I’m 50 years old, and I have PTSD that is probably complicated by traumatic brain injury. To look at me you wouldn’t know, but I have an EEG scan of my brain to prove it. Until recently, I didn’t know what it was like to not feel anxiety, depression, paranoia, shame and a nagging belief I am bad. I don’t have fond childhood memories. Instead, I remember my mother’s rage, my father’s disappointment, and an overwhelming sense of emptiness. I remember the pain of the belt across my backside, the stinging slap across my face and the air rushing from my lungs from a stunning punch in my back. I remember being kicked headfirst down a flight of stairs, because I failed to take my shoes downstairs. I remember my mother’s self-satisfied smirk as I looked up at her from the bottom of the stairs. I remember my blood running cold in that moment when I truly realized she wished I didn’t exist. I remember I could never do anything right. I remember being sick and in incredible pain and being told I was making it up. I remember my father lamenting that he didn’t have a son. He didn’t seem to notice I was standing right there and could hear him. I remember my father spending long hours at work to avoid my mother. I remember my stomach knotting up when I heard him arrive home from work knowing my mother’s rage would turn from me to him. I remember the horrible fights between my parents that lasted all night long. I remember the blood when my mother punched my father in the face. I screamed and got between them desperately trying to make it stop. I remember as a small child spending long hours with my imaginary friend who saved me over and over, because no real person would. I remember the day my father moved out and didn’t take me with him. I remember everyone around us thinking we had such a loving, happy family and knowing no one would believe me if I told them the truth. Mostly I remember just feeling completely alone even when people were around. It took years before I could talk about my mother without my body shaking. My family thinks I should just be able to get over it, or that I would have been this way despite the abuse. What they don’t understand is that they can’t face what happened to me, because it would mean facing how fucked up they are, too. It’s easier to just point a finger and shake their head.
In most ways, I’m just like you. I don’t look any different, and I spend my day out in the world doing the same stuff everyone else does. I go to work, I mow the lawn, and I brush and floss my teeth. I laugh at funny things and cry at sad ones. I get angry at bad drivers. I long for the weekends. I have hobbies and favorite movies. The differences between me and someone who doesn’t have PTSD are not tangible. I don’t carry physical scars on the outside. I’m so good at “faking it” to get through the day, most people have no idea my scars are on the inside. Basically, my amygdala is broken and my hippocampus doesn’t function very well either. At the very least, they don’t cooperate. To put it simply, my brain doesn’t distinguish between past trauma and the present and seemingly minor things trigger feelings of anxiety and panic. As a result, my adrenal glands work 24/7 leaving me exhausted. I feel like a gazelle who keeps thinking the rustling of grass is a lion when it’s really just a mouse. I feel all the same emotions, but mine run deeper, and sometimes…okay a lot of the time…I struggle to control them. On good days, I’m happier than most people, and on bad days I’m sadder. Most mornings I wake with a crushing sadness and anxiety that make getting up not unlike scaling a sheer cliff, and I wonder why I am here. So, I remember how much I love my sons and partner, and somehow I get up. Sometimes I don’t know if the emotions I’m feeling fit the situation. I struggle with overstimulation especially at work and need a lot of down time at night and on weekends. I’m an introvert. I find casual conversation very difficult. I startle easily. I have trouble with word recall and remembering names. Focusing is difficult. At times, my thoughts are so scattered, it feels as though a troop of drunken monkeys is running amuck in my head. Despite what the happy, smiling people in drug advertisements say I’ve discovered that for me the drugs rarely work well, often make symptoms worse, and the side effects are intolerable. After trying so many I’ve lost count, I simply go without. Neurofeedback and EMDR have been better friends.
What I’ve learned is to hold on tight to all that is good in my life and to let go of all the rest. I’ve eliminated from my life those who are incapable of accepting me for who I am or what happened to me. I’m a mom of two wonderful sons who bring me endless joy and pride. I have an amazing partner who has embraced who I am and learned about me so she can understand me. She loves me even though I sometimes freak out, cry and fall apart. I have friends who accept. I’m learning to like who I am and stand up for myself. I’ve learned it’s okay to express my feelings and that no one will hurt me for it. I’m learning to let go of the shame that I hurt people, especially my children, when my mental illness got in the way of doing the right thing or caused me to mentally check out. Most days are good, and even on the bad ones I can usually find something to laugh or smile about…especially if it means laughing at me. I’ve learned that the illusion I had of myself – a weak, lazy, bad person – is just that: an illusion. I’m tough as nails. Most importantly, as an adult, my head is full of wonderful memories.
I don’t want anyone’s pity. But, I do want people to know the truth, because silence about abuse and mental illness breeds more abuse and mental illness.
I live in Maryland with my partner. I have two sons and two step daughters. I love photography even though my camera is smarter than me and most of my pictures are lousy. My partner says I have the humor of 12 year old boy, and the kids agree.
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