June 27 is National PTSD Awareness Day, an opportunity to bring to light a disorder that affects millions of Americans every day. The distinction of this day was granted by the United States Senate in 2010. In 2014, the Senate upgraded the cause by designating the full month of June toward raising awareness for PTSD. These efforts are critical to providing opportunities to educate the public about PTSD and how it affects those with the disorder.
As a result, perhaps you’ve seen more headlines recently about PTSD. I see them everyday, mainly because I’m constantly searching for articles for a Facebook group I created called Peace with PTSD, a support group where we share positive and inspirational quotes as well as information on activities and therapies that help. I often find wonderful stories, such as kayaking groups, people receiving therapy dogs and meditation techniques that help calm people’s PTSD. However, on any given day, I’m met with stories that paint a very narrow picture of what PTSD is really all about. Having lived with PTSD since 1997 and having climbed my way out of a dark place to now where I live a very happy, fulfilling life by my design, I think I know a thing or two about living with PTSD. So in honor of PTSD Awareness Day, allow me to clarify what I believe to be the five most common misconceptions about the disorder.
PTSD is simply stress after a trauma. There is a term for those who feel stress after a trauma—it’s called “being human.” It’s absolutely normal to feel stress after a trauma. If one didn’t feel stress afterwards, wouldn’t that seem odd? PTSD is so much more than feeling stress and it’s something that develops and lingers for weeks, months and even years after a trauma. Common symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks to the traumatic event, anxiety, insomnia, social withdrawal, startle reflex and irritability, and these can last a long time after a trauma. Not only that, but symptoms often get in the way of being able to function on a day to day basis. When my PTSD was at its worst, I considered a successful day to be one where I got out of bed, showered and made it to work on time. Sometimes, even getting out of bed was a victory for the day.
PTSD is a veterans problem. Statistics reveal otherwise. According to the National Center for PTSD, about 8 million adults in the United States will have PTSD in any given year. Approximately 2.5 million veterans served the Iraq and Afghanistan, and from that population, 11-20 out of 100 veterans have PTSD, which would be between 275,000 and 500,000 people. Even though these numbers do not include veterans from the Gulf, Vietnam and Korean wars, it’s clear to see that the vast majority of people with PTSD are not veterans. When I tell someone I have PTSD, I’m often asked where I served. I know others with PTSD who are asked the same question regularly. In the PTSD support groups I participate, very few of the members are veterans.
PTSD isn’t real and people should just “get over it.” PTSD is real, and it’s a recognized diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a publication by the American Psychiatric Association designed to clarify the standard criteria of mental disorders. Aside from that, I have experience with trying to “get over it.” I come from a family where many relatives have suffered through various difficult situations. My relatives often say, “buck up” when it comes to tough times, and in many instances that attitude has helped them. While my traumatic experience was quite different from anything my family had ever been through, I tried to “get over it” and it only made my symptoms last longer. In respect to my family, not a single relative told me to “buck up,” but at the time it was the only method I had learned to follow to get through a tough time.
People with PTSD are unstable and dangerous. It always bothers me when a mass shooting or an act of violence occurs and the media reports that the suspect may have had PTSD. In these incidents, the sensationalized message that comes across is that those with PTSD are dangerous, and I think that’s extremely unfair and untrue. Millions of people struggle with PTSD symptoms daily, yet an incredibly tiny fraction of those people have committed serious crimes. Those who have been violent do not come close to representing the whole. At PTSD support groups, I’ve sat next to people who are at their lowest point. Their demeanor tends to be one of incredible sadness and fear, definitely not one of instability and danger. Additionally, most people I have encountered who have moved through their darkest period and manage their symptoms well are some of the most stable and kind people I’ve ever met. We often agree that the traumas we’ve been through and the resulting symptoms we’ve had to overcome have taught us to be this way in the world.
A life with PTSD is all doom and gloom. On any given day, if you google PTSD and click on “images,” you’ll see photos of men holding their head in their hands and words like “anxiety,” “wounds” and “invisible scars.” These images give a sense that there’s no hope for those with PTSD. There is hope. There was a time when being alone, staying awake at night and rocking like a drug addict going through withdrawals felt good and was my “new normal.” I’ve moved through these symptoms and now live an amazing life where I work when I want and vacation often. The last time I experienced a significant setback, which was also my biggest flashback ever, was in 2011 and I was able to move through it in less than a week. I know I’ll always be susceptible to experiencing symptoms of PTSD, but I don’t allow myself to be identified by my disorder, nor do I let it dictate how I live my life. It’s absolutely possible feel happy and at peace with PTSD, and part of my mission is to inspire others to find their own journey out.