A few months ago I received a text message that convinced me I was going to die that day. It was a perfectly innocuous message from a courier company telling me that Colin would deliver my package between 2 and 3. What was threatening about that? I was convinced my violent ex-boyfriend was going to deliver my parcel of dresses. During our time together he was a delivery driver and my brain made the illogical step of making him today’s courier. That’s PTSD for you. It makes no sense to anyone but me that a message about a delivery could send me on a thought spiral which ended with me being murdered on my doorstep. I was terrified, shaking and crying and felt sick knowing I would be alone when he arrived.
I don’t normally write about post traumatic stress disorder because the act of talking about it can be a trigger itself, even when I am feeling well. I have started many blog posts that I was unable to finish because it was just too damn hard. Despite my relationship with Colin ending 15 years ago I still bear the mental scars today. I have an overwhelming fear of people touching my head as I feel pins and needles reliving him grabbing me by the hair, chunks of it coming away in his hand. I can’t wear polo necks and struggle with necklaces because the feeling of something around my neck reminds me of his hands choking me. I wasn’t diagnosed with PTSD until 18 months after the relationship ended, when the constant flashbacks caused me to self medicate with alcohol and eventually take an overdose. I attended talking therapy and took medication for the depression and anxiety I was experiencing and for a long time the problem was under control.
As the years passed the frequency of PTSD attacks relating to Colin lessened. It never fully went away — I would hear his name, see someone who looked like him in the supermarket and I would be right back there. The fear, nausea, sweating, shaking and disorientation would descend. The flight or fight response is triggered and panic ensues. Even when I am “well” I am still on edge and the slightest noise makes me jump out of my seat. The surge of stress hormones make it difficult to sleep as I can’t fully switch off and when I am experiencing flashbacks the last thing I want to do is dream as the terror always invades my subconscious.
I experienced trauma after my mum died too. Without going into too much graphic detail the last days and hours of her life were horrific. I felt cheated by films, books and TV programmes that painted death as peaceful and comforting. Mum raged against the cancer that was killing her right until her last days. Sadly the last words mum said are “I want to die,” a full three days before she passed and those last 72 hours will haunt me until my last breath. I buried that pain for a year before the PTSD fully hit me. The flashbacks would be triggered by previously mundane events — the gurgling sound of a bath draining was similar to the death rattle I heard as she died and made me terrified of the bathtub, previously my sanctuary. Almost a year to the day of her death I was on the verge of being admitted to a psychiatric hospital, such was the depth of my suffering. I avoided admission and was instead given an intensive home treatment plan by my local mental health team, receiving daily visits from different MH professionals which helped enormously.
I discovered ways to help myself when the PTSD kicked in, particularly when I was alone. Controlling your breath is important and at first I tried yoga (which I was useless at) then bought a Fitbit which has a relax function — you can set it for either two or five minute guided breathing exercises which cause your heart rate to decrease (sometimes I have to do two five minute sessions just to get back to normal). If I am at home I have a specific item of clothing I put on that instantly calms me and makes me feel at ease (it’s a grubby old hoodie that lives on the back of my bedroom door). I have a set of photos on my phone and on my computer that I scroll through that always make me happy and calm. I find it important to yank myself out of the past memory and pull myself into the present where — despite my brain’s best efforts — I am not in immediate danger.
I fell into a familiar pattern of taking medication when it was prescribed to me, taking part in short bursts of talking therapy and just getting on with life in the best way I could. But now it’s time to take action and seek help. Because I can’t spend my life cowering behind a door in fear. I can’t imagine living with this for another 15 years and hopefully I won’t have to. I dealt with the immediate threat by leaving a note on my front door telling the courier to leave the parcel under the doormat, taking myself off to bed to listen to music in the dark while wearing my comforting clothes. I caught sight of the courier as he was walking away from the house. Of course it wasn’t him but I had to see it with my own eyes to believe it.