Trigger warning: description of childhood sexual abuse, PTSD.
My name is Jackie, and I have PTSD. I struggle every single day to keep my shit together. Fortunately for everyone around me, my struggle is mostly internal.
An ideal day for me would be staying in bed and not confronting a single thing, not my kids, not the sunshine, nothing. But when I do spend most of the day tucked away from the world, I feel like shit by the end of it. I know that hiding isn't the same as living. Life with PTSD is a catch-22 in that way. The more I take life by the horns, the more I'm triggered by it and the less I confront life, the less life I have in me, and that makes me even more depressed. More often than not, I feel like a dog chasing its own tail.
I'm a writer, business owner, student, activist, mother, and wife. This lifestyle doesn't come without its stressors or triggers. A typical day used to include actually getting out of bed, having a small anxiety attack while getting everyone out the door, getting triggered by something mundane like old men's cologne or a patch of chest hair, cooking dinner, shoving all my tears away so I could enjoy my family for a few hours, and then going to bed. Around 2 a.m., I'd usually have another anxiety attack.
My PTSD has never caused me to have violent outbursts; rather, it just creates an emotional blankness or avoidance. I'm happy to say that I've been in therapy for a couple of years, and things have gotten much better. Getting out of bed isn't as bad. Confronting life is more exciting than it used to be. Before therapy, it was too easy to slap a fake smile on my face and have everyone believe that I was the most stable and balanced person they ever met. Meanwhile, my heart was normally pounding, my palms were sweaty, and I couldn't decide if I wanted to cry or throw up.
I didn't get this way by happenstance. My stepfather sexually abused me until I was 14. My mother married him when I was 2. My earliest memories of the abuse start around the age of 4, but it could have started earlier than that. The abuse happened in plain sight. My mother had no excuses for ignoring it. To make things worse, she was emotionally unstable and battling her own internal demons. She had a very short temper but was very careful about physical abuse. Because of these two people, I was broken from a very early age.
It wasn't until a few years ago that I "woke up" and started doing the right things for my health, mentally and physically. It took motherhood to conjure up the nasty flashbacks that woke me out of the coma I had been in for so long. I also have the Affordable Care Act to thank. Until it was implemented, I could not seek adequate care for my PTSD.
By the time I sought help, I was 34, had been married for 10 years, and had two kids. This was everything that I wanted out of life, but the more life gave me, the worse my symptoms got. I wanted stability and a happy ending, but I was terrified of some of the most common things: sex, childbirth, pap smears, kids, babysitters, cans of biscuits, and the list goes on. I worked incredibly hard to not let these things get me down, but I avoided them at all costs. All the while, I never saw the damage that not addressing my trauma was causing.
I have no idea how I made it to my 34th birthday intact. I have never been suicidal, but there were definitely times that I wished my existence away. There were times that I wished I had never been born. Shame is a heavy jacket to wear, and it doesn't come off very easily. For so long, I felt like there was something wrong with me. I was also riddled with physical pain and symptoms that doctors couldn't ever pinpoint. I slipped into a state of believing I was worthless.
PTSD from childhood abuse can rear its ugly head in several ways: panic attacks, rage, eating disorders, suicidal feelings, self-mutilation, somatic pain, overreacting, sleep disorders, shame, guilt, and blame. These symptoms manifest themselves physically in three main indicators: hyperarousal (scared of a can of biscuits or popping balloons?), intrusive thoughts, and avoidance.
When I started therapy, it took only two sessions before I was diagnosed. At the time, being told that I had PTSD terrified me. It was easier when my doctor just said it was depression and wrote a prescription for pills that usually didn't work. Having depression made me feel like I was part of the crowd. We're all depressed and medicated, right? Welcome to Team Xanax!
PTSD was a different thing, though. Everything I knew about it led me to believe that I couldn't possibly be trusted. I felt too damaged. A bad mother. A bad wife. A train wreck, a mess, unfixable. When I started therapy, the first thing we did was talk it out. Some things took a while to come to the surface while other things were already there on the tip of my tongue. Now, every visit is different. There are so many things that are deeply seated in my brain, but it's getting easier to deal with each issue as it comes.
I have realized that the hardest part of being a survivor is parenting with PTSD. Since my trauma happened as a child, much of what triggers it is actually child's play. I have a very hard time playing with my kids physically. I can snuggle them, read to them, talk with them, or play a board game with them, but once play becomes hands-on and unpredictable, I'm done.
Why? I can't handle shit being thrown at my face. I can't handle shit IN my face. This means no surprise kisses, no fingers, no hands. I can't handle being tickled. In fact, even the thought of being tickled sends me into panic mode. I have a fear of belly buttons and the fear of anyone touching my own (what up, omphalophobia?). Of all the problems that I have from my condition, this one hurts the most. It makes me feel the most shame because in many ways, I don't feel like I'm being the parent that I want to be or should be.
I'm not alone, though, and neither are you. PTSD can make a person feel worthless because they wish they could have more control over their thoughts and what their body is feeling. It doesn't help that society has put a real stigma on mental health. As a survivor, I can tell you that most people's perceptions of PTSD just aren't true. After suffering for years, there are a few things that I know now to be true for myself and for anyone struggling with PTSD like I am.
First, my self-worth isn't dependent on my past. It happened to me, but the shame isn't mine, so I shouldn't carry it around like I own it. I own my past, but I also own the fact that the past wasn't my fault. My past is a part of my story, not the whole story. It doesn't define me. Second, I have learned that I am lovable even when I don't love myself. I am enough even when I feel inadequate. I can do this. I can learn to love myself and embrace my quirks.
The very things that I hated myself for, I'm now learning to appreciate. Letting go of my own shame has been crucial in healing. I stopped battling the weight of the shame and action of others. I am the only winner in my life. It's too damn short not to live it fully, and nothing and no one, not my past, not PTSD, not shame or guilt or symptoms, can take that away from me.