I am not a veteran.
I have not survived a major genocide or horrific abuse. I do not outwardly bear the signs of someone struggling. But on the inside, I’m a catalyst for angst and worry all rolled into a nice package, which is affectionately called post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
My experience in the mental health field, both as a consumer and an employee, has taught me one valuable lesson about PTSD: it comes in as many different colors as the rainbow.
I have seen elderly women who can’t listen to the TV set loudly because it brings back memories of their husbands who used to use them as punching bags while screaming at them. I have seen men and women in their 20s who are petrified of intimacy because they survived childhood sexual abuse.
Lastly, I have seen teenagers who, after years of neglect and toxic environments, have anxiety that cripples them during routine activities, such as taking a test.
These are all cases of individuals who struggle with PTSD—I fit into this category myself.
My personal experience with PTSD stems from childhood abuse, and it was something that went misdiagnosed in me for many years. I began presenting symptoms, such as anger, night terrors, and extreme anxiety, when I was 18 years old.
Every diagnosis came with a new slew of medications and, by the end of it, I screamed, “Screw it” from the hilltops and stopped seeking treatment. Finally, at 25, I met an amazing therapist who talked me through my trauma before diagnosing me.
At the end of our time together, she gave me the suggested diagnosis of PTSD. My immediate response was, “But I have never experienced extreme trauma. I have never been to war or been locked up against my will, how can I have this?”
I, like many others, believed in the stigma surrounding this illness. I believed that my run-of-the-mill childhood abuse was not severe enough to warrant a stress disorder. Society tells us that only severe and horrific trauma can be considered as such, but who gets to define what severe and horrific really mean?
The definition of trauma is a disturbing or deeply distressing experience. Therefore, if something has happened to you in your life that you feel was disturbing or distressing, this is enough reason to label it as traumatic. But we also need to remember that trauma is individualized.
For example, I am deathly afraid of heights. Climbing to the top of a tall building or, god forbid, climbing onto a roller-coaster is enough, just in thought, to make my stomach queasy. To others, being atop tall buildings and riding that new roller-coaster that flips you asunder 10 times is a true thrill. It is traumatic for me, but not for everyone.
This is obviously a mild example, but the point is, trauma is trauma if you feel the situation or experience was traumatic.
This leads me to my next point: What in the hell do we do about it?
All I can share is my own experience, and in my case, meditation and mindfulness have saved me. At 26, I found the path of Buddhism and began to dabble in what this truly meant, which led me to my exploration into meditation and mindfulness.
Meditation is a silent time where you sit and reflect on the here and now while quieting your thoughts and centering yourself in a non-moving entity. I usually choose to focus on my breath. Mindfulness is simply the practice of being in the current moment, not planning ahead or ruminating on the past.
How do these practices help someone who is riddled with anxiety and unfounded worry—otherwise known as my “go-to symptoms” for PTSD?
Anxiety stems from the irrational fear or worry about something. Our thoughts begin to take a turn for the negative and suddenly, we see nothing but negativity on the horizon. Meditation and mindfulness do not fix this, but they do slow us down enough to gain control of our thoughts again.
By silencing our thoughts and focusing only on the moment we are in, there is no room for negativity, rumination on past experiences, the need to plan for the future, and worry about how plans should be.
That said, to those war-torn veterans, those elderly women who are piecing together their lives, that teenager entering high school with more worries on her mind than a prom date, and the young college girl who is afraid of anyone seeing her body: I see you and I validate your struggle.
PTSD is not curable, but it is manageable. Remember that your trauma is yours, but it is not the only thing that makes you an individual. Keep your head up, your thoughts focused on the here and now, and your mind ever open to the struggles of others.