It’s been a difficult week for so many of us, including women and gender non-conforming survivors of sexual violence. I’m struggling with my PTSD symptoms.
Marian was the only one I could ever talk to about some of my more intense PTSD symptoms. She was the only person I’ve ever met who I really felt completely understood what I was going through. I never felt “crazy” when I talked to her. I could call her, say what happened and every time she would know exactly what I was talking about because she’d experienced it too.
I’ve learned with symptoms of mental illness that there are some things that are more acceptable to talk about, and some things which are more highly stigmatized. There are some symptoms which almost nobody ever talks about, for fear of being judged or experiencing discrimination or persecution.
In 2016, almost everyone knows someone who has struggled with depression, anxiety or who has issues related to food. These are things we talk about.
People very rarely talk about suicidal thoughts, self harm, paranoia, delusions and seeing and hearing things that aren’t real.
It’s almost like there is a divide between the mental illness that society accepts and the mental illness that is forced to exist in the closet.
When PTSD is really acting up for me, I see things that aren’t there.
I’ve rarely told anyone about this because I know that most people won’t understand. Marian understood. I felt so accepted, like there was at least one other person in the world who experienced seeing things as a symptom of PTSD.
This week, there have been three separate occasions where I’ve “seen” my ex in public places. It’s so hard to explain how this feels. The first person was in the food court at the mall. He had a coat, scarf and haircut similar to my ex, and even though I looked at him and my intellectual mind recognized it wasn’t him, I kept looking back over and over, convinced it was somehow him. My heart was racing and I felt panicky. It isn’t just the feeling of mistaking someone else for him. I actually SEE him, in someone else. Someone else is replaced by him for that moment and I’m afraid.
This happened again today when I was buying my coffee. The person didn’t even look like my ex, but he became him for a moment. My intellectual mind tries to reassure me that what I’m seeing isn’t real, but it feels real. It happens with cars that look like his too. Sometimes, I have to check and check again, sure that the car is his, even though intellectually I know it is not.
I’ve had this experience before, in the past, in the years leading up to me leaving my ex. I would see X sometimes, when I was triggered. I remember talking to Marian about it.
It’s an unsettling feeling. Sometimes when I’m very stressed and have been sleeping poorly, I also see tricks of the light which aren’t there. These experiences are all more illusions than actual hallucinations, but they are still disturbing and they signal to me that my brain is over-stressed, overtired and in need of relief. My doctor assures me that none of these are psychotic symptoms, but they are symptoms of PTSD.
These experiences of “seeing things” are different that what happens during flashbacks. They seem to happen just out of the blue when my brain is stressed.
During flashbacks, it also happens that my brain sees something from the past rather than what is in the present. The person I’m with, “becomes” my abuser, I can’t trust what I’m seeing, my brain is mixing the past and the present into a mash up of confusion.
Nobody really talks about these things. As a survivor it can be very isolating and it can make me afraid to speak out about the symptoms. Sometimes I don’t know what is more terrifying: feeling crazy or worrying that people will perceive me as crazy. I know, intellectually, somewhere deep inside, that I’m not actually crazy. My brain is coping with trauma and it is doing what it needs to do to survive. Sometimes this coping mimics, looks like, and produces symptoms of mental illness. But often the symptoms are my brain letting me know that I need to reduce my stress. If I don’t listen to the early warning signals, my brain escalates to more dramatic signals like suicidal thoughts and seeing things.
Learning to listen to my own inner voice is part of the healing journey.
Essentially, I think society needs to talk about these stigmatized symptoms of PTSD and mental illness. I think we need to break down the misconceptions and the misinformation and realize that for the most part, folks are just doing the best they can to cope. When you are living it, all mental illness is terrifying. It’s just a matter of degrees. Sometimes the fear of stigma is what keeps people silent and stops them from reaching out for help. Talking openly and without judgment heals.
I sometimes see things, but if Marian could understand, maybe you can to.