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My Secret Life With Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

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You’ve sat next to me on the subway, stood in line with me at the grocery store and even worked alongside me. But you would never guess my secret. I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I hide it behind my smile, my obsessive attention to detail and confidence. Society recognizes pain in physical injury, yet not always in mental illness. Because of this, PTSD’s scars are easily disregarded. The daily battle to contain my illness is messy, because it is difficult to predict when and where the symptoms will appear. Anxiety, hypervigilance, unexplained bursts of anger, depression, panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, dissociation — these are the criteria in the DSM-V for PTSD. But there is much more to it. Genuine physical symptoms such as ulcers, dizziness, migraines, insomnia and chronic pain can be debilitating.

• What is PTSD?

Take a moment and imagine your brain was programmed like a broken VHS. It won’t stop playing and it’s projected fullscreen with certain parts of the movie missing, some parts repeating multiple times and there is always static present. Your brain is permanently fixated and specific triggers cause you to exhibit behaviors. However, triggers do not always have to be present for symptoms to occur, racing thoughts substitute. Envision being so overwhelmed that you feel as if you’re having an “out of body” experience. This is what PTSD feels like, at least for me.

When I was first diagnosed, I was fervently against disclosing it to anyone. I was in such denial, hiding my illness became a full-time job. It actually ended up costing me my real job. The cycle of denial continued to destroy essential parts of my life, such as relationships and physical health. I was convinced no one would take me seriously, they would deem me as crazy. Besides, denial is always easier, you can forego confrontation and rejection. PTSD is not comfortable to live with, nor is it easy to inform a potential employer you have it. Legally, they cannot deny for you employment, but they will find loopholes if the company decides they cannot accommodate you. This is a gray area in hiding my PTSD. Do I hide it to gain employment or do I risk rejection by disclosing it? Honestly, it depends on the job, whether or not I choose to disclose. It may not be relevant to disclose my condition as long as it will not interfere with my work performance. The flip side of this is if something were to go awry, I would be responsible. Some employers have accepted it and some have not, but I have accepted it is a part of me.

I believe professionals in the United States lack sufficient knowledge about PTSD compared to other nations. Some medical doctors are dismissive when you walk into their office and say “I am in pain,” but in the same monologue, mention PTSD. They will examine you and send you home with a recommendation for a psychiatrist. No x-rays needed here. How demoralizing is that? I cannot tell you how many times this has happened to me. 

PTSD is extremely complex and its symptoms mirror a variety of conditions. Unfortunately, this leads to experimentation on the part of the patient. The experimental medications started to pour in when I was referred to my first psychiatrist, in order to soothe the symptoms. The side effects from the medications created new symptoms, which precipitated the never-ending cycle of trial and error pharmaceuticals. My friends began to distance themselves from me because I was not myself on these medications. Many of the medications prescribed to treat PTSD are also utilized for hypertension, anxiety, bipolar disorder, chronic pain, major depression and epilepsy. When I sought a second and third opinion, I had been right the whole time. These experimental drugs were doing more harm than good. Cognitive behavioral therapy, trigger identification, writing therapy and disclosure are some of the strategies that have improved my quality of life. Medications did not. The brain is the most powerful organ we possess and if it is under too much duress, it will damage other parts of the body.

There is an assumption only those engaged in violent situations can develop PTSD. The condition was primarily identified in combat veterans during World War II and was referred to as “shell shock.” PTSD can emanate from any traumatic event and I emphasize any. My PTSD primarily stems from non-combat related trauma, as a result of my time in the military. However, other events in my life have added triggers and compounded my disorder in general.

For those of you reading this who have been told “you can’t have PTSD” because you aren’t a typical PTSD patient, yet find yourself nodding your head while reading this and saying “this is me,” please get a second opinion. You’re not crazy, you are responding to a traumatic event(s). Your body, mind and spirit are all affected. This is real and challenge everything the naysayers have told you. Trauma is trauma and each individual responds to situations differently. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, research funds have been utilized for PTSD.

People assume I’m a nervous person, but in reality I’m constantly on guard. It’s hard to let go of control, because in the back of my mind I still view everyone as a potential aggressor. If I am not in control of the situation, something could go amiss. When a situation becomes too much to bear, dissociation kicks into gear and there’s no reaching me. I detach myself faster than a parachute deploying. It is a safety mechanism and the hardest to break, in my opinion. PTSD is scary and dissociation offers a brief refuge from its terrors. Unfortunately, it is not healthy and will only lead to self-destruction. I know the struggle well and remaining in “the now” is imperative for recovery, even when you feel most frightened. Some of the hardest things in life yield the greatest results. I have come a long way, but I still struggle to keep my dissociation and hypervigilance at bay. Daytime can be difficult, yet I can enjoy it now. I love talking to people and being my true self. I still exercise caution, but I can partake in life again. I’m not trapped in my own jail. Seven years ago, the prospect of going out was nerve-wracking and staying out was impossible. Staying in crowded places freaked me out and I used to abandon shopping trips and parties within minutes of arriving. The stress was too much.

Nighttime still brings some shadows into play for me. People will occasionally say, “Wow you tired, late night?” I look like I went out to the club, except I didn’t. I was wide awake consistently analyzing every encounter, while trying to escape past memories. I am still searching for a good night’s sleep. It will come eventually, I am sure of it. These occurrences used to be thickly imprinted in my mind and medications do not make them subside. Verbalizing the thoughts behind the anxiety and the fear helped me a great deal. I’m not saying you will wake up one day and forget what occurred, but you will be able to relinquish some of your pain. I challenge thoughts concerning self-worth daily and I found keeping my PTSD a secret only fed these thoughts. Cognitive behavior therapy helped me discover “the writing on the wall” so to speak. It’s easier to be transparent with yourself and your support system when you are in crisis or just not feeling yourself. Also, accepting the fact some individuals will not understand what you’re going through. But if you don’t try, you’ll never know.

I began speaking about my PTSD a few years ago and I felt like Atlas dismounting the Earth from his shoulders. It was terrifying at first, but it got easier and people listened. They didn’t listen because they felt bad for me, they listened because they could relate. Over the years, I have learned that hiding my illness serves me less and less. Therefore, I implore you all to challenge the notion PTSD is a fleeting thought, a simple burst of anger or a bad nightmare. Please help remove the stigma and familiarize yourself with the signs.

If you need support right now, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1. Or send a text message to 838255.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

Image via Thinkstock

Originally published: January 29, 2017
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