What’s is it like to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder?

PTSD has impacted me in various ways over the years. This is my personal experience:

Immediately after my trauma, I lost several hours of time to which I have no idea what I did or where I went. I was able to piece together that I had looked for, and found, a gun and returned to where I was being held to murder my attacker (he was gone). I made no mention of the trauma I had just endured to anyone I encountered. Those I spoke with during this time recall that I seemed “normal.”

The first time I was triggered, and lost control, was over the phone with the bank over a car loan. The car was considered a crime scene because a girl had been killed in it. I told the bank that that the police had the car and that it was part of an investigation. They told me I had to pay off the entire balance or they were going to sue me. I responded that I was going to come “kill them”. I heard the words come out of my mouth, but it didn’t seem real – I wasn’t going to do that. They told me it was a crime to threaten them. I apologized and then almost immediately threatened them again.  

Three months after my trauma, I had a psychotic breakdown. I don’t remember it. Some friends intervened and brought me to the emergency room where I was diagnosed with PTSD. I was put on sedatives and on a waiting list for a mental health specialist.

Four months after my trauma, my attacker had been detained in another state and I was encouraged by the police to give a detailed testimony to an advocate. This is the only time in sixteen years that I have given a detailed account of all that occurred during my attack.

Nine months after my trauma, I stopped taking my medication and got the ER doctor to release me from his care.

One year after my trauma, I was faintly aware that life was becoming more difficult. I was having trouble focusing, working, sleeping, eating properly, and surrounded myself with people who were emotionally unavailable.

Two years after my trauma, I went through the motions of life and was aware that everything in my life had been reduced to either before or after my trauma. I was isolated and watched massive amounts of television. I started to experience paranoia and had night terrors every night. I was hospitalized for exhaustion. I learned that I slept better if I was in my car with my seat belt on. Even though I had an apartment, I preferred to sleep in my car.

Three years after my trauma, I started to inquire about treatment for PTSD. I could barely work. My skin hurt all the time and the sun hurt my eyes. I felt like I was getting dumber and dumber. I struggled to take remedial classes at the community college. I had no desire to talk to anyone and felt safest in the woods by the river near my apartment. I’d often sleep outside and walk around in the middle of the night.

Four years after my trauma, I was really trying to get better and made a few attempts at getting into a program. But because I wasn’t suicidal and didn’t drink alcohol, or use drugs, I was always placed on the bottom of the wait list. I went to the county for help but couldn’t figure out how to fill out all the paperwork. I struggled with the most basic of tasks. It never occurred to me to just make an appointment with a regular therapist.

Five years after my trauma, I was sitting next to a student in a class at my community college who had just returned from Iraq and was having trouble adjusting. He threatened to kill another student and there was a bit of chaos that ensued. I sat there with him while the rest of the class fled. The professor handled the situation and explained to the triggered student how to get help for PTSD.

Later that day, I emailed the professor for the same information. The next day I called the clinic. Eight weeks later, I was in a treatment program for PTSD.

For the next eighteen months, I remained in a treatment program for PTSD. My clearest memory of this period is being asked about how the weather was outside every single session. I saw several mental health professionals every week for various types of treatment and each one always asked me how the weather was.

The treatment center was in the city, and I had to walk a good distance from the parking lot. I always had to go outside to get there but would somehow forget how the weather was by the time I got inside. After the first few weeks, I tried hard to pay attention to the weather and would even try to practice my response, but I’d often fail to recall the most basic information like whether or not it was raining or snowing.

During my time in treatment, I started to understand how mentally ill I was. There is a saying that “only crazy people think they are normal”, in my experience – this is 100% true. I had inklings that perhaps I hadn’t adjusted well after my trauma, but I didn’t realize how serious it had become.

Some of the things I normalized were: wearing multiple layers of clothing, resisting basic hygiene, refusing to talk on the phone, preferring to sleep outside or in my car, carrying almonds in one pocket and cloves in the other – always chewing on one or the other, watching hours of television at a time, only shopping in the middle of the night, avoiding public places and crowds, a feeling of static inside, explosive and unpredictable anger, and apathy.

In an anthropology class, I was assigned to do an ethnography in a public space with other people for the span of six weeks. I decided to make an online event and publicly post it on social media. It took every ounce of courage for me to go and see if anyone showed up for my “Taco Tuesday” event. To my surprise, several people came. It was super awkward for everyone and somehow that brought me comfort. It was the first time I had a “normal” conversation with new people since my trauma.

Taco Tuesday quickly took on its own identity. Every week people from all walks of life came out to eat tacos in restaurants all over the city. After the first month, it became clear that many of the people who came had trouble socializing and several people had PTSD like me.

Six and half years after my trauma, my treatment program was coming to an end when I was entered into a trial for “minipress” which was an alpha blocker that was being experimented with to treat PTSD. Within a few days, I noticed a change. The static that had been with me for as long as I could remember was gone. The shadows in my peripheral vision disappeared. My flashbacks stopped. Even my night terrors improved.

Seven years after my trauma, I was able to tell people I had PTSD and have high level conversations about it. I connected with others that had PTSD through Taco Tuesday. Although, I was no longer in treatment, I continued to nurture what I had learned there.

Ten years after my trauma, I discovered that my mother, who I already knew was a narcissist, was in communication with my attacker and had even paid for an attorney to try and appeal his 50-year prison sentence. Thankfully, his sentence was reaffirmed, but the betrayal I felt for my mother triggered my PTSD in a major way. The day after I found out, my heart rate was resting at 120 beats per minute. My body was stuck in a negative feedback loop, and I knew what was in store for me if I didn’t get help. I walked into an ER and told them to give me minipress to treat my PTSD, which after doing a short assessment and looking at my file, they did.

That same night, I booked an intake with a therapist online for early the next morning. The next day, I told a shortened version of my trauma, my relationship with my mother, and my desire to not get sucked back into the whirlwind of PTSD.

Eleven years after my trauma, I had made much progress with my therapist doing narrative therapy. I discovered that I had complex PTSD from a troublesome childhood and that explained why I was attracted to people who meant to do me harm. I learned how to overcome my triggers by actively confronting them. I took a very literal approach and recreated whatever scenario triggered me to create a new memory.

For example, I had made a pot roast the night I was attacked and became a vegetarian after because the smell of meat triggered me. When the opportunity presented itself, I ate pot roast, surrounded by loved ones and focused on how safe I felt and how much I enjoyed the flavors of the meat. Now I can take meat or leave it, but it no longer has the power to trigger me.  

Twelve years after my trauma, I had a son. The delivery was complicated by my PTSD, but I had been very up front about my trauma and even gave some specifics to avoid being triggered. I had a doula that had training in dealing with trauma. The delivery was going fine until I got “stuck.” I didn’t feel triggered, but my body disagreed with my mind and tried to shut down the labor process. I labored for 48 hours before I had a c-section.

After the birth of my son, my night terrors practically disappeared and haven’t returned in any meaningful way. I did suffer some post-partum anxiety but had set up a network of support that included weekly therapy, so I was able to navigate it without any major incidents.

Fourteen years after my trauma, I gave birth to my daughter via scheduled c-section in April of 2020, the beginning of the pandemic. I was alone for the majority of my thirty plus hour hospital stay. I did not sleep much and was under-medicated. I struggled to bond with my baby who refused to nurse. I came home, handed my daughter to her father, and collapsed into a disassociated state of depression.

Thankfully, my husband is a partner in my PTSD recovery and in life. He took over as primary parent for our daughter as I struggled through postpartum. I doubled down with my therapist and took medication to treat the postpartum depression.

Eight months after my daughter was born, my mother died. After her death, I experienced a great sense of relief. My mood lifted and I stopped taking anti-depression medication. I continued with my therapist.

Sixteen years after my trauma, I am living a good life. Two healthy children, a loving husband, wonder friends, and a safe home. After the death of my mother, I felt the freedom to write and share about my personal experiences. I wrote and published a novella where all the characters have PTSD. I started sharing in a variety of recovery settings about my experiences. I decided to quit my job to embrace my role as a mother and to advocate/educate/write about PTSD.

Today, my life is no longer split into before my trauma and after. I will never be completely free from PTSD, but it shows up in my life in less frequently and for shorter periods.

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