Living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

I share this mini memoir in hopes that more people will be curious and supportive around mental health. It’s important to support loved ones who are dealing with daily and lifetime internal battles.  And for those of you who have your own stories about mental health, I hope sharing my story will help you to be willing to share your own stories about mental health. These conversations are far too often silenced, stigmatized, and shamed. To my fellow comrades who are fighting with their mental health and trying to go about living their lives, I dedicate this piece to you. You are beautiful, you are courageous, and you are not alone.

I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable and unsafe around him and my feelings were validated soon into the date. While paddling on the river, we came across a couple that was having trouble getting back to shore. As we approached them, they asked for our help. Before I could say yes, my date yelled at them and told them that it was their own fault they were stuck, so that they could find their own way back. My mouth was wide open in disbelief and my heart started to beat faster the further we got from shore. 

My hands were shaking and my mind was racing. The feelings of fear and terror overpowered me. My thoughts kept circling the fact that I was currently trapped in a canoe in the middle of the Charles River with a guy I barely knew. Jump into the river and swim to shore? Whack the guy in the face? Or, take that tiny yellow clonazepam in the top pocket of my backpack to create an instantaneous feeling of calmness?

None of those were options that I wanted to pursue. I thought at the time that my terror was over reactionary, but I couldn’t stop the panic from spiraling and taking me back to a dark place. In this place where I really was trapped... and panicked... and hurt... and alone. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder will do that. It will bring you back to the traumatic event you endured instantaneously through a “trigger.” It will bring you right back to an event that you have tried so hard to bury in your heart and mind.

I have been asked many times throughout my life what it means to have a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. What about a trigger? What does it feel like? A trigger according to Psych Central is “something that sets off a memory tape or flashback, transporting the person back to the event or his/her trauma. It can be stimulated by smell sound or touch”. It is one of the multiple symptoms for Post Traumatic Stress Disorders, but it can be extremely debilitating and scary.

For example, think about a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies. In your mind, what senses and smells do the cookies elicit? Do they bring up any memories for you? For me, chocolate chip cookies remind me of the warm memory of being at my grandmother’s house as a child. Every time I came over, there would be a batch waiting for me with a hug from my grandparents. As an adult, when I see a chocolate chip cookie, or smell one, I think about wonderful memories. Triggers work the exact same way, except with traumatic memories instead of positive ones.

On the kayak date, the trigger that upset me was the feeling of my safety being threatened, which was caused by the behavior of my date. The elongated feeling of fear triggered a visceral emotional response in me that day. When the trigger hit me, I immediately wanted a way to feel safe, to feel in control, and to feel empowered. To me, that meant getting out of the double kayak as quickly as possible and getting away from my date.

With PTSD, I know that my triggers and sometimes over reactions to seemingly ordinary daily events must seem bizarre to the average outsider. I know my racing thoughts can be irrational when they turn to panic. It’s incredibly hard for me to explain to people what it’s like to instantly be pulled back and reminded of the trauma, and can be very uncomfortable to talk about with potential dates or new friends. Having PTSD can be a lonely and isolating experience. The disorder and triggers can be hard to explain to others; the fact that my brain is actually acting rationally to triggers attached to past trauma.

During my own personal traumatic experience, my brain made patterns and connections with unique sounds, feelings, touch, vision, and smells. My brain then associated those specific sensory items with danger. The rationale then became if I stayed away from those same sensory items that I will always remain safe, and if I encountered them I would be unsafe. For me, this meant Beatles music was connected to fear, sex and intimacy with violation, and the state of Vermont was a place where I could no longer enter without being attacked.

Learning to rewire my brain to break those patterns that keep me stuck in my trauma has been hard. I consistently practice exposure therapy, which can be exhausting and emotionally draining. It involves purposely putting myself in situations where I know I will panic and trigger while simultaneously chanting and reassuring to myself, “you are safe, everything is okay, you are in control”. Oftentimes I try and put myself in small situations where I am not in control, such as having a friend drive or getting on an airplane, because a deep struggle for PTSD affected individuals, including myself, is to learn to feel safe in situations where there is less individual control and power. Understanding my own agency, and the belief that my support system will be there for me, has been a big help in the progress I have made.

With intimate relationships, that has been my hardest barrier to overcome, but one that I will not give up on. I still cringe at the thought of dating, fearful of being attacked again, of being harmed. But somehow, I gather the courage to get up and go, with the hopes that I meet a man that shows me the respect and love I deserve and want.

With this week being dedicated to mental health awareness, so much of the world is still in the dark about mental health. About the struggles and adversities that individuals have overcome, and continue to overcome. Often the media leaves out the stories of the process of dealing with debilitating mental health. They leave out the struggle, but also the strength and resiliency of human spirit. So many friends, family members, and acquaintances I know are doing powerful and courageous things in the face of mental health struggles, proving to themselves (and the world that constantly undermines them), that while having a disorder, a person can be successful, adventurous, loving, and hopeful.

Tracie is a native New Hampshire gal who loves the outdoors, yoga, her beagle, and spending time with friends and family. She is currently in pursuit of a master's in community development with a specialization in gender studies and public health. She was diagnosed with PTSD in 2010 and strongly advocates for mental health awareness and education through her local NAMI chapter.