels, but the truth went unrecognized. I was functional but quietly struggling. I was an adolescent who just had been triggered, and my body could not hold all of my hurt.
It was a scary time where I was afraid to be in my own skin, afraid to leave my home, and afraid of what my future would hold. What I thought were anxiety attacks were truly months and months of my body being in a fight, flight, freeze response. Being prescribed an SSRI was not enough to keep me in my school desk without distracting myself in my doodling. I knew PTSD brought nightmares, flashbacks and sometimes anger. I did not truly understand what a flashback felt like, until I had one.
It has taken several years to be able to identify my flashbacks. I could not verbally express everything that was going on in my head, and my body responded instead, trying to release my trauma for me. My PTSD is something I am very insecure about. You don’t understand the power trauma has over your body, until you experience it. Still, I have trouble understanding. One of the things I did not know about PTSD, and I wished I had known, was that past trauma that has not been healed or processed can present itself in somatic symptoms. Nothing about what I will share is pretty, but there is nothing about trauma that makes it so. If I read a story like this from someone around my age when I was feeling alone, so much would have been different. I would not have felt “crazy,” trying desperately to fit in.
Healing is necessary, but it can truly feel debilitating. Healing childhood trauma can feel like taking two steps forward and seven steps back. My early symptoms of trauma mortified me and left me ashamed, as I was a high school student having diarrhea all day, every day. I lost a lot of weight and was very weak. My doctor called it a virus, and I got notes giving me permission to miss school. When it continued for months and my grades declined, I developed more anxiety about leaving the house, going to school or anywhere without quick access to a bathroom. I panicked to learn I could not leave the room during my SATs unless during breaks without my test being canceled. I missed chorus concerts, hid in bathroom stalls to avoid presentations, got detention for skipping class and would dissociate on the campus, unable to move. I was told it was normal, junior year was the hardest and that it was just anxiety and IBS.
I began hating myself for being unable to stop it; I felt pathetic and as the days went on I became more depressed. During this time I was either oversleeping or going days without sleep. I had nightmares, and one memory from my early childhood kept me awake wanting to crawl out of my skin. I saw several counselors who made me feel misunderstood. I also struggled to talk about my feelings, unless it was in writing. Writing was my savior in getting others to hear me and help me.
I was hospitalized my senior year of high school for suicidal ideation, but ended up graduating high school months later with the help of my school social worker and accommodations. I continued therapy through college while pursuing my bachelors degree in social work. I was passionate about my studies and goals, but I continued to struggle with my mental health in college. Though I graduated on time, I was voluntarily hospitalized my junior year, not returning for the semester.
My hospitalization led me to find a psychiatrist near my college who could manage my medications in addition to providing therapy. It was my second session with her when she recognized I was truly struggling with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or C-PTSD, which is associated with repeated trauma. I was not surprised by the diagnosis. I was surprised that someone saw through my shell to see how deep my pain really was. I felt seen, and finally I had a doctor who gave me hope they could help me. In my therapy these past several years, we work on processing memories from my past that exist daily in my mind.
Sometimes I can tell a story, other times I only recall flashes of uncomfortable images or notice the feelings that my body remembers. The safer I feel emotionally in opening up, the more I am able to remember. Remembering is something I thought I wanted, but it feels like opening a can of worms that I am unable to get back in. I continue to have embarrassing panic attacks, shaking, body tremors, no appetite, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, heart racing, crying, the sweats, aches and pains. I have forgotten what it feels like to be at home in my body.
Though not every day is a bad day, I have been in survival mode for forever, waiting to learn what living feels like. A family member asked why I am still dealing with this. Many do not understand, but it does not erase my truth. It’s been over five years now of my physical and mental health being a roller coaster. I am so young, they say, I should not be this tired. I have been ridiculed for setting boundaries with those who hurt me or remind me of hurt. I am called selfish. I am told to forgive my past, forgive the person and move forward. I ask myself why I am the only one doing the hard work, diving so deep into my pain to heal it all. I ask myself why others get to convince themselves they are fine, and why they get to tell me I should be too.
The thing about PTSD is that your body is responding because it is not fine. It never was fine. Healing comes from acknowledging that pain, remembering, reliving that pain and then releasing that pain. Healing can be forgiveness, but it can also be letting go of what keeps you from being the best you. The journey feels never-ending, the healing is not linear. The symptoms are messy and uncomfortable, and the inner voice can be cruel. What I do know is that even when it seems I am taking two steps forward and seven steps back, I am not looking to see how far I have truly come. I always bring myself forward again. Living with trauma takes up a lot of my energy, but it does not take up who I am. Not even close. It is a lot to navigate at 23, but I know I have so much more life and possibility ahead of me. It is most important to me that I remain honest and share my stories. If I am going to be vulnerable, I want to lead with vulnerability — on my own terms.
Photo by Kristina Stepanidenko on Unsplash