“I’m not scared that the grief will kill me, I’m scared it won’t.”
These are the words I remember telling my psychologist when I was first diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. The session in which she handed me a pad of paper and some colouring pencils and asked me to draw what my world felt like.
The image I drew, not dissimilar to the one above, was apparently fairly standard for anyone with PTSD. Many of us are asked to do the same task all drawing a world that is dark, barren and stripped of life because that is PTSD.
Post-traumatic stress disorder: The science
As someone who, now recovered, studies psychology and has worked for mental health charities, I can tell you all the science behind PTSD. I can tell you trauma causes a rewiring of the brain, I can tell you brain imaging can pick up structural changes in the brain of sufferers and I can point to the gene that may make you more prone to PTSD.
I can tell you how, contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to have served in the military to have PTSD, you just need to have witnessed a trauma. I can tell you trauma counsellors have to be very careful for their own mental health. That listening daily to the trauma of others can leave you also traumatised and at risk of PTSD, making it, in a way, the only contagious mental illness.
I can recite the definition of ‘a normal reaction to an abnormal situation’. Explain that you experience something so traumatic you cannot process it. How the mind is like a filing system with files for all your experiences allowing you to process and move on from them. But when the experience is so extreme and unexpected, you don’t have a file to process it to, so it sits, un-filed, constantly swirling around your mind. How the result is flash backs, nightmares, extreme anxiety, heightened states of arousal, a constant sense of fear as well as a sense of emotional numbness that leaves the sufferer unable to interact normally with people and life. I can tell you all the clinical responses.
But as someone that’s had it, I can tell you what the science can’t.
PTSD: The reality
There is a lyric in the song Crazy by Gnarls Barkley, “It wasn’t because I didn’t know enough, I just knew too much”. And that’s PTSD. You are suddenly exposed to the horrors that life can throw at you, how vulnerable you are to losing people you love, to being harmed, to seeing the unthinkable, you know too much.
PTSD is an illness that knows on your darkest fears. It tortures you with them at any time of day or night. Flashbacks that make you relive the event occur without warning, nightmares leave you unable to sleep, too scared of the images your subconscious might inflict on you. The sense everything in your life is now so deeply changed you can never expect to be normal again and you are so changed you wouldn’t know how to be normal anyway. You withdraw from friends and family because PTSD teaches you you will eventually lose the ones you love and that the pain of loss is too much. Withdrawing means you lose them on your terms, it feels less painful that way. PTSD is exhausting. It teaches you that bad things will happen to you, leaving you constantly alert, watching and waiting for the next disaster. The world becomes dark and scary and painful and lonely because no-one else can see the places your mind takes you, you’re on your own.
PTSD is a parasite that leaves you functioning on the outside with nothing but fear in your soul.
That’s what PTSD is really like, that’s what the facts and figures won’t tell you.
But PTSD is treatable, although the treatment is hard. Counselling and safely reliving the emotional trauma in a controlled environment is the best way through but sometimes this can seem more terrifying than the fear you live under as a sufferer, but it does often work as I can personally testify.
I got the right help at the right time and not only got better, I honestly believe I’ve ended up a better, stronger person.
Yes, I am changed, but instead of being afraid of that change, I acknowledge it’s actually a positive. Instead of being scared of losing people, I value them more. I accept I’ll lose them someday, everyone dies, but instead of living in fear of it, accepting it means I can enjoy them whilst we’re all still here. I do more with my life because life is precious and fragile, and accepting that rather than fearing it, spurs you to do and enjoy more.
PTSD can beat you down, can take you to the darkest places, but it can also prove the old adage true, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.