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PTSD: The Illness I Couldn't See,PTSD: It's Not Just for Veterans

I grew up thinking an “illness” was either fever or croup. Illness was a stuffy nose — a sick-day, an excuse to miss a day of school. At 18 years old, “illness” took on an entirely different meaning. Illness meant waking up from a coma, learning that my stomach exploded, I had no digestive system and I was to be stabilized with IV nutrition until surgeons could figure out how to put me back together again. Illness meant a life forever out of my control and a body I didn’t recognize.

What happened to me physically had no formal diagnosis. I had ostomy bags and gastrointestinal issues, but I didn’t have Crohn’s disease. Doctors were fighting to keep me alive, but I had no terminal illness. There was so much damage done to my esophagus that it had to be surgically diverted, but I was never bulimic. I didn’t fit into any category. Suddenly, I was just “ill.”

I became surgical guinea pig, subject to medical procedures, tests and interventions, as devoted medical staff put hours into reconstructing and reconstructing me, determined to give me a digestive system and a functional life.

I eagerly awaited the day I’d be functional once again — the day I was finally “fixed” and back to normal. Once I was all physically put together, I’d be eating, drinking, walking and feeling just like myself again.

Right?

Not completely.

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I desperately dreamed about the day I’d be discharged from the hospital. I’d be happy, healthy and would finally know who I was again. I’d feel real. I’d feel human. From there, I could do anything.

Reality Sets In

However, after 27 surgeries and six years unable to eat or drink, I learned that the body doesn’t heal all at instant. Stitches had to heal one by one. Neuropathic nerves grew back one millimeter a month. Learning to talk again took weeks. Learning to walk again took months. My skin’s yellowish glow from the IV nutrition I was sustained on took years to fade. Not only was there no “quick fix” to healing, there was no “permanent fix” either. Wounds reopened, I became accustomed to new “openings” in my body leaking at any given moment. I learned that the body is delicate, precious, but incredibly strong.

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My body never went back to normal. With no other alternative, I learned how to accommodate it and embrace it for the amazing things its extraordinary resilience.

I was shocked and saddened that I could never get my old, unwounded body back. But what really startled me was realizing what had happened to my mind.

PTSD. I had never heard those letters put together before. I knew what “trauma” was, but I didn’t know it could cause so much internal dis-ease and dis-order — illness that I couldn’t see.

But that was the biggest shock to me — waking up in a new body and a new mind, troubled by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Waking up to Dis-Order

Not only had I woken up in a new body, I now had a mind troubled with anxious thoughts, associations and memories. Overwhelmed with confusion, I used the best resource I could think of – a search engine. I didn’t realize I was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder until the internet defined it for me. NAMI — the National Alliance for Mental Illness — is an amazing resource with local chapters across the country. Reading about the symptoms of PTSD, I was able to realize that I wasn’t crazy. There were reasons why I was experiencing so many strange sensations — sensations that made me feel alienated from the rest of the world.

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Identifying Symptoms

According to NAMI, these are common symptoms that PTSD survivors experienced:

Intrusive Memories

Gaining back my physical health, I was unprepared for flashbacks, images and memories that I thought I had repressed. I’ll never forget the first time I had a French fry. I had been unable to eat or drink for years, and now that I was surgically reconstructed, the world was my endless buffet. I expected relief, fullness and normalcy. Instead, I was jolted back to life with every emotion that I had not wanted to feel for all of these years. I learned that the French fry was my “trigger”. Putting food back into my body felt pleasant – it made me feel. Now that I could “feel”, I was feeling everything – including the pain I had tried to swallow for years of medical uncertainty, surgical interventions, and countless disappointments.

Soon, intrusive memories were unavoidable. I would be sitting in a car, buckled into a seatbelt and all of a sudden I would start to panic. I felt locked in, restricted, confined and unsafe. Suddenly, I was remembering what it felt like to be chained to IV poles, unable to move and constricted to a tiny space. My heart started beating rapidly and I started to panic as my memories intruded on what appeared to be a perfectly calm moment. It wasn’t as if I was recalling a painful time. It was as though the doctors were right there with me, peering over my open wound, dictating my uncertain future, and confining me to a world of medical isolation.

Avoidance

When I started to feel these scary memories at any given time, I felt like I had to avoid any stimulant that might make me feel anything at all. Nothing felt “safe.” I lived my life like I was constantly running or fleeing. I spent years locked in my room, journaling for hours with my blinds shut, careful to shut out any outside stimulation that might make me feel. When I was unable to eat, this was a survival mechanism – if I felt, I might actually feel the deadliest sensation of all – hunger. When I was finally reconstructed, I was so used to avoiding my
It was too painful to remember every setback and struggle, to overwhelming to recall everything I had lost with every surgery – my innocence, my old body, my sense of self…

Dissociation

Once I started avoiding my intrusive memories, I got used to the feeling of numbness – so much that I became dissociated. When trauma left me emotionally and physically wounded, I froze to protect myself.. I went numb so I didn’t have to feel pain. I went numb so I I didn’t have to re-experience what had happened to me and mourn my losses. Becoming numb made my world a blurry haze. The world didn’t feel real anymore (derealization) as I learned to stay “out of my body.” I would walk around almost like a zombie, compulsively pacing hallways and walking in circles – anything to keep my feet moving rather than my thoughts. Through dissociating, I could avoid really feeling what I need to feel – grief.

Hypervigilance

Staying out of my body and dissociating was how I coped with anxiety. Feeling tormented by my memories, which felt like present realities. I was extremely anxious and irritable. If I couldn’t constantly fidget or find another way to “numb out” I would start to panic, and would be overwhelmed with even more intrusive memories and raw, forgotten emotions. My anger would end up being misdirected at others, when really I just wanted to shout at my circumstances. My anxiety manifested in all the wrong places – I couldn’t sit still in classes and couldn’t function as a calm, responsible adult.

Soon, these symptoms were controlling my life.

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This was a list of instilled, irrational beliefs I created for myself that helped me stay “numb”:

– If I don’t keep moving, I will feel awful emotions.
– I cannot pause to look at anything. If I do, I’ll remember awful things.
– I must keep doing, and I must always know what I am doing.
– I get a nervous feeling inside if I am in a small space.
– When my body feels pain I am in surgery.
– I cannot stop moving. If I do, I drown.
– If I go outside I will feel too much and it will hurt.

Owning My Trauma

My life changed when my stomach exploded, ten full years ago. PTSD is something I still struggle with because my traumas happened to me, they have affected me, and they will always be a part of me.

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But, I’ve learned how to thrive in spite of what has happened to me and for the first time, my life feels bigger than my past. I’ve found healthier ways to deal with memories, flashbacks and emotions.

Learning to Cope

The PTSD term for finding healthy coping skills is “self-soothing.” To live a healthy thriving life, I’ve had to befriend my past, embrace my experience, and express what had happened to me. I needed to tell my story in order to heal. But first, I had to hear my story for myself, rather than avoid it.. Once I learned how to hear my own heart-shattering story, and feel the pain, the frustration, the anger, and ultimately, the gratitude, I was able to speak to it. I was able to gently teach myself how to live in the present moment rather than in the world of the trauma.

Healing didn’t come all at once. Every day I tried to face a memory a bit more. I called it “dipping my toes” in my trauma. Finally, I could put words to my grief. I was able to write, “I am hurting.”

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Befriending My Past

As soon as I was able to write words like “sadness” and “pain”, I allowed myself to explore them. Soon, I couldn’t stop the words that flowed out of me. My memories started to empower me, and I wrote with feverish purpose.

I started to journal compulsively for hours as every memory appeared in my mind. Soon, the words couldn’t do justice to my traumatic experience – I needed a bigger container. I turned to art, drawing, scribbling. I filled pages with teardrops, lightening bolts and broken hearts. For me, creativity became a lifeline – a release. It was a way to express things that were too overwhelming for words. Expression was my way of self-soothing.

Once expression helped me face my own story, I was able to share it. And the day I first shared my story with someone else, I realized I wasn’t alone. There were others that had been through trauma and life-shattering events. And there were also people who had been through the twists and turns of every day life. Being able to share my story emboldened me with a newfound strength and the knowledge that terrible things happen, and if other people can bounce back, then so can I.

Reaching Out

I found wonderful resources. The National Alliance of Mental Illness started as a “small group of families”, and has blossomed into a supportive, educational organization with local chapters throughout the country. Active Minds educates and empowers college students through nation-wide chapters, spreading awareness and lending support. The Jed Foundation offers more coping strategies for college students through mental health awareness and suicide prevention programs.

PTSD: The Mosaic I See

My perspective on illness has changed since my days of “croup”, and it’s also changed since my last surgical intervention. I’ve learned that illness isn’t always in the physical scars. I’ve learned that some wounds aren’t visible, and some wounds even we don’t know we have, until we choose to take care of them. But I’ve also learned that I’m resilient, strong, broken and put together again, differently, yet even more beautiful – like a mosaic.

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PTSD has not broken me. It’s taken me apart, and I’m reassembling myself day by day. In the meantime, I’m learning to love what I can build.

 

PTSD: It’s Not Just for Veterans

 

When Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is in the news, it is mostly because of the number of veterans suffering as a result of combat-related trauma. Victims of other kinds of trauma can also suffer from PTSD, though, and often do without realizing it. PTSD mirrors other mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, and can also present as, “I feel fine,” when really the “feeling fine” rooted in numbness and avoidance.

I have PTSD as a result of sexual abuse that was perpetrated on me throughout my childhood. Child sexual abuse and sexual assault are very common crimes, yet they are so stigmatized that they receive very little attention in the media from a mental health perspective. It is easier to report on a brave soldier coming home from war with flashbacks of violence than it is to admit that there are a lot of men and women out there suffering from similarly troubling symptoms that relate to their abuse or assault.

Has a traumatic event or episode happened to you, or did you witness one?
The threat of death, serious injury, violence, or sexual assault are all considered traumatic events. Not everyone experiences and perceives an event the same way, so there is no concrete list of events that can cause traumatic responses. It depends on the individual. Witnessing these events can be traumatic too, as can having a close friend or relative who has endured a traumatic event.

Sometimes, victims don’t remember that they were exposed to a trauma. Traumatic memories are not processed and stored like regular memories. I didn’t realize I had been a victim of sexual abuse as a child until I was an adult. In hindsight, I had a lot of PTSD symptoms even before I knew what had happened to me.

Are you re-experiencing the traumatic event?
The most common and well-known ways of re-experiencing a traumatic event is through flashbacks, intrusive memories and nightmares. There are, however, ways of re-experiencing a trauma that do not involve memories, dreams, or visions of the event.

Before I realized the extent of what had happened to me, I was re-experiencing my trauma — I just didn’t know that I was. Many of the ways I re-experienced the trauma then was through body memories. I would become overwhelmed by a particular emotion or feeling in my body.

Until recently, I was not aware that I was re-experiencing my trauma and I did not know that I was feeling distress or overreacting to a situation because it reminded me in some way of my trauma. While I have flashbacks and nightmares, the primary way I re-experience my trauma is by feeling emotions and physical reactions in my body that do not make sense when I consider what is actually going on around me.

Do you avoid things that remind you of the trauma?
Trauma is scary and disruptive. It is natural to want to avoid situations that might remind us of unpleasant or threatening events. People with PTSD want to avoid places, activities, objects that bring up unpleasant reminders or feelings about the trauma.

People with PTSD tend to avoid thoughts or feelings that related to the trauma. For example, I try to avoid feeling startled, because the adrenaline rush and sudden jolt reminds me of times I wasn’t safe. So, while balloons popping have nothing to do with my abuse, the feeling the loud sound brings about does.

Is your memory out of whack? Is your mood off?
Feeling threatened and unsafe causes memories to be formed and stored differently than regular events. Sometimes victims dissociate, or “check out,” while the event is going on. Inability to access memories of the event is a feature of PTSD.

Likewise, negative beliefs about the world can be indicative of PTSD. For example, it is easy for me to believe that the world is unsafe and people should not be trusted. While there are many cynical people out there, my belief system is rooted in childhood trauma.

Blame, negative emotions (shame, fear, anger, guilt), lack of interest in activities that were enjoyable pre-trauma, isolation, and the in ability to experience positive emotions are also symptoms of PTSD.

These cognitive and emotional symptoms are among the most confusing and are the reason PTSD is often misdiagnosed. Think about it: You feel sad, don’t like to hang out with people, think the world is a bad place, and have few activities you actually like doing. Sounds like depression, right?

Do your reactions catch you off guard? Are you on high alert?
Engaging in destructive or self-injurious behavior are common in people with PTSD. Self-harm, for example, is a way many people cope with their past trauma. Other self-destructive behavior and addictions can be ways of dealing with the fallout as well.

Difficulty sleeping, feeling startled, always being on alert are also symptoms. When my PTSD was at its worst, I was very jumpy and uncomfortable around people. I was always on the lookout. I didn’t know what I was looking out for, but I felt very shifty and compelled to notice everything in my environment. I also had so much trouble concentrating that I would get confused about the day of the week, or my route back home if I left the house.

Feeling startled and jumpy can also be symptoms of anxiety, so that is a common misdiagnosis of PTSD, particularly when the person suffering from PTSD is presenting as more agitated than sad and dejected.

Does any of this sound familiar?
When I figured out I had PTSD, I was surprised. I thought I was doing really well for years and years. In hindsight, I was just numb and had a constricted range of feelings, also related to the trauma. Later, my PTSD presented with some of the more dramatic characteristics like flashbacks, nightmares, and extreme emotional reactivity.

It’s easy to explain away symptoms as more socially acceptable and common conditions. “Must be depression!” Or, “Oh, I guess I’ve always been hypersensitive.” Those statements are easier to say than, “I think I have PTSD.”

If you’ve been the victim of a traumatic event or episode and have assumed you are struggling with depression or anxiety, or, if you feel you are “over it,” but don’t feel much of anything when you really think about it, it might be worth familiarizing yourself with the symptoms of PTSD and get in touch with your doctor or a mental health professional who can help. The good news is, there are many effective treatments for PTSD that can improve the way you feel and function.

If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, it’s not your fault. You are not alone. Help is available 24/7 through the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE

There Is No Justice Until We All Are Free

 

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Laquan McDonald was killed in cold blood by a Chicago police officer on October 20, 2014. And, the murder was covered up until a court order demanded release of the police dash cam video on November 19,2015. Why did it take a year, court order and public outrage for Laquan McDonald’s life to matter? Why didn’t the police officers who lied to protect Jason Van Dyke care enough to tell the truth? Perhaps Van Dyke mattered more to them because he was their “own kind”. Aren’t we more than our basic drives and instincts for survival? We are all “humankind”.

Chicago is just one example of the toll racism and prejudice have taken on humankind globally. The world is exploding. Without justice, there can be no peace. A year after Laquan’s murder on October 9, 2015, just thirty miles from Chicago, theGary International Black Film Festival screened The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution to a packed house at Indiana University Northwest. The following day Minister Luis Farrakhan led the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March with the call, “Justice or Else” in Washington, DC. Over 50 years after the civil rights movement and Black Panther revolution, why does justice elude people of color?

The struggle continues because crimes against humanity have yet to be addressed. There is no justice until they are. How can government address the ravages of the African slave trade and colonization of North and South America, Africa and most of the world, which forced people to relinquish their cultural identity, land, language and traditions? Reparations for the African slave trade alone could cost up to $14 trillion. And that’s just for the free labor. How do you repay the loss of identity, rape of women, destruction of families, and breeding of men? We have never recovered from these crimes against humanity. Blacks in America suffer from high rates of depression, anxiety and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. And the descendants of slave owners have a legacy of wealth, while the legacy of descendants of slaves is poverty and violence. Our global government, economic, justice, and education systems were built by European male world domination, so the legacy of institutionalized racism and prejudice continues. And although slavery was abolished in 1865, it never stopped. Human trafficking is a $32 billion industry. As long as greedy, heartless people profit from slavery, it will always exist. Right the wrongs.

Here are my suggestions for reparations:

1. Bring criminal charges against former slave owners who raped, murdered and breeded people. They may be deceased, but it needs to go on record that they committed crimes against humanity. Africans were considered 3/5 human and the current police murders of black young men and women sends the message that this is true. Prove that African and black people are 100% human just like everyone else by charging and sentencing their murderers and rapists.

2. Rewrite the constitution. Revisit national, state and local laws and abolish all that are based on racism and prejudice. Include all races and genders in the process.

3. Tell the truth. Rewrite history books (including religious history books) and teach all children the truth. Include the truth from all perspectives, not just the European perspective. Include African, Latino, Hispanic, Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern history. Include the truth about these beautiful cultures. Include all religions, not just Christianity. Include all genders, not just the male, patriarchal historical perspective. We have been lied to in order to accept oppression and it is time that all truth is revealed at all levels. All children deserve to see beauty and greatness in themselves.

4. End discrimination in all its forms. Jim Crow laws and lynching continued to keep blacks in chains after slavery was abolished and Black Wall Street , which had a thriving economy, was burned to the ground. Divisive tactics were used by the FBI and other organizations to circumvent any attempts to rise. And modern day discrimination occurs in public housing and gentrified communities. Discrimination also continues to thrive in real estate, business and education. For example, largely black and Latino communities are targeted by scam educational institutions that capitalize on their hopes and dreams of a better life offering bogus degrees and certificates that are not marketable.

5. Share power. Ensure that all groups are represented in every level of decision-making in government, economic, justice, religion, and education systems. Like all lives matter, all perspectives matter. True diversity (not just a trendy term) is beautiful and different ways of life are not a threat to anyone’s existence. People of different cultures and religions are not savage or inferior. There will never be justice and equality where only one group dominates.

6. Share resources. End the rule of colonists globally and return the original inhabitants’ land and way of life. Natural ways of living will restore the natural balance and flow of natural resources. No one should be filthy rich and no one should be dirt poor. People will live in peace and harmony instead of fighting and competing for land and resources.

The solutions I propose may sound like Utopia, but look at the alternative. If we continue on our current path, it will lead to all our destruction. You may not care because you are not personally affected. We all are personally affected by the crimes of our ancestors. In order for humanity to evolve, we must right the wrongs of our ancestors. Show the world that all lives matter. There is no justice until we all are free.

What do you think are fair reparations for descendants of African slaves? Please post your thoughts in the comments.

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