I have PTSD, and it almost defeated me — this is how I recovered
I developed PTSD when I was 10 years old, but I didn’t recover until well over a decade later. Living with the disorder was excruciating, but for many years I didn’t even entertain the idea that recovery was possible. In my mind, the situation was fairly simple and straightforward — a trauma had occurred, it had changed me irrecoverably, and I simply needed to accept the fact that my life had been irreversibly altered.
I exhibited most of the hallmark symptoms of PTSD — flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and avoidance of all things that reminded me of the trauma. I vacillated between feeling completely numb and excessively emotional. I berated myself for being so weak, but I told myself this was the “new normal.” Like many individuals with PTSD, I developed an unhealthy coping mechanism. I was diagnosed with anorexia at the age of 12 and I wasn’t able to recover from my eating disorder until I finally accepted the fact that I had PTSD and I needed treatment. The gnawing pain of starvation and the intrusive thoughts of food and calories were a welcome distraction from the pervasive flashbacks I’d been living with for years.
The recovery process is different for everyone, but this is how and why I recovered from PTSD. I’m talking about it because, like many mental illnesses, there is often a stigma attached to PTSD and it deters people from seeking the help they deserve.
I finally recognized that it wasn’t a sign of weakness.
I’m a perfectionist in pretty much every aspect of my life and acknowledging that I had PTSD felt like an admission of failure. Although I didn’t blame myself for the trauma itself, I absolutely blamed myself for my inability to “bounce back” to my normal self. Before I sought professional help, I spent hours googling trauma and PTSD. When I learned that not everyone who experiences a trauma develops PTSD, I was shocked.
Armed with this new knowledge, I was convinced that the problem was me and that I needed to fix this myself. If other people could experience what I had and emerge unscathed, surely I could too. In my early 20s, I was blessed enough to meet an amazing therapist who changed my life. Finally, I was able to accept that my PTSD was not the result of weakness. Once I accepted this, I was ready to throw myself into the hard work of recovery.
I learned to honor my emotions.
When I was in the throes of PTSD, I felt as though I was drowning and there was no life raft in sight. I felt hopeless, disempowered, weak, and worthless. I went through many periods during high school, college, and my early 20s where I was an emotional wreck for weeks at a time. I berated myself for my inability to move on and I did everything in my power to stuff away my feelings of anger and resentment about the trauma.
When I finally let myself “honor” my emotions in therapy by allowing myself to fully feel the anger, the sadness, and the confusion, it slowly helped set me free. By accepting my feelings as valid, I was able to work through them and eventually the most painful emotions became a thing of the past.
I needed to be patient with myself.
I’m not known for being patient with myself. I waited a long time to seek PTSD treatment, so once I committed to it, I set high expectations for myself. I had an amazing therapist, psychiatrist, and support network of loving family and friends — so, in my mind, there was no excuse to not make a speedy recovery. But, that’s not how recovery works — there is no “one size fits all” treatment process for individuals with PTSD. There was a lot of trial and error, and my therapist and I spent a lot of time figuring out what was helpful and what wasn’t. There were many setbacks and many times when I wanted to throw in the towel because the recovery process was so painful. Luckily, my therapist kept me motivated and after several years of intensive treatment, I did recover. It was also a good life lesson for me — it taught me that being patient with myself pays off in every aspect of my life.
There truly is a happier life on the other side.
One of the reasons I waited so long to seek treatment was because I genuinely believed that a diagnosis of PTSD equalled a life sentence of flashbacks, fear, and hyper vigilance. I’m so grateful that I challenged those assumptions and allowed myself to get the treatment I needed and deserved. I certainly won’t sugarcoat it and say that I don’t experience the occasional flashback or moment of paranoia. I’ve recovered from PTSD, but the trauma will always be a part of my life.
However, getting treatment has allowed me to be a happier and healthier person than I ever imagined I would be. I’m no longer afraid of the world and I don’t spend hours each day berating myself for being weak. The recovery process was extremely painful because it forced me to speak candidly about memories that I had ordered myself to forget. But, it paid off because it allowed me to process the experiences and then put in them past where they belong. I slowly but surely began to live in the present rather than in the frightening past. Today, I experience my rough patches, but I’m able to appreciate and embrace all the amazing things life has to offer.