PTSD

PTSD Awareness Day & My Experiences With The Condition

Trigger warning: discussion of suicide, child abuse, sexual assault, & PTSD flashback

Today is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Awareness Day and I wanted to share the ways this condition has impacted my family and me in order to change what people picture when they imagine someone with this disorder.

I learned about PTSD the hard way after losing my uncle to suicide. At the time we didn’t know that was what caused him to leave our family so abruptly, but know that we know the signs and his experiences, a posthumous PTSD diagnosis makes complete sense. He was a veteran of the Marines and served in Vietnam.

I grew up in a military family and most of my uncles fought in wars. I became well aware of issues vets face once they return to civilian life. Most of my uncles never talk about their experiences with anyone else other than each other or their brothers in battle who are still living.

What most of my family members didn’t know was that I was fighting a battle of my own. Being the product of the abusive marriage meant I was born into drama and abuse. I was the constant reminder of my mother’s abuser once they had divorced and he was sent off to a prison thousands of miles away. She took all her anger and frustration out on me physically and verbally and made me an extension of her. Anything good that I did was a reflection of her, not because of my hard work.

I always realized I was different from other kids because of my anxiety and shyness, but it wasn’t until I got into the relationship I am in know that I realized how messed up my upbringing was. Even more unexpected was how it was continuing to impact my life. I get immense jealousy when I see daughters getting along with their mothers.

It wasn’t until seeing a therapist who specializes in ADHD did someone finally label my experiences as what they are – trauma. It was then that I finally felt like I had the permission to view myself as a victim and survivor.

On top of my childhood, I experienced a traumatic incident in which I was sexually assaulted by a guy I was dating because he viewed kissing as consent. I’m a petite 24 year-old petite woman who most people didn’t realize had depression, let alone PTSD. I never considered these things to be trauma because I was taught to believe I didn’t survive anything “major”. I didn’t serve our country in battle. I wasn’t raped by some vile monster who was a stranger like you’d see in Law and Order: SVU.

I was abused by the woman who gave birth to me and was supposed to my biggest supporter in life. I was violated by someone I had trusted. My therapist said that I never realized I had been experiencing trauma because I was constantly being traumatized for so many years that I didn’t have the opportunity to analyze it/label it for what it was. She was also disgusted by the fact that I brought this up to other therapists and no one had even considered my experiences to be trauma or the fact that I have the symptoms of complex PTSD.

I hadn’t realized that I had experienced a lot of the more subtle symptoms of PTSD for quite some time, but it was one day this year when my boyfriend has mentioned something (I can’t remember what it was at this point), I had an episode where I was mentally in an altercation with my mother. It was so terrifying and it felt like it wouldn’t stop. It was as if someone simultaneously hacked my brain to watch the memory and time was rewound to when I was back in that moment. It was my first flashback epsiode and I luckily haven’t had one since.

It’s so weird to add another diagnosis to the roster, but I’ll do whatever it takes to work on myself, even if it means my health chart is expanding a bit. Once I’m done with school and get settled in with a job, I will take this more seriously and hopefully start EMDR therapy and/or other treatments that are forms of trauma-informed care.

Please note that PTSD and other conditions are not a joke and that things like “being triggered” shouldn’t be mocked as it is when someone experiences immense psychological distress a the result of a trigger.

The China Shop

Trigger warning: physical/verbal/psychological child abuse

You were the first person I met,
I knew you even before
we saw each other,
Before I took my first breath.
You were supposed to
Protect me, love me,
Not hide me away.

I guess I was kept a secret
Because you were ashamed.
I was baggage.
I was the product of your
Relationship with a man
Who held your life hostage.
He was the ball
And I was the chain.

I never asked to be
Brought into this world.
To be the constant
Reminder of each hit,
Each instance of
Manipulation and isolation
He forced upon you.

I just wanted love.
The unconditional love
I saw on tv.
The everlasting,
Self-sacrificing,
All-encompassing love
A mother is supposed
To give her daughter.

Instead I was your
Verbal punching bag.
Sometimes your literal
One as well.
Your threw punches
My way,
And brutal spankings
And hair yankings
That skewed my
Understanding of love.

As a child, I was clumsy
And you were careful,
But not all of my bruises
Were of my own doing.
And the contusions
On my soul
Were not visible,
But still felt.

As I got older and sicker
And smarter,
I was your tool.
I was your means of
Obtaining sympathy
And ego-stroking.
I was never given
An honest smile,
An loving hug,
Everything was a façade.

I try to forgive you
But it’s hard to ignore
The pain of a wound
That hasn’t yet healed.
I can’t forget
All the times you
Betrayed me.
Broke me.
Time after time.

There’s no way
I can ever say I will
Be whole again
When I was broken
Since birth.
Born into a China shop
Filled with bulls.
Left to pick up
The pieces on my own.

Quarterlife Chronicles: So You’re Not Graduating On Time

The Quarterlife Chronicles is my blog series on my experiences navigating life as an almost 25-year-old living with mental illness and lessons I’ve learned.

So you’re not graduating on time for whatever reason. I won’t invalidate your feelings by telling you to stay positive because this situation absolutely sucks. I know from personal experience that not graduating at the expected date multiple times is disheartening. I had to morn the loss of certain life expectations, including graduating in 4 years.

I’ll be 25 and I haven’t graduated college yet. I will be graduation this summer after being in school on and off for over 7 years. 7 years! Old me would just die if I knew this was how my life would turn out. I was an honors student in high school and graduated with a scholarship for my dream school. I thought I had my life planned out. I was going to go to this school on a biology scholarship, get my degree in biology, and work my way to become an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

I was never a girl who didn’t dream big because it’s what got me through my tough upbringing and I had an intense passion for science/public health. But the biggest lesson I’ve learned the hard way, is that rarely does everything in life go according to plan. I had to leave my dream school after my freshman year (I flunked my second semester due to serious depression and not medically withdrawing soon enough). At that point, I was so sick of biology and everything associated with that school at that point. I went to community college as loved my classes.

Part of why my graduation was deferred was my health. I live with 4 mental health conditions, including one that inhibits my ability to concentrate like the average person (ADHD). On top of getting help for my mental health conditions, I have physical ones to take care of. I’ve had numerous hospital stays, asthma attacks 2 surgeries, underwent physical therapy twice, and in the past 5 months, have had episodes in which I pass out. I don’t share my story for sympathy, just to highlight the fact that taking care of your health when you have chronic conditions can feel like a full-time job.

Another part of what has taken me so long to finish my degree was figuring out what I wanted to do. After realizing my lifelong dream wasn’t necessarily the right one for me, I had endless options. I went from wanting to become an English teacher to journalist to therapist to finally realizing that I could major in Public Health (with a concentration in Health Promotion and Education) at my current school, which could help me get a career like what I got a taste of as a presenter for my local chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness.

I love my classes (well, minus biostatistics and health policy), but this journey has been hard. Here are some other tough lessons I’ve learned so far:

1.) The traditional 4 years of school doesn’t work for everyone.

I was the first person in my family to attend college right after high school. I had no one to tell me how hard (or expensive) college is. I wasn’t even 18 until my first day of college classes, so being able to afford college was difficult, especially once I lost my biology scholarship, since I went to an expensive private school. I’ve had to take less classes or miss out on a semester because of money and my health.

2.) Paying your way through school is so hard and there are times when you won’t feel like it’s worth it.

You are allowed to feel angry about the financial situation that you’re in. My parents are well off enough that they could have easily paid for me to go to community college or at least assisted me in paying my tuition, but they didn’t . They didn’t provide emotional support either aside from “feeling bad” about me being in that situation. Not everything happens for a reason and while you might end up feeling proud and accomplished once you pay off school, that doesn’t help you when you’re in the midst of working full-time while going to school full-time.

3.) How long it takes you to graduate doesn’t matter as much once you have your degree.

A degree is a degree is a degree. It may have taken you longer than other people to graduate, but you still had to learn the same material as others in your degree program. You may also be more prepared for a job than other candidates if you’ve had time to invest in yourself and explore jobs. For example, I will come into whatever job I have knowing that life won’t be as hard as when I worked and went to school full-time and I have been able to be more involved in mental health advocacy and education (my intended job field).

4.) Having high expectations can be toxic.

You can’t have the same expectations as someone else when they don’t have to overcome the same obstacles you do. They are not “winning” at life, you have just been dealt a different hand and have to learn adjust your expectations accordingly. Therapy (specifically dialectical behavioral therapy) helped me get my expectations in check and I nor longer have such ridiculously high standards for myself, which just added pressure.

4.) Even though it feels like the end of the world, it won’t be.

Going to graduation parties, seeing your friends graduate, and seeing pictures of people graduate on Facebook and Instagram can feel like a slap in the face. Please do yourself a favor and take a mini break from social media. Allow yourself to grieve while not getting bitter towards your friends/peers. Their life situation is different than yours. If you have toxic feelings of jealousy, write them down on a piece of paper and rip it up. It’s super cathartic and prevents you from saying things you regret. People may question why it’s taken you so long, but unless you want to disclose, it’s none of your business.

6.) No matter what path you take, try your best and remember no on has their sh*t together.

The idea that people have their lives together is a lie. We’re all lacking in some aspect of our lives and the part(s) that is/are lacking may change, but no one has it all figured out. Working at an organization created by a well-known local university made this abundantly clear. People forget things. People are late. People mess up. We are human. People respect when you ask for help and take accountability for when you make mistakes.

You will make it through this, I promise.

 

In Loving Memory of My Uncle

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of my uncle’s death. We sadly lost him to suicide. I wanted to honor his life and encourage people to reach out to someone, anyone, when your are struggling with suicidal thoughts. Here’s his story:My (Great-)Uncle Rick was the middle of 6 children and one of my Gram’s 5 brothers. He was a lively kid and like most of the men in my family, he joined the military, specifically the Marines. Unfortunately, he was drafted to fight in war (so many of my family members have fought in war that I honestly can’t remember if it was the Korean or Vietnam war) and even though he made it home safely, the scars of his experiences stayed with him. Hidden in the back of his mind.

Rick later met my Aunt Carrie and had 4 kids, 3 girls (1 set of twins) and a boy. The family was so happy and perfect. Eventually, the kids grew up and Rick’s first grandchild (my cousin who is a 4 years younger than me) was born. He was his pride and joy. Rick wrote poetry about how much he loved that boy and how life is so beautiful. My Gram has some of his poems and I was really blown away by how sweet they were.

Unfortunately, we didn’t realize he was suffering. Behind his smiles and hopeful poetry was a man who was tormented by his mind. One evening, he put his grandson, arguably the person who made him the happiest, to bed and then moments later our family was changed forever by his suicide. He was only 48. We lost him in the 90s when PTSD just wasn’t a thing that happened to people nor was it in anyone’s lexicon, but my family and I know that diagnoses explains what he experienced after his time in battle.

It’s strange to lose someone when I was so little (I was 4 1/2) because I feel like I know him through stories and pictures. The only way I can see him is in pictures, his children and grandchildren’s faces, and their caring personalities. Uncle Rick never got to see kids walk down the aisle. He never got to meet 8 of his 9 grandchildren. He missed holidays, baptisms/birthdays/First Holy Communions/Christmases/graduation parties, the time his wife battled cancer, the times his sister and brother almost died from heart disease, and the same brother beating cancer.

He missed out on seeing one of his granddaughters develop her volleyball skills to the point where she got recruited by a college. He missed her sister who has a rare, incurable genetic disorder beat the odds and prove everyone wrong all while constantly wearing a smile. The loss of him is felt at every family event, especially family reunions. My cousin (one of my Uncle Rick’s daughters), wrote this as a tribute:

“Today marks the day that I lost a piece of my heart! It’s so hard to believe it’s been 20 years! My heart still aches in sadness. My silent tears still flow. For what it meant to lose you, no one will ever know. Thinking of you today as I do every day. Dad, you are so loved and greatly missed!!! Forever your Sugar Bear!”

There’s a piece of all of us that’s missing and a sadness behind our eyes at our family celebration, but his story motivates me to keep going. I was able to honor his memory at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Western PA’s Out of the Darkness Walk around my birthday last year. My friends and I, who all live with mental illness, are attempt survivors, and mental health advocates, celebrated the lives who are still here while honoring those we lost. [Note: I attached some pictures from the walk, but not of my uncle for privacy reasons.]

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Two of my friends and me (on the right) at the AFSP Western PA walk

It was a beautiful day (thousands of people were in attendance!) and something I wish my family would band together to spread suicide awareness and honor our Rick. I hope that one day we can all enjoy this event together.

I know what it’s like to feel the temptation of suicide and to understand when depression clouds your judgement to the point where you think it’s the only way to end your suffering. But trust me, it’s not. Suicide leads to years of suffering for those who love you. If your family, friends, teachers, etc. don’t support you, help out there. Calling a local crisis helpline helped me make the decision to get help for my issues. Here are some options for when you feel suicidal (or are struggling in general) that I know can help:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Their crisis chat link: http://chat.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/GetHelp/LifelineChat.aspx

The Trevor Project (LGBT+ friendly) Lifeline: 1-866-488-7386

Link to their crisis chat and texting services: http://www.thetrevorproject.org/pages/get-help-now

Transgender Lifeline (amazing service ran by trained trans/nonbinary folks for the trans/nonbinary community) US:877-565-8860 Canada: 877-330-6366

Sending love and light to you! You’re never alone in your fight<3