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How to Ask About and Understand My PTSD

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When I tell someone I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, most of the time I get the reply, “What?”

• What is PTSD?

PTSD means a trauma happened, and even though it happened in the past, the footprint it leaves in your mind is so severe when something reminds you of it, usually described as “trigger,” your brain undergoes extreme stress, expressed by both physical and mental reactions. Sometimes even recalling the events unexpectedly is all the trigger you need.

The mind is a beautiful, crazy thing.

If you still don’t get it, think of this: Have you ever mentioned something attached to a strong emotion, and then felt that emotion as if it happened? Can you remember tasting a wedge of lemon? Or, men: How about watching another guy get kicked in the groin?

If any of these evoked physical reactions from you as you read about them — your mouth watering at the thought of lemon, wincing at the thought of a groin injury (Sorry, fellas.) — then you can begin to see how PTSD works. Your brain, in all its splendor, has stored a physical memory of that thing. Most everything in life we do has a physical and/or emotional memory attached to it. Even if we haven’t done that particular thing before, we’re reminded of a time we did something similar. When these memories occur, we can often feel very physical reactions.

The most commonly referenced example is a soldier who has seen awful things in war. They’ll often come back “shell-shocked.” But it happens in more scenarios than you think.

What PTSD means to me is if I’m minding my own business in my house and the phone rings, my heart races. I get sweaty palms and feel immediately scared and on edge. Of what? Well, there have been times I’ve picked up the phone only to have abuse hurled at me. I would block numbers and people would call from private numbers. I’d pick up the phone and get a nasty surprise. The verbal abuse and associated behaviors of the people who used to do this was so bad, and lasted for so long, I now hate phones. Especially when they’re ringing.

If I hear someone closing their car door outside, I look around to see what kind of car it was. I peer through my curtains, trying to be invisible, to see if it’s the car of someone I don’t want at my door. Every time. It’s because I’ve told people in the past not to come to my house, and they still have. I’ve been stalked before by people who have caused a lot of harm in my life, and I live in constant fear they’ll find my new address and show up at the door. And if they ever do, I’ll probably have to move.

If I see a car that looks like the car of someone I used to know but don’t want around me ever again, I panic. I could be driving and suddenly be paranoid the car I’ve spotted might be following me. I continue to panic until I see the driver is a stranger and not someone I should worry about. For these reasons I memorize license plates.

If my doorbell rings, or someone knocks, I hush the children and try to pretend no one is home until I can peek through the little peek-hole and see who it is. If it’s a friend who has shown up unannounced, I will still only reluctantly open the door. And even then, I’m a bundle of nerves for a few minutes until I can calm myself down and tell myself it’s OK.

When I’m unexpectedly asked to explain why I have PTSD, I’m filled with sorrow. I end up crying in public. Having to recall events can suddenly put me in a funk, and I will stay in that funk for days. Which brings me to perhaps the most important point:

The reason(s) why anyone has PTSD is none of your business. Don’t suddenly ask them about it. You would not serve your vegetarian friend a rare steak. So don’t ask someone with PTSD to tell you why they’ve got it.

When you ask someone with PTSD to explain why they’ve got it, you’re asking them to recall the incident that caused it. That is most certainly a trigger. Like serving a vegetarian a bleeding piece of meat and forcing them to eat it, this is cruelty for someone with PTSD.

This stuff is no joke. Panic attacks are not fun. Feeling out of control of your reactions is not fun.

If I have a friend with PTSD, I ask, “What do I need to know about this?” and let them tell me what to avoid when interacting with them.

PTSD means, because a trigger could happen anywhere, at any time, I don’t go out much. I don’t socialize much, and if I do, I have to force myself to go and put on a brave face. Because people in everyday life don’t understand, and can easily label sufferers of PTSD “crazy,” the best option for many seems to be to shut themselves away. The lack of understanding of this condition, the same as with most mental health issues, is ultimately like delivering a death sentence to those of us who have them.

Although these conditions could happen to anyone, we’re being forced into cages because of luck of the draw, because of ignorance and because of the stigmatization. In these cages we cope, day by day. Is that really living?

PTSD is like a mental scar from an occurrence that caused a mental wound. In order to not open up someone’s scars, it would be wonderful if everyone took some time to educate themselves on this condition.

A version of this post originally appeared on Talking This and That.

For more resources on PTSD, or for more information about getting help, visit Mental Health AmericaIf you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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Originally published: June 26, 2015
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