The 6 Emotions That Define My PTSD Journey
Confusion, despair, grief, rage, fear and guilt.
These six emotions were at the core of what I felt during my first encounter with mental illness. Before and after I was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) I experienced the darkest period of my life. The following is a detailed account of the airtight grip my emotions had over me for over a year and a half.
It’s a well-known fact that the symptoms of PTSD can manifest themselves months or even years after the traumatic event that triggers it. Of all the days the symptoms could have done so, the day they did was on my birthday. I’m not big on birthday parties so I was just with my two best friends. It was a Saturday like any other. Then it happened. My heart rate shot up, skipping a beat every few seconds. My vision blurred. I felt weak and dizzy. I started to sweat profusely. My chest felt like it was about to burst from the intense pressure. I could barely breathe. I was losing it completely. What was happening to me?! At this point I was among friends, but I did not tell them. I didn’t want to freak them out. This feeling did not subside for the rest of the evening. It wouldn’t subside for a long time.
The next morning, I woke up and felt intense discomfort. I wouldn’t stop shaking. My heart rate was all over the place, still skipping a beat regularly. My muscles were achy and stiff. My jaw was so stiff it gave me headaches. There was this general sense of discomfort that I just couldn’t place, an indescribable feeling where “something” is off. What the fuck was happening to me?! I went downstairs to make breakfast and my parents were there. I did not tell them. I didn’t want to freak them out.
What I’ve just described are a panic attack and an anxiety attack. It would take me at least eight months to find out. Both would happen on a very regular basis. Anxiety attacks were pretty much constant, and panic attacks would happen every few weeks and then stay away for weeks again.
The central issue in my confusion was my ignorance of anxiety. I simply didn’t know what anxiety was. I looked for physical explanations because the symptoms I felt were all physical. I would regularly see my doctor and explain some of the physical symptoms to find a solution for those symptoms. I didn’t even give the doctor a full explanation of everything I was feeling. I figured I’d solve all of these physical issues one by one. Of course none of it helped. Every time I would try something new, I would just be back at square one again moments later. A few weeks after my first panic attack I started to get incredibly nauseous after waking up and regularly throughout the day. My stomach was wreaking havoc on me. Heartburn became more and more frequent. My ears would ring. My muscles had started twitching. I couldn’t sit still anymore, either tapping my feet or fingers constantly. Trying to fall asleep became almost impossible, my mind would race with worries. I was always tired. Any physical exertion like walking up the stairs or walking to the bus stop drained all of my energy and had me panting. I wasn’t in good shape particularly, but I knew I wasn’t this out of shape. I still had no idea what was happening to me. Where before I was mostly confused about what could be happening to me, a different emotion would rear its head to join my confusion.
One step forward, 10 steps back. Two steps forward, 40 steps back. Every “solution” was a dud. Whatever I tried not only didn’t help me, things were getting worse. Much worse than I had ever experienced. Every day, I woke up and would instantly feel the discomfort. From the first to the last breath, every day would be filled with that feeling. My only comfort was sleep, the cousin of death. I wasn’t living anymore. I had switched to survival mode. My mind solely focused on what could go wrong. Being prepared for the things that were actually happening to me didn’t cut it anymore. The future held a lot of uncertainty. That means a lot of things that could go wrong. It would be foolish not to try to prepare for that. What if I would lose control again? What if I would start to feel like I did in Canada? I wouldn’t be able to handle that with everything else that was going on already.
My mind excelled at coming up with doom scenarios. There were catastrophes hiding around every corner and I was going to find all of them so I wouldn’t fall victim to them. But my mind did not only excel at coming up with these scenarios, it also made me believe them. I didn’t have any arguments against them, so I’d be convinced they were all destined to come true. I had just gotten lucky that they hadn’t happened to me yet. After all, Canada had been completely unexpected too. So maybe preparing for these doom scenarios was pointless. The world was an unsafe place. My doom was inevitable. Not only that, but while I was waiting I had no energy left. I had become a husk. Everything I did carried with it an undertone of intense discomfort, with the occasional blatant overtone. Day in, day out, for months. Why was I still here, and how long would I stick around? My answer was simple. If I could not fix this, if I could not find an explanation, I would stick around until I was 25. I’d keep it up for a few years and then say my goodbyes, because my life had not just become painful, it had become pointless. Why would I stay here, waiting for my inevitable doom while waiting for my doom was so painful I wanted to be dead anyway?
After around seven months of looking for a physical explanation for how I felt, I finally considered a mental one. I had deliberately not looked at specific mental disorders as an explanation for the feelings out of fear that I would self-diagnose. But after eight months I started looking into it. I found it within several days. General anxiety disorder seemed to describe how I had felt in the past months to a T. I went to see my doctor and told him I considered seeing a mental health professional. He agreed, so off I went.
When I got my diagnosis I remember laughing hysterically in my head. I was right about general anxiety disorder, but there was another disorder there that almost seemed out of place, post-traumatic stress disorder. The disorder is usually associated with war veterans and victims of abuse. How the fuck did a simple exchange to Canada turn into a genuinely traumatic event? Yeah sure, it was the deepest well I had ever been in, but to consider it traumatic seemed ridiculous to me. I then got an explanation why it was traumatic. It wasn’t necessarily the event itself that had caused the way I felt then and now. It was how I had handled my emotions throughout my exchange. I hadn’t handled them. At all. I was under their complete control. The realm of emotions was a mystery to me, so I was definitely not prepared to experience what I had gone through in Canada. Not having an explanation for how I had felt meant that my mind had gone on an endless search that would never result in anything but the most dire explanations. It had convinced me that the world was an unsafe place where you need to be on edge at all times so as not to be in danger. All my negative thought patterns were defense mechanisms that turned out to do much, much more damage than prevent it.
People often ask if getting my diagnosis helped me to recover. It did. I’m eternally grateful for having an explanation. It was only after I got my concrete explanation that I could start trying to fix everything. But having an explanation is not the same as getting a cure. When you break a bone, the doctor might be able to tell you in what places you broke it, but you still have a broken bone. Recovery can start, but pain is inevitable. I could now explain to myself how I felt, but I still had no idea how to handle any of it. Despair didn’t stop after my diagnosis. It got worse. I realized the extent to which I was in trouble. I was fucked. Completely. Anxiety and stress would haunt me for the rest of my life. I wasn’t dealing with something that had a cure. How I’ve felt in the past eight months was just a preview of what the rest of my life would be like. All the hope I held out for a semblance of my old life disappeared. Who I was before Canada would never come back.
I loved my childhood. Life had been good to me for 20 years. I grew up in a loving home. I was free to make the choices I wanted to make. My parents were supportive of my hobbies, interests and ambitions. Friends came and went, so I never felt lonely. I could always share my thoughts with someone who meant a lot to me. I was proud of my achievements. I had enough self-esteem to never seriously worry about my abilities. I had a plan. I had purpose. I wholeheartedly believed that I could do what I had set my mind to. Life had been good to me. I don’t remember wanting for more. Of course I had unfulfilled desires, but I feel that everything I had gotten out of life was enough to not just be content, but satisfied. I had gotten so much more than most. I was happy.
I loved my childhood. I love remembering my childhood. But after Canada, I felt like I was remembering someone else’s memories. I couldn’t understand how I had ever been that person. I couldn’t comprehend that one event could change a person to the core of their being. I didn’t change my behavior much. My environment hadn’t changed much. The only thing that had changed was me. When I say that Canada changed me to the core of my being, I mean that it changed the way I saw myself, the world and my place in it. My self-esteem, self-worth and self-respect had vanished. The things I used to do for enjoyment became empty distractions. I was absolutely, positively terrified of the future. The present didn’t make it easy either. Life had changed its mind and had decided to come down on me like the crashing of a thousand waves. I was deeply unhappy.
My diagnosis was a confirmation that my old sense of self had died in Canada. Who I was before Canada would never come back. This may sound a little out of context, but it makes sense, trust me. I’ve never been in a relationship, but breakup songs always feel like a gut punch to me. Some songs struck a chord with me so much there had to be an explanation. That’s because I did have a relationship that I had relied upon for the first 20 years of my life. My relationship with myself. Put simply, I liked myself. Now I didn’t. I was in an abusive relationship where the abuser knows, to precise detail, how to hurt you. There’s not a soul on the planet who could tear me down more than I ever could. It’s a skill I’ve mastered, unfortunately. I fucking hated who I had become. Who I had turned out to be. Remembering who I had been before Canada would fill me with such a sense of loss that it felt like there was a corpse stuck inside of me. I could not let go of who I was. I wanted to retain that old sense of self so badly that I was blinded to the obvious. I knew it wasn’t going to come back, but I hung onto hope for as long as possible. My diagnosis confirmed the futility of hoping. Dashed hopes lead to grief. Some griefs pass, others may linger. Mine lingered. Everything I did reminded me of a time I had done so without being terrified on an existential scale. I grieved a lot after Canada. There was another emotion that had been a constant grievance after.
I’m not good at expressing my emotions. But there is one emotion I’ve always been able to express quite well. Anger. When I’m alone, I’ll freely express my frustration with something. If I’m watching or playing something that frustrates me, I’ll yell at the screen. I’ll have full-on rants in my room. It’s cathartic. If nobody’s listening, I’ll always go off on something if it becomes a source of frustration. This habit of expressing my frustration was the seed for a much more sinister habit.
After Canada, I started to get more and more pissed. With the things around me, the people around me, the world as a whole, but mostly with myself. Why wasn’t I able to deal with anything in a healthy way? I would yell at myself just as loudly as I would at the screen. Any minor mistake would set me off. The tiniest error would have me screaming at myself. “You absolute, goddamn moron! This is the umpteenth time you’ve made this mistake. You don’t learn. You can be shown time and again what you shouldn’t do, but you keep doing it. How are you this dense? How can anyone be this dense? There’s a special place for people like you and it’s exactly the place you’re in right now. You feel miserable because you absolutely, wholeheartedly deserve to feel so. You don’t want to learn from your mistakes? Get ready for a lifetime of repeating them. You worthless dumpster fire of a human being.” Well, I shouldn’t have forgotten my keys, I guess.
It slowly became clear to me that I wasn’t angry at whatever I was yelling at if something was particularly frustrating. I was angry at myself. Angry that I had made the decisions that led me to this constant misery. Angry that I was wired to see nothing but misery. Angry at my inability to deal with my emotions and much, much more. This anger was turned inward which created a vicious cycle of anger fueling more anger. I was livid in the end. Like a bubble that could burst at any point. It was inevitable. But there was another emotion behind my self-directed, rage-filled rants. Anger had become a conduit for anxiety. I wasn’t just angry at myself whenever I felt angry. I was terrified. Shaking from both fear and rage simultaneously. It always boiled down to fear.
It’s normal to be anxious, to have doubts and be somewhat afraid of what the future will hold. It’s normal to feel a pit in your stomach when you’re about to do something that makes you nervous. Whether it’s a job interview or a first date, you know you’ll feel nervous throughout. Any normal person would experience those feelings. Anxiety is not something to fear. It’s a natural, primal response to everything that poses a threat, both perceived and actual. Fear can be our greatest motivator. We all desire to feel safe, and anxiety is a way to ensure that we feel properly motivated to keep ourselves safe, whether physically or psychologically.
It’s not normal to spend the majority of your time worrying about the future, to constantly focus on the ways in which life can fuck you over. It’s not normal to wake up and have the first thought to come to mind scare you to death. You’re not supposed to constantly feel your heartbeat in your throat, or feel your chest constrict with the accompanying searing pains shooting through you. You’re not supposed to feel that pit in your stomach while you’re watching some innocuous video on YouTube. You’re not supposed to feel like this for months at a time. An anxiety disorder is something to fear. How much you should fear it cannot be understood unless it is experienced firsthand. I’m in awe of the intricate, insidious nature of an anxiety disorder. How it makes being afraid a default state. It convinces you you should be afraid, and gives you ample reasons to be afraid. How it produces a million different ways to freak you out. Fear had become my single biggest obstacle. I would never feel safe, and anxiety had become a constant reminder of just how unsafe I felt.
As I’ve mentioned before, I was ignorant of anxiety before I got my diagnosis. Sure, I had felt it before, but that it could physically manifest itself like this was something beyond my imagination. For eight months I felt intense anxiety without being the slightest bit aware of what it was I actually felt. As a result I had begun to fear anxiety. I became deathly afraid of it. Every slight twinge of anxiety I would feel in my body would remind me of what that slight twinge had resulted in in the past. The panic attacks that came out of nowhere after feeling just a little anxiety. If I felt my heart skip a beat, or my chest constrict, or noticed my breathing change, I would be convinced that it would always be the precursor to something much, much worse. If my stomach would start acting up, or I felt weak and dizzy, or my muscles tightened, I would always stop to think about just how fucked I really was. How was I supposed to keep this up and not off myself?
It was downright unbearable at this point and none of my efforts to fight it bore any fruit. Anytime something provoked any anxiety in me, I would hear a torrent of anxious thoughts. Like a bucket flowing over from a single drop. Any obstacle that presented itself would rev my anxious brain’s engine. Any obstacle or anxious thought would make my brain produce a seemingly endless stream of more anxious thoughts lodged in my subconscious. This may sound strange, but I swear I could hear myself whispering anxious thoughts in the background of my mind while desperately trying to focus on something. Anytime I felt even slightly better, I would need no more than a second to shoot myself right back down again. My mind was riddled with destructive feedback loops that would always result in more anxiety. I wasn’t just deathly afraid of anxiety anymore. I was afraid of my mind and how chaos had ruined it. I was afraid of my body and how it had become so difficult to live with. I was afraid of myself.
After my diagnosis I finally knew what I had feared so much. My demon had a name. Anxiety has done irreparable damage to my mind. I was going to get reparations. Someone was going to take the blame for this. It landed squarely on me.
I was around 12 years old when a dream nestled itself into my mind. I was going to live in North America. I became obsessed with North American culture, absorbing all the information I could find. I loved North American music, games, movies, TV and YouTubers. I switched my brain’s default language from Dutch to English, thinking in English. I practiced speaking English to myself on a daily basis for years until I had removed most traces of a Dutch accent. If I was going to live in North America, I wanted to be able to blend in. When I graduated high school at 18, I immediately jumped on the opportunity to get an international degree. One that would force me to study or intern abroad. I landed on International Communication & Media. The first two years went swimmingly. I wasn’t particularly thrilled about the course content, but some boring courses were a good trade off for a fulfilled dream. My chances of getting to go to North America hinged on my grades, so I felt properly motivated to get high ones. Around mid 2016 I was granted my wish. I was chosen to go to Toronto, Canada. Well, be careful what you wish for, I guess.
How on Earth could I blame anyone or anything else when I was the one who had this dream? I allowed myself to be fooled by none other than myself. I put myself in this situation by making my dream come true. The end result of eight years of dreaming was immeasurable disappointment. It would have been easier to accept if it didn’t cause a complete mental breakdown a few months later. I didn’t get what I wanted out of it, but I got so much more. My dream falling apart caused myself to fall apart. It had instilled a debilitating fear of disappointment. I came to resent my chosen degree program. I was back at square zero. What was I going to do with my life? Why was I such a fuck up?
I should have sounded the alarms when I had my first panic attack, but I didn’t. I should have told someone about the constant anxiety attacks, but I didn’t. My doctor could have helped me in a meaningful way if I had told him about everything. I should have answered him honestly and dropped the stoic act. I was falling apart and yet I kept ignoring the blood red flags. I allowed my negativity bias to paint everything black. I could have reduced the damage if I hadn’t remained blissfully ignorant of anxiety by only looking for physical explanations. I was on a sinking ship I had sunk myself and instead of saving myself I wallowed in self-pity. Every negative thought or feeling was a stark reminder that I did this. Every twinge of anxiety was deserved. These were the consequences of my actions. Now I had the gall to complain endlessly about it? That’s another solid reason to tear myself apart. To roast myself into oblivion. I take responsibility for my actions and I had a lot to take responsibility for. This was how I paid my price.
I want to end on a more positive note by sharing with you the moment I realized I was truly in recovery. As I’ve mentioned before, recovery could start after I got an explanation for how I felt. My diagnosis was exactly that. Recovery started and throughout the entire process I was never convinced I was really recovering. Perpetually questioning if I wasn’t deceiving myself somehow. Having built such an intricate network of lies that I had successfully lied myself into believing I was getting better. On November 10, 2018, I got my answer. It was a Saturday, ironically enough. I was with the same two friends I had been with when everything had collapsed. After a terrific night, I hopped on my bike and decided to listen to a song. “Varúð” by Sigur Rós. I put it on repeat and for the next three hours it was the only thing I listened to. I didn’t need or want anything else. The emotional impact on me was the closest thing to a religious experience I’ve ever had. The following day I listened to it on repeat again for hours, still dumbstruck by the intense emotions the song evoked.
After everything that had happened, I could still experience something unforgettable that wasn’t mired in negativity. It was a confirmation that I just needed to be patient and eventually these moments would present themselves. I was actually getting better. I was so intensely grateful for the song that I felt a torrent of grateful thoughts. I was grateful for everything I could think of, and I was floored by the amount of things I was actually grateful for. The list seemed endless. Endless enough to be content again. The following months, my attitude shifted radically. From one of endless complaining to one of gratitude.
If I hold myself responsible for all of my mistakes, then I should also hold myself responsible for getting to recovery. I was helped tremendously by the people around me, but my responsibility should be acknowledged by myself. Not to stroke my own ego, but to remind myself of the control I have. It doesn’t matter how unsafe the world feels as long as I feel a sense of control over myself. My body and mind had betrayed me, but I’m slowly reconciling with both. It’s going to be a long process, but patience and support should help me along the way.
Photo by Alex Sheldon on Unsplash