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This Is What PTSD Looks Like

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On July 4, 2016, I attend an annual beach party at a family friend’s house, complete with the obligatory barbeque and fireworks show on the beach. I’ve always disliked fireworks, and my startle response has gotten increasingly heightened in recent years. Because of this, I arrive more than fashionably late (so that my car won’t get blocked into the one-lane driveway) and have every intention of leaving before the fireworks show begins. The 10-minute warning is called, and I put my half-finished burger down to say goodbye and head to my car.

• What is PTSD?

Confidently walking toward my car, proud of myself for going to the party even though I didn’t want to, my stomach drops and my body numbs when I discover I am blocked in, trapped, without any way out.



My heart skips a beat as the fireworks begin. I fumble for my car keys and finally shut the door behind me. Shaking, I blast the music at full volume, hoping Mumford and Sons might drown out the fear. It doesn’t. I spend the next hour hunched over, shaking, sobbing and scratching my skin until I bleed.

This is what post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) looks like.

Recently, more information has become widely available about war veterans with PTSD. So when I tell people after the summer holiday I hate fireworks, I sarcastically get asked, “Why? You didn’t fight in a war.” To which I can say nothing but shrug and accept that though I may not be the expectation of what trauma looks like, I am still a face of PTSD. (This is not to say the experience of a war veteran with PTSD is somehow less valid, but simply that there are other reasons folks develop trauma disorders as well.)

This is what PTSD looks like.

My partner calls me after being aggressively hit on by a customer at her work place. She is scared to walk to the bus stop alone, for fear of being followed. I promise to stay on the line. I ask for her location. I promise to call 9-1-1 if we get disconnected. We both know it’s unlikely that anything would happen. Yet it could, and it has in the past. She feels powerless. I can’t let her know I do, too.

This is what PTSD looks like.

I’m on the ferry when the boat blows its horn. I know the sound is coming, but I still cower in fear.

This is what PTSD looks like.

We argue over the dirty dishes in the sink. I am angry, but I’m not allowed to be angry. Anger, I’ve learned, is dangerous. So I shut down. I cry. I can’t speak. She’s never hurt me, but still I’m scared of getting hurt. I whimper. I apologize. I hide.

This is what PTSD looks like.

I’m incredibly lucky to be with a woman who makes me feel so safe. In the three years we’ve been together, she’s taught me that love is gentle, consensual and kind. Yet my body doesn’t always remember that.

Suddenly, her lips are not hers. The tongue in my mouth is foreign and forceful. The hands on my breasts morph from loving to violent, and I am scared. It’s no longer 2016, nor Chicago, nor her. I don’t know where I am and I can barely breathe. She rubs my back, whispering to me that I am safe. I open my eyes, and it is 2016. It’s Chicago. She is safe, but I didn’t know that 20 minutes ago.

This is what PTSD looks like.

The sex is great, until her tongue does that thing or her hands move that way and suddenly I am back in that hot, sticky bedroom, too drunk to speak and no way out. I hear the AC running in the living room, and the dog’s pitter-patter on the floor. I come back to the “now,” but I am still scared.

This is what PTSD looks like.

I’m talking to my therapist and become overwhelmed. I curl up. I cry. Their voices get louder, and I swear they’re living inside me. I punch my head to make it stop. Anything at all to make it stop! Yet they only get louder with every bang. My therapist grabs my hands. She doesn’t let me hurt myself. She tells me I’m safe. That it isn’t happening anymore. That there aren’t any hurts here. Yet I don’t believe her, and I still don’t feel safe.

This is what PTSD looks like.

I’m leaving work after dark. As I walk to the train, I’m certain the shadow behind me is my perpetrator, following me, planning to hurt me once more. I turn around and the only shadow is mine. My heart is racing, and I call a cab. I don’t feel safe in my own neighborhood.

This is what PTSD looks like.

I’m taking a shower, and my shampoo gets in my eyes. I wipe it clear and realize it’s Wednesday, but the last memory I have was Sunday morning. Where did the time go? I worry. I wonder. I go to bed. I come to at school. It’s Friday. Where did Thursday go? Where is the lost time?

This is what PTSD looks like.

People always seem to think I’m making it up, that my memory can’t be so badly affected by something that isn’t happening in the present moment. I start to believe them. I start to believe I’m making it up, that it’s all in my head and I’m being dramatic. That my trauma is just drama and that’s why I chose a career in theater. Yet the more I tell myself I’m making it up, the louder the flashbacks and body memories become.

This is what PTSD looks like.

It’s 3 a.m. and my thrashing body wakes me. I’m drenched in sweat as I scream out for help. I flip over to my stomach, and my head smacks against the hotel headboard. I’m dizzy, and I’m scared. I wonder where I am. I turn on the lights and reach for my glasses, and I know once more it is 2016 and I am safe. Even so, I can’t shake the feeling of fear the next day.

This is what PTSD looks like.

The bruise on my forehead isn’t just an indication of klutziness (as many might believe). It is yet another physical representation of how invasive PTSD really is. PTSD doesn’t only show up when loud noises happen. It doesn’t only affect me for one hour a week and then go away until I see my therapist once more. PTSD affects me every damn day.

It changes my perception, my relationships, my ability to trust, my sex life, my memory and the list goes on. PTSD is what I live with every day. It is the pills I take to keep the nightmares at bay, the fidget toys I carry to keep anxiety from taking over. PTSD is the monthly expenses that are half of what I make and the medical bills that are more than I can pay. It’s the insurance reviews that cause undue stress and the days when just getting out of bed feels impossible. It is the scars on my arm from scratching my skin and the period cramps that remind me of their bodies inside mine.

I’m not a war veteran, and explaining to people that I struggle with this disorder is difficult, especially when I don’t look like the person who’s expected to be diagnosed. I may not be who you expect to have PTSD, but that doesn’t mean I don’t. I am the one in five women who have been raped, and I am one of more than five million faces of PTSD.

This is what PTSD looks like.

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.

Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: November 25, 2016
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