Mental Health Moments – What is PTSD and How Can It Impact Your Life?
I’m going to start a new blog series called ‘mental health moments’. Over the years I’ve featured plenty of my own stories. I’ve shared my ups and downs and touched on some of the core issues that I’ve struggled with (anxiety and grief mainly). But I want to cover wider mental health issues that I think should be talked about – so I’m going to choose some select stories to share with you.
The first one is by Sean Watkin and it covers the subject on PTSD. Below Sean explains what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is and shares his PTSD story. Here’s how it impacted his mental health and some handy tips he’s discovered along his journey.
PTSD story by Sean Watkin
It came to me in little pieces: a clenched fist or a knife at my throat, or the pain I felt lying in a hospital bed with suspected broken ribs. It came in dreams usually; the obscure, intangible pockets where our mind attempts to process our experiences, or so goes the theory. But that didn’t happen for me. My brain was unable to process experiencing domestic violence. It believed these things were still happening, that I was still in danger. Can you imagine how exhausting that is? How scary?
This is PTSD.
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (or, PTSD) is a psychological condition that comes about after a person experiences or witnesses a traumatic event. It could be war. It could be rape. It could be the loss of a loved one. The magnitude of trauma is relative, though. The person’s mind is unable to process this event and so keeps itself locked in a permanent state of arousal. Or readiness. Fight or flight.
What does it do?
Symptoms of PTSD look pretty black and white on paper. The sufferer can experience hyperarousal, nightmares, flashbacks, physical sensations, avoiding places or people associated with or reminding them of the trauma. But there is a symptom that is particularly dangerous, and this is called ‘emotional numbing’. This is when the person wants so badly to not feel traumatised and afraid that they force themselves to feel nothing.
The night I met that man triggered a chain of events that spanned years and even after all of that compounded trauma, I was unsure what was wrong with me.
Everything that happened to me became internalised. I’d done this. I’d caused it somehow.
A string of unsuccessful relationships, an affair with drink that bordered on alcoholism, and absolute hatred of myself were all symptomatic of one thing, according to my doctors. Depression. Who wants to feel that amount of guilt and hate? I shut myself off from my own mind. Bad news would be water off a duck’s back. I became dead inside.
I tried counselling twice, which left me feeling like the itch had not yet been scratched. For years I flitted from one medication to another with varying side-effects. Insomnia, stomach problems, anger, pushing people away. For a lot of the time I was glazed over, and I knew I was lost. I was completely switched off behind my eyes. I’d laugh at things I knew needed to be laughed at, but not actually finding them funny; crying at sad things that didn’t really move me.
But there was still this thing, this boulder I was carrying around and it was breaking my back.
Asking for help
Just because you’ve tried medication or counselling and nothing is working, it doesn’t mean there is nothing wrong. If you feel like you’re not right, then you’re probably correct. You know you best. Asking for help isn’t just important, it’s fundamental to recovery from mental illness.
If you think you’re suffering from any kind of mental illness you should try to:
- Find your own support network. This could be family or friends. It would be work-colleagues. Having emotional support from others is key to recovery.
- See your GP. Asking for medical help or referral is not a sign of weakness. Accepting something is going wrong is sometimes the hardest thing to do. This is bravery, not weakness.
- Remember you’re not alone. Millions of people suffer with their own mental wellness.
With nowhere else to turn, I wanted to try talking therapy again. I was presented with the following problem: three months waiting for pre-therapy assessment counselling to find out the best way to move forward; or three weeks waiting to get access to an online pre-therapy self-assessment course. I’m unsure whether this is a sign that mental health is not a priority to the NHS, or there are that many people in need of help with mental wellness. Probably both.
I chose the latter. I needed to feel like I was doing something quickly. I needed to take control. By the end of the six weeks and after carefully paying attention to my symptoms and stressors, a phone call confirmed that I would be getting put forward for trauma-focused therapy. I’d not yet heard the term PTSD in relation to my condition. This is fourteen years after the series of traumatic events had actually occurred. I can’t be the only person this has happened to.
Finding the best treatment for you is integral and can be a daunting prospect. You barely understand your condition and you’re being asked how you should treat it. Surely this is why you’ve come to the professionals?
Finding a workable treatment is scary. There are some things you should consider:
- Always ask questions. Your GP or other professional should give you accurate, honest answers.
- Make your own choices. Medication doesn’t work for everyone. Similarly, neither do talking therapies.
- EMDR worked for me. This doesn’t mean it works for everyone
- Forget timescales. Trauma therapy can take any amount of time, it really does depend. Don’t feel disheartened if you’re not feeling better quickly.
Personally, my therapist and I agreed on something called Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR). Basically, for weeks on end, I followed my therapist’s finger moving just my eyes from side-to-side, whilst recalling one of my traumatic memories. I promise it’s more effective than it sounds! But this isn’t always right for everyone. I was lucky it seemed to be working.
Don’t get me wrong, it took a few sessions to get used to the process. I needed to drop the notion that this was ridiculous, that I’d made a mistake in coming. After those initial doubts dissolved, there was a kind of magic in the room. Nobody really knows how or why EMDR works, but in my case it did.
I managed to process one of my three traumatic memories. So what does this mean for my life? I don’t flinch when people move close to me, I don’t live in a perpetual state of readiness. I feel freer. I can see the violence as a historic event, not something that is happening to me right now. I was given the option to continue working on the two remaining episodes using EMDR, but I declined.
PTSD therapy has given me tools with which to cope with any anxieties that arise. With that, I guess I have to say there is no real cure for anything when it comes to mental wellness. There are tools and methods and processes, but it’s really down to you. The trick is to find positive ways to cope and therapy is a really good place to start.