The most important thing to remember about survivors of sexual, emotional and physical abuse is that if we are alive chances are we are coping and that’s a good thing.
One way the psychiatric system as a whole fails survivors, especially women, is by labeling our normal coping reactions as “symptoms” of various psychiatric illnesses. Please consider this: it was the situations I survived that were not normal, the ways I coped were normal healthy reactions. I did what I had to do to survive and that’s okay.
Yes, you are normal! No, this is not your fault! I believe you.
If you turned to “disordered eating” as a way of coping with your trauma, you are normal.
If you engage in self harming behaviours as a way of coping, you are normal.
If you take drugs and alcohol as a way of coping, you are normal.
If you zone out or disassociate as a way of coping (either voluntarily or involuntarily), you are normal.
These are all examples of common coping reactions that women utilize to survive the abnormal and terrifying situation of experiencing abuse.
You did the best you could at the time to survive and that was enough. If I had known better or had other options, I might not have used anorexia, self harm and suicide attempts to cope. Those tools worked for me for a time, until they didn’t. When they stopped being useful to me and started causing more harm to me than good, I became motivated to learn new methods of coping. I don’t have borderline personality disorder, I don’t harm myself to manipulate others or to seek attention. I do it because I am a survivor of trauma, doing what survivors do best: surviving.
If you are working towards recovery be proud of yourself. We aren’t aiming for perfection here, because it doesn’t exist. Your best is enough. You are enough.
I identify with the label PTSD and my experience with it is that it is chronic and more of a disability than an illness. Living with PTSD takes an incredible amount of energy. If you regularly hear me say “I’m tired, I’m so tired” I’m not whining. I am fatigued and tired almost all time, some days worse than others. And no, taking a nap won’t help but thanks for thinking of me.
Let me explain why living with PTSD is so exhausting. It’s an invisible illness, for the most part you can’t see my struggles, but that doesn’t mean they are not real or valid.
Facts about PTSD and why it sucks away a massive amount of my energy each and every day:
- Even though I might be in bed for 8 hours in a given night I’m often experiencing nightmares. Sometimes these nightmares cause me to wake in a panic attack, unsure what is real and what was just a dream. I sometimes wake up covered in sweat, making sounds and fighting off imaginary threats. When I wake up I often do not feel rested and I sometimes avoid going to bed at night when the dreams have been particularly troublesome.
- One word: hypervigilance. This means my danger sensors are on high alert 24/7, 365 days a year. I can’t “just relax.”
- Hyperarousal and exaggerated startle response. Every time there is an unexpected noise, or sometimes even an unexpected movement I jump about 10 feet in the air. This is a symptom that people around me tend to notice and comment on. Again, I cannot control it. Reassuring me that there is no danger does not stop the response.
- Depression and anxiety. Obsessive compulsive worries. Yes, PTSD impacts my mood. No, I can’t just “cheer up” or “think positive.”
- Flashbacks and body memories. Yes, intellectually I know it happened “a long time ago” and that I’m “safe right now” but my body and my physiology haven’t caught up. I can go from feeling perfectly fine to crying, terrified and in physical pain within seconds and the trigger can be sometimes as inconsequential as a touch, a word, a memory crossing my mind. Intense flashbacks are accompanied by panic attacks, rapid breathing, hot and cold sweats, disorientation, confusion between past and present. After a particularly bad one it can take up to 7 days for the residual effects to pass. And though technically, in the present moment, nothing bad has happened to me, I often feel as though the abuse has occurred all over again. I feel exhausted, scared and sometimes hopeless about how little control I have over the memories.
- Flashbacks, body memories, hypervigilance etc are not the same as day to day worries. They are not something I spend time thinking about or worrying about, it’s easier to understand them as physiological reactions, rather than connected to specific thoughts or behaviours. This is not an intellectual problem, so no, I can’t just “look on the bright side”
- PTSD is often accompanied by deep shame and sense of self as being damaged, broken or somehow faulty. Even though you might not see me this way, and struggle to understand why my self concept is so “distorted” please hear me and believe me. I really do feel that internalized shame as a result of being abused. Be patient with me, I can’t just “love myself.” It’s more complicated than that.
- PTSD causes actual changes in your brain. In the military it is referred to as an operational stress INJURY or post-traumatic stress INJURY and this makes perfect sense to me. My brain was injured by the trauma I survived. The eating issues and self harm behaviours are symptoms of PTSD, they were the ways I reacted and coped with the initial injuries.
For those of you who do not live with PTSD, I hope this explanation of my experience makes sense.
Last night I had a new flashback, to the original abuse with X, 20 years ago. It wasn’t a lot of fun. It led me to think about how PTSD uses up a massive amount of spoons (google spoon theory of chronic illness for more information).
I’m trying to be compassionate with myself tonight. My hope levels are staggeringly low. I’m tired of life, but I won’t give up.
Tonight I’m coping. I hope you are coping too.