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The Truth About Recovering From a Condition Society Thinks I Can't Have

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Unlike some of my other diagnoses, “PTSD” is a name most people recognize immediately. However, the amount of inaccuracy that people associate with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is huge. The truth is that PTSD isn’t just for soldiers. It’s not a matter of not choosing to move past an event. PTSD is not a choice, it’s a serious mental health condition. No one is too young for PTSD. PTSD looks different for everyone who has it. PTSD doesn’t automatically occur when an individual experiences trauma. There are so many things I wish society would realize about PTSD.

• What is PTSD?

I wish society would realize that people with PTSD can look like me.

I’m a 17-year-old girl. I’m not in the military. I’ve never been in a car accident. I do not have a single bruise or scar to show from the trauma I’ve experienced. I’ve never been held at gunpoint. I’ve never been kidnapped. I’ve never been isolated from society. I’ve never been raped. I’ve never tried to press any legal charges. I’ve never had an abusive boyfriend (or a boyfriend at all). I’m an honor roll student, involved in many extracurricular activities. I look like any other teenage girl. But I have PTSD. I have PTSD from years of abuse that never left a bruise or scar. But I was in fear of my life many times, because being in fear for one’s life doesn’t require tangible remaining evidence after the situation, and trauma is a relative term.

Here’s the truth about my PTSD that society doesn’t see:

I spent my childhood experiencing one traumatic event after the next, and it had been going on for years before I realized that not all fathers do what mine did. Because I didn’t have tangible proof, it took years before I could escape the situation. The legal system in this country holds strongly to the standard of “innocent until proven guilty” for more than just legal charges. They hold to it for any infringement of perceived “rights,” even though the large majority of abuse accusations are genuine, even if they lack tangible proof. This includes visitation “rights,” meaning that regardless of how I was feeling or what he did, if he wanted to see me on the court ordered schedule, I had no choice but to go with him. Apparently, in the eyes of the courts, I didn’t have the same “rights” as he did. I wasn’t given a choice, but if he didn’t want to see me, he didn’t have to do so. Because of my age, my opinion and my feelings meant nothing in the eyes of the law.

The years in which the setup of this country’s legal system prevented my safety and well-being just made my PTSD hit me worse when I was finally safe from the abuse, although I do remember having some symptoms at least eight years prior. I went from in an unsafe situation with my father’s abuse directly into a situation in which I was a danger to myself, bouncing from one mental health crisis to the next. I experienced all-consuming flashbacks that lasted for minutes each, one flashback triggering another, for months. I attempted suicide. I started to self-harm. I believed that the abuse was my fault and that I deserved it. I went undiagnosed for months after it hit me at its worst because I fell through the cracks in general mental health assessments. I was labeled as “too sensitive” and told it was “just anxiety and depression” because I was supposedly “too young for PTSD” and what I experienced was “not as bad as what soldiers face in combat.” But the lack of an accurate diagnosis didn’t change the fact that it was there. I still had PTSD, I just didn’t have a diagnosis to state it. This added to the pain and confusion as I wrestled with knowing without a doubt that I was experiencing every single symptom of PTSD, but also hearing everyone telling me that I didn’t, that I couldn’t, have PTSD.

I wish I could go back in time and look every single person who said that to me in the eyes. I wish I could show them just five minutes of what my life looked like six months ago. Six months ago I was bouncing from one flashback to the next, and I had no idea how to handle them. I couldn’t function. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t rest. I could barely eat. I could barely sleep. At some points throughout most days, I was so trapped inside of my flashbacks that I couldn’t move, because my mind didn’t know where I was. My mind told me I was in the same dangerous situation all over again, reliving it over and over, without being able to control even my own actions within the flashback itself. I wish I could tell them I needed help. I wish they’d listen. I wish they’d understand. I wish I could change things, not only for myself, but for everyone like me. Maybe I can. Maybe we can. Maybe, if everyone who understands the reality of PTSD came together to encourage awareness and support, then maybe, just maybe, we could make a change.

Here’s the raw, honest truth about recovering and healing from a condition that society thinks I can’t have:

Stigma and stereotypes are dangerous. I’ve been receiving treatment for months and my PTSD is far better than I would’ve imagined it could be just six months ago. However, the lack of understanding about the realities of PTSD have made me hesitant to tell my support systems. The lack of understanding has caused many hours spent and tears cried as I questioned my diagnosis and the reality of what I faced. It hasn’t been easy. In fact, it’s been really, really hard. It got worse before it got better as I dealt with many restless nights, torn between staying awake or risking spending all night reliving the trauma without being able to use any coping skills. I preferred to never sleep, but eventually my body would shut down. I spent weeks on end with multiple severe sets of flashbacks a day, barely recovering from one cluster of them before another hit. It spent countless days feeling that I should give up on all of it, my mind telling me that it was hopeless, that I was hopeless, and life was too hard for me because I wasn’t strong enough to handle it.

But I was strong enough to handle it. I was strong enough to do what I had to do to recover and heal. I had to open up about what happened to people I barely knew. I had to face the reality that I was a victim of domestic violence and abuse. I had to try, and fail, many different medications. I had to be painfully honest, not just with my mental health providers, but also with myself. I had to work to break down those maladaptive methods that had previously been the only choice I had to stay safe. I had to stop dodging every personal and painful question. I had to find every little metaphorical band-aid covering up the pain and rip them all off of me. I had to put myself through more pain to get away from the pain. But I’m finally seeing it. The pain has finally lessened. It hasn’t ceased, but it has lessened enough that I can be myself once again, and I can function. I only wish it had been caught before it took over my life. I only wish society understood the truth.

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, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

Thinkstock photo via Grandfailure

Originally published: April 8, 2017
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