My therapist literally told me I am at the development level of a 15-year-old. Obviously, this creates problems in my life, because I have done plenty of adult things. However, in may ways my emotions are stuck at age 15. I began to experience trauma at age 15.
Studies have shown that it isn't the traumatic experiences that seem to harm us the most so much as our ability to make sense out of the traumatic experiences. (Source: The Developing Mind)
When I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), my therapist at the time said that I had four very unique and separate incidents that caused me to develop the signs for this. Not one. Not two. Not three. Four. Four incidents of trauma. My first incident of trauma occurred at age 15.
So, really, it should not surprise you that some of the parts of my identity are frozen in time. How PTSD works is that you really can lead a fairly normal life with treatment. But you still have triggers. Triggers are things that mentally take you back to the place of trauma, and then it is as if the trauma is occurring right then and there, all over again, with the same level of emotional intensity.
This is where things can get sticky. "Normal" people who have not experienced trauma are usually unaware that something so normal in their day-to-day lives (e.g. The Simpsons playing on a TV) could cause an overwhelming emotional reaction transporting a person back to a certain place and time mentally.
So many times in my life I have encountered situations where someone says something, does something, wears something, or just is something that triggers these emotions. When that happens, I basically act like I am 15 years old. I cry. I get upset. I assume you hate me. I want to give up. I want to give in. And I don't handle things the way an adult woman would typically handle them.
Then what follows after that is usually someone thinking I am immature, unprofessional, or rude. All of those are probably accurate. It usually changes the dynamic of the relationship. The reality is that the root of the issue is a debilitating mental illness that has for many years been misunderstood. Thanks to the military bringing more awareness to the issue, some people are beginning to understand. But because I don't have physical scars it is hard to explain myself when this situation happens.
Many times these things that are my triggers become things I despise, and I will make comments about my distaste for them in hopes that people will not bring them up to me in the future. Unfortunately, symbols and logos for things appear on my Facebook feed and on billboards. They are everywhere.
I am learning strategies for dealing with the pain when I am faced with triggers, but they don't always work in all situations. I can't do many of them while driving a car. I also can't always identify that I need to do them immediately. I may not recognize that I was triggered in a moment until days later when I realize a certain song was playing in the background while I was talking with someone on the phone. I may not think about it that I went to the mall and saw a certain store that reminds me of a terrible, terrible situation. Even if i just pass by that store, it can sometimes impact me for up to a week because memories of that moment will flash in my mind.
And although I am intelligent and seem fairly capable of lots of things, the impact of PTSD can be so strong in my life that I am much less capable of normal day-to-day activities than people realize. I often avoid situations that might trigger me, which might seem like a good idea, but many times that means I am avoiding anything that appears to be a workplace, avoiding doctors appointments, avoiding hospitals, avoiding certain types of restaurants, avoiding television, avoiding stores. So, literally, every day I leave my home I am absolutely guaranteed to be faced with a trigger. Because my trauma occurred in a normal life situation I literally have to be reminded of my trauma throughout my day, every day.
It really is by the grace of God that I leave my home, that I try to lead a normal life, and that I don't flip out more than I do. I decided to post this because of Mental Illness Awareness Week and I believe that the more people hear these types of stories from someone they encounter in their own life, the more they will begin to understand, and then stigma will be reduced. I am hoping that by sharing my story about PTSD it will help others to understand those of us dealing with it better.
This article first appeared in the Health section of WomanlyWoman.com.
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