When I sat down to write this article three weeks ago, I struggled with the direction to take. To my knowledge, it had been a long time since I had suffered a PTSD attack. In the past, my triggers always stemmed from the way someone presented themselves. Mannerisms were my weakness. I had been sent spiraling by the way someone laughed or the way they cocked their head. I was triggered by vibes that made me feel like I was in the presence of someone who made me feel unsafe. I was triggered by the feeling of being vulnerable, of being thrust into what I deemed “the danger zone.” This is why it was so surprising to realize that I was in the midst of an attack when I originally sat down to write this.
There was only one time I had experienced a trigger while at work and that was the first time I ever thought that I might have had undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. I remember feeling so uneasy. My anxiety was so extreme that it caused me to walk inconspicuously to the bathroom and lock the door while I waited for the minutes to pass. I was in there for about twenty minutes, much to the bewilderment and amusement of my co-workers. To them, I was overreacting to a harmless individual who had walked in to inquire about a job or whatever else he was in there trying to harvest information on. Behind closed doors though, I was shaking. My heart was racing. My hands were wet. I had difficulty breathing. Little did they know that the room I hid myself in began to transform. It was like the wallpaper had started to melt right before my eyes. The light left the room and I was no longer crouched in the bathroom with my back arched against the wall. I was somewhere different. I was somewhere that felt both familiar and foreign. It was such a strange sensation.
The intensity of that moment was enough to make me question my sanity. I sought therapy to address my PTSD and over time, I began to have attacks less frequently – that is, until a few weeks ago when I couldn’t stop crying over having to sit on a teleconference with a client.
The weight of the upcoming hour-long event was beyond any recent experience. It started off with normal nervousness before turning into full-blown panic attacks. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t stand up straight. I kept counting down the minutes until I was going to be harmed but that was crazy – how could I be HARMED on a conference call? It didn’t make any sense until my therapist told me that it sounds like I was triggered. The individual was abrasive – mean – and I felt like I was being purposely thrown into the lion’s den. I immediately went into survival mode; I had to protect myself, shield myself from the danger. And then I had to tell my coworkers about what had happened – and it leads me to the first misconception I’d like to make about having post traumatic stress disorder:
1. It’s Easy to Talk About!
Definitely not. In fact, I fear that my condition will be mistaken for an excuse or worse, that I won’t be believed. While I can’t – and don’t want to – speak on behalf of everyone living with PTSD, I know one of my biggest fears in telling people is that they’ll think I’m using it as an excuse to get out of something I don’t want to do. While it’s hard to admit, I would also probably have my doubts if someone told me the same thing, especially if it was publicly known that they felt uncomfortable being involved in a certain situation or being exposed to certain people.
There is still so much of a stigma associated with mental illness that no matter how progressive we become as a society, there always seems to be that doubt of uncertainty when someone comes forward with a condition. The best advice I can lend someone who is suffering with PTSD is that you have nothing to be ashamed of. Speaking up about your conditions helps to break the stigma. It’s also important to remember that people are a lot more open than we may give them credit for and in the case in which they’re not, it’s not a reflection of you. Don’t let that stop you from putting up important boundaries for your mental well-being.
2. People Only Get PTSD Because They Couldn’t “Deal” With Their Problems.
Absolutely false! PTSD develops as a response to a traumatic event; it has nothing to do with an individual’s inability to “deal” with their problems – and you are not less than for having this condition; I promise.
3. Only Veterans Get PTSD.
This is perhaps one of the most common misconceptions people have about PTSD but it’s easily debunked. Anyone – at any age – can develop PTSD. Growing up, the only group of people I ever heard my mom talk about having PTSD were those who were in the military. While this certainly is true, PTSD can actually affect anyone regardless of their age and the kind of traumatic experience they endured or witnessed. Sometimes, PTSD can develop from thinking of a traumatic event that someone close to them experienced. I’ve been told that I’m too young or “have too much going on” to be suffering from PTSD, and that myth is one that deserves to be debunked because it does more harm than good.
4. Triggers Are Really Big and Always Easy to Recognize.
This is, again, false. A trigger can be something small like the way someone laughs. It can be a place, a person, a sight, the color of the sky, the smell of brownies baking in the oven, a song, or the vibe someone gives off. It’s common to think that something big such as a nationwide tragedy or seeing your perpetrator are the only things that can trigger someone with PTSD, when in reality, they can be anything that reminds them of the event, person and the day the event occurred. I was once triggered by the way my fiance laughed. He had tilted his head back, laughing hysterically at something I’d said and his expression caused me to experience a flashback and anxiety attack. Triggers are also different for each person.
5. Flashbacks Are Just Repressed Memories.
Yes and no. When I’m having a flashback, it’s like my mind knows that I’m in a completely different environment yet it still feels like I’m back in that distressing moment of time. It’s like I can simultaneously recognize and not recognize where I am or what’s happening. Despite knowing that I’m physically safe, my mind has convinced me that I’m in danger. While some people may think of flashbacks as reliving a painful memory, it’s more akin to being two places at the same time, which can feel frightening and disorienting.
6. Symptoms Always Look the Same.
Nope! PTSD can actually cause you to act in ways you don’t understand. While to the outside world, recognizing and maybe even treating a PTSD attack may be simple, (“you’re not there, you’re here, calm down”), they can cause you to act in ways that look really abnormal. For example, one time during an episode, I hid in a closet beneath some clothes. I’ve also had difficulty talking and being within a couple of feet of my husband or other relatives and even friends. Sometimes, I even flinch during conversations. Sometimes, it feels like your emotions are stronger than you and they can cause you to become irritable and depressed for seemingly no reason. Sometimes, you feel like you just can’t help it.
7. People with PTSD are Ashamed of Their Diagnosis Due to the Reputation.
While I can’t speak for everyone in the world who is struggling with this diagnosis, from the handful that I have talked to, no one is ashamed for having this condition. While there is still a stigma (surprisingly) around mental health, most people who are dealing with a diagnosis (like me) are grateful to know what the road ahead of them is like and to have the proper tools to navigate the journey. I am not ashamed of my diagnosis. If anything, I’m proud of my ability to seek help and learn how I can take control over my life, my relationships, my happiness and my future.
If you are struggling with PTSD, there are resources available to you. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255