Prior to diagnosis, I was living "successfully" under the illusion of adaptive coping skills. I was not happy or calm or peaceful, but I felt like I was at least able to pull off this false impression until I fell apart from exhaustion.
For my first twenty-five years, I was experiencing undiagnosed anxiety as well as depression, thoughts of suicide or desiring to simply disappear, disassociation (separation of emotions/mind from the motions of my physical body), hypervilgilence (heightened startle response), nightmares, flashbacks, emotional numbing, the need to isolate, anxiety attacks that brought me to the ER, a sense of perfectionism that drove my college friends up the wall, non-existent self-esteem, workaholism, and a very bad risk assessment system.
At the initial therapy session, I was given my first explanation of PTSD. Diagnosis came next. In these early therapy sessions, I began to understand the nature of PTSD as well as the depression and anxiety disorders (connecting back to the initial trauma). Apparently, my behavior, patterns, and coping skills were predictable. My belief that I was an inherently bad person was common in others with experiences like mine. It was as if the therapist was putting a template over my life, and I fit squarely inside.
I required several months of therapy to even begin to comprehend the magnitude of information I was receiving. On the one hand, I heard what was being said and logically understood the issues that would generate a condition of PTSD; on the other hand, accepting this diagnosis as it pertained to me was not so easy. It wasn’t that I was skeptical about the seriousness of this mental health condition; rather, I resisted the concept that such a serious matter applied to me.
Up until this point, I did not know that my response to my early years was a "normal" reaction. All the dissociating I did had everything to do with survival, particularly as my abuse began so early in life, and continued for five years. Even one experience would have been enough to set all of this in motion. It was not a matter of the extent of the abuse, or the number of times, but that I was not equipped to handle the experience emotionally, and my brain worked in a way that would protect me.
With the support of various therapists, I have been able to unravel, as well as identify, the majority of the emotions of these early experiences as well as how the resulting behaviors and beliefs show up in my daily life. Integrating these experiences with their emotional counterparts is a safe and effective form of therapy for me. As I am able to identify the emotions that go with the trauma experiences, I am then able to work through their effects on my wellbeing. Paramount to my recovery is mutual trust and respect between the therapist and me.
I was initially ashamed and embarrassed at the snarl I had made of my life. Even with therapists telling me the abuse and the resulting effects were not my fault, it took me a lot of therapy to actually begin to believe it. Having patience with myself did not come easily, nor did loving myself; only through the care and expertise of various therapists have these abilities finally come about. Although I was quite daunted at the onset of diagnosis, over time, I came to understand the benefits of therapy. I also came to understand the benefits of medication to enable me to participate in therapy. (I resisted medication for the first year due to my own rationale that medication equated with failure for my inability to overcome my own issues without a "crutch". I soon enough discovered that medication was not a panacea, but rather a necessity to reset my brain chemistry.) There were a lot of layers to get through, but I have remained committed through the process. Achieving healthy and balanced living is my primary agenda; to do so has required education, various therapists and treatments, group therapy and medication.
The one misnomer I have been told about PTSD is that it is not curable. I learned this early in therapy, and considered myself doomed to be at the mercy of the PTSD symptoms—particularly, the triggers. What I have continued to learn is that although there may not be a guaranteed cure, there is hope for the PTSD not to run my life. I wish I had been told earlier that recovery was possible.
With or without treatment, triggers can still throw me off my footing so fast. In a single moment of being triggered, all I know and have learned can be undone—like blowing down a house of cards. It is a very helpless feeling. I can be emotionally balanced with the depression and anxiety, physically strong and productive, and I can still be triggered; when triggered, I immediately begin to pull back and disassociate. I am staring at all that is occurring around me, very unsure of what to do. I am always terribly frightened and am unable to react the way I would prefer. When I disassociate, I feel as if I am behind a glass wall: I am clear and cognizant, I am just unable to emotionally engage and there are tears streaming down my face or I am simply a blank stare (sometimes both). I am waiting for safety to come and feel that sense of relief. When I disassociate, I physically feel paralyzed and all goes into slow motion.
Sometimes a trigger will set off an anxiety attack, other times a trigger will leave me frozen where I stand. Once triggered, I experience flashbacks to earlier traumas. My anxiety is off the charts and I can not cope. The depression is overwhelming, and intensive therapy is required to bring me to stabilization.
With increased wellness and specialized therapy, my ability continues to improve to prevent complete disassociation when triggered. If I can prevent complete disassociation from occurring by becoming more consciously aware of when it is happening, I will not spiral up or down with crashing speed if I immediately put into practice different techniques to keep me mindfully present. I am still in practice on this issue, but I am improving.
Published On: June 15, 2007