A few thoughts on my experience with PTSD

I don’t know how long I have had post-traumatic stress disorder. I first started addressing the main symptom of numbing the emotional pain in 1990. This means that this August I will have been actively trying to get beyond PTSD for thirty years. It wasn’t until some years after 1990 that I was officially diagnosed. This was because it became clear that although I wasn’t numbing my pain, I still lived with other symptoms, including anxiety, depression, negative self-talk or obsessive worrying, being easily startled (especially if awoken), frequently feeling emotionally overwhelmed whether in crowds, at home, or in groups, difficulty making even small decisions (subconsciously fearing unknown consequences), difficulty dealing with anyone who was or could be angry with me, difficulty speaking out for fear of retribution, and for many years hiding myself from movies, news media, or books that might include information or scenes on rapes.

Because I have actively faced my issues with intense group therapy, workshops, individual counseling, EMDR counseling, and various support groups, I grew incredibly fast and past many obstacles, and I was able to teach my children at a young age to name their emotions, to talk about their emotions, and to actively and frequently engage in self-care. Despite my diagnosis, I was still able to raise two children with high self-esteem, finish my Ph.D. on an extremely difficult topic (sexual violence and war), homeschool my kids for about six years, run a part-time home-based business for twenty years, write essays, encyclopedia articles, and start a memoir about one period in my life (I still hope to finish this). I was in a swing dance performance group, later took tap dance lessons, and then more recently started playing taiko.

Because of societal and self-imposed pressure, however, I used to hide my symptoms, some of which were common to people without PTSD. I put on a brave face to the outside world. I often wasn’t fully honest and pretended I was “normal” when I had to explain something (I couldn’t admit that I had this “thing,” this “issue,” this “problem,” that makes whatever the event or issue was too hard for me to fathom doing). I also tried as hard as I could to hide my anxiety or sadness to my kids. I knew children can sense a lot, so I put a conscious effort into smiling, being positive, and pretending to be brave and without fears of simple societal contact. I had always shared smaller feelings, because I wanted them to see one parent who could express a range of emotions naturally, and as my kids grew, I began to share more of the feelings I was ashamed of. I came out to my daughter as a rape survivor when she was about sixteen, and I have yet to share much with my son.

As a child, I was told to “pick myself up by the boot straps” and to stop “feeling sorry for myself,” which are positive messages when given in moderation, but in excess this led me to swallow my natural emotions and to not learn how to express my feelings verbally in a healthy way, and despite all my journaling about feelings, I still grew up believing no one cared if I was sad or scared, because I thought I was supposed to be stronger and I didn’t want to feel sorry for myself. I hid all my assaults from my parents and friends, and once I stopped numbing my pain, I still only told certain people who were safe to me. I knew intellectually that I should not feel ashamed of anything that had happened to me, but I did not know how to voice it. But I taught my children that people do and will care about their feelings, so with the right people, it is safe and healthy to express one’s sadness, disappointment, frustration, etc. It is also good to learn to move on after facing a setback. 

According to the National Center for PTSD, about half of all women will experience a traumatic event in their lives, and many of these women will subsequently live with PTSD. Traumatic events are also common among men and transgender people. Those who develop PTSD from a traumatic event can experience debilitating symptoms, while for others, the symptoms are less severe. Some people never experience PTSD from a traumatic event. This could be because they have the emotional tools to deal with what happened, but it also could be something about how their brain is wired – something even the experts cannot yet explain.

I have complex PTSD in the sense that it wasn’t just one event. The childhood lack of emotional support, physical abandonment (in the sense of being left alone a lot, even for multiple days as I entered middle school) prevented me from learning basic coping skills, and the overuse of alcohol starting before before I was a teenager both led me to not being able to cope with traumatic situations later on (sexual harassment in middle school, high school, and workplaces, constant bullying in middle and high school, multiple rapes).

You may think that I had lousy parents, but I believe they did the best that they could with the tools they had while I was a young child. Despite not providing me with certain tools required for emotional, physical, and spiritual health, I learned these tools quickly in my twenties (it was like I took an intense course to overall well-being), and by my thirties I was able to provide my children with these tools only because my parents gifted me a sense of drive and a will to survive. In 1990, when I first started realizing all that I had been through and how my past, despite not being as bad as many stories I heard, still was not ideal, I dug in and fought to stay afloat, get past my rapes, understand my raw and strong emotions by reaching out to others, using my phone list, sharing my feelings over and over again in safe supportive settings. Because of a heart condition I developed, I truly believe that I would be dead if it were not for this determination to not only survive, but to rise above and give back to the world in a kinder and gentler way than some of what I have experienced.

Recently I had the experience that someone seemed to think I was a project they could fix. This was because they had witnessed some of my raw emotion and knew I had trauma in my life. But living with PTSD does not mean someone needs fixing, especially someone who has actively been working on growing past their obstacles for so many years.

I think we are all works in progress, and for some reason some people do have extra obstacles to overcome. Early on in my recovery I started to see myself not just as a survivor, but as a thriver. I have been fortunate to have grown up without too much economic distress and much travel and education. I do believe this has helped my ability to thrive, because I could fight back for my sanity and for justice in ways that those less fortunate than I cannot.

Still, though, thirty years into this journey, I see how my trauma and the PTSD directed many of my life decisions. I could have become a professor, but having researched war and rape for seven years, I felt even more traumatized, and I needed a break. Many, I know, would have forged on, but I had fear, felt overwhelmed, and had already faced so much in my recovery, that I had to step away and stop “kissing ass” to the establishment. Besides, I had a young child, and had I become a professor, I would have had to leave her for someone else to raise, which I didn’t want to do. I felt a grave ownership and will to make sure she would not be raped at sixteen, not have her first drink at nine or have regular blackouts by the age of thirteen. I knew my parents were good people, but somehow those are a few of the milestones of my childhood, and I couldn’t let something like that happen to my daughter. 

My last dramatic amount of growth came because I needed to find something more for myself, since my kids were older allowing me more time, and I found taiko, which has helped me shed more grief in three years than I could ever have imagined when I picked up my first pair of bachi and hit the drum. The #metoo also movement inspired me to speak out in the hopes that my story can help others with their grief and sorrow. This is all to say that while I have had many symptoms of PTSD, I still have been able to push past them – sometimes better than other times – and give back to the world in a variety of ways. And although I believe some of my trauma will always be a part of me, this will not prevent me from continuing to get stronger and to help others who also have similar struggles. I, like many of you, am a force with which to be reckoned! 😀