Experiencing trauma is not rare. An estimated 60 percent of all men and 50 percent of all women will experience at least one traumatic event in their lives. For most, trauma and its aftermath are temporary; the symptoms that follow are common and often our body and brain’s way of coping with the experience.
For some, however, these feelings continue unchecked, affecting every aspect of daily life. This is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
I am one of the 8.6 million Americans who are living with a lifetime PTSD diagnosis. Living with PTSD is a continuous challenge. But its one I have lived with for most of my life. My PTSD was not precipitated by a single event, but rather several traumas that started at such an early age that I am unable to think of any aspect of my life that is not touched by this illness. Like so many others who experience trauma, I spent much of the early part of my life, before I was diagnosed, trying to articulate to those around me what it felt like inside of my brain. On the outside, I probably seemed normal. But on the inside, I struggled to feel safe, I struggled to find hope, and I struggled to engage in life beyond going through the motions.
A few months into my first year of college, I was sexually assaulted by a trusted friend. In the aftermath, all of the symptoms from trauma I had previously experienced early in my childhood—symptoms that I had spent so long trying to push below the surface—became too overwhelming to hide. I lost the ability to close my eyes without being transported back to my trauma. I stopped doing anything and everything, and often felt disoriented and overcome by panic. I went from being a straight A student in the honors program to dropping out of college. But still, I did not seek help, overcome by fear, shame and guilt.
At 23, my best friend lost his own battle with PTSD and took his own life. From his tragedy emerged the shock wave I needed to break out of my own darkness and realize I needed help. I immediately sought help from a clinician who finally gave me the diagnosis I had suspected for years. Being diagnosed allowed me to let go of years of shame and guilt and the fear that I was losing my mind. I look back and realize how most of my memories of the time from before my diagnosis are distorted by PTSD and the unrelenting effects of trauma.
A diagnosis of PTSD was like a weight lifted off my shoulders—I finally had a word to define how I had felt for so many years. Recovery is about a lot of falling down and getting back up. There is no cure for PTSD and the scars of my trauma will never fully heal. For better or worse, PTSD has shaped the trajectory of my life, and every single day I must make the choice to move forward and be more than my trauma. One of my most important roles is to be a voice for other trauma survivors by pushing for more evidenced-based treatment options and meaningful diagnostics.
At one point or another, most of us who struggle with PTSD believe that we are too far gone to ever get better. But we aren’t. When we move outside of the silos of our own world, we are often surprised at how many people around us share our lived experiences of trauma and PTSD. PTSD Awareness Month to me is not only about educating trauma survivors about how to recognize the symptoms of PTSD early so that they can get the treatment that they need to move forward, but also about showing that those with PTSD are not broken.
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