When I ask my friends about PTSD, a lot of them think only of war veterans or people who have experienced terrorist attacks. They also think it tends to happen to older people. But I experienced my traumatic event when I was 19, and I'm here to share my story about what having PTSD means for me.
I won't go into details about what happened, but when I was in my first year at University I met a guy and ended up being sexually assaulted multiple times. It was an experience where I felt completely out of control of my body and unable to vocalise words such as "no" and "stop" because I was just too scared of what the response would be. I retreated within myself, and stayed there for a few months.
I felt like I wasn't worth anything. That what had happened had made me "dirty". That I didn't belong with "normal" people. So in my second year of University, I pursued a relationship with someone who wasn't right for me. He wasn't up for commitment, he mentally abused me and I found out a few months in that he'd been seeing married women. I spent a lot of that year drinking too much, especially alone in my room. Feeling drunk meant I felt happy for a while and I could escape the self-persecuting thoughts. However, one night this guy pushed me to drink too much - after I was violently ill, I realised I had to stop.
But I didn't know how to completely stop what I now realise was my self-destructive behaviour. I moved on to abusing my body by eating too much. I'd eat 3000-5000 calories a day. It became a daily routine that was automatic - I didn't even think about it. Sometimes I wouldn't even remember going to the supermarket to buy my usual basket full of food.
What exactly was I reacting to? A number of things. The most severe symptom was the flashbacks. They would happen, completely unprovoked, at any time of the night or day. Even just a memory of the guy's face would leave me feeling sick. I'd be unable to concentrate on what I was doing and so I'd just give up. Sometimes the feelings would leave me filled with panic, and I'd have to practise breathing techniques in order to calm myself down. It was worse when it happened in public, or in class at Uni - it was really hard to ignore the images and focus on my work. Usually, I wouldn't be able to concentrate on anything else the lecturer was saying once I'd had a flashback.
The side effects would last for days. I'd have an upset stomach, feel anxious and panicky, and find it really hard to be alone. When no one was around, I'd ring the Samaritans, just so I could hear someone's voice. I felt like no one understood me, and they never would.
Another symptom was feeling super-alert all the time. I'd get paranoia when I went out - I'd worry that someone would attack me. I was constantly anxious about all the things that could go wrong during each day, and would respond to it by spending a lot of time alone. I felt unable to relax, or concentrate on one thing at a time. I'd jump around from activity to activity - completing Uni work was pretty much impossible, and I'd have to get extensions for assignments. Feeling like this meant I couldn't sleep - I would stay awake until 4 or 5am, then wake up at 9am feeling exhausted, yet fuelled by another daily dose of anxiety.
I'm talking about these things as if they happened a while ago. They've actually been going on during this academic year, my third and final year of Uni. About six months ago, I sought help for what was going on, and underwent some assessments. Finally, I got the diagnosis of PTSD, and I've been seeing a therapist on a weekly basis to talk about what I've experienced that week and how to get through it. Now, I can rationalise my thoughts and begin to regulate my behaviour. I also know that I can be understood as a person, and I'm not alone in the feelings and experiences I've had. I've discovered that I don't have to let my past trauma define me - it still affects me a little bit from time to time, but I'm confident that those feelings will soon fade away. For any of you out there who have suffered, or are suffering, from PTSD - you are not alone. You can be helped. And it will get better.