When we think of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, we often think of soldiers or those who have seen severe disaster.
Of course, those who serve our country have sacrificed so much. But, we don’t often talk about the everyday people who have PTSD because of their experiences in seemingly safe environments. In fact, 7-8 percent of the U.S. population will have PTSD at some point in their lives, which is more than the number of people who currently serve in the military. I happen to be one of those people who’s experienced PTSD.
It’s taken me a long time to accept I have something people who’ve seen so much worse often face. And it’s taken me even longer to talk about it. When I bring it up people are usually surprised, confused a civilian can have PTSD. When my therapist first told me it was the cause of my sudden and overwhelming anxiety, I honestly didn’t believe her. It took months of work for me to accept it.
To those who know me well, it seems like I’ve always had health problems. Most of them stem from 18 years of undiagnosed celiac disease. But in the fall of 2013, I had no idea what was going on. I couldn’t get out of bed, my stomach was in shambles, I lost 30 pounds and fell into a deep depression.
Then came the testing. I went through what seemed like countless tests to try to determine the cause of my discomfort. Most of them were simple — blood tests, a few body scans, eating some radioactive eggs (weird, I know). But one of them didn’t go so well. A CT Angiogram. Basically, they pump dye into your veins really fast to check for areas blood isn’t getting through easily. The nurse said it’s “normal” to feel a little warm. I definitely did, along with my vision going red, feeling like my entire body was on fire and like I had simultaneously puked and peed myself. It felt like it lasted 20 minutes, but was actually only a few seconds.
The test did determine what was wrong, and I went into a minor injection procedure to fix it a few days later. But because I’m just so lucky, the anesthesia wore off midway through the procedure. Suddenly, I could feel the foot-long needle going through my back into my intestine.
After returning home and moving to D.C. soon after these two instances, I started to have pretty severe anxiety. I constantly felt what one of my friends later accurately described as “an impending feeling of doom.” I had panic attacks over what should have been nothing. I was so scared of getting sick again, I pretty much put my life on hold.
After one semester of this, I decided I needed some more help. That’s when the PTSD diagnosis came in. Looking back at what I went though, it didn’t seam to make any sense —I was never actually in any real danger, I just thought I was. People much braver than me had faced so much worse. An overwhelming sense of guilt flew in. I didn’t feel like I deserved an excuse to have anxiety. I was just a weak person. This was my fault, all of it. I was convinced deep down my behavior was a choice.
It felt like PTSD had been served up as an excuse for my irrational behavior, rather than a legitimate diagnosis. Every time I struggled with anxiety, lack of self-esteem or depression, I felt worse about the effect I had on the people in my life. I felt guilty for putting my family, friends and partner through months of dealing with a completely different version of myself. I felt guilty for letting anxiety control my life. But most of all, I felt guilty I had the same diagnosis as people who are raped, live through horrific natural disasters or face unthinkable odds while serving their country. What I’d gone through had saved my life, not threatened it. It didn’t make any sense. Yet every day, logic was overthrown. I faced the symptoms I denied myself to be worthy of.
No matter what I did — therapy, medication, meditation — none of it was working. Then someone said something so simple, it changed everything: “You are having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.”
I was normal. What I went through wasn’t. Only when I accepted this would I be able to heal. And I am. One day at a time.