"But Post-Traumatic Stress is Just for Soldiers?"
My experiences as a PTSD warrior.
TW: This article contains accounts of PTSD and cancer. Believe me, writing this was harder for me than it will be for you reading it for reasons that will be explained....
In March 2019 I got a phone call that ultimately would change my life. In context, this sounds very selfish, but it's a fact.
My mother called to tell me that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. My world turned upside down. My mum is my best friend (and not I said is, she kicked cancer's ass) and, as I was hundreds of miles from home at university, I didn't know what to do. The decision was made that I would head home in time for her operation. They had caught it early, and it appeared her chances were good. So I stayed at uni for a month to finish my deadlines and arrange how my studies could continue...
Her operation was booked for early April 2019... on my birthday. I cannot tell you the fear I felt. If something happened to mum in surgery not only would I lose my best friend, but my birthday would forever serve as an unwelcome reminder.
We headed to Newcastle for the op and I spent my birthday mooching around the city with my younger brother to keep his mind off it. I had to be strong for him, as my dad was being strong for mum. I've always been a strong person. I'm not a particularly outgoing person, but I have strength for days. Or rather, had. I digress.
Mum survived the op and the tumours (plural) were removed. We got to see her as she came round and she spent much of the conversation telling us about the unicorn in her room... gotta love those hospital-strength meds. Then my dad, my brother and I headed home. We got McDonalds on the way home to celebrate what was left of my birthday, but honestly all I cared about what I had got my birthday wish: my mum had survived surgery.
Of course, surgery was just the start. There were many tough days to come.
The cancer had been aggressive, and so mum, once she had recovered from surgery, was to have chemotherapy and radiotherapy in succession to kill anything that may still be there. Mum was a childminder and so that meant she would be out of work for the six months these treatments would take.
I wasn't having that. Firstly, I was twenty-five, I wasn't a child, and I had worked with her before going to university and was a fully trained nanny, childminder and TA in my own right. I would run her business so she could focus on her treatment, and to keep the immunity problem at bay I would go to the kids houses as a nanny. I didn't want her to worry about finances on top of everything, nor my dad to be the only breadwinner. So that's what I did, I underwent my university studies whilst working full time and caring for mum and dad, doing chores etc and making sure everything was okay at home. I did the food shopping, ran errands and lived her daily life as well as mine to make sure everything went well. Somehow I managed to pass that year at uni with a first... I still to this day don't know how.
Thank the gods that this was pre-pandemic. I think the gods every day for that.
Mum underwent chemo and then radiotherapy, by which point I went back to uni for my second year. She kicked cancers ass like the strong woman she is, and by Christmas she had finished treatment. We even managed to travel to Denmark for a week to celebrate my nephews birthday. It was nice to see mum so happy. It was an enormous sigh of relief, make no mistake.
But then it was my turn. Around November I started feeling low and had a temper worse than ever before. I didn't pay much attention, simply put it down to exhaustion. Christmas was a bit dull, none of us felt much like doing it after the year we had had. By the time I headed back to Uni for the spring term there was something very different about me. January and February I slowly got more and more low, and I put it all down to a quarter-life crisis. I had a shorter temper than normal and got pissed off at the most trivial of things. In order to cope with this crisis, I got two tattoos, I dyed my hair red (the sign of a breakdown), and I felt like I was simply going through the motions of living but really didn't have the motivation for it.
Which, to the trained mind, is a clear indicator of depression.
Not me, I had no idea. Other than OCD I had never suffered mental health conditions before. I was a strong person, I put my mood swings and aggression down to hormones and kept on keeping on, I got things done. Not anymore. I couldn't. It was like I was just flat.
So, I went to the doctor about it.
A week later I was diagnosed with PTSD.
I had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from my mothers illness.
I didn't know that was even possible, and accepting it was hell. I have never felt more selfish in my life.
But, I had a diagnosis. And a diagnosis meant treatment, surely?
Not when there's a global pandemic.
Lockdown 1.0 was called UK wide. I came home, but that was a big decision and a struggle that caused a lot of conflict. It was like something about home was physically repelling me. Just being here was difficult. I loved my mum, I was so happy she had beaten the demon, but I didn't want to be here with her. It made no sense to me and I needed someone to explain it. I now know this is because home was the catalyst, the eye of the storm, the site of my trauma.
My doctor recommended, in a desperate phone conversation on my part, a therapy company who would do NHS therapy over the phone. I pursued them and three months later I was given an appointment. I get it, I do, there must be a lot of new mental illness diagnoses in a global pandemic and a six month national lockdown.
So I tried to keep on keeping on in the meantime, do my studies as I had done the year previous, but it was like I couldn't make the words work. I made so many mistakes, I lived in a black cloud of no motivation and just went through the motions. I started substituting words in speech and in text. I was terrified. None of my thoughts made sense, they were so loud but I couldn't make out a single word or specific feeling. It was just a jumble of darkness in my mind all the time. I wasn't sleeping, which made it worse, and I wasn't eating, or I was eating too much.
Eventually the therapy company got me started on CBT online treatment, which was pretty awful to say the least. It wasn't what I needed, it was just what was convenient at the time. It didn't help my mind in the slightest. The only thing helpful that it did was diagnose the way I was feeling.
Within the space of four months I went from one mental health condition... to eight.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Panic Disorder
- Social Anxiety
- Binge-Eating Disorder
I had never been in such a low place. I don't know if the conditions that followed PTSD were triggered by its diagnosis or the world pandemic, or both. I completed my online CBT but felt no better and was discharged to essentially make more space.
I had been stuck at home, the source of my PTSD, for six months. I was kept away from my best friend, the only one who really gets how I was feeling, and for a short while my boyfriend and I broke up. This was actually the first time I had a full-body panic attack, the type where I felt like I was dying. I couldn't catch my breath, I couldn't see straight and I was crying like a toddler. I ended up throwing up it was so bad. It was terrifying. We had only started dating just before lockdown and it got the better of us, but we fixed it and now we've never been stronger. He gets it because he's been there through all of it.
In July, though, Mum was given the all clear. I physically felt the weight lift from my shoulders then. That seemed to be the beginning of real recovery.
Or so I thought.
Once lockdown was lifted in September, I felt a little better, I was determined to go into my third year of university and get back to my old self regardless of these diagnoses. I could see my friends again, I could see my boyfriend, I could get back to something that resembled normal.
I had never been worse.
I drove down to Lincoln and had the mother of panic attacks on the motorway to the point where I had to pull over. Thankfully my mum was with me and together we limped home through the backroads of Yorkshire. I haven't driven since and my poor car is nothing more than a glorified lawn ornament right now. This is one of the worst parts of this whole situation, I have no freedom without my car but it is a catalyst of panic now.
I started having night terrors and living nightmares. Boy are they frightening. Dreaming of someone breaking into the house whilst you cannot move and you're in an awake but asleep frame of mind? No thank you. I would rather not sleep again than sleep like that.
In the space of one month I left my house about seven times, and when I did I had panic attacks or dissociative attacks. To make things worse, my panic attacks manifest in sickness and dizziness and so the fear of making a scene makes everything ten million times worse. I didn't leave my house alone after that, and would only leave with my boyfriend during his support bubble visits, and even then I think we left my house about four times in the months before Christmas? It sucked, I was Rapunzel with my mind as Mother Gothel.
The only good thing, however, that came out of my motorway panic attack was that the GP took me seriously. I had regular check-ins with the loveliest nurse to try and combat how I was feeling. She was the one who made me aware of my eating disorder, which is linked to my anxiety, which is linked to my OCD. She was the one who told me I had developed PTSD because I had been strong for so long during mums illness and after she finished treatment I was 'given permission to breathe'. And I fell apart as a result.
She was also the one who suggested we try medication. I had been in denial for a really long time, I wasn't the type of person to get mental illnesses let alone need medication for them. I was the person who helped people with mental illnesses. But no. She prescribed me medication and honestly I am so glad she did.
As my dad put it this Christmas, "the meds gave us our daughter back".
And so, to bring these rambles to a close, I would like to spend 2021 overcoming the demons that have made nest in my brain. PTSD, like many mental health conditions, literally change the formation of your brain. They make things harder that were so easy before. But I am actually grateful in a way. The appreciation that I have for everything now is so much more vibrant. I am still struggling, I still have night terrors and I still have anxiety levels that would frighten Freud himself, but I'm working on it. I would like to continue working on it. I would like to get to a point where I don't need happy pills to be the person I once was, but I know that's a long journey. I want to be able to get a full time job when I graduate, I want to graduate with a first, and I want to be a person again, living my life without thinking about it. I want to be able to drive to my boyfriends house so it doesn't have to be him everytime, I want to be able to not be triggered by death in movies or television shows.
More than anything I want to be an advocate for PTSD survival.
PTSD is NOT just for soldiers or victims of abuse. PTSD can manifest in anyone who has suffered trauma, and yes, simply the fear of losing your best friend even though she kicked cancers ass is a trauma.
Thank you for reading these rambles.
Here is some information about PTSD and some helpful links. If you have been through trauma and think you might be suffering PTSD, I highly recommend you see someone and get the help you need and deserve.
I am not my mental health. I am so much more.
Symptoms of PTSD can be found at the NHS website.
To get help and advice for PTSD I recommend MIND. They also helped my loved ones cope with what was going on inside my brain and learn that it wasn't my fault.
To speak with other PTSD Warriors, I recommend PTSD.org.
I will leave you with the quote that has gotten me through the last two years:
"In the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it'll shine out the clearer."