Yesterday I had my first massive triggered PTSD episode in about 3 years.
Now I know that already sounds like a lot of psychology buzzwords that seems to be rampant on social media but I'm here to dispel what it's actually like to have PTSD. To start, I'm going to delve into a little bit to how I developed a disorder more often associated with soldiers, cops and paramedics than with 30-something arts workers. To enlighten you on what it's like to experience PTSD first hand, I'm going to give you a play-by-play of yesterday's events, from the trigger, to the disorder, to the aftermath.
I've gotten increasingly annoyed with the flippant use of the word trigger, but in this case the word actually applies. The misconceptions around PTSD and triggers are:
A little bit of history about my traumas (plural):
I would like to start by saying I had a fantastic home life. My parents are still together and have always loved and supported me, who I am and all my quirks. I'm quite convinced I would be in far deeper trouble if I didn't have that unwavering support system at home. Whenever I left the house was a different story.
I was severely bullied as a kid from about 3rd grade until about the beginning of 8th grade. I was regularly taunted and teased, psychologically and physically abused. I was told on a daily basis how weird I was, how no one wants me here, and I should go home and kill myself. I was body checked into walls and got more bloody noses from stuff being thrown at my face than I can remember. A couple of times the neighbourhood kids invited me out to play specifically to insult me and push me around, just for fun. I had no friends, and in 6th and 7th grades when I started to withdraw from my abusers and become antisocial, I was put on a suicide watch at my school and was forced to see the school councillor weekly (a woman who regularly belittled my experiences and didn't take them seriously). These experiences awaked my depression at 10 years old (which became a massive issue in my early teens), and laid the ground work to leave me vulnerable to the trauma I would experience in my late teens into my 20s. I credit these experiences in part to my anxiety disorder, my inability to be in and fear of large crowds and mobs, my trust issues when it comes to people's intentions, and the unreasonable belief that no one really likes me (I'm simply being humoured because it's polite). It has affected more friendships and relationships than I can count in more ways than I can list.
(I should note at this point that it has taken me literal years with a therapist to dissect how these events have shaped the person I am today, and to try to find the means to cope with my mental afflictions and lived experiences; and I am now able to share these experiences with you because of those years of personal work and care.)
By and large over the past 5 years, I've gotten really good at not only noticing what could be a trigger for me and avoiding it, but taking the care I need to when I'm triggered and removing myself from the stimulus. I've been able to lead a relatively normal live and I haven't had a serious episode in 3 years... until I was blind sided yesterday.
I stupidly read a Facebook thread written by people I knew and respected criticizing a dance company I used to work for. Normally something so mundane (albeit shitty) wouldn't phase me, but something was different this time. As I read the awful comments, the aggressive body shaming (from those who claim to be "body positive", of course), and saw comment after comment of aggressive bullying, my mind and body gave a visceral response. Unbeknownst to me, this stupid, self indulgent, entitled Facebook thread had become a trigger.
My mind began racing. My breathing quickened and shortened. My heart was vibrating. My skin started to tingle. It wasn't too long until I felt tears coming down my face. I started to get restless, wringing my hands. I became tempted to break my massive rule to not engage in politics and arguments online (a rule that is put in place for my anxiety disorder and PTSD). Instead, I messaged a good friend of mine to talk about what I was feeling, hoping to dispel this response. I made tea. I did some breathing exercises. All my regular tricks to calm my mind and settle my body weren't working the way they normally did. The thing about when PTSD is triggered is that your mind and your body go into a state of emergency, as if you are physically being threatened, usually in a similar way to what you have already experienced. But I wasn't being threatened. This thread had nothing to do with me. My mind raced as this imaginary mob from a Facebook thread came banging on my door, yelling and grabbing at my clothes, spitting the same words I've heard from so many bullies before then in my face. I somehow logically assessed this mob was coming for me next. I could feel hands on my body as a paced alone in my apartment. I checked the clock. Today I was scheduled to see my therapist. The timing couldn't have been better.
As I'm walking to my appointment, all my senses are heightened, as if I'm walking through the jungle expecting to be attacked by a panther. Even as I'm listening to music trying to distract my thoughts, I'm sensitive to every environmental sound, every quick motion, every body the passes me, as if one of them could attack. I walk quickly and directly, focusing on my breath, trying not to cry. I make it to my therapist's office, heave a sigh, and immediately break.
In our session, we establish why this thread was a trigger: the language that was used which echoed some of the things I've been told, the bullying the critics employed, the lack of agency to the woman whose body they were shaming (something I'm familiar with as a professional dancer), the fact that I was once very close with the dance company under scrutiny, the use of victimhood as justification for poor behaviour, the hypocrisy in arguments made, the vilification of people who I saw like me...
We then took some steps to settle what thoughts I had that were keeping me ramped up and ready for attack: I'm not the unwanted kid anymore, my work is very different from the company under scrutiny, I'm strong and convicted in my beliefs and will not allow myself to be shaken, I have good intent and work to do the right thing, I am a master of my craft and have earned the good I have received, I will not be deterred by those who show jealousy and project their insecurities onto me. We practised expressing my anger, something I'm not especially good at, as I have been taught through lived experience my anger is bad, unjustified and unwanted.
I left my therapists office mentally settled, but still emotionally raw. I took my walk home and made the poor decision to carry about my day.
I should have been smarter and cancelled all my other appointments and taken the day to self-care, but being the driven ambitious artist that I am, I decided I'd be fine and push though, and rationalized that being active would help me cope. My first appointment went well, my second however I mishandled a dancer when they demanded more emotional energy than I could given in my state (it's an action I will have to rectify). I ended up cutting my time with a client short, to which she was super understanding when I gave my reasons, being a PTSD sufferer herself. My last rehearsal of the day was productive, and talking to members of my cast helped me deal with some of the days events and feel a little more human, but I wasn't out of the woods yet.
The most bizarre thing about having an episode is the emotional aftermath. There is an intense guilt that follows you after you have such a visceral response to a trigger, because the response is instinctual and not logical, and you are not always in control of the response. Your body picks up habits based on what it experiences that become ingrained in your being both consciously and unconciously, be it adaptation to repetitive movement, or response to repetitive experiences. Some of these habits are good: physical training, please and thank you, moving to music you like, laughter. Some of them are not, and are habits put in place again both consciously and unconsciously as means of protection and recovery from threat, but they are habits none the less. It's like programmed responses to stimuli, and while there is the power to control it to a degree, some of these responses become automatic, for better or for worse. This is a basis of PTSD, that the response because of traumatic stimulus become so strong and so ingrained, that even the feeling (provoked or unprovoked) of a familiar threat or experience causes an individual to react in their own response as a means for protection and preservation, even if the threat isn't real and actual. This often defies the logic of the sufferer, as they are able to register that there is no perceived threat, but are unable to control the body and mind's automated response to the feeling, thus creating residual feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment after an episode. Often these feeling are echoed and enforced by people's reactions to a sufferer's episode, because to the outside eye, a trigger simply looks like an overreaction. But to the sufferer, the threat is very real. This creates a vicious emotional cycle for PTSD sufferers, especially to those who are undiagnosed. It's why sufferers feel so much shame around their condition, and why it's still a very taboo mental illness for those who do not hold occupations often associated with PTSD. To the outside world, what "reason" would these people have to be triggered? Conversely, the casual use of the work "trigger" continues to delegitimize the experience of PTSD sufferers. A triggers not simply upsetting content, it is far more nuanced and complex. And an "episode" isn't simply being upset, it is a full body, involuntary, physical response.
It's the next day and after a good night's sleep and writing this piece, I'm feeling far more calm than I was yesterday. I still have some aftermath to take care off (I'm still pretty guilt-ridden), but I have the necessary tools in place to be recovered by the weekend. I'm feeling confident and solid enough to send this piece out into the world, hopefully to enlighten those who have had misconceptions and promote more empathy and understanding towards each other. Like any mental illness, this is a hidden affliction, but a very real one. Practise love and tolerance. Practise self care. You truly never know the path a person has walked until you gaze at the trail behind them.