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How to Recognize the Early Symptoms of PTSD

And the amazing benefits of gradual exposure.

By Leon MacfaydenPublished about a month ago 7 min read
Image by martin-dm at iStock

I couldn't stop crying. I was reliving the same horrific nightmare on repeat, and yet I was awake. My mind was like a TV screen in crystal clear HD, except it played nightmarish scenes and had no off button.

I'd never heard of post-traumatic stress disorder and had no idea what was happening to me. It felt like I was losing my mind. At times, it was so frightening I thought I was dying. In a way, I was right.

It took a long time for me to get diagnosed with PTSD. By then, they had taken complete hold of me. The quicker you recognize the symptoms, the faster you can get treatment.


It all started at a run-down tower block.

I was a police officer, and it was 3 am on a Saturday. The clubs had all emptied, and most people had gone home. I was crewed with my sergeant as the passenger and struggled to stay awake.

By a twist of fate, my colleague called me over the radio, which meant I couldn't hear general traffic or jobs coming out. Not much was happening, and he was bored, too. He wondered if I was coming back to the station.

Out of nowhere, my sergeant turned the lights and sirens on, and we sped off in the opposite direction. I hadn't heard the call, but my sergeant said it sounded like two girls had been assaulted. He hadn't heard it correctly, either.

On the way to incidents, you build up a picture of what you expect and what you'll do when you arrive. No two incidents are the same, but there are trends. I imagined I'd find two girls with cuts and bruises and a lot of drunken anger. If I'd heard the details over the radio, I could have prepared better:

"A resident heard a loud thud, looked out the window and said two girls had fallen from the sky."

On my arrival, I saw two ambulances. This is where my flashbacks always begin. I saw two people on the ground and several paramedics working on them. The shock ran through my bones. This wasn't a typical brawl. They weren't moving.

A paramedic shouted at me that one victim was dead and the other was critical. They whisked the surviving girl away in an ambulance.

My mind was swirling because I hadn't expected any of this. I thought they had been attacked. It would have been easier for me if they had. I can understand evil. I saw people doing disgusting things to each other every day. When it comes to the depravity of the human race, I'm hard to shock.

It turned out this violence was self-inflicted. Both girls had jumped from the top floor stairwell. This was far harder to grasp than murder. This was the ultimate rejection of humanity. These girls found life so vile and devoid of goodness that they thought dying in a broken heap at the bottom of a tower block was the best option.

My sergeant instructed me to get the police tape and seal the scene. My colleague noticed I was as white as a ghost and asked if I was okay. I lied and said yes. It's the most frequent lie I've ever told.

My life changed from that moment.


The aftermath.

I cried for the next few weeks, but after a brief stint of therapy, I was allowed to go back to work and declared cured.

At the time, I loved my job so much that I'd have done anything to keep it. I'd managed to convince professional doctors that I was okay, but I knew better. Every shift, I dreaded going to a similar incident. If I attended another scene of a jumper, I'd take it as a sign from the universe that it was my time and follow in their footsteps.

Every day was like playing Russian Roulette. If a suicide by jumping came in, I'd be the first police officer on duty in my area to ever kill themselves. And how close I came.

I went to several people who threatened to jump off tall buildings. Every time, I reasoned with them and talked them out of it. I helped to save their lives - and mine. No one knew my secret pact.

Saving people felt hollow. The two I wanted to save had died. I was trying to fill the void, but it was never enough.

My career went on like this for a few more years until more traumas piled on, and I was forced to medically retire. Doctors told me I was 100% disabled for the rest of my life.



One of the key symptoms of PTSD is to relive past events as if they're still happening. I only went to that tower block once, but thanks to flashbacks, I've been there thousands of times.

My flashbacks always start at the same point - coming around the corner and seeing the ambulances. I then see the victims in great detail, with specific injuries highlighted. The rest of the flashback is usually other sights and sounds from that night. Most frequent is that of a man wanting to step over the dead body to return some plates to a neighbor.

When I experience these flashbacks, I curl into a ball and cry. There's nothing else I can do because I'm stuck in the past. The flashback usually passes in about 15 minutes. My loved ones comfort me until I come back to reality.

I haven't had a flashback like this in a long time. Instead, I now get intrusive thoughts where memories come into my mind regardless of what I'm doing. I don't lose touch with reality with intrusive thoughts, but they're distressing.



PTSD enhances negative emotions. I was already at the limits of my stress, so the slightest thing would be the straw that broke the camel's back. I pushed friends and loved ones away because they were nervous about triggering my rage.

My partner had to tiptoe around me for years - not because I'd hurt her, but because I was so fragile she didn't want to hurt me.

I wrestled for years with survivor guilt even though my life was never in danger. I felt terrible for relaying the paramedic's comment to my sergeant that one victim was dead and one was dying. I felt like she may have heard me and that I'd taken away her will to live. For years, I felt like the worst person ever to live.

I look back now at how irrational that guilt was. Getting rid of it was the most challenging part of my PTSD journey.

All this negativity led to a dark depression, which nearly claimed my life and put me in a mental hospital. It's no wonder I was depressed as my life imploded around me, but it made me feel weak, which contributed to my guilt. It was a never-ending spiral. PTSD is good at these vicious circles you can't untangle because every part feeds into every other part.



If you've never been to prison, avoidance will give you an idea of what it feels like. I started off avoiding triggers. I stayed away from certain TV shows that resembled my reality. I avoided parts of the nearby city where I policed. I stayed away from tower blocks.

All this avoidance shrunk my comfort zone. Gradually, I avoided more things until I became a prisoner in my bedroom. I couldn't face going anywhere, meeting anyone, or doing anything because I'd become that afraid of life.

Avoidance is part of PTSD, but it's a death sentence that you're imposing on yourself. It's a slow death of your soul.


The key to my recovery.

After the benefits of medication and the support of my loved ones, the thing that turned everything around was gradual exposure.

I stumbled on gradual exposure by accident. No therapist ever recommended it, and I had bad relationships with all my therapists anyway.

I got angry with being pushed around. I'd overcome bullying at school, but now I was being bullied by PTSD - by my mind. I decided to do what I'd done in every other area of my life - confront the things that scared me.

I started by going to more places that made me nervous. I ventured back to the city where it all began.

I ate at restaurants that overlooked the places that traumatized me.

I drove past the tower block.

I watched things on TV that contained triggering scenes.

I opened up about every detail of the traumatic incidents to my family.

I wrote everything about the incidents and sent it out to the world.

To say this process hurt is an understatement. But living in a self-imposed prison at the mercy of my mind hurt more. I've gone from being shut down and angry to being an open book.

PTSD thrives in the shadows. It relies on keeping secrets. Truth and light kill it.

I'd never recommend practicing gradual exposure without expert help. I did it alone because I had no choice. Design your exposure plan with the help of a therapist, and never rely on avoidance to keep you safe again.


Download my FREE ebook, 'Mental Health: Myths, Realities, and Hope.' Discover the truth about mental illness, debunk common myths, and find resources for support.


About the Creator

Leon Macfayden

From a police officer to a psychiatric ward and recovery.

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Comments (1)

  • shanmuga priyaabout a month ago

    I appreciate your work.

Leon MacfaydenWritten by Leon Macfayden

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