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When Trauma Sends Your Mental Illness Into 'Overdrive'

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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.

My whole life in relation to my struggle with mental illness has been a roller coaster. I remember having symptoms of anxiety when I was as young as 3 years old, and depression since I was around 8 years old. Even though my symptoms were often elevated at times throughout my childhood and teen years, it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle.

• What is PTSD?

That all changed right after I turned 20 and became a victim of an attempted rape. Needless to say, it flipped my life upside down, and I never imagined that several years later, I would still be trying to recover from that day. In the months and years following the sexual assault, my anxiety and depression completely skyrocketed, and made my last two years of college extremely difficult to navigate.

If I’m being honest, I’ve felt like a zombie since that day, but things are certainly looking up. I finally sought help from a therapist after six years of ignoring my worsening symptoms and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I was at such a low point by that time, and had so much hatred toward myself. It’s said that time heals all wounds, but for victims and survivors of sexual assault, that isn’t always the case. At least it wasn’t for me.

For years following the assault, I turned down therapy because I kept thinking I would just naturally get better as time went on. That I would forget what happened and I would get my confidence back on my own. I dreamed of the person I was before, and hoped she would slowly begin to come back. I believed she was still there, but for good reason she was terrified to come back out. It was too painful. When something traumatic happens, it’s like you have to rebuild yourself from the ground up. It’s like starting over from day one, but it’s not easy to accomplish when the mental illness resulting from trauma is holding you back. Trauma whispers hurtful things you know aren’t true, but you still believe it. Your mind won’t shut up. It’s loud in there. To this day, I very rarely feel peace, but when I do, it’s such a gift.

I used to relive what happened to me every day, but it’s getting better. As time goes on I think about it less, but it doesn’t change the fact that my stomach drops every time I see someone who looks like him. It doesn’t change the times I’m terrified to leave my house out of fear that someone else could do this to me again, or worse. The intrusive thoughts and hypervigilance completely consume me to the point that sometimes I can’t function when I’m in public. Occasionally I still cancel plans or turn down invites because I’m all too familiar with the symptoms I have when I’m in certain situations. Most of the time going out means spending the entire time scanning the room for danger, and having panic attacks anytime I see someone that resembles the man who left bruises all over my body and soul. Not only do I feel physically safer when I stay home, but there my mind is a little more at peace.

Trauma may have sent my mental illness into overdrive, but I’m definitely learning to navigate it better through therapy and my faith in God. I still have rough days (lots of them if I’m honest), but I’m able to do so much more than I was able to before. I can go to the grocery store, a restaurant, or date night for the most part without being hypervigilant or having a panic attack.

I’m not even worried about becoming the old me again, because I’m a newer and better version of me now. I stopped chasing the girl I was before the trauma occurred and I’m slowly learning to love myself again. My past doesn’t define me, and yours doesn’t either. My goal is to use my trauma to create positive changes in this broken world. I’m a survivor. Although I’m still in recovery, I’m living proof that it’s possible to conquer the negative effects of trauma. Don’t ever be afraid to tell someone if you’ve been the victim of a sexual assault, and never hesitate to seek help from a counselor in order to work through your trauma. Your life and mental health are so important, and you are so completely deserving of living a happy life post-trauma. Never ever give up on that.

 If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

Thinkstock photo via berdsigns.

Originally published: September 12, 2017
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