In 2011, I was diagnosed with PTSD due to my childhood experiences of sexual abuse and resulting psychological impact.
Obviously, 2011 was not the year the PTSD started, this has been there for a long time, I just had no diagnosis for it. I wish I could say that having a diagnosis made it go away, but that’s obviously not true. The PTSD and its resulting periods of depression and anxiety are most likely something I have to live with all my life.
I am currently in a stressful period in my life due to Brexit and the journey trying to become a British citizen. And stress quite often triggers my PTSD which causes me anxiety, nightmares, a whole host of physical symptoms and then may or may not lead to depression. Yet what is this anxiety? At first, I am just stressed. Normally for good reason. Brexit is stressful for many, dealing with bureaucracy is definitely stressful, 85 page forms are absolutely stressful. Good reasons to feel stress. Most people can deal with stress by planning, going through with it and then it’s done. They can sustain the stress because they are otherwise healthy.
I am not otherwise healthy. I try to keep the stress from manifesting into anxiety by meditating, going for walks, reading, getting enough sleep, journaling. I try to be nice to myself but if I cannot solve the stress, then it will eventually turn into anxiety. It starts with worry about everything. I am a worrier anyway. I worry about my husband driving to work. I worry about the day when my daughter will walk to and from school by herself. I worry about her school trips and residentials. I worry about trusting the people in her life. I worry about job security and my health. Everyone’s health. I worry about the world and possible war. I worry about the downfall of society and the consequences. I worry a lot. In my good periods, I can simply acknowledge that I have these worries and that it is ok and be rational about it. My husband is a good driver, he will text when he arrives at work. My daughter is sensible and she will be safe. Thousands of school trips and residentials happen every day and mostly things are just fine. I know wonderful people, she is safe. We have always managed, even if jobs were lost and my health was bad. At the moment, everyone is healthy. The world is going to be ok. It’s going to be ok. It’s going to be ok. It’s going to be ok. (three times for luck, always)
On my bad days, I spent the two hours of my husband’s commute fearing he has an accident and wonder if the police would know how to contact me. I worry that my daughter gets abducted on the school run, that there is a bus crash on the school trip or she has a fatal accident on the residential or that she gets sexually abused. My husband loses his job and I get seriously ill at the same time. We lose everything. The world is going to pot and there will be war, it’s inevitable. We will live in a dystopian world but at least I won’t be able to survive long without my asthma medication. Oh my god, but what about my daughter…
I know when you read this, that many people will think that this sounds ridiculous. Or feel tempted to say: Just don’t think this. Let me tell you: It’s not my choice to think this. My brain manages to do this quite independently and even if I shout at it: No, no, no. It still does it. I have a very independent mind.
Anyway, this type of anxiety comes first. The one were my normal worrying takes on disaster movie proportions.
Next up is the analysing of every single social encounter I have. What did I say on the school run? Do they now all think I am stupid? I cannot go to this event/meet up because I will behave stupidly and say stupid things and then everyone will think I am stupid. I best stay home. I start cancelling everything and thus I no longer get asked in the first place. The not being asked hurts like hell, because it confirms what I fear to be true: no one actually wants to spend any time with me. My rational mind knows that the fact I am not being asked is because I tend to cancel everything. It’s logical. My brain, however, refuses to accept logic when it comes to myself and my perception of the world. So, I sit at home, thinking lots of stuff and not talking to anyone about it.
I tried therapy. Lots of times. I had decent therapists, even borderline great therapists. But the point in all therapy comes when the therapist says: So, what exactly did your father do to you? They want details. And just typing this sentence gives me the sweats. Once in my 20ies, I went there. I gave details. The therapist assured me it would be cathartic, cleansing, like banishing the devil. It was not. I did not leave my flat for two weeks, called in sick at work. When I got hungry, I ordered pizza. I only got hungry every other day. I did not answer the phone. Only occasionally replied to a text. My therapist implored me to come back. “To work through it”. I did. It did not help. As I said in my last session to her: “Opening the Pandora’s box has not helped humanity and it certainly did not help me.” She was sad. And she said how very sorry she was for me and how strong I really was. If only I could see that.
I hate when people say to me “you are so strong”. And I hate them even though I know they mean well. I hate it because being strong means nothing. I know that I have a sheer will to survive this. I am alive, so yes, I know. Even had as a kid, I just wanted to survive. Get out of there. Put distance between me and my family. Which I did. Strong does not save you, strong does not mean anything. Strong is just another stupid word people say to you when they don’t know what to say when faced with horrible things they are curious to know but then don’t know how to deal with it. They just don’t know what else to say.
I tried therapy several times. The last time I decided to go to therapy was when my mother got in touch after abandoning me when I was just a newborn baby of a few weeks. It was simply too much at the time to deal with the fact that she left and had another family and never came to see me. She lived 5 minutes away from where I grew up. I had sisters. And I was always so lonely as a kid, I would have loved to have siblings. The contact ultimately broke, because her husband did not know I existed. And she wanted to keep it that way. A deal breaker for me.
I went back to therapy then. I stated I did not want to talk about details of the actual abuse. I wanted to talk about how to deal with this shit in the here and now. And for quite a few months, we just did that. It helped a bit, it eased the nightmares I get when things are bad (The narration of the nightmares is always along the same lines: I have to go and live with my father, my daughter is there, I have to leave her with him and know what will happen. Or my father shows up and does not go away. And variations thereof). After a while, I managed to sleep again without the light in the hallway being on all night. I felt I might be getting somewhere and then she started to ask about the actual abuse. Curiosity I think. It’s like they need to know how bad it actually was. Details. When I said that all I want to say about it is that the abuse was always there, I cannot remember when it started. I must have started before the age when you can remember things. And that it stopped when I was fourteen because I told him I would tell. I now know that it stopped because I was getting too old. Too grown up. The therapist felt that it would be good to face the details. Banish them. She did not understand that this kind of conjuring of the past did not help me. I told her this had failed before. She told me with her, it would be different. I never went again, because I felt betrayed by her.
As I am typing this my heart is racing. My heart is racing lots at the moment. My joints hurt. I am physically exhausted all the time and I fall asleep just sitting down. I am tired beyond sleep. I feel like I got the flu coming on, but I don’t. I am just suffering from a period of heightened anxiety. Dancing on the edge of depression. Well dancing is a stupid metaphor in this context, not dancing. Hovering? Tip-toeing?
I am also contemplating cancelling every social interaction that is on the cards for the foreseeable future. I am lonely, but I also can’t bear the thought of going and doing something with other people. The catch 22. Doomed if I do, doomed if I don’t.
Still, having these kinds of periods now in my 40ies is a lot easier than when I had them earlier in my life. I know for one that it will pass. I have so far always gotten better. Yes, I always live with a degree of anxiety and depression comes and goes like an unwanted relative. But I always get through it. Always to what is the best version of me. Or rather, the least depressed, anxiety-ridden version of me.
One of the things, I wanted to address in therapy and never could was the concept that I will never experience how it is to be whole or rather unbroken. My trust that the world can work out for me in a nice way was broken right from the start. I remember reading “When Hitler stole Pink Rabbit?” and Anna says that greatness can only come from an unhappy childhood. I thought, well maybe when I am grown up I do something great. Still waiting for it in many ways, but in other ways, the greatest thing I did was manage to have a relationship with another human being and have a child. It was and is the bravest thing too.
We never discussed the concept of being whole, because she felt that no one is whole. That all of us are broken. And that may be right, but I can never experience how my life would have been without the abuse. And that is a special grief over the loss of the person who I might have become.
Abuse leaves you in a place where you feel worthless. And when you feel worthless, it’s hard to imagine that anything you could share with the world could ever be of any value to anyone. Embarking on marriage and motherhood, seems insane and brave at the same time. I am so glad I did though. I have daily doubts about my ability of being a good partner to my husband and a good mother to my child. I often said, that it’s not hard to do better than my parents. Yet, my flip side is that I apply such standards to myself that achieving them is not possible. I am pretty much failing every day by my own design of the world.
When I am low (oh the euphemism of it), I have various strategies that help me as I said above. I also start to do what my health visitor suggested when I had post-natal depression. She was no therapist, but she single-handedly gave me the best piece of advice any health care professional ever gave me. “Instead of a to do list, write a daily DONE list. Write all the things you do down. Like, I fed the baby and changed the nappy, I ate a meal, I put a load of washing on. I brushed my teeth.” She then went on to say to put each night under the list a big smiley face and write well done. Keep the lists. Look at them when you feel bad. Once you start to feel a bit better, you can add small to dos. Small plans for the day. Like: I want to cook a pasta dish for dinner tonight. Or: I am going outside for a walk. Still keep writing things down you do every day.
Joy (aptly named woman), my health visitor, totally saved me from my post-natal depression hell. She was kind. She listened to me howl that I had no idea about motherhood. She held me when I was crying. She weighed my baby and said: “Look at that number, that is one super weight.” She looked at the baby and said: “Look at her she is smiling at you, someone loves their mum because mum is doing a great job.” She was wonderful. I shall be forever grateful for her.
“Just go to the doctor and get an anti-depressant”. My favourite thing people will say. Nothing says better that they just don’t want to hear about your problem. And who can blame them. My mental health issues are not new. You cannot expect compassion for something that does keep coming back because seemingly you are not doing anything about it.
I have tried medication. In fact, out of all forms of medication treatment, I was put on all but one, the latter I refused to try because it causes breathing problems and I have asthma. Breathing problems cause me anxiety so that seems like a “no-win” solution. One type of medication actually made me more depressed. It got really, really dark, I don’t want to think about that time at all. Another type, turned me into an insomniac plus I gained so much weight in such a short time. And then there was the type that turned me into a bit of vegetable wrapped in bubblewrap in a suspension chamber in a deep dark cellar. I am by no means anti-medication, in fact, I would happily take something if it helped me without making things worse in another part of me.
I also don’t like taking medication because how could the medication heal the underlying issue of my PTSD? No one can put a band-aid on what happened and kiss it better. The medication cannot heal me. Make me whole. Therapy did not heal me, although I did learn a lot about myself during the process. Mainly that I am not a bad person. I still find that hard to believe at times, but it’s good to have to say it. Out loud. I am not a bad person. What happened was not my fault. I did nothing to cause what happened to me.
And now to the hopeful bit: I now this will get better. I have a great track record of pulling myself out of the deep darkness. My heart will slow down and I will be looking at the world through my normal lens. I will normal worry again. Try and do a bit more stuff. I maybe even reach out to some people who I kept saying “no” to. I am lucky to have a wonderful husband, who listens to this shit over and over again. Who brings me tea, lets me read (as this helps beyond anything I know), takes me for walks in nature, makes hot water bottles and cooks an ace dinner. I have a wonderful daughter who makes me laugh and who deserves my best self.
This too shall pass.