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Why This Assumption About My Life After Trauma Is Wrong

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

It has been nearly a year since my trauma occurred.

At first, I thought I’d be back to work within a week or two. “I just needed to clear my head, get the memories out and then I’ll be good to go,” I told myself. But after several nights of nightmares and consistent changes I was making around my home to keep myself safe, I was referred to the occupational health center in my local area where I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

• What is PTSD?

I had studied this condition in my psychology class in college — which I received an A in, by the way — and what I remembered from studying it was:

1. It is caused by a traumatic event, either going through or witnessing it, and is the brain’s way of coping.

2. Depression and anxiety are symptoms and part of the diagnosis.

3. Nightmares don’t only show the trauma, but can sometimes make you relive the emotions that occurred during the trauma.

4. This is a life-altering mental illness for which you need counseling.

5. The trauma itself could be life-threatening or not, it all depends on the person

6. With therapy, you’ll hopefully be able to recognize and cope with triggers that remind you of the trauma.

7. Triggers can be anything from sound, taste or smell to being in a crowded place, being alone or the sight of something that was a part of the trauma, such as a gun, knife, school, mall, etc.

Clinically speaking, this is all true. But do you know what it’s like to live with it? Do you have a full understanding of the amount of energy it takes to get out of bed each morning? Did you know the flashbacks don’t just occur in dreams, but also during the day, whenever a trigger is seen?

Clinically observing these symptoms is all well and dandy. Learning about the symptoms, what causes them and why is definitely a great thing. But, what the books don’t tell you is how to live with it. They don’t tell you how to cope, survive, work through it. They don’t tell you how exhausting it is to be consistently anxious and depressed. That naps will more than likely become a daily afternoon necessity. They don’t tell you that, sometimes, you can become so severely depressed that you don’t even have the motivation to get out of bed, to shower, to get dressed. They don’t tell you how much harder it is to parent a child when you have a mental illness. They don’t tell you how much harder it is just to be a person.

Living with PTSD, at least for me, is realizing the foundation on which you built your life, beliefs and world on is no longer applicable. It’s realizing I’m free-falling down a rabbit hole and the falling doesn’t stop until I figure out what my foundation exactly is. It’s understanding that I sometimes don’t have control of my body, my mind, my emotions, my heart. Living with PTSD is a constant struggle to do what you have to do even if your mind says you can’t. It’s living with a screaming baby in the back of your mind, wanting a candy bar, and denying it so you won’t give in to it.

I, sometimes, cannot live outside of my mind. It keeps holding me back from doing things I enjoy, things I love. It sucks me in and all I’m left with at the end of the day are all of these thoughts of doubt and worry and anger. These are the things they don’t tell you in the psychology books. They don’t tell you about the exhaustion, the anxiety, the paranoia you live with on a regular basis. They especially don’t tell you how to cope with it.

Living with PTSD, you come to realize there was pre-trauma you and post-trauma you. And it takes a little while, but you eventually realize: that pre-trauma you? She’s dead. Gone. Turned into ash by Thanos’ snap. Pre-trauma you did not survive the war, and coming to terms with that… well, they don’t tell you how to do that in the books. They don’t tell you how to rebuild your life post-trauma.

The me who is dead, the me who loved life, laid down to get stepped on by everyone she knew, worked hard for everything she had, had plans to travel the world, have another baby, buy a house, experience new things every month; pre-trauma me is lost in the abyss. Without even realizing it, in the weeks following the trauma, she was gone the moment the trauma happened. She just didn’t know that she died. She hung on like a ghost from her past, haunting her until she finally realized what had happened to her.

Post-trauma me — the one who is exhausted daily, who feels like she wants to throw her son across the room so that his attitude goes away, the one who only showers when her husband literally strips her naked in the bathroom and puts her in the bathtub — she’s a stranger to me. I don’t know her yet. And still, I fall. I fall into an unknown abyss of questions, concerns, self-doubt, anger, sadness and anxiety.

And because I’m falling, people seem to think I’m selfish. Because I am stuck in my head, doing only things that may or may not make me better, some seem to think I’m being selfish. I am selfish, in their eyes, because the me they knew is gone, and the new me is a stranger, and they feel as if they can go ahead and mold me into who they want me to be. And meanwhile, the new me is saying no. It’s a word I never said to them before. It’s something I always stayed away from because, before, I would have said yes and allowed them to walk all over me. Before, I would have said yes even if it cost me something I couldn’t afford to lose. Before, I would have said yes because my love for these people was so strong, so fulfilling, so completely dedicated. And now, I’m saying no. And I’m selfish for that, or so they seem to believe.

If you have a mental illness, whether it’s PTSD, depression, suicidal thoughts, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or whatever, you will end up having people in your life who will believe that, by focusing on yourself for the first time in forever, you are selfish. They will believe that because you are saying “no” to going out to the bars because you’re afraid, or going out to lunch on a Saturday at noon when the crowds are high gives you so much anxiety you have a panic attack just thinking about, or taking a quick trip to the store with them to pick up something they need for dinner that they didn’t realize they didn’t have before; they will believe that because you are saying “no” to the things you would have always said “yes” to before, you are being selfish. Let it be known, let it be screamed from Mt. Everest if need be, that you, with whatever mental illness you have, are not being selfish by taking care of yourself first.

You are stuck in your mind. Your body sometimes does things your mind doesn’t remember telling it to do. You are trying to figure out how to operate with this mental illness that sometimes makes you feel as if you are so lonely and no one cares that you just want to die. Your mind is keeping you prisoner, and the only way to free yourself is to focus on yourself. And if others want to call you selfish, so be it. You are not being selfish for focusing on yourself. I am not being selfish for taking care of myself.

I am not selfish; I have PTSD, a mental illness, with which I have to relearn how to live. I have to focus on me because I am trapped in my mind and the only way out is to stay in there and figure out what my life will be from now on. I am not selfish; I have PTSD, a mental illness, which now makes it so I have to relearn who I am, what I stand for, where I want to be in life, by which point I want to accomplish a set of new goals I have to lay out, why my body and my brain is functioning as if they were different entities, how to operate again as a functioning, semi-normal person and how to live as this new person.

I am not selfish; I have PTSD.

Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Originally published: June 13, 2019
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