31 Jul HIDE AND SEEK: GROWING UP WITH PTSD AS A YOUNG ADULT
Trigger warning: article contains discussions of PTSD, violence-related trauma, homophobia, and antidepressants which may be a trigger for some readers.
Disclaimer: the author wants to acknowledge and make it known that these are her personal experiences. The author would like to acknowledge that other people have other experiences and that no two people are the same.
In 2014 my life did a 180. Until that year, I led a privileged life, although I had never known stillness. I had never known peace or calm. My life had been a steady series of consecutive catastrophes, dealt with right under the noses of everyone who knew my family. None of my friends, teachers, or extended family knew what went on in my house – I didn’t fully understand until 4th grade when we learned about boundaries and healthy relationships in health class. That was the first time I heard the term Domestic Violence. Everything clicked. And everything began to change in my home life in the year following that school lesson. My brother, mom, and I left, and we started a long arduous journey which eventually brought us to 2014.
By 2014 I was confronted with what I decipher to be the cumulative consequence of the first 12 years of my life. Court cases, lawyers, divorce, harassment – you name it, we saw it. I testified in criminal court, watched my family endure years of stress, money worries, and panic attacks while our extended family eagerly tried to help us from near and far. Felt the weight of the world as I tried to understand my feelings and my brother and mother. All this was on top of regular pre-pubescent stress and dumb elementary school friend drama. I won’t sugar coat it – it really fucking sucked – and it was hard, and I won’t get into the gritty details. But I had good support, and we got through it. When the dust cleared, a few sentences were handed out, restraining orders issued, custody taken, and my father disappeared. Suddenly my world got a little quieter for the first time in my life.
The first course of action after these events was therapy for my family and me. The number one thing I would hear from the adults around me, my therapists, and social workers was, Oh wow, she’s so grown up for her age, and she’s such an old soul. 12-14 year old me was ECSTATIC to hear this – of course, I wanted to be applauded and pat on the back; I was an egotistical pre-teen who craved validation. I took it with pride, would brag about it to people, and rooted a lot of my identity in the fact that I understood things other kids didn’t, or that because of that, adults respected me (I’ll let you in on a secret – it wasn’t actually respect it was pity and a lack of understanding of mental health). But part of me always wanted to know why it was like this. Why was I so sensitive to people’s moods or actions? Why did I prioritize understanding other people or trying to fix them over my wellbeing? I felt trapped between being a child and approaching young adulthood – playing hide and seek with two versions of myself I wasn’t ready to confront. Working with my first therapist uncovered a lot of that. My experiences and trauma had equipped me with a stupendously sharp ability to read people and situations fast and efficiently and decide if I was in danger. I had nightmares and daydreams where I would plan escapes or protective plans for normal, average situations just in case something went wrong. Every friend I ever made had to open up to me and tell me their deepest darkest fears and secrets, or I wouldn’t feel like I understood them at all. Not to mention the panic attacks or insistent need to be busy 24/7. Yet somehow, I was getting indirectly praised for this post-traumatic unhealthy behaviour by the adults around me. And this had negative effects as time went on.
Early on in my therapy, people had tossed the acronym PTSD around me, as well as depression, anxiety, and dissociative state of identity. I remember going on my first antidepressant and being hooked up to a heart machine for fear of having a heart murmur when it was just my anxiety at high gear. I didn’t understand my diagnoses when I was young; I figured I’d just go to therapy, and then I’m fine – do whatever the doctors and my mom tell me is best. But then high school was around the corner, first relationships started to bud, and I realized my antidepressants made me feel worse, and I cold-turkey stopped taking them.
After the failed Prozac experience, I shied away from treatment or help of any kind. I started high school, got all new friends, and even went to a specialized arts high school and got away from my suffocating (and homophobic) catholic school. For a while, that was alright, and I was able to focus on being a kid, but trauma is like a rash or infection – you need to follow through with all the treatment for it to be healed, otherwise, it’ll just keep coming back, and often in more harmful or worse ways. My anxiety worsened, I was angry all the time, I was incredibly stimulant-sensitive, and my expectations for everything were stupidly high. I got into my first serious relationship when I probably shouldn’t have, causing more turmoil and confusion in my personal life. Not to mention, I was still getting praised for some of this behaviour – it was being reframed as hardworking or insightful behaviour rather than destructive. Overall, I was throwing myself in situations that were bad for me just to a) keep myself busy and b) prove to myself I could handle it so I would feel better about not going to therapy anymore. I would get so angry at people who didn’t understand PTSD, labelling it as a veteran’s condition, as if war holds the key to having PTSD. I felt unseen and frustrated that no one around me could understand what I was feeling or going through – even if I didn’t allow them the opportunity to begin. I knew deep down that my PTSD was eating me up, and I had to deal with it. But you just can’t force that type of thing.
Around 11th grade, my life took another turn and this time in a better direction. My relationship ended, and I went on an exchange to Germany. Of course, all of this dramatic change threw me into a frenzy, and things got pretty bad for a while, but for some reason after this time, I came out of it in a better spot. I wanted more out of my life, and I wanted to feel assured and good about myself. I realized that while I was no longer living the same life I had as a child, I had trapped myself in it. I got really into taking better care of myself, finding myself a bit more, and focused on myself for once. I had confidence, the nightmares started going away, the panic attacks were less frequent, I better communicated my PTSD, and I was able to discuss my mental health and emotions without getting embarrassed. It still took me another two years to admit I needed therapy, but this shift put me on the right track. Ever since then, it’s been an uphill battle – but one I’m more excited and proud about fighting.
To this day, I still have challenges with my identity as an individual with substantial childhood and young adulthood trauma. I always joke with my friends and say that in my head, I feel equally 12 as I do 25. My therapist and I talk about it a lot too. But the number one thing is that I’m finally being given and giving myself the space I need to reconfigure my identity around my new emerging life rather than just my trauma, so of course, it’s a tedious, crazy hard process. And I’ll never be without my past experiences – they made me who I am, and I’m thankful for that – but that doesn’t mean they can run my life or dictate my current happiness. And as for others, I’ve had to learn to understand that no one can truly understand my story except me, and PTSD is still a highly stigmatized mental illness in our society, unfortunately (even though most people will experience some degree of it in their lifetime!) So while that sucks, I also shouldn’t feel personally responsible for making others understand such a complex condition – that even I am still learning about!
The number one thing I can say about life is to always expect the unexpected. In my 19 years on this planet, in this body, no other lesson has become more clear to me than the fact that nothing is permanent – that you have to take life as it comes to you in waves and have resilience. It’s a tough pill to swallow. Especially considering just how much time people spend dwelling on the past and stressing the future. It’s something I’m still learning to master, though I don’t expect that will be happening anytime soon, but the sentiment lies in the effort (so my therapist says.) For now, I think it’s best I stay concerned with myself and understanding how my past will shape my future as I allow it to. My PTSD and other mental health conditions stay with me, but my power lies in my ability to control that – not in the fact that I had to grow up a little too fast. And to me, that’s really beautiful.
HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: AMELIA MOISE, SECOND YEAR BSCH STUDENT AT QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY AND DEAR FRIEND OF THE AUTHOR
If you or anyone you know is enduring an abusive relationship of any kind, you are not alone. The author encourages you to seek the necessary help and reach out to loved ones.
Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Program – Kingston Health Sciences Centre (Kingston General Hospital)
613-549-6666, ext. 4880