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What I Didn't Know About PTSD At 15, and What I Know Now

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I’m 15, out shopping with a friend on a gorgeous summer day in northern Michigan. We are both wearing crop shirts, short shorts and platform heels. Our blonde hair sways rhythmically with each step, and we pass a couple who look about age. The couple was happy, in love, and not shy about publicly displaying it. I saw a pretty graphic display of affection that, at 15, made me extremely uncomfortable. I responded the only way I knew how: with humor. I leaned into my friend, laughing hysterically, and said, “Oh my God, I have PTSD from what I just saw.”

• What is PTSD?

15-year-old me didn’t know anything about post-traumatic stress disorder. In my mind, it was a phrase casually thrown around, used jokingly to describe an unpleasant event that evoked uncomfortable emotions.

15-year-old me was insanely ignorant.

PTSD is a silent killer. PTSD is not a joke. PTSD is an extremely debilitating, life-altering physical, mental and emotional condition that affects about 8 million adults during a given year.

It’s sneaky and complicated, hiding behind other diagnoses like depression, anxiety and addiction. It doesn’t like to be seen and doesn’t like to be held responsible for the havoc it wreaks.

I haven’t wanted to write about PTSD because its complexities are hard for me to comprehend. I’ve been living with PTSD to varying degrees for more than 20 years and still don’t understand it all. But maybe that’s the point.

I know a lot about PTSD. My background in psychology has given me a very good understanding of what happens physiologically and psychologically when PTSD is activated. When I’m triggered, my brain disconnects from my body. My body feels a sensation similar to what it felt at the time of the trauma and thinks I’m reliving it. My concept of time is lost.

When my husband touches the back of my leg, my brain thinks I’m 19 and being raped. My brain can’t process the fact 12 years has passed and I’m in a safe place with a safe person. My body remembers but my brain forgets. I’m disconnected and pulled out of what I’m experiencing. It throws my body into a fight/flight/or freeze state. I have to give my brain time to catch up with my body and realize I’m not 19. I’m not in danger.

I know a lot about PTSD. I know how the brain and body work when they’re triggered. But knowing about PTSD is not the same as knowing PTSD. I don’t know my PTSD. I don’t know why it works the way it does. I don’t know why, after 12 years, I’m having flashbacks of scenes I have no previous recollection of. I don’t know why my husband can’t touch the back of my legs. My brain can’t make sense of it because my brain doesn’t remember. But my body does. My body remembers something happening to my legs. My body remembers what my brain can’t.

My body remembers everything. I used to think that was the problem. If I could only get my body to forget, I’d be OK.

But what if my body remembering isn’t the problem? What if that’s the solution? I have a heightened sense of awareness because of the PTSD. I used to think was a curse. I hated that my body felt so intensely. But maybe the solution doesn’t lie in my ability to think but rather in my ability to feel. Awareness, not understanding, might just be the key to freedom.

I hesitate to share this because I’m still in the midst of this journey. The thoughts I have today might be irrelevant tomorrow. But one thing I know for certain is that my PTSD, and yours, wants to stay silent. It wants us to keep it hidden. It wants to stay masked behind other issues. It lives and breathes off of our denial. Continuing to talk about it, especially when I feel like I don’t understand it, and giving it a voice, even when I don’t have the words, is helping raise my awareness.

And awareness, in this moment, feels like a pretty safe place to be.

Follow this journey on Feelings and Faith

Originally published: August 5, 2015
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