Being your own Detective
In the course of my never-ending mental illness saga, the most recent and prevalent diagnosis I have received from multiple healthcare professionals is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is a relatively common diagnosis in America, about 8% of the population (approximately 24.4 million people) have been labeled as sufferers of the illness at some point in their lives. A lot of the treatment options for PTSD consist of varying types of therapy that revisit the event or events the patient identifies as a main contributor to the disorder. But what happens when you don’t remember the trauma that started it all?
I was fifteen when it happened the first time. I was sitting in my photography class, quietly working on a project and I went to get up from my chair. I don’t remember what happened next but when I came to, I was on the floor surrounded by a concerned teacher and students. Apparently, I had collapsed on the floor shortly after standing up but I had no recollection of this. A nurse was called and I was escorted out of the classroom in a wheelchair. This event prompted a medical investigation involving a battery of tests including an EKG, a brain MRI, a tilt table test, a 24 hour halter test, and multiple urine and blood samples. Every test was negative. After three months of missing high school due to symptoms that ensued the initial incident, we were informed by my pediatrician that there was “nothing organically wrong” with me and if I did not go back to school full-time, a call would be placed to child services.
I changed high schools three separate times over the next few years, dropping out each time due to disorienting mystery symptoms and unsympathetic educational institutions. I gave up trying to get my diploma at eighteen and decided heavy drinking was a lot more preferable. I spent years abusing my liver and my self esteem until a wake up call rang loudly and persistently in my head and I finally got my GED and enrolled in cosmetology school. Things were starting to look up, but what had caused, and continued to cause, the blackouts, dizzy spells, and overall dissociation?
Now I am almost twenty five and as of last year, I was finally given a psychological diagnosis that felt like it fit. I had been told I had experienced traumatic events when speaking to therapists in the past but it had never occurred to me that I could qualify as a PTSD victim. The way I had seen PTSD portrayed in the media, I thought in order to be considered someone in this group of mentally ill, a person would have to have seen war or some other kind of intensely violent event. I had not witnessed combat, most of the abuse I suffered was verbal and I had never been in a natural disaster; how did this suffice?
What the movies don’t tell you about PTSD is that it can develop from more insidious and discrete kinds of trauma like sexual assaults or childhood neglect. I have experienced a lot of trauma in my life. I have had several mentally abusive relationships, a few physically abusive and numerous sexually abusive. All of these incidents however, occurred after my first black out in high school. I’ve been told by clinicians that these relationships are the triggering events that have caused my current mental illness, but there still seems to be no answer as to why the earliest attack happened.
It is a strange feeling to know there is something your brain is hiding from you and you can’t recover it. As far as I know, and as far as my mother knows, there was no physical or sexual abuse in my childhood, yet something tugs at my thoughts when the subject arises to suggest perhaps there is something I am missing. It is the most frustrating feeling in the world to feel like your mind is locking you out of something, but often times, this is what PTSD is. Repression is our brain’s way of saying “this is too much, let me take care of this for you” and in the short term, it can really work. I have a pattern of ignoring when I’m crumbling until it’s a full on avalanche and it is suddenly an emergency. My PTSD was lurking in the shadows for years, causing anxiety, aiding in suicide attempts, tricking me into thinking I was losing my mind, and every time, I’d treat it as an isolated incident, and never dive into what the root cause was. It got to the point over this past winter, that my anxiety was so uncontrollable it caused me to drop out of college, quit my job, and completely isolate in my apartment. Life was not livable like this for me anymore.
In January of this year, I went to a mental hospital for a partial hospitalization. To my dismay, they informed me even though I had been lead to believe I would receive specific trauma counseling, this was not true. The program was group-based and the clinicians told me that most PTSD therapy was on a one-on-one basis. After leaving the hospital, I was undertaken as a client at a center that specializes in PTSD treatment. My therapist is a cute and kind young woman who sympathizes with me so much sometimes I swear I can almost see tears sparkling in her eyes when I recant a particularly horrific event from my past. Together we are delving into my history and trying to uncover what exactly prompted my severe disorder. She has told me it will get worse before it get better and I could not agree more. I often have trouble sleeping either because of my rambling thoughts or the severe pain my body creates as a result of the stress. My anxiety has hit an all time high. I have panic attacks nearly daily and spend a lot of time crying. A lot of times it feels like maybe this type of work isn’t worth it because I can’t remember a specific trauma from before high school, let alone much else.
There are definitely times I want to give up. I stopped going to therapy for a couple of weeks because I felt like I couldn’t handle the emotional toll. My therapist, who is always understanding of when I am absent from sessions, reminded me how unmanageable my life has been as a result of not dealing with my illness. As hard and painful as it is, I know she’s right. There is no way over or under this; the only way is through.