Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as defined by Webster Dictionary, is a psychological reaction occurring after experiencing a highly stressing event that is usually characterized by depression, anxiety, flashbacks, recurrent nightmares, and avoidance of reminders of the event. PTSD is not to be confused with regular Post Traumatic Stress, which is the response our bodies have to stressful situations when our "fight-or-flight" reflexes kick in. This is considered a normal reaction, and not a mental illness. These symptoms usually subside within a month, while symptoms related to PTSD can last for years and usually require treatment from a mental health professional. (Dr. James Bender, Deployment Health Clinical Center).
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder actually originated as Shell Shock, during World War l. In World War II, the Shell Shock diagnosis was replaced by Combat Stress Reaction (CSR), also known as "Battle Fatigue." Treatments varied, and most soldiers only received a few days rest before returning to battle as most military leaders did not believe the disease was real. This was the beginning of the welliknown stigma attached to mental or otherwise invisible illness that we are still fighting today. In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association added PTSD to the third edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III). This made huge strides for mental health, as this acknowledged PTSD as disease also suffered by regular people, not just military personnel and veterans. A traumatic event is described as a catastrophic event that is outside the range of usual human experience, which can occur in more environments than just the war zone. (US Department of Veteran Affairs).
As of today:
- 70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives. That’s 223.4 million people.
- Up to 20% of these people go on to develop PTSD. As of today, that’s 31.3 million people who have or are struggling with PTSD.
- 20% of the soldiers who’ve been deployed in the past 6 years have PTSD. That’s over 300,000.
- As many as 30 – 60% of children who have survived specific disasters have PTSD. (healmyptsd.org).
According to Mayo Clinic, symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can generally be categorized into four specific groups: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions. Some symptoms that fall into these categories include but are not limited to nightmares, flashbacks, sleep problems, irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior, hyper arousal or the feeling of being on edge, self destructive behavior, depression, trouble concentrating, memory problems including not remembering important aspects of the traumatic event, and feelings of guilt or shame. Two very common treatments for PTSD are Cognitive Therapy and Exposure Therapy, as well as the use of some medications.
A very common misconception regarding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is that it can only occur in the context of military combat and war veterans. However, I am one among millions of other people who are living proof that this is not the case. I have a personal battle with PTSD. I was diagnosed in high school, after not one traumatic event but years and years of catastrophic, prolonged trauma. It actually begun while I was still in the womb, as my mother used numerous illegal substances while pregnant. It didn't get much better from there.
I saw terrible, horrifying things as a child, things that some adults wouldn't even be able to process. I was a very scared little girl, and rightfully so. My mother battled long and hard with addiction, and I witnessed it first hand. Looking back, there are lots of holes in my memory, blank spaces of things I can't remember. I can't remember the order in which events took place, and have lots of memories which come back at random that I can't place. All of this is believed to be directly related to my PTSD; my brain has done this to protect me. As a little girl, I remember lying on the floor in the back seat of the car while my mother bought her drugs. I remember being taken into bars and into drug dealers apartments, into the worst parts of Downtown New Haven. I remember having flashbacks every time I was forced to pass through those places when I got older. I remember being locked in the bathroom with my mother while she got high, smoking her crack and telling me it had to be kept a "secret." She used to drive me around intoxicated; there were times she she put her hands on my physically and continuously abused me verbally and mentally. When she wouldn't come home at night, I would sit up nervously and wait for her. I'd pull out the phone book and start calling the bars I knew she went to, and the people on the other end would always be taken by surprise at the little girl looking for her mother. This created a constant fear in my mind; I became afraid every time the phone rang, because I never knew if it would be the call I so dreaded. My mom was a very troubled soul, and she fought demons that I can't even imagine. She had her own battle with PTSD from when she was raped, and this is what started her downward spiral. I have forgiven my mom for all of these things.
I remember fights, confrontations between family members that often ended in the interference of police or others. I witnessed brutal bouts of domestic violence, physical beatings and screams that could shatter glass. The biggest source of stress and trauma for me growing up was living in constant fear for my mother's life. I carried this fear with me until the day she died, on February 26th, 2016. I was 17 years old. That was a weight I carried on my shoulders for over ten years.
When I was in second grade, my mother attempted suicide. I woke up in the middle of the night and found her on the floor, unresponsive. This is the first of many similar memories that I have; in fact, I have seen my mother overdose so many times, I have lost count. They all just seem to run together. I know for a fact she overdosed 12 times in the last two years she was alive alone. Over and over again, I would find my mother in the midst of an emergency; sometimes she was totally unresponsive, but sometimes she was still slightly coherent. Sometimes I'd find her on the floor, sometimes she'd be slumped over on her bed, screaming or mumbling complete nonsense. I'd beg with her, PLEAD with her to answer me. "Mom, what did you take?" In that moment, my whole world would collapse around me all over again. And again, and again. I'd get on the phone to call 911 and beg the dispatch to hurry. At that point I usually would have already broken down, crying and pacing back and forth through the house until help arrived and removed her. Then, I'd shut myself in my room and spiral further into my panic attack. Sometimes this would go on for hours, crying, hyperventilating, and sometimes even vomiting. This just continued happening, as my mom continued overdosing. Sometimes she would tell me she hated me as they took her out, and I wondered if that would be the last thing I'd ever hear her say to me. I lived in a constant state of panic and crisis. This wreaked havoc on my body and my mind.
Everything came to a screeching halt when my grandparents and I awoke one morning to find that my mother had died. This was a whole different level of trauma and shock for me, seeing her body and being told by paramedics that she was gone. Next came all the people, family and friends as well as the medical examiner, priests, funeral directors, and so many others. All I could do was go through the motions until it was finally all over, but for me, I finally had relief. I realized after her services had come to an end that the trauma was finally over. As heartbroken as I was over her loss, I knew I no longer had to live every day in fear because the worst was over. Nothing worse could ever happen to me than this. The weight was taken off of my shoulders.
It's been over a year since I've lost my mom, and my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder still affects me severely. I have nightmares which keep me awake at night and make it hard to wake up the next morning. I have flashbacks, intrusive memories that are totally involuntary and happen all too often at work and in public places which make it hard to function. Certain sights, sounds, or even smells can trigger memories and emotions, which makes me feel like I am right back reliving the event. I have memory issues, as I mentioned earlier, and I suffer from severe depression and anxiety. Sometimes, I feel as if I have a hard time feeling any positive emotions at all. I am extremely jumpy and easily startled, sometimes even paranoid. All of these things make functioning on a daily basis a very daunting task. I am completely and utterly haunted by my mother and the life and memories she left she left behind with me.
On the contrary, I have realized that since my mother has been gone, this is the first chance I have had in my whole life to begin healing. My brain is what they would call a "trauma brain", and needs to be completely rewired; and that isn't something I would be able to do if I was still actively living in the trauma. One of the most important pieces of healing is the right mental health treatment, and finding a professional that you can connect with and know that you can trust. It took me years to find this in someone, as I went through dozens of people before finding "the one." I saw the same psychologist for around four years, and she was actually the one who made my PTSD diagnosis. She helped me through the peak of my mother's downward spiral, through the many stages of grief I faced after her death, and just about everything else in between. She will forever hold a very special place in my heart, and when it came time for me to relocate from Connecticut to Las Vegas, I was convinced I would never find anyone else that I would connect to like I did her.
However, I have been blessed to find an absolutely phenomenal therapist here in Vegas, who I know is going to be able to help me start the healing process, and who will be by my side through it every step of the way. She is the kindest, most giving soul, and is changing my life with her presence and guidance. With her help, and help of family, friends, God, I have faith that there is another side to the way I am living now. I truly believe that there has to be more to life than the pain and devastation that I have known for so long. The two photos of myself I chose to feature are the real deal; they show the transitions that make and the emotions that I bounce between every single day. I can go from absolutely fine to on the verge of a breakdown in a matter of minutes, and while I put on a strong front to the world, not many people ever see the the other side of it.
This is the brutally honest truth: someone else in my position probably would have fractured a long time ago. God has kept me here through everything I have endured. I don't know why, or what He has in store for me, but I know that it has got to be something good. He did not take me all this way for forsake me now. It is going to take a lot of work on my part to reverse more than ten years of trauma, but I think I'm ready. Onward and upward.
"Always remember, if you have been diagnosed with PTSD, it is not a sign of weakness; rather, it is proof of your strength, because you have survived."