“Stop worrying so much.”
“Just take a breath, you’ll be fine.”
“There is nothing to worry about.”
“Just think about something else.”
“You worry too much.”
You all probably know exactly what I’m about to say: mental illness is a real thing that shouldn’t just be dismissed. Each of the above statements I’ve heard; sometimes they help (like reminding me to take a breath), sometimes they don’t (telling me to stop).
I’ve been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD – thank you, childhood rape!), a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD or just “anxiety”) and a panic attack disorder. My brain can’t tell the difference between “Things are totally normal” and “Holy shit we’re going to die right now if you don’t fix this thing that is totally for sure broken and probably somehow your fault!!” Essentially, I’m in a constant state of fight or flight mode.
Growing up, I hid it pretty well. I was awkward, sure, but who wasn’t? Usually, I gave people no reason to suspect anything was less than Disney-level perfect. When people I grew up with find out how many times I was suicidal as a preteen and a teen, it’s usually met with utter shock. I seemed happy. I was fairly popular in junior high (not so much so in high school, though), had a stable home life, and had friends who I cared about and vice versa. And yet, there were times when, frankly, I should have checked myself into a hospital. I was never, EVER a danger to others – to myself, however…well, that’s still a daily struggle.
Something triggered me a couple days ago. I’m not sure what it was – I’ve wracked my brain and so has my therapist. We’re thinking it was simply that I didn’t give myself enough time to rest after a few very busy days and ran out of spoons, but that doesn’t account for the fact that I’m NOT sleeping. Rather, I’m panicking. My mind is racing circles around itself about everything and nothing. I can’t keep a coherent thought in my head for very long, much less articulate it verbally. Eventually, my mind (and body, since I tend to tense up) simply shuts off. I don’t always know when that’s going to happen, and it doesn’t always happen, but usually it results in me losing track of time and “waking up” where I wasn’t before. Thankfully, I have almost never left my apartment when this happens.
I took yesterday off and scheduled an emergency meeting with my therapist for this morning. I’m lucky that my psychiatrist has worked with my college and I am allowed accommodations as this DOES count as a disability. Today, I made it to my appointment, to class, but had to cancel my lessons and push a movie with a friend to another night. I’m currently in my room with my cat Dinah (who is an emotional support animal, if I haven’t mentioned that before) trying to just breathe. My body may be telling me to panic, that my life is in danger if I don’t act right this second, but I at least know it’s a false alarm. I just can’t find (or worse, don’t have) the shut-off switch.
Identifying triggers used to be pretty easy. Red cars, the smell of apple juice and graham crackers, stairwells, all were former triggers for me. And though I won’t lie, I still can’t stand the smell of apple juice (though I love the taste!), it’s no longer something I actively avoid. It no longer sends me into fight or flight mode. Each of my triggers had a direct relation to the abuse I suffered as a kid. When new triggers pop up, though, things get hairy.
For example: a new trigger showed up in late middle school. I couldn’t let anyone touch my shoulders or neck from behind. I’d freeze up and/or scream. This lasted until a couple of years ago, and I’ll still visibly jump if someone comes up from behind and taps me on the shoulder. I did a bunch of theater and people knew to just relax and NOT massage my shoulders when we’d do pre-show massage circles. Thankfully, I’ve not hit anyone for touching me there, but I did come close a few times. I’ve gotten over this trigger through a combo of exposure and general therapy, but it took a lot of work.
One touch to the back of my neck and shoulders could do many things. It could simply put me in a bad mood, or it could incite night terrors, to name a couple. The same went for my other triggers – usually, I just avoided them or went into high-alert when near one, but sometimes things got nasty. I’d stop sleeping (the longest I’ve gone is around 3 1/2 days) because my nightmares would be so bad that my brain wouldn’t let me fall asleep. I’d either stop eating entirely or lose complete track of what I put into my mouth (combine that with a history of disordered eating for body image reasons and there’s a whole ‘nother trigger for a whole ‘nother reason). Is it any surprise that I take relationships (both platonic and romantic) slowly?
And that’s just triggers. Sometimes it’s for no reason at all. You know that sensation when you’re falling asleep and suddenly your brain goes WE’RE LITERALLY FALLING RIGHT THIS SECOND! HELP!!? My brain will do that with memories of my abuse. I’m back in that basement, and he’s hovering over me. I can feel his breath on my skin again. Flashbacks like this usually result in me kicking as hard as I can, punching as hard as I can, throwing something (usually a pillow) at what I think is him, and sometimes just jumping out of bed and running. It only lasts for a few seconds, just like that falling feeling. Usually after a couple of kicks or a punch, I’m fully awake and realize what’s going on. That in itself is a trigger, too. I won’t sleep that night, most likely, and if I’m lucky I’ll avoid a full on panic attack. Events like this (as well as the dissociation and some other reasons) are why my therapist, psychiatrist, and I have been looking into me getting a service dog for the past year (that’s also a whole ‘nother blog).
Living with PTSD and anxiety makes each day a battle. Because I was so young when I was first abused, my brain sees “fight or flight” mode as normal. The upside to this is I’m excellent in emergency situations that require me to keep my cool (like EMT work), the downside is, well all of what you’ve just read and more.
What bugs me the most, though, is the secrecy I feel I need to keep around it. I don’t give into this feeling (obviously), but mental illness is a taboo. It’s not something to be talked about in polite society. We should know to keep our mouths shut and our illnesses hidden. My students will be much more understanding if I say I’m canceling lessons because I have a stomach bug rather than because my PTSD is flaring (and parents even more so). But the pressure from being on high alert 24/7/365 builds up. Eventually, the emotional pimple has to pop. Cue the panic attacks, the dissociation, self-harm (no, not anymore for the most part), and so on and so forth. The pressure is relieved and the cycle starts all over again.
I’ll admit it, I’ve lost track of what the goal of this post is. I’ve debated scrapping it and starting anew with an actual draft rather than just word vomiting and going from there, but this, as I read it over, this is as accurate representation of what my mind is like right now. It can’t keep things straight. It can’t remember what the point of my writing this was (and there was a point…I think). This is just a tiny peek into the mind of a person with mental illness going through a flare. A tiny, itty-bitty peek that doesn’t really do a good job showing what panic feels like. But it’s the best I can do. And to those of you out there, reading this and relating, stay strong. Keep fighting.