My daughter looks at me impatiently. She has said something that requires a response of some kind. I should know what the right response is, but I don’t. I don’t even know what she has said, or how many times she has said it.
Long gone are the days when she babbled at me in toddler language and all I needed to do was smile and nod to appease her. Back then I could fake it. I can’t any more. She requires more of me now, as do all of my children.
I try to focus on her words.
Around me, there is too much noise. There is too much clutter. There is too much chaos. I am overwhelmed and I feel out of control and it triggers a panic in me. I fight to remain present but I feel the numbness take over. I’m too tired, and I have no fight left in me. It’s too late. Emotionally, I check out. I’m gone.
My daughter gives up on trying to talk to me, and walks away. If I had the ability to feel anything at this point, I would be drowning in the guilt of what a failure of a parent I am. But that will come later, when I’ve found my way back from this black void of nothing. Then I will cry tears of sadness for the pieces of me that are missing, and the way that affects the people I love.
But for now, I have disconnected. Physically I am present. Emotionally I am no longer there. How long I will be gone for is anybody’s guess. Maybe only moments, often days, sometimes weeks. There’s no telling. However long it takes for me to feel safe enough to surface and participate in life again.
This is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
And this is my life.
I can’t tell you exactly when I began to realise I suffer from PTSD. Was it the insomnia? The nightmares? The flashbacks? Was it the bouts of rage followed by the chasm of nothingness? Was it the constant numbness and detachment I felt, like I was on the sideline of my life, watching but never fully able to participate? The hyper-vigilance? The physical symptoms? Or the crippling anxiety over things that weren’t even real?
I can tell you that it has taken me years to piece together, years to understand, and even longer to own. It’s not easy to admit, and it’s even harder to talk about. But the thing is, it needs to be talked about. Because I’m tired of feeling so alone in this. And I know there are others out there who feel the same.
It’s difficult to be a wife, mother of four, daughter, sister and friend, and suffer with PTSD. Because one minute I am there, and the next, I am not. Of all the symptoms of PTSD, this is the one I suffer the most with – disassociation. Where life simply gets too much for me. Where I feel like there is too much going on, I am too busy, I am too tired, I am too overwhelmed. I feel out of control.
It paralyzes me to feel overwhelmed and out of control, to feel there is no clear escape route from the chaos in my mind. It reawakens the traumas of my childhood, when there was nowhere to go, and I had no control over what was done to me. And so, in order to cope, I disconnect. I go into my mind, where I know it is safe. There, no one can hurt me.
During those times I slip away from everyone and everything. I lose interest and motivation. The fire inside of me dies away. I stay at home too much and I avoid social events. I do not answer my phone when it rings, nor do I reply to messages. I function on autopilot, meeting the obligatory physical needs of my family. But emotionally, I have ceased to exist.
I see the confusion it causes in those around me. They do not understand where I have gone, or what they have done wrong. I see the pain it causes to those nearest to me, how they feel pushed away by me. They long to love me, and I am unable to let them in. I can’t. The walls around me are a fortress and they are made to keep people out, to keep people away from the dark places inside of me that reek of shame and are stained, blemished. They were made for solitary confinement, and I find comfort in this penitentiary where I feel such bleak, satiating, nothing.
I want to stay there forever. I want the world to leave me alone. The darkness wraps around me like a heavy blanket and I want to succumb to the weight of it. I cannot be coaxed out, and those who try suffer my wrath. I am on my time, and I will do this my way.
Eventually, some time later, I begin to feel warmth from the ashes of the fire that never quite went out. I look up and begin to notice the world again. I see beauty, and I am moved by it. The walls of my fortress begin to crumble. Love and light flood the darkness, and they feel like resuscitation to my heart. The numbness falters, and I begin to feel again. I’m on the road that will lead me back to life. Until the next trigger.
But for now, I am back.
I’ve come to accept that PTSD will always be the Achilles heel of my life. I’ve stopped trying to fix myself, cure myself, heal myself, and most importantly, lie to myself that this isn’t a real thing.
Research shows there are long term effects caused by early childhood trauma, especially that which was sustained over long periods of time. Some of these effects include drastic changes to the brain, as well as increased levels of cortisol in the body — due to prolonged stress — which impacts the brain’s response to inflammation and impairs the immune system and the body’s ability to heal.
And while there may be no cure, there is awareness and there is understanding. There is healing in coming out from the shadow of our shame and bringing our stories into the light. As we begin to mend ourselves, we begin to mend each other. There is hope in simply knowing we are not alone.
Yes, this is hard for me to write. But I know it is harder to suffer alone and in silence.
And sometimes, all it takes is for one voice to break through the silence to cast light into our darkest places.
May my voice be heard. You are not alone.