When it comes to battling PTSD I wish I could tell you this road will be easy, but that would be a lie. Healing is going to be the hardest thing you have ever done, but if you survived what brought you here in the first place- you can survive this.
The road to recovery is often slow and can be isolating.
Symptoms can increase during treatment, making it feel like no progress is being made at all. It may feel that way because healing is not linear, but as long as you are still fighting you are making progress and that is something to be proud of.
There is the person I was before my most intense trauma, and the person I am now. For a long time I thought I was working to get back to that person. It took me a while, but I now realize that person is forever gone. Some days I miss her deeply. After grieving the loss of the person I was before the trauma, I made up my mind that I will not stop working on myself until I am twice the person I was before. I will take all the best pieces of her and hold them close. I will rebuild. I am rebuilding.
I don’t think there is ever a point where we are done working on ourselves, it is something I will do everyday. That does not mean that every day is perfect. That does not mean that I am perfect, in fact I am very flawed- we all are. Some days success is just staying here, some days just surviving is more than enough to be proud of. We must strive for progress not perfection.
The battle you are fighting is a silent one, but it doesn’t have to be. Being a PTSD warrior means reliving the worst moments of your life on repeat. It is sleepless nights of flashbacks and nightmares. It is praying for the sun to come up, because each night seems to never end. One night feels like 3 weeks when the darkness is full of so much horror. The fear of death and danger is real. It is not only starting your day on empty, it is starting your day in the negative. All your mental energy was already consumed by the deeply rooted primal fear reactions you experienced all night. You start each day exhausted physically, mentally, spiritually.
Some days are numb and detached. It is like waking up really exhausted, but no amount of caffeine can seem to change your state in any way. Except it feels like a lot more than exhaustion. It feels as though there is a wall between you and the world. This eery doom fog. It is like watching your life through a clouded lenses with a 3 minute delay. The time just seems to disappear. The people around you feel uneasy and can pick up on something being wrong or off but no one can really figure out what it is. It is just one more thing straining already strained relationships.
Relationships are strained not only because of the days spent in a fog, but a compilation of all the symptoms that take their tole. Sometimes we may need to isolate, especially if we don’t have other skills to cope. It can become unbearable. However, the time spent numb and detached already plants the seeds of doubt in our loved ones. So, when you add in the isolation it really solidifies it. Yet, that’s not even the worst of it. When our brains are constantly scanning for similarities to abusers and trauma as a form of self protection, when our loved ones display similarities we cannot differentiate the threat. In those moments, we truly feel and believe strongly that there is a present threat, after being triggered by that similarity. This can cause irrational behaviors or beliefs. This in turn causes more strain on our relationships. This strain can make us feel unsafe, furthering our symptoms and creating a vicious cycle that only self awareness, mindfulness, intention, and action can break. Although, being mindful can feel impossible.
When we are in survival mode, and have not yet processed or comes to terms with our trauma, dissociation can replace mindfulness. We are consumed by the past, or in fear of the future. The present moment and reality slip through our fingers. Almost impossible to grasp, mindfulness is met with harsh painful realities. These realities can be surrounded by harsh judgments and negative beliefs. Trying to stay present can bring up those painful realities, our unprocessed judgments and negative beliefs can spiral suicidal depression. Feelings of worthlessness and of being a burden begin to creep in. This can cause so much guilt and shame. We may isolate or become withdrawn, dissociation and numbing may begin to consume us to alleviate the tremendously high levels of arousal and anxiety. At this point we don’t know the difference between up and down, what to believe, what to trust. Our relationships can be turbulent and full of insecurities, leading us to not know who to trust in these vulnerable moments.
We detach from relationships altogether. We isolate ourselves. We use self protection. Maybe we don’t even get close enough for individuals to know we have PTSD, let alone into our struggles with it. It’s like living two lives. The going on with life self that shows up to work and to take care of responsibilities, and the symptom consumed part of self. Sometimes the going on with life self is completely spent, just leaving the triggered part of self.
Responsibilities begin to slip, as the symptoms begin to take over, relationships continue to disintegrate and isolation increases. Self care starts to slip, the inner critic amplifies, the suicidal ideation increases. Our feelings of being inadequate and worthless grow as the PTSD infects our life and we begin to slip up and neglect our responsibilities and relationships in the name of survival. When all of our energy is stuck on surviving, people just don’t seem to understand that we truly have nothing left. It’s inescapable hell, and on top of that our head is telling us we are a fuck up that can no longer uphold the life we once created, the relationships we once had, or the person we used to be. The grief can be all consuming.
When symptoms are high, progress may look different. When days are consumed with emotional flash backs, and nights are consumed with nightmares and flash backs- you need to find a way to be gentle with yourself. You may have to dig deep through the darkness to find some self compassion, but dig until you find it. This is crucial.
Sometimes being a warrior is being consumed, without warning, by the same sights, smells, sensations, sounds, and feelings you experienced in the worst moments of your life. This can come on randomly and unexpectedly because of the slightest trigger to the memory. It can feel all consuming, unpredictable, and inescapable. For me some days PTSD is hiding in the bathroom of a clothing store, because a stranger walked past wearing his cologne and suddenly my sunny Tuesday turned into the worst moment of my life. In the moment, I don’t know what brought it on. I just know I can feel the blood rush to my face and the sweat begin to bead and pool everywhere. The heat becomes too much to bare. I begin to try to rip my jacket off as the tunnel vision starts. I stumble to the bathroom as I am over taken with the smell, that turns into the taste, that turns into hands around my throat and suffocation. As I claw at my throat in a public bathroom stall, to break the grasp of imaginary hands that haven’t been around my throat in years, the fear of death consumes me. In that moment the only thing that is real is the experience. The only reality is the memory. Moments of awareness begin to break up the flashback. I hear a sound, I am able to open my eyes for a second. I remember a grounding skill and begin trying to open my eyes long enough to focus on what is around me. I fight with everything in me to remain present. His face. His smell. As the flash back dissipates the panic sets in. The impending sense of doom. I walk to the sink to splash some water on my face, my neck is covered in scratches. I begin to cry at the sight of my red puffy eyes, disheveled hair, and torn up neck. At this point the negative self talk sets in. “Why am I like this?” “What am I doing wrong?” “I must not be trying hard enough!” “Why can’t I be normal?” “I am so worthless, I can’t even handle going to the store.”
It can seem impossible to find a way to cope with this, while still managing and maintaining your life. There can be constant fear of never knowing when your brain will get highjacked. In some cases, this can increase isolation. When you never know when or what is going to spiral you into a PTSD attack, being around friends and family or completing basic tasks in public can be horrifying.
Going out and trying to socialize or being in the community can be horrifying when you are on high alert during every moment of everyday. It is exhausting to lack the ability to differentiate between real threats of danger and perceived threats. When your brain is constantly scanning for danger, and pulling any and all similarities to trauma- there is no peace. There is no feeling of safety or comfort. It is constantly looking over your shoulder.
It is horrifying. But you do not have to do this alone. There is still beauty in the world. Cling to it like your fucking life depends on it- because it does.
Being a PTSD warrior is waking up every morning to fight like hell to see the beauty in the world through those same eyes that witnessed the ugliest parts of humanity. It is looking evil in the eyes and walking away alive.
I see you. I see that you are so brave and courageous. It takes true strength to wake up each day and see the beauty in a world that has left you feeling so broken. You are not broken. You are healing. If survived that, you can survive this.
Sometimes the hardest battle isn’t the flashbacks or panic attacks. It is fighting the demons in your head that are trying to make sense of it all. The demons that lie to you. They tell you things like you are broken, you are unworthy, you are less than. They try to coax you into taking responsibility for the trauma, that is not yours to take. They try to coax you into silently baring the weight of all that shame, that is not yours to carry. Those demons can make you question everyone, and everything- your worth, your relationships, your value, who you are as a human. Sometimes those demons can make you believe it would be easier if you just ended it. There is a reason the rate of suicide among PTSD survivors is so high, because this illness is truly pure hell. I implore you; I beg you- stay.
There is a way out. You don’t have to do it alone. There are other people fighting the same fight. There are resources. There are treatments.
The trauma is not your fault, but healing is your responsibility. No- it is not fair. It is not fair that someone took something from you that you will never get back. It is not fair that you have to live with these scars and burdens. That you are judged harshly and misunderstood and stigmatized for a diagnosis brought on by other people. You have every right to be angry, hopeless, and at the end of your rope. There are a million reasons for you to give up the fight, but all you need is one reason to stay. Find one reason to heal. Find one reason to take your power back.
With the proper treatment, there is another side. There is light at the end of the tunnel. The story does not have to stop here. For many people, the combination of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and trauma processing such as Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing EMDR or prolonged exposure can significantly reduce symptoms.
Through Trauma informed DBT you learn how to lead a life worth living. This is accomplished through a combination of group therapy, individual therapy, phone coaching, and eventually trauma processing. DBT focuses on mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, distress tolerance, and emotional regulation. Mindfulness is the golden thread that ties all of these components together. It enables us to have the awareness required to recognize when we need to utilize different skills, and then take the action to actually utilize them.
Slowly, over time you can learn to rebuild your entire foundation. You’ll be able to recognize real danger, and respond to it appropriately. You’ll learn to rebuild your relationship with yourself including your self esteem and self concept. You learn to protect this new sense of self through appropriate boundaries and self respect. You will be required to practice self care, and learn to appropriately assert your needs. Early on you will know how to recognize triggers, eliminate the ones you can and learn coping skills to handle the ones you cannot eliminate. You will learn to find meaning even in the darkest of times. Slowly, you will build a life worth living.
The road to recovery does not look the same for everyone, and what works for one may not work for another. Some medications may not work, some therapies or therapists may not work. You must be willing to keep looking, keep trying, keep researching, keep reaching out. There is a way out for you.
I cannot promise you that the road is easy, it is not.
What I can promise you is that it is worth it.
You are worth it. You are warrior.
You are not broken, you are healing.
One day, when your ready- share your story, break the silence and rip apart the stigma. Help others still fighting. Share what you have learned, and lend a hand.
You got this.
Share this article with loved ones who may not understand how to support you.