Shedding Light on What It’s Like to Have a Bad PTSD Day
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.
A few years ago, a friend asked me what my bad days with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are like and what it meant to have a flashback. She didn’t have PTSD and wanted to know what I was experiencing so that she could better help me in those moments.
I’ve realized that many people have loved ones with PTSD, but many of them don’t get an honest glance into what the bad days are like. Too frequently, trauma survivors keep their bad days hidden because they’re worried about what people will say, even though the bad days are when you need help the most.
I’ve absolutely done this because of hurtful things that have been said to me in the past after confiding my PTSD in the wrong people. I’ve been told I need to let my sexual abuse go, and I have control over my thoughts, so if I’m reliving the trauma it’s because I want to.
However, PTSD is a disorder. I can’t just “let it go” or think happy thoughts to avoid flashbacks. So, I would like to shed some light on what it’s like on the bad days. This is my own personal experience, so it won’t be the same for every person.
I wake up panting and covered in sweat. My body is shaking and on high alert despite there being no danger. I can feel the anxiety from my nightmare filling every nerve in my body.
I shake my head, trying to clear the anxiety out of my mind like a cobweb. I try getting some fresh air, water and a blanket; attempting to anchor myself in the present. Minutes of deep breathing, calming music and grounding exercises pass. The anxiety refuses to let up.
I sigh in frustration, tugging on the ends of my hair — one of my nervous ticks. I know I’m about to relive the abuse I endured at the hands of those monsters.
My mouth is dry. My skin feels like a dress five sizes too small that I can’t get out of. I can’t breathe. I feel like my body’s collapsing in on itself. My stomach starts shooting acid up my throat to try to distract the rest of my body from what’s about to happen. I can feel my heart racing in my chest, trying to outrun the fear. The sound of its steps pounding against my ribcage is deafening.
My mind is in disarray, desperately trying to grab on to any other thought. Lyrics, poems, movie lines; none work. Tick tock. Tick tock. I know time is running out. It’s inevitable at this point but I fight anyway, knowing this is a battle I won’t win.
I cling to memories of friends, family, pets like a piece of driftwood in a violent ocean storm. Please, make it stop. Those memories are ripped away. My lungs can’t get enough air. They’re working double-time trying.
I try to focus on the ceiling, walls, floors; anything. Please, get me out of my head.
And then the dam breaks.
There’s not enough oxygen in the room, in the world. My lungs collapse. My stomach contorts, cowering in fear. My body trembles, attempting to shake the memories out of my head by force. My ribcage clings to my heart to keep it from hammering its way out of my body.
The memories bleed into all of my senses, completely unchecked. I can feel her hands holding me down. Smell One’s body wash. Taste Four’s lips, as he forced his on mine. Hear Two telling me to hold still. See the way Three smirked as he zipped up his pants.
The monsters ravage my mind, body and soul like hyenas tearing apart a carcass. I bite my tongue to keep from screaming. I hold myself tight, rocking back and forth, desperately attempting to touch the present, trying to escape the torture they put me through.
Their hands are all over me. I can’t get away from them. I’m every bit as trapped now as I was then.
The memories are projected in my mind like a movie theater screen. I’m strapped to a chair and forced to watch my own personalized horror movie and the only one in attendance is me. I try running, but I’m isolated from the present. Separated by hands, sneers and silence. No one else is allowed into the theater, and I’m not allowed out. It’s a screening the Devil reserved just for me.
I see the various acts the different monsters committed. I feel them using my body like a trash bag to fill up and throw out before getting a new one. It goes on and on. Sometimes it lasts minutes, other times hours. But time doesn’t exist in this theater.
Every time, it lasts forever.
Every time is the time they steal your sanity.
Every time, you’re stuffed into a box of nightmares and never let out.
After an eternity, the screen goes blank and I manage to stumble my way back to the present.
I open my eyes and survey the damage like a hurricane survivor peeking out from their shelter to see the wreckage that was once their home. My body is shivering and rocking back and forth, shaken to its core. My cheeks are wet, cold and salted from the tears I unknowingly shed. My mouth is full of cloth from the shirt I used to gag my screams, my teeth clenched around it like a bear trap.
My mind is scrambled, thoughts shredded. I can’t put two words together or make sense of my situation. And then, the thoughts roll up like detectives at a crime scene. They pass by security, no problem, examine the evidence and leave me with more questions than answers.
It’s been six years since Four. Six years since the last time it happened. I should be over it by now, right? I’ve been in therapy for four years now. I should be past this, but I’m not. Why not? Why can’t I let this shit go? Why am I still this fucked up?
They leave me feeling broken, ashamed, weak, empty. I pick myself up and go on about my day, more dead than alive.
Someone taps me on the shoulder; I jump out of my skin. Once I’m alone, I break down crying about how unfair it is — that they’re the monsters and yet I’m the one left to clean up the mess. They broke me and I have to try to fix it.
My husband gets home, and I can’t even let him touch me. Human contact is the trigger.
Later, I can’t get close enough to him. I’m in the fetal position, glued to his side, trying to will my body to meld into his. His arms around me, his voice in my ears, is the safest I can feel. He tells me over and over again that I’m safe and no one is going to hurt me. Some days I believe him. Some days I can’t.
Hours later, once I’ve calmed down, I have the epiphany. The same one I always do on these days:
Sexual abuse or assault fucks you up. I’m doing the best I can at this time and that just living to this day is a damn miracle. And, most importantly, there is no set amount of time for how long this is allowed to affect me.
Surviving (let alone healing from) rape is the hardest thing many people, including me, ever face.
People tell me that getting through the abuse itself is the hard part, but I haven’t found that to be true. Healing from it has been the hard part for me.
Surviving it is closing your eyes and clenching your teeth through the pain while you’re emotionally stabbed with a piece of glass. Repeatedly, in my case and many others.
But healing from it means sticking your fingers into an open wound after the adrenaline has worn off. It means pulling out the glass shards, cleaning your wounds, and giving them time to heal.
Time is the most difficult and important thing to give any wound, including trauma
I can’t rush the healing process. All I can do is keep going to therapy, work on myself, continue practicing grounding exercises, distractions, ways to let out my feelings in a healthy way. And, continue to be honest with those I love when I’m struggling and asking for help.
It’s hard work, and I feel like I’m drowning in my tears a lot of the time, but it’s worth it because I know it won’t always be this way. If I put in the work, I’ll live a life not haunted by nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety and hypervigilance. If I do the work, I’ll be happy and at peace.
I’m hopefully starting eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in late October, and honestly, it scares the shit out of me.
But what scares me more is waking up 20 years from now and reliving this day over and over again.
Getty Images photo via master1305