PTSD is Not a Weakness.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is anything but a weakness. It is our strength. It means that we kept going. · Trauma is common. About six of every 10 US adults experience at least one trauma in their life. · Some individuals who have gone through trauma turn out fine, with little to no long-term repercussions. However, a small percentage of people go on to develop PTSD.
Does not speaking up make you weak?
No. I didn’t speak up because I was frozen in fear. Like an animal in the wild, I “played dead” when an unexpected predator pounced on me as his prey.
When I was molested by my 60 year old voice teacher when I was 17, I knew nothing about trauma. I had no idea why all of a sudden I felt numb all the time, or why I couldn’t focus on school anymore. I kept going back to lessons, beating myself up for not being able to sing as well. I felt “off” but thought there was just something wrong with me. I had no idea you could be traumatized by a situation that terrified me, overwhelmed me, and felt out of my control.
It also took me a very long time to accept that a mentor and father figure in my life had violated our trusting relationship. I kept replaying the events that had occurred in my mind, telling myself, I must have done something wrong — why else would he have done this? I must have instigated something… I blamed myself, convinced that no one could take advantage of me if I had not invited it.
And then shortly after, circumstances like these would make anyone have a long-term reaction to trauma:
After 27 surgeries and six years unable to eat or drink, I learned that the body doesn’t heal all at instant. Stitches had to heal one by one. Neuropathic nerves grew back one millimeter a month. Learning to talk again took weeks. Learning to walk again took months. My skin’s yellowish glow from the IV nutrition I was sustained on took years to fade. Not only was there no “quick fix” to healing, there was no “permanent fix” either. Wounds reopened, I became accustomed to new “openings” in my body leaking at any given moment. I learned that the body is delicate, precious, but incredibly strong.
My body never went back to normal. With no other alternative, I learned how to accommodate it and embrace it for the amazing things its extraordinary resilience.
I was shocked and saddened that I could never get my old, unwounded body back. But what really startled me was realizing what had happened to my mind.
PTSD. I had never heard those letters put together before. I knew what “trauma” was, but I didn’t know it could cause so much internal dis-ease and dis-order — illness that I couldn’t see. Not only
But that was the biggest shock to me — waking up in a new body and a new mind, troubled by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
“Why Can’t You Get Over It Already?”
Not only had I woken up in a new body, I now had a mind troubled with anxious thoughts, associations and memories. When I finally started reading about the symptoms of PTSD, I was able to realize that I wasn’t crazy. There were reasons why I was experiencing so many strange sensations — sensations that made me feel alienated from the rest of the world.
For anyone who has experienced PTSD, for anyone who knows anyone suffering from PTSD, and anyone who can find this book, please read Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine. It was only when I read this book could I understand the “why” behind how crazy I felt inside — and I realized the only madness was the anger I needed to unleash — not anger I should be taking out on myself for being “weak” or taking “so long to heal.”
It takes a long time to heal after PTSD, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push ourselves past that fear a bit more every day. After the countless medical invasions and flashbacks of sexual assault, I had plenty of triggers. But if I didn’t work up the strength to push past them — even if they felt uncomfortable and I would rather hide for the rest of my life in bed, free from all triggers — I knew I would never get back to the life I deserve if I buried myself in trigger warnings.
So I did the work. It was tough as hell, with no easy way around it. And that took so much inner and outer strength, that sometimes, I wanted to give up.
But I knew I was fighting for my life — not my physical survival anymore, but now it was up to me if I wanted to live functionally, or live free.
According to NAMI, these are common symptoms that PTSD survivors experienced:
Gaining back my physical health, I was unprepared for flashbacks, images and memories that I thought I had repressed. I’ll never forget the first time I had a French fry. I had been unable to eat or drink for years, and now that I was surgically reconstructed, the world was my endless buffet. I expected relief, fullness and normalcy. Instead, I was jolted back to life with every emotion that I had not wanted to feel for all of these years. I learned that the French fry was my “trigger”. Putting food back into my body felt pleasant — it made me feel. Now that I could “feel”, I was feeling everything — including the pain I had tried to swallow for years of medical uncertainty, surgical interventions, and countless disappointments.
Soon, intrusive memories were unavoidable. I would be sitting in a car, buckled into a seatbelt and all of a sudden I would start to panic. I felt locked in, restricted, confined and unsafe. Suddenly, I was remembering what it felt like to be chained to IV poles, unable to move and constricted to a tiny space. My heart started beating rapidly and I started to panic as my memories intruded on what appeared to be a perfectly calm moment. It wasn’t as if I was recalling a painful time. It was as though the doctors were right there with me, peering over my open wound, dictating my uncertain future, and confining me to a world of medical isolation.
When I started to feel these scary memories at any given time, I felt like I had to avoid any stimulant that might make me feel anything at all. Nothing felt “safe.” I lived my life like I was constantly running or fleeing. I spent years locked in my room, journaling for hours with my blinds shut, careful to shut out any outside stimulation that might make me feel. When I was unable to eat, this was a survival mechanism — if I felt, I might actually feel the deadliest sensation of all — hunger. When I was finally reconstructed, I was so used to avoiding my
It was too painful to remember every setback and struggle, to overwhelming to recall everything I had lost with every surgery — my innocence, my old body, my sense of self…
Once I started avoiding my intrusive memories, I got used to the feeling of numbness — so much that I became dissociated. When trauma left me emotionally and physically wounded, I froze to protect myself.. I went numb so I didn’t have to feel pain. I went numb so I I didn’t have to re-experience what had happened to me and mourn my losses. Becoming numb made my world a blurry haze. The world didn’t feel real anymore (derealization) as I learned to stay “out of my body.” I would walk around almost like a zombie, compulsively pacing hallways and walking in circles — anything to keep my feet moving rather than my thoughts. Through dissociating, I could avoid really feeling what I need to feel — grief.
Staying out of my body and dissociating was how I coped with anxiety. Feeling tormented by my memories, which felt like present realities. I was extremely anxious and irritable. If I couldn’t constantly fidget or find another way to “numb out” I would start to panic, and would be overwhelmed with even more intrusive memories and raw, forgotten emotions. My anger would end up being misdirected at others, when really I just wanted to shout at my circumstances.
My anxiety manifested in all the wrong places — I couldn’t sit still in classes and couldn’t function as a calm, responsible adult.
Soon, these symptoms were controlling my life.
How I Healed Through My Greatest Strength:
Creativity saved my life. I talked about all of that in my TEDx Talk:
But, there’s something I don’t talk enough about .
What was my greatest strength?
I had my mother’s compassion through all of this. She was the pillar of strength who I trusted with my life, finally telling her that I had been sexually abused for nearly a year.
We healed together, because she looked up to my voice teacher almost as much as I did.
Then, after the hospital, when I could finally eat, she held my hand every time I was too scared to leave my room, petrified by daylight after years of numbness. She lovingly cooked for me as I cried that food might kill me after years of having no digestive system. And she was there to tell me that life was waiting on the other side when I didn’t want to go on any longer.
I went through her old emails to write this post — Sorry, Mom — and found some letters she wrote to a friend (because even supporters need support!) through my traumas…
My mom’s super-secret emails….
“We did have a wonderful day yesterday and and i’m glad we could get her out of her room to really celebrate her birthday. I did try to get her to push herself a bit,. You could see how unhappy she was with this huge battle in her head and I felt very sorry for her. She would love to get more support and knows she needs it.
I felt sad that she feels lonely just being with Mark and I- not sad for us, but sad for her. When Mark and I had surprise lit candles last night, she almost felt guilty- as if she didnt deserve it, when she actually deserves so much
There is an improvement in that she is trying to figure things out and do what is scary to her, but e needs more push from outside to confidently make changes. She said “I still need more explanation why i should give up being numb- what is really waiting for me in my life on the other side?”
This anxiety of hers is getting to feel more and more like an abusive intruder in this home and an abusive boyfriend for Amy that she would never put up with in her real life-Time for him to disintegrate into nothingness!
I had my mother’s support to get me through this. And my own.
In life, we all heal through support. We all have strengths from different sources, in different ways, different means, different forms.
You can call someone with PTSD struggling.
I certainly struggled for a long time.
But do not call us weak. We have harnessed the strength of the human spirit to go on and on, weathering through an illness that not only you can’t see, but we can’t see either. We only know it exists and seems to dictate each living, breathing, numb moment.
But when we do get to the other side, it becomes a glorious gift of strength that now, we can see. And it’s something we might even be able to see and perceive a bit deeper than anyone else. It is our Post Traumatic Gift that is uniquely ours.
As you read all of this, you might come up with many words to describe my story, and the story that many of us share.
What words come to your mind?
Weak? I think not.
You can endorse Amy as a Health Activist Hero until October 21st at www.amyoes.com/health-activist. See more of Amy’s original artwork, learn about her speaking, or catch her touring Gutless & Grateful, her one woman musical, to theatres, colleges, conferences and organizations nationwide. Learn about hermental health advocacy programs for students, and find out how to take part in the#LoveMyDetour movement, and learn about her upcoming book, My Beautiful Detour at www.amyoes.com.
Learn more about Amy’s programs for PTSD warriors and their supporters at www.amyoes.com/trauma. Follow Amy Oestreicher on Twitter: www.twitter.com/amyoes and download a free guide to getting a TEDx Talk at www.amyoes.com/discover.
Love My Detour: Post Traumatic Gifts Programming is now listed as part of the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military, and can be found on the National Initiative Directory, as well as www.ArtsAcrosstheMilitary.org.