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When My Invisible Illness Is Invisible to Me

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As someone who lives with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I’m well aware it’s largely an invisible illness. Comments I’ve received such as “But you look well!” (said while I was attending a day hospitalization program) and “You don’t look like someone with PTSD!” have made this clear.

• What is PTSD?

 At the same time, some people see something; my supervisor offhandedly referred to “your disability” before I’d ever disclosed that I had one. What people read in my body is mysterious and ever-shifting. Most of the time, I’m a book that’s barely cracked open.

It’s hard to have my suffering go unseen. What’s harder, though, is that the PTSD slides in and out of visibility to me. It’s a shape-shifter that readily portrays itself as mere reality.

People watch me at the Laundromat and whisper. Friends give me compliments, but I can sense the subtle negative messages they’re trying to convey. I watch everyone’s body language and eyes in order to read their minds. I need to know what they’re thinking in order to protect myself. I have highly tuned psychic radar that lets me know when something bad is going to happen. I can tell something terrible, worse than anything I’ve yet experienced, is imminent.

I’ve been awaiting this looming catastrophe for the past 10 years. I have multiple “prophetic” nightmares every night, none of which have yet come true. Yet, when I’m having these experiences, they don’t “seem” like PTSD. I feel like I’m in the present, trembling with terror at these visions of ghosts from the future.

It’s a lot of work to remind myself: These are memories. Of course you  feel this way; you were tortured. Part of the nature of PTSD is that things that have happened feel as though they’re still taking place. I don’t sit apart from “mental illness” as an observer, and it doesn’t have clear boundaries like a neatly wrapped package. It’s more like an invisible shroud that descends over everything and surreptitiously alters my perceptions of reality.

I’m a creature adapted for danger. I’ve found myself a new habitat, but my mind has yet to catch up.

I’d love to look at myself and see someone with PTSD. I hope that someday the truth about my suffering is consistently visible to me.

Originally published: April 22, 2016
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