Anxiety spelled out on scrabble tiles

Living with PTSD

By Justine Lister

October 2015 was the time that I started to realise that something was very wrong with me. Looking back, I cannot believe how long I lived and functioned with the symptoms that I was experiencing. 

Grown-ups and peers in my life would call me a sensitive person that was prone to overreacting and worrying about nothing, so of course, I believed and self-fulfilled that narrative. However, despite being predisposed to these personality traits, I now know that something else was compounding and antagonising the anxiety that came along.

For as long as I can remember, every trip away, social event, phone conversation, raised voice, and meeting would cause my heart to race and a ball of doom to roll from my tummy up to my shoulders and then back down again-like a yo-yo. I would catastrophise and snowball every possible scenario in my head. My mind would play out every conversation that could happen and then every likely response to that conversation. Compliments, placations, soothers and conversation changers would be formulated in advance, ready to distinguish any form of conflict that could potentially arise.

When in a group situation, I would be hypervigilant and react immediately to a change of tone of voice. No eye-roll or micro frown would escape my notice. Sarcasm would cause the tension to rise in my shoulders and I felt constantly that everybody was looking at me; judging me, putting me down, making fun of me and talking about me. The feeling of displacement was crippling; I always felt like I was in the wrong place, or in the way, never knowing whether to sit, to stand, not knowing actually how to just be. The best time of any event at all was the end of it, where I could retreat and breathe and tell myself well done, you got through that. And then I would have to do something else. And then the whole cycle would begin again.

It was painful and exhausting. 

I am so regretful that I was unaware that I had a ‘thing’ that could be helped and eased. I honestly thought that what I was experiencing was life and that everyone muddled through like I did and felt the same way.

A mindfulness course at work in early 2015 was, I believe, the key to unlocking the Pandora’s box that was my brain. For six weeks, two hours on a Thursday evening, would see myself and a small group of colleagues learn about clearing our heads, staying present in the moment, meditating and learning how to just ‘be’. As usual, these sessions would be no different to any other event in my life, and I would have to push through the cyclone of overwhelming feelings before each one. Someone would always fall asleep during a meditation and we would laugh and be told that it was great that someone was relaxed and comfortable enough to let themselves go. I was envious. I would lie there supposedly ‘in the moment’ while digging my fingernails into my palms to stop me falling asleep too. Goodness, could you imagine? What if I snored? Or worse – passed wind? I can chuckle now but had that have happened, I honestly don’t know how I would have coped. I would always leave the sessions feeling grumpy, unsettled and headachy. What was the point? Mindfulness was meant to make you feel good, wasn’t it?

At the penultimate session, we had to engage in mindful movement. Our bodies had to move slowly and naturally. We were instructed to swing our arms as children would and mimic picking flowers from the ground and fruit from invisible trees. Mid arm swing, something stirred within me and it wasn’t the familiar yo-yo ball of doom, it literally took my breath away. Feeling a sadness so profound and so painful it made my heart hurt, I carried on swinging my arms.  The bubble of pain moved into my throat and made it hard to swallow and breath. My face felt hot, and my swinging arms felt heavy and big. Fat, ploppy tears fell silently.

And so it began. The sessions, I am sure, acted as a catalyst, increasing the symptoms until I was at breaking point.

At its worst, I would be paralysed and unable to respond to a conversation or task or answer a question. One time, I even sat at the green traffic lights, angry horns blaring, and I couldn’t for the life of me remember where I was going.

My mornings would be okay. I could brush my teeth and get in the shower but when I opened my wardrobe (full of clothes and choices of what to wear) I would sit on the end of the bed and stare at them, unable to make a choice. Thoughts would enter my brain and then leave in a flash. It would take me minutes to retrieve a single thought, or even find the right word to use. Tears and frustration would come often and slowly I could feel myself slipping and slowing down. I was getting behind with work and losing my grip in every way.

One Thursday morning, I sat at my dining table to do some work, picked up my pen and froze. I did not and could not move or do anything for two hours. Somehow, I managed to get to the phone and call my doctors. I predicted a lack of help and I didn’t know what to say when asked if it was an emergency. The tears came and all I could say was that there was something very wrong with me. The angel on the other end of the phone must have somehow understood and she told me to come in immediately.

I told the doctor that I thought I had Dementia or Alzheimer’s. She quietly shook her head in an assured way, gently letting me know that my self-diagnosis was incorrect and proceeded to ask me about my health, family, work, and life history.

Traumatic events in my earlier years had been left unprocessed in my brain. Desperation and determination had pushed the feelings and memories down so far that I was able to convince myself that they had never happened, or that they weren’t that traumatic, or that they had happened through my own doing or fault. This strategy of mine had worked and allowed me to function and live my life of sorts. But not anymore. My brain had short circuited and forced a shutdown, no longer able to take in new information or function with any clarity until it had been rested and reconditioned. 

Firstly, I had six months off work, five of which I genuinely believe that I slept through. This time allowed my body and brain to get used to the Sertraline that had been prescribed to correct the chemical imbalance in my brain that had been caused by past traumas. Fortnightly, appointments with the GP would continue while the drug dosage was increased slowly, and my symptoms monitored. It wasn’t easy. At times I felt worse than ever before and thought that I was never going to feel well again. My doctor reassured me; stick with it, stay with it, things will get better. 

I had to tell my place of work – who were amazingly supportive and sympathetic in the face of my shame and plight. Friends and family too were beyond wonderful, if not a little shocked at the speed of my decline. They got used to me miming out the words that I couldn’t bring to the forefront of my mind but they would be there to rescue me when I would get overwhelmed or not be able to make a decision (or on some occasions know when it was safe to cross a busy road.)

Alongside the medication, I had weekly CBT sessions that were brutal in getting to the root cause of my thoughts and feelings around the traumas. The untangling that had to be done was significant. Often, I would come out of a session and I felt worse than before I went in. The therapy was forcing me to think about and feel things that I absolutely did not want to.  These were the things that had to come out and be processed in order to fix my brain. 

I felt frequently like it was two steps forward and one step back. Without doubt, my recovery was successful because of the two-pronged approach of medication and CBT and that if I had only had one, that I would still be suffering and struggling today.

It was month five when the fog finally started clearing. The intense and intruding thoughts and feelings lessened, thoughts stayed for longer and I could find my words more easily. After six months, I was back at work in a new role that has since led to my dream job.

My brain is still a work in progress. Nearly six years on, I still see my therapist at regular intervals and will continue to do so for as long as I need to. I am still taking the Sertraline too. I have attempted, with help from my lovely doctor, to reduce the dosage. This did not go well. I ignore the niggling that sometimes pops into my head when I feel inadequate for needing the medicine. After all, I don’t give myself a hard time for needing my asthma inhalers. The chemicals in my brain need help to keep my mind healthy and balanced and for now this is okay.

There have been mild relapses and there will continue to be others, but the symptoms are kept under control by remaining consistent with the medication and CBT. Additionally, the therapy has given me a newfound self-awareness of myself and of potential triggers that could cause a new set back. When I feel myself tipping, I reach out, ask for help and support and figure out what I need to do. Never again will I ignore a feeling of dread or fear and push it down and hide it. If something does not feel good or right, then that needs to be acknowledged and sorted. I cannot and will not ever go back to that dreadful place ever again.

You can read more about:

PTSD: https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/symptoms/

Sertraline: https://www.nhs.uk/medicines/sertraline/

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/drugs-and-treatments/cognitive-behavioural-therapy-cbt/about-cbt/

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