In honor of PTSD awareness month, I’d like to share some facts about my experience. Note that everyone’s experience is different, so yours might not be the same as mine, and that’s totally fine.
1. Anything can be a traumatic experience. Absolutely anything. It's not about how bad something is by other people’s or society's standards – it's about how bad it is for you individually. I have PTSD from going to college because the experience was traumatic for me. If you have a traumatic experience, no matter what it is, your story is real, it's valid, and you deserve to have someone take you seriously and help you through it.
2. I have complex PTSD (or c-PTSD), which means instead of having just one traumatic incident, I was in an emotionally abusive environment over the course of my four years in college. This environment changed my view of the world and of myself. Therapy that was aimed at treating PTSD from one single traumatic incident was not effective for me. If someone had a traumatic experience with dog, for instance, they can do exposure therapy to become more comfortable around dogs again. In my case of complex PTSD, I have traumatic associations with a lot of different things instead of just one. The trauma also caused me to have trust issues and self-worth issues, which would not be fixed through exposure therapy. The most effective therapy for me has involved processing through the trauma, recognizing how the trauma has made me feel about myself and how it is affecting my life now, and working on feeling good about myself again and making the choices that are right for me.
3. Most people I’ve known and read about who have complex PTSD developed it from growing up in an abusive home. In my case, I had a happy childhood and did not experience any trauma until college. While my experience may be less common, it’s important to know that experiences like mine exist. I was happy before my trauma happened, I loved my life and I loved myself unconditionally, and my recovery goal has been to become that way again. There’s a common phrase people say, “Don’t look back, you’re not going that way,” but in my case, I am going that way, and it’s invalidated to be told that I can’t look where I’m going. A lot of what I did in CBT and DBT was too focused on the present without enough respect for my past. While a lot of people have experienced trauma for their entire lives and will need to rebuild from scratch, it’s important to also allow space for those of us who had lives we loved before the trauma, and to respect the goal of getting back what we had.
4. Part of my PTSD comes from being mistreated by the counselor I saw at my college. Just know that if you ever have a therapist not take your issues seriously, that's on them, not you. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, but if your therapist is consistently invalidating you all the time, that's not okay, and it's legitimate to walk away from them. You deserve to be believed.
Keep in mind also that different forms of therapy work for different people. It took me a while to find the right therapist and the right form of treatment. I took some techniques that worked from CBT and DBT, and what’s working best now is a combination of trauma processing and working on the changes I want to make going forward. Being able to talk about my past and how it is affecting me now has been an important part of healing, which I wasn’t able to do in CBT or DBT. It’s valid to recognize what works for you and what doesn’t, regardless of what anyone tells you is “supposed” to work. If you're allergic to a food, it's not healthy for you to eat it, no matter how many vitamins it contains, no matter how healthy it might be for someone else.
5. PTSD is not just about what might happen, it's about what has happened. Treatment aimed at people who have general anxiety, OCD, or other anxiety disorders can feel invalidating when your worst-case scenario has already happened. When I tried to challenge my thoughts in therapy by saying that my fears were unlikely to come true, or that I would still be okay if they did come true, I felt like my experience was being erased because most things I worry about have happened to me before, and I was not okay when they did. This is not the kind of anxiety that's like, "I've never been rock-climbing before, and I'm scared I’ll fall and get hurt." It’s is more like, "The last time I went rock-climbing, I fell and got a serious injury that still hasn't healed. I'm scared I'll get hurt again, and nothing you tell me about safety measures will change that because I thought I did everything right last time."
6. One of the toughest parts of PTSD for me has been to distinguish the past from the present. There have been many times when I've gotten angry and confronted people when they hadn't done anything, I was misinterpreting their actions because of my history. But there have been other times when I've let extremely not-okay things slide because I kept telling myself that those things weren't happening, I was just having flashbacks. It takes a lot of work to make these distinctions.
7. Part of my traumatic experience involved other people denying everything that was happening to me, telling me that I was just overthinking or misinterpreting. Now, when my therapist asks me to consider if I might be misinterpreting something, that in itself can make me afraid that I'm being brainwashed or gaslighted like I was before. It’s taken a long time for me to find the right therapist and build enough trust to know that she is not trying to brainwash me. If this happens to you as well, just know that it’s valid, and it’s okay if it takes a long time to work through your trauma and to trust people to help you.
8. One PTSD symptom everyone may not be aware of is the belief that you have a shortened lifespan. Without a specific reason for it, you just don't believe that you're going to live a long, full life. This was a feeling that I kept to myself for the longest time because I didn’t understand it. When I first began to develop PTSD in my last year of college, I did not feel like the future existed. It just felt like a brick wall. When all my classmates were trying to figure out what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives, I didn't feel like there was a "rest of my life." When I was a kid, if you said to me, "So, when you're 30..." that felt real to me, like I was definitely going to be 30 someday. But when I was right out of college, I didn't believe on a gut level that I would live to be 30. I’ve come a long way now in terms of believing that the future is real, but I still struggle with it at times. If you feel the same way, just know that it’s a real symptom and you can feel hopeful about the future again.
9. When you aren’t able to do something because of a traumatic association, it's legitimate to want to work up to doing it again. It's equally legitimate to decide not to do it again. For years, I couldn’t do activities I used to love because of the traumatic associations I developed in college, and I've had to work hard to be able to enjoy those activities again. But there were also many traumatic incidents in college where I was forced to do things that I never wanted to do in the first place. And in those cases, I don’t plan to do the activities again. It's up to every individual to decide what they want to work on and what they don't, what they want back in their life and what they’re fine without.
Recovery doesn't always involve doing something that was once traumatic - recovery can mean that you feel okay saying no. Part of my traumatic experience involved being pressured to go on a camping trip. I don't like camping, and I have no interest in going again. But my experience was so traumatic that I have a hard time just hearing people talk about camping. If someone says, "I had fun on my camping trip last weekend!" my brain goes into fight-or-flight mode and I assume the person is going to pressure me to camp with them. If someday, a friend invited me on a camping trip, and I could say no thanks, I’m not interested, and I could say it with full confidence and without feeling any shame, that is what healing would look like for me. It may not sound as exciting as actually going camping, but this is what healing often looks like.
10. People sometimes talk about prevention of mental illness, and it usually involves self-care such as eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and taking time for yourself. All of these things are important. But to say that mental illness prevention only lies in the hands of the individual is victim-blaming. Prevention happens at the society level. The causes of PTSD, in many cases, are preventable. True prevention of trauma comes from creating a culture where we validate everyone’s feelings and take care of people’s needs.