I have an abnormal mental health condition, and I’m awesome. In fact I have two. Two very different ones. But who’s counting? I’m still awesome. Am I fully functional? Not exactly. But it hasn’t stopped me yet. I’ve got a great family and a ton of amazing friends.
A lot of my friends also live with various mental illnesses. They are awesome too. If somebody decides not to like me or my friends because they witness how differently we can behave, we’ll be okay. But it does make the world a little lonelier and a little harder for us. Most of us are working on it. Every day. It’s hard. It takes a lot of our energy. Some even manage to pretty much fit in.
It never hurts to have more people supporting our efforts. Please consider empathy. For everybody! Empathy is the willingness to understand, and it’s pure gold. Especially to us folks who live with mental illness.
I live with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This means that certain events and situations I encounter can make me relive specific highly negative emotional experiences. People invite me to things, and I often say no, because I’m too afraid I’ll react to something in an embarrassing way. Dealing with the fallout of flipping out at a social gathering is a lot more stressful than dealing with the fallout of saying no to an invitation.
I tell all my friends I have PTSD, and what it is. I ask them all to please not take it personally if I can’t make it out to something I was pretty excited about only hours before.
Still, nothing says “fuck you” like refusing an invitation. It breaks my heart sometimes when somebody I love is really looking forward to seeing me or involving me, and I just can’t do it. What sucks the most about this dynamic is that the person on the other end might feel like I don’t care about them. But that simply isn’t true. I just have a disorder, and need to care for myself a good deal more than most people need to.
Every social situation I encounter, no matter how positive, has stresses for me. These stresses build. Unless I remove myself from these stresses, and allow my brain time to reset and rest, I can put myself in danger. With all the work, the childcare, the daily business of life and making money, it adds up to me experiencing feelings of self-loathing, self-destruction, and various other instabilities including emotional flashbacks and violent mood swings.
This is why I regulate my social life so heavily. In all honesty, I can’t afford to lose the stability of my family I’ve worked so hard to create. I can’t jeopardize the order I’ve created for myself. Life is hard and shaky enough without deliberately pushing myself too far and creating situations which become dark and uncontrollable.
Most of the people in my life don’t understand the depth of this. I don’t hold that against them. Why would I expect anybody to get me at a core level? On rare occasions, I decide to breach the rules and standards I set for how much stress I can take, and then I have a breakdown. I have no doubt that small doses of pushing my own limitations are good for me, and are helping me succeed in better managing this aspect of my social life. But like most things, this is best in moderation.
When I break down, I spend what could be hours, sometimes days, afraid for my life. Afraid for the lives of my children, and obsessing that everybody I know and love is somehow dying right at this moment and I can’t do a thing about it.
Once I allow myself to enter this space, it is no longer a matter of attitude and willpower. It isn’t a matter of being more positive, or turning “that frown upsidedown.” When I break, I break, and it’s all I can do to not have a heart attack. I hurt hard. Instead of shopping, I would prefer to end my own life and escape the world. It’s terrifying and terrible, and I’m very good at avoiding it.
It is a dark place I never want to go. I have people who need me, and I need to be there for those people. I have a mission to complete, and it has yet to be completed. I have a calling that has not yet been answered in full.
So I say yes to things.
And I say no to things.
Sometimes I put my life at risk and power through, and then I sleep a lot and try to avoid all human contact so that I don’t alienate my friends and family with this horrible but honest part of who I am. Quietly making my children’s meals and not saying much in general to anybody. Not answering my e-mails or texts.
All of this sucks, but I refuse to take any of it on as a personal flaw in my character or something. It isn’t. It’s just a disorder. One which requires me to regulate my life in specific ordered ways if I want to maintain balance. I’m working, extremely slowly, at making it all less a part of how I interact with the world, but for now, I need to be patient with myself, and I need to accept that this is just my life. I’ve learned to truly appreciate the people I know who say “you know what? It’s fine. Call me when you’re up to it.”
My particular brand of PTSD is not as straight forward as much of the PTSD you may be aware of. A lot of PTSD is related to combat, various sexual assaults, or acute threats and disasters. These are often curable, can run their courses, and then you’re done. As long as you get treatment, you can eventually be clear and free.
Because my complex PTSD was developed throughout my childhood due to elements like physical and psychological torture, love deprivation, starvation, sexual molestation, attempted murder, and severe school bullying, the trauma runs very deep, shaping my being and how I interact with the world. It’s lifelong learning and growing and struggling for me.
Complex PTSD isn’t really something you ever entirely “get over”, but it is something you can effectively manage most of the time if you know your brain works that way.
My kids know a life free from abuse and neglect, because I’ve chosen to work hard on myself to end the cycle. (The person who abused me the worst is one of my “father figures”, and is currently awaiting the death penalty for infanticide in California).
The legacy I was left is terrifying. The conditions and circumstances of my upbringing did their best to create a monster out of me. But I said no to all of it. I beat all of it! Because I deserve better. My kids and the world deserve better. Love is a better choice. Goodness is a better pursuit.
So when I say I have a disorder, please don’t fear me. Don’t judge me harshly. And never EVER count me out. I’m a good man with a strong heart, and the courage of a trumped up army. I’ll be there for you, but you have to meet me half way and drop the stigma.
Fight stigma, and get great friends like me.
Byron Hamel is an award winning journalist and researcher living in Manitoba Canada. He’s written and produced content with CBC Radio, Canada’s most respected media network, for over 12 years. His work has been enjoyed by millions on award winning Canadian radio programs like DNTO and The Current.
Byron is a survivor of severe child abuse and neglect. Byron is an outspoken champion of interracial unity, and an advocate for children’s and women’s rights.
Despite living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Byron works hard to overcome the history of violence in his family. He raises his own two little daughters with dignity, love, and respect.
He writes about his journey on his blog Trauma Dad
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