“PTSD”: A label I can cling to

When I learned I had PTSD, I felt something like relief for finally having a label for the symptoms I had been experiencing since it happened. As much as we- myself, anyone with a mental or physical illness, or really anyone else with a heartbeat- does not want to be stereotyped or stigmatized, having a label provides a title we can offer to anyone who asks why. One can say, when the opportunity arises, “I have PTSD”, without necessarily having to explain why. It saves us from having to talk about the events that still affect us so deeply, which we might not be able to talk about in a coherent or meaningful way, or which could cause us to dissociate or just simply be overwhelming in some circumstances when we open up about it.

I remember when I was talking to my counselor at the time about the experiences I had been having and he pulled out the DSM-IV off the shelf for me to look at. He opened the book to the section about PTSD, and I carefully read the symptoms. Before this, I had been fairly clueless about it, in the sense that it was something that other people could develop, but that I was somehow immune to. I think at this time it had only been a year and a half after it happened, and I was often under the impression that I would just “get over it” or magically overcome it in a span of two years. I would explain how I felt really foggy sometimes, almost like being underwater, or how I had problems concentrating because all I could do was think about what happened. Sometimes, especially in the first few months, I’d lay in bed at night, terrified out of my mind because I felt like I was there, and that I could die too, like they did. These experiences that I would have that I often talked about were things I thought only happened to me, and things I thought would pass quickly. I felt naive looking at the pages of the DSM, like I should’ve known that this was something I now had, that what had happened had impacted me so much. Above all though, I was relieved that all of the symptoms I had been experiencing, were not entirely uncommon reactions and not entirely abnormal reactions to be having. My poor kid-brain was just trying to make sense of something entirely and shockingly un-sensible.

In the following years, I had done a lot of re-experiencing of feelings and thoughts and memories. It had been confirmed more than once that the umbrella term for what I was going through was post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s been six years this May since it happened, and I have bad dreams, my memories are sometimes mixed up, and sometimes I feel afraid for no tangible reason. I can’t always explain to people what my circumstances are, or how it affects me, but I can tell people, if the situation calls for it, that I have PTSD.

At Least

If I had to pick a word to describe my usual state of mind, it would be “confused”. At the risk of sounding melodramatic or even cliched, it has been the events of my life that have caused this permanent state. What I’ve been through have left a hole in me that needs filling, and I seem to be lacking the skills to be able to fill it. That said, it happened when I was 19- although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was a baby. I’m 25 now, and still a baby. I still don’t know how to cope- do you blame me?

On more than one occasion I’ve been “diagnosed” with PTSD. Yes. It’s been confirmed. Way back when I was seeing a counselor where I used to live, I’d been sloppily describing my thoughts and feelings as best I could during our sessions. Feeling disconnected from the world, like I was underwater, not remembering things correctly, having a new, misconstrued sense of time- that was gist of what they call dissociation. I remember it had been going on for a few months, all while I was still grieving (which hasn’t ended even today), and attempting to manage an estate (and remember, I was nineteen), when he pulled the DSM (the Bible of mental health professionals) off the shelf and showed me the criterion for post-traumatic stress disorder. My eyes scanning the page made me feel heard. In a sense, I felt relieved.¬†Ironically, reading something that I “had” listed in the DSM made me feel less crazy.

Part of me thinks it’s over-simplistic to keep referring to this as PTSD. Thats like taking a big, messy closet full of clothes and trying to fit it all into a tiny suitcase. There’s just too much to fit. If I really fold and stuff and cram though, I can get most of it in there. Such a label makes it one thing- a single entity- rather than the disparate mish-mash of memories and thoughts and emotions that it really is. It keeps me from having to explain to other people, and it also keeps my brain from having to try so hard to make sense of it all.

As confused as I always am, at the very least I’ve been given a label. Obviously I have no familial home-base to identify with any longer. I am no longer in a steady relationship (for reasons also relating to my circumstances, which I might talk about some other time if I feel like it). Where do I call home? Who can I be? I have yet to find someone who has gone through what I’ve been through, events so terrible and rare that that I can hardly talk about it with anyone. That makes me deeply alone. At the very least though, I can feel less so and more normal by being able to identify with the PTSD. It’s mine, but also that of others, people who I do not know. For that, I am granted a (somewhat shaky) sense of comfort in the midst of unknown people suffering though various traumas. Despite the shakiness, I can still bask in a tiny glow of comfort and relatedness, and feel more normal and less confused.