When I was in college I kept a knife within an arm’s reach, but concealed in the bed that I slept at night. I also slept in my clothes, complete with running shoes. All of the lights were on, my bedroom door locked and I would wake at the slightest utterance. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep, so I just wouldn’t. I was both always and never tired. True, the average hours I slept each night (when I did sleep) was around four hours (I’m being generous) but you’re also on an adrenaline rush 24/7, which allowed my body to be tired, so long as it was constantly wired.
But it wasn’t just at night; it was every second of every day. I hid pennies in windows and doors, anything that could be opened so that I would always know if they had been. I knew the number of steps between every piece of furniture I owned and never moved anything. Whenever I walked into a room within seconds I took in every possible exit and anything that could be used as a weapon. Every sense was constantly extended as I memorized everything. Night terrors were my nighttime friends as much as flashbacks were my daytime friends. I always seemed like I was in control, too much in control, but in my own way I was completely out of control.
I was not crazy. I was not paranoid – you can’t be paranoid, when it really happened. The only thing I was was a survivor, but surviving has it consequences and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) was mine. It didn’t start in college, it started to really manifest my junior year of high school, but I pushed it down, no one was the wiser, until the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college. After an incident with a boyfriend becoming abusive and holding me hostage (police had to be called for him to let me go) and being mugged on my birthday (it is a thing with me and birthdays, they really tend to suck beyond the telling of it) the dam of my PTSD symptoms just broke.
For the remaining three years of school, I was in survival mode, sometimes incredibly depressed, usually terrified and always ‘together’ on the outside. Because I had to be.
My diagnosis stemmed from nearly a decade of extreme abuse I couldn’t get away from, as a child. Once I was sixteen, I lied about where I was, just to avoid going home. Sometimes I would stay on the streets, sometimes I would stay at a friend’s, sometimes I would stow away in some building that was supposed to be empty. Because these places were all safer. And no one could ever know.
But the truth was some people did know. Teachers would make inquiries, police were sometimes called, but they always left. At the time, I thought it was because they didn’t believe something was going on. My parents could paint me as a problem child, even if I had zero behavioral issues or incidents at school or otherwise, but now I realize that I was just too old. I was twelve, and quite frankly once you become an adolescent, the overworked system can’t afford to take you on. There are too many kids and if it is really that bad you’ll run away, survive, or not…
Then on my sixteenth birthday I was assaulted and that seemed to be the final straw for my ‘normal’ mental health. After that I couldn’t be touched, I was always alert and I couldn’t handle someone behind me. I changed…
Almost no one actually knows I have ever been diagnosed with anything. Officially, I have PTSD, but unofficially I have C-PTSD (Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Complex PTSD is recognized by many psychologists, psychiatrists and medical journals, etc. but it still is not official in the DSM. For me it is an important distinction. Complex PTSD is most common in survivors of child abuse, prolonged and severe cases of domestic violence, prisoners of war and torture victims. This is because it focuses on prolonged and repetitive trauma over an extended period of time, in which there was no escape. Since it is an offshoot or specialized form of traditional PTSD they have many things in common, but Complex PTSD also has some key differences that are like that ‘ah hah’ for me. Many people with C-PTSD find themselves revictimized and struggle with issues of trust, safety and self-worth. It helps me understand my past behaviors and how I sometimes interpret the world.
As few people who know I have ever sought help or been diagnosed with anything, even fewer people know I was abused growing up, or ever assaulted. To me it is a very private thing, and it does not define me, but I think I worry that it will define me in other people’s eyes. I don’t want them to think that I am fragile or off-kilter or to feel sorry for me. Even the few people who do know (like maybe less than eight people, including my husband, closest friends and Roy’s parents) rarely know much beyond that broad fact. They don’t know the extent of the abuse, or some of the most traumatic experiences or what it was like every day. Perhaps this is me ‘protecting’ them; perhaps it has to do with trust. But I really just feel like they don’t need to know. It serves no purpose.
But me writing this post does. To be perfectly honest, I am still not sure I should post about it. I went back and forth for two days. On one hand I felt like I needed to share it, and it would eventually come out anyway, in my book for example. But on the other hand, I wasn’t really ready. I know in some ways I never will be. My husband was worried and we spent over an hour discussing it. “It’s just in the four years I’ve known you; you have always been an incredibly private person… This is really personal. Is it too much?” He had the same concerns I had and still do. Who knows, perhaps I will take the post down tomorrow, but for now I feel this is ripping off a band-aid that needed to be removed awhile ago.
I think I just felt the urge to ‘come out’ after Robin Williams’ passing earlier this week. So many people had an opinion, sounded off on his mental state or judged his final actions. And that bothered me more than I’d like to admit, and I am still not sure exactly why. Though my experiences with PTSD focused on the anxiety side of things, depression was usually there and sometimes became front and center. There were times, when it was hard to get out of bed, hard to function and everything hurt as if it was a punch in the gut. There were two times in my life where I got to the point, where I realized I was near that danger zone. So, I sought help.
This wasn’t easy, for me admitting I need help means I am vulnerable, something I have worked so hard to never ever be. But sometimes you have to, and this takes more strength than handling something on your own. I was put on medications to curb anxiety and depression. Both times, my therapists wanted me on them indefinitely, but I merely used them as a way to push through the overwhelming darkness – so you know, four to six months. I hate medication. I don’t even have a prescription for Xanax (but I did in college, night terrors really are something else).
I know that my past trauma shaped who I have become and that used to bother me, because I wondered who I would have been if I hadn’t been abused. If I was able to be a kid once. I used to think I would have been happier, but I have come to realize in recent years that it really doesn’t matter. I could have been happier, I could have been worse off, but I’m here and I recognize many things about myself that are good and have come out of these experiences. I am very good in a crisis. When it comes to anything, even things when I should have a bias, I am what my husband refers to as ‘hyper-rational’. I’m a creative problem solver (hello, you kind of have to be when you have to figure out where you’re going to sleep at night and how you’re going to eat) and I am very, very strong. I’m a fighter and a survivor and my self-preservation instincts are top notch. But I am this way, because I had something I had to survive. I have had to overcome so many things unrelated to this trauma, and I wonder if I would have survived them all, if I hadn’t been prepared in some way. So, in a way, while I am not saying I am happy my life began the way it did, I don’t dwell on it either. And I am happy that I have been able to come away from my experiences and realize the good qualities they instilled in me.
Today, I am better, but it is not like I will ever be ‘cured’. It is something you manage every day, and some days are easier and some are more difficult to get through. And that is okay. I think about how far I have come in managing my anxiety and ‘issues’ as I refer to them. I don’t sleep with a weapon or decked out in my clothing anymore. I’m still hyper-vigilant to some extent, but nowhere near the extent that I was before (I don’t count steps between my furniture… at least not in every room). I have worked my way up to between six and seven hours of sleep a night. The flashbacks have to be triggered rather than be on a playlist that just wouldn’t stop. Night terrors are rare and when they occur, my husband will stay up until I fall asleep, and knowing that calms me so I am actually able to fall asleep. I still want to sit with my back to a corner when I am out somewhere. I still cannot stand someone being behind me when I am sitting down, even if it is my husband, and I am not a very touchy feely kind of person.
The truth is I never forget, any of it. And while I can’t remember every strike or verbal barb, as they were far too common, I remember enough. I remember the knife, being strangled and left for dead, and being told that it was my fault. Because I was so difficult to love. I remember my mother’s favorite name for me, “Piece of shit.” I remember every assault, and for nearly a decade subconsciously believing that I did deserve it – all of it. I remember, and these memories will always be heavy, but they don’t have to weigh me down.
I have learned how to cope and I know myself and many of my triggers. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, my birthday, Christmas and every shunt surgery I have to have – these are my hard times. And so I keep myself busy, focused on something else until that time passes. I have wonderful friends, who are more than that – they are my family. I have a wonderful husband. And after 26 years of believing I was worthless and didn’t deserve love – I finally figured out that these thoughts were the problem, not me. (And ironically, later that same year I met my husband – go figure.)
So, I guess that is my coming out story. I have lived with PTSD for at least fourteen years and only in the last three years have really gotten a good handle on it. Sometimes I need to see a therapist, sometimes I need to work at it harder, lean on the people who love me, and other times I need to be by myself. But my diagnosis or the experiences that are the root for my diagnosis do not define me. I wish there wasn’t such a stigma about mental illness or mental health issues. Depression is real and more than just the blues. Anxiety disorders are more than just being high strung. And there is no reason why someone should be looked at differently because they struggle or live with any of these things. It doesn’t mean that we’re damaged. It doesn’t make us violent or dangerous – these are choices anyone can make.
I try to live my life by a certain formula: I choose to move on from my past and my ties to it; I appreciate the present; and I move forward into whatever the future holds.