The Four Letter Monster: My battle with PTSD
A disease only for soldiers, right? It’s typically associated with those who have served overseas and come back ‘damaged’ from what they’ve seen and experienced. Showcased on TV with violent outbursts and flashbacks, those with the disease are to be feared. At least thats what most people think.
That’s what I thought too, until those same 4 letters were spoken to me as an explanation for all these mysterious symptoms I began to develop. Originally, I scoffed at the idea, thinking my doctor had to be mistaken. As I learned more about PTSD, everything started to click in my head. It was as if someone had been living my life and was able to explain it all in a coherent way. All of the erratic behavior, the deep searing pain that I couldn’t move past, the feeling that I was haunted by my experiences. All of these things were real, and they had a name. Even more so, PTSD gave me a reason for the symptoms existing in the first place, not because I was weak or incapable, but because I had an experience that made me physically ill and I was dealing with the symptoms of that illness.
PTSD is a lot like cancer. Doctors don’t fully understand why some people get it and others don’t. Sure, there are a number of risk factors that increase your chances of developing PTSD, but it’s not definitive. Even within the disease, there’s different levels of severity and a variety of treatment options to move a patient into remission. Most of the time, a combination of talk, processing and drug therapy are needed to manage the symptoms and give the patient the best quality of life. And even after fighting for their health, there’s always the risk that an incident will cause the patient to relapse. All of the neuropathways that you’ve fought so hard to rewire get tripped and you have to go back into active treatment.
What most people don’t understand is that PTSD actually causes a physical change in how your brain takes in and processes information. It puts the fight, flight or freeze response that we all innately have on high alert and even after the trauma has ended, the trauma response has not. So everything a patient is dealing with is coming through that lens of survival. In many ways, it’s important to remember the significance of this, the brain is a resilient organ, it can take quite a beating. And yet, someone with PTSD has gone through something so tragic, so horrific that the brain was not able to recover in the way it used to. These people survived, but their brain does not realize that.
The first time I heard the term PTSD I had no idea how big it would become in my everyday life. I had no idea that PTSD would define how I approach problems and situations, how I keep myself safe, and what it would take to actually feel safe. It turns out, after you loose a sense of safety, it’s pretty hard to get it back.
Little did I know those letters would eventually encapsulate the pain and suffering I had endured both during and after my trauma. They would explain my isolation and crippling fear that made it difficult to leave my house. They would provide an explanation for symptoms that otherwise made me feel crazy and helped me rationalize those moments when my left kidney began to scream in pain every time I felt unsafe.
Those words would be tied to me eventually quitting my first job out of college to check myself into treatment, as the symptoms began to take full control of my life. It got to the point that even though I survived, I was no longer living — my body may have been on earth but my soul was not. They became letters I said and thought about all the time, they meant something that only I seemed to understand. Although my friends and family really tried, this concept was so foreign to them and they didn’t know what to make of the pain I was feeling. Those four little letters would follow me on a journey straight down to rock bottom. Where I sat in pain that most people will never imagine, facing the reality of how I had been treated and what I had experienced. They also became the enemy, the thing I was fighting against. Even though it was hard the more I went to battle, the more I learned about my enemy that ultimately led to it’s defeat.
The first time I heard the term PTSD I had no idea it would completely transform my life. I had no idea it would introduce me to a community of strong, kind, wonderful people who were looking their monsters in the eye and going to battle every single day. It showed me the beauty that comes from raw, unfiltered vulnerability and reliance on one another. It forced me to put aside my pride and my ego to find myself again. It allowed me to become kinder, gentler, and stronger than I ever realized was possible. I’ve learned to attune to others faster and empathize with their pain in a way that most people can’t, because when I say I’ve felt the kind of pain you’re feeling… I really mean it. I’ve learned that I can build myself up from nothing, because I’ve done it. Finally, I’ve learned that nothing is impossible with the help of God.
So yes, PTSD are the four letters that changed my life forever. They make it hard to get out of bed some days. They remind me that I’ve been treated like garbage by people who didn’t even know me. They remind me that there’s part of my story most people will never know because those four little letters have the potential to wreck my career, my friendships and my relationships. But given the chance to take it all back, I think I’d stay right where I am. It’s hard and messy but it is beautiful and tomorrow I will get up and I will do battle with this four letter monster again.