I quickly learned that being sick was more work than working full time. The constant self-advocacy, the never-ending rounds of appointments, coping with side effects and symptoms, all while trying to parent my child as normally as possible, was exhausting.
Although it was never my intention to be off work more than a week or two it quickly became evident that I could not do my job. The medication and therapy helped to quell the constant crying and eased the hallucinations but they cost me my ability to concentrate and pay close attention to detail. I had a hard time following conversations and tired quickly. As I adjusted to each new side effect and change in medication I had to learn to adjust to who I was without my career.
It took me a long time to be able to tell people I had a mental illness and there have been times when I have chosen not to share. I have had people ask me what caused my PTSD, expecting me to answer ‘car accident’ or ‘mugging’. I don’t always feel comfortable sharing with strangers that a series of traumas, beginning in childhood until I fell apart after my brother’s suicide, led to my needing to be at home full time.
I had to learn to be OK with myself and that was, and is, a long process. I tried to treat my illness with the same dedication I had treated my career. I went to therapy three times a week. I attended group therapy sessions even though they make me very uncomfortable. I tried cognitive behavioural therapy, dialectical behaviour therapy, cognitive processing therapy, art therapy, talk therapy. I read books, I did work sheets, I painted, I processed, and all the while I slowly shifted my perspective so that I was able to allow for the fact that this illness was not my fault. And I am not my illness.
The effects of trauma are the brain’s very normal response to something horrifying happening. The nervous system develops protective measures to cocoon you against horrors you wouldn’t be able to endure otherwise. Because the truth is, you can endure almost anything, as awful as that sounds. I have C-PTSD not because I am weak, or because I can’t cope with anything. Au contraire, I am fucking Wonder Woman in a crisis. I have C-PTSD because I was abused repeatedly as a child and my brain developed methods to protect me. I have C-PTSD because life threw a bunch of random shitty events my way and I coped with them as best I could with the tools I had at the time. I have been off work a long time now but I am emotionally in a better place than I was before I had a total mental breakdown.
I feel better about myself, as odd as that sounds. I have this label but the label isn’t me, it’s a name for a series of behaviours I am still learning to understand. I like myself better than I did before I had a breakdown. I forgive myself more. I have a better sense of personal boundaries. I know when a panic attack is coming and usually have a method in place to deal with it. I’m still afraid to take the bus but I manage to force myself onto transit to make it to my appointments. I don’t see or hear things that aren’t there anymore and I might need to take some medications for the rest of my life. The point of all this is, I have a mental illness. It will probably be with me in one form or another forever. But I am not ashamed of it. I am not less than anyone else because I am sick. We live in a culture that values health and invalidates the experiences of anyone who isn’t healthy, it’s seen as a weakness of character or some kind of personal failing. We’re told to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, to just get over whatever is afflicting us. But you can’t get over something without going through it. I learned that the longer I resisted the fact that I was sick the sicker I became. I’m terrified to think what could have happened to me and my son if I had never reached out for help and if I hadn’t had the perseverance to pursue treatments that worked for me and learned how to say no to treatments that didn’t help.
My therapist often says the body tends naturally toward health. We want to be well. We want to be whole. Our instincts can lead us to wellness if we let go and let them.
Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith Herman
Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear and Despair by Miriam Greenspan
Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter A. Levine