Finding the pieces
Updated: Jun 11, 2021
Okay, let’s do this.
When I talk about mental health, I try to keep it open and to include as many illnesses and disorders as possible. But this time I want to address one in particular. Not only because it’s often misunderstood, but also because it is the one I have been dealing with all my life. So this will get personal, not out of narcissism but of necessity.
Let’s talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
It’s not genetic, it’s something that is born of a traumatic experience, or several. That is, when you experience a situation that makes you fear for your life or your integrity. (I won’t cover complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (cPTSD) because it’s different from what I want to talk about, and I’m not educated enough on it yet.)
When we talk about PTSD, more often than not we associate it with war, its veterans and its survivors. And while yes, a lot of those people do suffer from PTSD, they’re not the only ones. Hurricanes, earthquakes, fires can also cause PTSD. Rape, torture, abuse too. Not only in children, thank you very much. There is no age limit. It can happen at any time in someone’s life, and it has a vast number of consequences.
PTSD rarely comes alone. It’s often accompanied by its little friends depression and anxiety, sometimes eating disorders, sometimes OCD, and dissociative disorders. It’s normal. It’s our brain trying to cope.
No matter the reason for the disorder, there is one thing that is always there: we emerge from the trauma feeling less human. I am sure I could talk to any veteran or rape survivor and they would tell me the same thing. We aren’t the same, our views on our own humanity are diminished. As if we didn’t deserve this life, as if we had survived out of luck and that made us less worthy of our existence.
I have not gone to war, nor have I lived in a warzone. I have not been anywhere near terrorist attacks. There have been no major environmental catastrophe in my country in my lifetime. I have not been beaten, or suffered brutality at the hands of police. But I have been victim of incest, raped and abused, psychologically and emotionally tortured, and almost died of medical errors. I won’t get into details, but that’s my background, and the reason for my disorder. As a result I have dealt with symptoms of depression, OCD, and anxiety both generalised and social, for most of my life, at varying degrees. And that was Hell. It still is Hell but now at least I understand it.
I haven’t always known. The first traumatic event of my life happened when I was around 4, and I only remembered it about 20 years later. Me not actively remembering it doesn’t mean it wasn’t in my memories at all, but that it was locked: I couldn’t access it. My brain kept it hidden in my subconscious, waiting for me to catch up and be able to make sense of it. And that’s bad.
Because in its quest to make sense of the horror that had happened, my subconscious put me in all sorts of negative situations. It made me take risks. It made me, eventually, reproduce as closely as possible the initial event. And that’s when I remembered. But in the meantime I had been through all the other things I listed above. None of them were close enough, apparently.
So here I was, 25 and severely beaten up by a lifetime of repetitive traumas, when I woke up in the middle of night, uneasy and sick, not remembering a bad dream. I knew it was bad. I’ve had nightmares almost every night as far as I can remember, but very rarely do they wake me up, especially not in that state. So I knew there was something wrong. But not what. I had to get up early in the morning to go to work, so I went back to sleep, still trying to shake off that uneasy state.
I had the same dream for a few nights, and in the end I remembered it. It was that event, all those years ago, that had started the whole string of traumas. It was painful. So incredibly painful. Because once I had started to remember there was no stopping it. It happened, again and again, in my memory, in my body, and there was nothing I could do to make it stop. I could barely see my surroundings, so vivid was the reminiscence. I was lucky, it was a weekend. No work. I spent the whole weekend crying, curled up in a ball, stuck in that memory loop. And each time there were more details. The color of the wall, the sounds, the heat etc. It came back bit by bit, sense by sense. I could feel everything as if I was there again. When I spoke it was with the voice of a 4 year old girl.
I wasn’t alone, although I wished I was. I tried to explain to my (now ex) boyfriend but he didn’t understand. I probably didn’t make much sense to someone who had no idea what trauma even was. He tried to get me out of bed, to make me go out to eat, to have me pretend everything was fine. I couldn’t. I was barely able to go from the bedroom to the kitchen for a glass of water. I barely ate anything for days.
The loop didn’t stop until, I think, all the details were filled in. That took a long time, and I couldn’t remain in my home while it happened. I had to get up, go to work, smile. It faded a bit once I understood exactly what it was. And after a while it clicked: that was the starting point. Most of what happened in my life afterwards had been decided on that day, when I was 4 years old. I felt sick again, really sick. Caught a really bad cold. And for the first time in years I made an appointment with a therapist.
It doesn’t always happen like this. Not all people who suffer from PTSD go through an amnesic phase, and not all who do come out of it that way. But I’ve met some who did. It’s horrible. Painful. Terrifying. But at the same time it’s a step towards healing. Because it helps understand the situation, it helps talk about it, it helps grieve.
A traumatizing event leading to PTSD is like a little death. You lose part of you, and there’s a hole inside that can’t be filled, that you have to live with for the rest of your life. It’s necessary to be able to grieve that part of you that died. It can take as many forms as there are people grieving. But it must be done in order to move forward in life.
That’s probably the moment where I should explain dissociative disorders and their connection to all of that. Let’s give it a shot.
Dissociative disorders affect consciousness and makes it harder to be a normal, functioning person. It is a form of coping mechanism that allows the mind to separate or compartmentalize certain memories or thoughts from normal consciousness. These memories and thoughts are not erased. They may resurface spontaneously or be triggered by objects or events in the person's environment. In other words, that amnesia thing I just described? Dissociation. But it doesn’t end there.
You know how some Vietnam veterans came back from the war unable to move forward, like their mind got stuck in there? They’ll talk about their childhood, their fiancée, University, then the war. And that’s where their memories end, even decades later. That’s also dissociation. There are many, many degrees of this. From losing track of time to losing sense of self, from getting stuck in a memory loop to forgetting an entire day, an entire decade. I can’t talk about all of it, so here’s a link: https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/dissociative+disorders that has been most useful to me for understanding it.
In any case, I now have to deal with a milder form of dissociative disorder as a result of PTSD. There are days where I will look at the time, realise it’s already been 3 hours since I said I would go for a walk, and have no clue if I actually did go or not. I struggle to remember my name, my age, my height, my favorite color. I can’t tell what day it is without looking at a calendar. I need to be reminded to eat.
Let’s breathe for a moment. This was hard to write. The good news is, I’m fine. I’m recovering. I’ll never be all that I wanted to be, but I’m still an almost functional human being, with extra steps. Therapy helped. A lot. Finding people who understand helped. Reclaiming my body through piercings, tattoos, and weird hair colors helped. Reclaiming my mind through writing and art helped. All of this together allow me to say now that I am not at the mercy of my PTSD. It doesn’t rule me, it doesn’t own me, it isn’t me.
But there are things that will never completely disappear. My name is one of my biggest triggers, which might be why it’s so hard for me to remember. Whenever I hear it, I get flashbacks. Big, vivid, complete flashbacks, of every single time my name has been used to dehumanise me. So even when I do remember it, I don’t use it. I go by the nicknames my friends give me, or the pen name that I chose for myself. It’s not cowardice, it’s adapting. Someday perhaps I will legally change it, although the process itself scares me. Someday perhaps I will be able to hear it without my brain shutting down. We’ll see.
Some things are still hard for me. I will always feel uneasy the first time I get intimate with someone. Always try to find alternate means of healing myself instead of going to the hospital. Always need mental preparation to open the front door and step out. I do it, but it takes extra steps.
I find coping mechanisms, healthy ones as much as possible. True, I also smoke, but I trust that in time I won’t need this one either. I mask. When going outside, before the pandemic happened, I would wear makeup like war paint, choose jewelry with care, put a few drops of essential oils on my wrists and neck to replace perfume. It grounded me, it helped me get in a different mindset, playing the role of a happy, normal young woman. It made it easier to face the world. And I laugh when I hear people use anxiety as an excuse not to wear a mask, because I know that many people with social anxiety welcome it. This pandemic allows us to wear actual masks instead of metaphorical ones, and it helps.
I have learned to hide the pain from others even in the midst of a flashback or a loop. But I have also learned to not hide from myself. I can feel, now, when they’re coming. I know the feeling of a knot forming in my stomach is the herald of anxiety, my shoulders feeling painful announcing a panic attack, me sleeping for more than 10 hours calling the beginning of a depressive phase. I have learned about my triggers and how to avoid them, about many aspect of my PTSD and its little friends in order to fight then. When I hear my name I can still pretend to smile.
When I feel the flashback coming I act as fast as possible. Go home or to a safe place. Make sure there is easily prepared, accessible food. Bread and butter works fine. Make sure there is a glass or bottle of water in the room so that I won’t have to open any door for a few hours. Roll a few cigarettes in advance. Turn the light on even during the day because I know I won’t have the energy to do it later. If possible, draw or paint or write or create something colorful that I can then stare at while my internal world crumbles. Turn the phone off, warn my friends. Cancel all appointments for the day and the next. Make sure there is no mirror in the room.
These are all things I have learned with time, by experience. We all cope differently. The important part is listening to yourself, your needs, the way your brain processes the trigger. Some people exercise, some sing or play music, some scream, others take a sleeping pill and wait it off. We all react differently and it’s all right. There’s no single answer.
All of this might make you think that we all know exactly what to do all the time. That we all understand exactly what’s happening, how to prevent it, how to deal with it. We don’t. And not all of us can learn. I have lost a very dear friend to PTSD. She got caught in the loop and couldn’t escape. There was nothing I or any of her other friends could do. Therapy wasn’t enough, medication wasn’t enough, the disorder was too painful. PTSD is not a walk in the park. It is horribly painful, and it can be deadly. Please remember that when you use the word “trigger” without knowing what you’re talking about. You’re making fun of the suffering of people whom you have never met, who have never done anything to hurt you. You’re diminishing their fight and their pain. Think about it next time, please.
On the bright side, lots of people do manage to live a fulfilling life despite all of this. We learn, we grow. It’s a whole big long process that never really ends, as we keep adapting to the world around us and the millions of ways it can touch the triggers. But still, we grow.
PTSD and the subsequent therapy have taught me a lot about people in general, their interactions, their thoughts, the way they are shaped by their experiences. I have learned how not to raise a child, how to talk to someone who is in a lot of pain, how to teach people who believe they can’t be taught. I have grown as a person and learned to embrace my self. I’m not sick. I’m broken. Just like your mom’s favourite vase that has been sent crashing to the floor by a mischievous cat, the pieces still fit together. It just takes patience and a lot of glue. Will it be as pretty as it was before? No. Will it be as sturdy? No. Will there be pieces missing? Yes. But will it hold water and flowers? If you did your job right, yes. And now you also have a story to tell about it.
Therapy is finding the pieces. It can come in a lot of ways, take a lot of forms, but that’s the flavour of it. Figuring out who you are, who you want to be, aside from the trauma. Not letting the trauma or even the PTSD define you, but rather treating them as some of the pieces that make you whole. Because I am not only my disorder. I am a woman, a writer, a sister, a friend, an artist, a daughter. I’m a survivor. I’m kind. I’m a dragon, I breathe fire. All of this is true, all of this makes me who I am, none of this on its own is enough to describe me. Why should PTSD be different?
I am a vase, and I hold flowers. In the end, that’s all that matters. And with all the experiences I’ve had, all the years of struggle and learning and growth, I have decided to help. That’s how I have decided to grow, because I can now understand why what happened to me, happened, and I have accepted that there is nothing I can do to change it. Trauma is grief, and I have reached the stage of acceptance. Yes, there will always be parts of me that are missing. But I hold on to the good that came of it, and I share what I’ve learned to help others, perhaps less fortunate than I have been, with less access to the resources I have had, find their pieces and heal.
I refuse to waste my energy hating myself or those who have caused me harm anymore. I’m worth more than that, and they’re not worth it. I’d rather use the pain to create something nice. A bedtime story, a comedy novel, a painting. I have spent so many years seeing the world in darkness, I would like to give it back all its colors and turn on the light.
Nothing is ever simple in life. Not the joy, not the sadness, not the pain. It’s easy to forget how much effort we put into something once it’s finished. I am grateful that I’ll never be finished. I will always be a work in progress. Learning new coping mechanisms, new masking techniques, new insights into the human mind. Always getting better at being myself, including PTSD. And I’m quite excited to see what will happen next, now that I know a little more of who I am.