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How Underlying Trauma Can Change Your Diagnosis

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Whenever I sought out counseling, I had a clear goal of what to accomplish and confidently thought, “OK, I’m getting help. I’ll fix the problem.”

• What is PTSD?

When multiple problems were occurring, I would just focus on the one I thought was most time sensitive and rarely strayed from it, even though they were all connected. I never realized that putting the others on the back burner would later change my diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and major depressive disorder (MDD) to GAD, MDD, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I feel both relief and grief with my new diagnosis; I understand why I physiologically respond in certain ways and I now know the different kind of support I need. However, I hate seeing myself as a “victim,” and I constantly struggle with feeling like my trauma is my fault and what PTSD is perceived as doesn’t apply to me.

According to the Sidran Institute, “an estimated 1 out of 10 women will get PTSD at some time in their lives. Women are about twice as likely as men to develop PTSD.” PTSD is often associated with combat; however, I have PTSD and I have not been in combat

When I was 19, I was sexually assaulted. I didn’t even remember it happened until nine months later when I saw the person I thought was my abuser and had a panic attack that left me bedridden for the next two days. The grief I experienced at that time turned into anger and I felt betrayed by my own brain for somehow blocking the trauma. I originally thought if I was able to forget about it and ignore the self-destructing behaviors subconsciously stemming from it, it couldn’t actually be assault. I didn’t know anything about the way the brain physically changes after trauma to understand what was happening to me.

I only brought it up in counseling once and never pursued it; I guess I wasn’t ready to acknowledge it for what it was. I attributed my episodes to my depression and anxiety because that was what I was always told I had. But, why would they tell me otherwise if I wasn’t always honest about what I was experiencing? I assumed it was “normal” to have debilitating disassociation or panic attacks when I was touched, anyone was too close to me, my skin was bruised or the words “sexual assault” were mentioned/joked about — because I had depression and anxiety.

The way my episodes transformed rapidly during the last few months finally made me realize something different was going on, so I talked to a friend of mine who had witnessed the changes intensify. The frequency of triggers only increased as my stress with school increased. I felt great in the beginning of the semester, but after an incident, I imploded and was quickly in a constant state of tension 24/7, creating jaw pain and headaches.

I was crying almost every day, feeling sheer panic, having nightmares and flashbacks and disassociating within seconds at any given moment. I could literally feel my brain fog over, which disrupts my speech and comprehension. I felt detached from my body, like I was seeing myself from outside.

I stopped talking to my family and some friends entirely. My inability to focus on anything, along with dissociative amnesia, interfered with work and school.

I started having bouts of rage I have never felt before.

I started falling behind in classwork, and even when I caught up, I felt like I was failing at everything.

My high-functioning abilities were now barely functioning, day after day. I kept telling myself I couldn’t “afford” a breakdown with graduation right around the corner, even though I desperately needed to save myself. After feeling like I’d been in an intense fight or flight mode for a long period of time, I knew it was time to get the help I should’ve gotten a long time ago.

Now, I am back in counseling, only this time I have no choice but to acknowledge what has caused my spiral, and from what I now realize were my other spirals. I know the work is going to be harder than it ever has been, but I have hope that, with this new diagnosis, I can create a dialogue with my loved ones about what I am experiencing and move forward.

Photo by Murilo Folgosi from Pexels

Originally published: January 19, 2019
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