I have post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ve had it since 1997 after witnessing a freak accident that took my father’s life. I have lived with this disorder for half of my life, but today, thanks to much therapy and learning the tools to help with my PTSD, I am happy and living a purposeful, fulfilling life.
It took me a number of years to get to this place. There were times when flashbacks of the traumatic event prevented me from doing things with my life, and for many years I experienced irritability and anxiety. I was socially withdrawn during my early 20s, which were the years that immediately followed the accident. For most of my junior and senior year of college, I didn’t go to parties or bars. Instead, curling up on my beanbag chair in my bedroom felt better than hanging out with my friends. While in the depths of PTSD, I missed out on job opportunities and general life experiences that go with being in your early twenties and learning how to step, or even stumble, into adulthood.
Thankfully, that’s not my life now. Today, I am an acupuncturist with a successful private practice, a writer and an entrepreneur. I’m happily married to my wonderful husband, Mike, and we live on nearly two acres in northern New Jersey in a lovely salt box colonial that we’ve renovated to make it our own. I get to travel several times a year to my favorite places, including Mexico, California and Vermont. I wake up every morning excited about my day and, while not every day goes according to plan, I rest my head at night feeling peaceful and grateful.
Transforming my life didn’t happen overnight. It was a gradual process of living a life consumed with PTSD to living a life distracted by PTSD to living a life adapted by PTSD to living a life blessed by PTSD. It is probably surprising to read the word blessed but it is true. The lessons I have learned from the disorder have helped me in many aspects of my life. I am exceptional at understanding the stresses my acupuncture patients express to me. I am a better listener for my family members and friends when times are tough. I have learned how to face challenges rather than run away from them. I also appreciate what is worth getting upset about and what is not… and most of what we face on a day to day basis is NOT worth it.
I am thankful I have come to this place of feeling blessed by PTSD. I also embrace that I will never be cured. For a little while, I thought I was free from PTSD because my symptoms weren’t rearing themselves. Suddenly, however, in 2011 the trigger to which I’m most sensitive appeared, and it felt like I was all the way back in 1997 re-experiencing the accident. It was the biggest flashback I have ever had in my life and it required visits to a therapist.
I wanted PTSD gone from my life. I told my therapist my whole story and hoped she would help me get rid of it forever. I asked her, “How do I shake this off entirely? How do I rid myself of PTSD?” Her answer was a huge epiphany. “You don’t,” she said. Instead of fighting it, her two words allowed me to surrender to the idea of having PTSD. Surrendering doesn’t necessarily mean continuously experiencing the disorder, rather, it means accepting that I will always be predisposed to certain mental and behavior patterns should I be exposed to my worst triggers. Knowing that I was able to live with PTSD for so long, and eventually create a life by my design, my therapist reminded me that the tools I have learned will always be there to help me should I relapse.
From that point on, I have felt OK with having a disorder. I understand there will be times when flashbacks are triggered and during those times I won’t feel so blessed or OK to have a disorder. But living a life waiting for such a thing to happen isn’t really living life to its fullest. Having missed out on a lot of fun times because of my PTSD, I am not willing to allow my disorder to limit my life anymore. Instead, I prefer to accept that I may have certain reactions to my triggers but trust that I can find my way out. In my view, that seems easier than sitting in a dark room feeling anxious, irritable and upset about missing out on life.
Days after that visit to my therapist, it felt like a weight was lifted from my shoulders that I didn’t even realize I was carrying. Coming to a place of acceptance changed everything and soon afterwards I started to recognize the blessings that came with PTSD that I didn’t notice before.
A few months after my revelation I became aware of a debate happening in Washington. General Peter Chiarelli, who at the time was the Army’s No. 2 officer and top mental-health advocate, suggested dropping the D from PTSD saying, “that word is a dirty word.”
Not long after that, former president George W. Bush said on ABC’s “This Week,” “We’re getting rid of the D. PTS is an injury; it’s not a disorder. The problem is when you call it a disorder, [veterans] don’t think they can be treated.”
For a split second after hearing these points of view, it stung a bit knowing what I had embraced and acknowledged as a blessing others considered “dirty.” It disappointed me that a former president stated “we’re getting rid of the D” as if he had any authority in the matter. I am absolutely in favor of providing veterans with easy access to the support, care and help they need and deserve. Also, I completely respect the efforts to rename PTSD were geared towards helping our military veterans who feel the stigma of potentially having a disorder. But who is giving them the stigma? Why are they feeling a stigma? Actually, are they feeling a stigma?
I believe the bottom line is this: refrain from playing a game of semantics in an attempt to rebrand something that has existed for decades by giving it a new name and potentially sweeping the realities (both good and bad) of the disorder under the rug. The focus should be on reducing the stigma associated with a having a disorder, perhaps not limited to PTSD but any and all disorders.
I looked up the meaning of “disorder” in my copy of Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary and found the following: “a pathogenic condition of the mind or body.” The definition doesn’t say, “something that makes a person of lesser value,” or “a problem that makes people unemployable,” or “something people should be ashamed of having.” Why have we built PTSD up to the point where some feel the need to rename it so people get help? Also, is that really the issue? Having been there and done that, I can say that I absolutely wanted help back in 1997 and I did, in fact, receive a little help at the hospital while my father was struggling to survive. Had I been exposed to more resources after my father passed, I would have sought out more help a lot sooner. But I didn’t receive that exposure and, instead, I was sitting in my beanbag chair in my college apartment while my friends partied down the street.
Can we, as a society, move in the direction of being OK with people having a disorder? As someone who has had a disorder for half of her life, I’m OK with it.