Mental Health, PTSD

When the Invisible Becomes Physical

Let’s get serious for a moment.

Over the last several months I have met some amazing and inspiring people as my blog and articles started to reach a wider audience. I’ve made friends with people from all around the globe who are fighters in their own right, for they too are battling the struggles of living with a mental illness. To connect with these people, to read their stories, to share in their fears and their greatest hopes has been both an inspiration and uplifting for myself, it encourages me to keep writing – to continue sharing my story.

And for myself, while I have been beyond fortunate to have been winning many battles against my PTSD, I too have had my losses. I have my bad days. Most days the battles are silent though, invisible – undetectable to the outside world. While over the last few years I have started to become more open about my bad days, I too have days where I retreat into my protective armour and let the war rage in my head.

And most of these days, no one is the wiser. I keep working, I live my life, leaving the outside world unaware of the tormenting thoughts that rattle my brain or the hatred scorching through my veins, or the shame burning me in the deepest parts of my soul. It’s easy to sugarcoat these experiences as “hard” or “painful,” but for the most part they are truly indescribable.

While some days I can hide it better than others, I know how to cover my tracks well. I know how to avoid questions and stares and plaster on that perfected smile, using that quick laugh that keeps everyone at arm’s length. For some battles do need to be fought alone. If I can’t see past the smoke on the battlefield, how are my loved ones suppose to siege victory either?

Because mental illness is a silent battle. While loved ones and others can, and do, offer their support, it is an individual battle. It’s not as simple as breaking a limb and having a doctor mend it with a cast. My PTSD is invisible for the most part, and while I would be too afraid for my dearest ones to see the inside of my head, they also can’t get inside my head. There is no simple cure, there is no cast to plaster over a broken limb. Of course, support is a large part of recovery, but how can my loved ones fight a battle they cannot see? How do they fight against something that isn’t physically there?

Most days my PTSD is invisible.

But there are days when even the invisible morphs into physical.

So I decided to put on a brave face and document what a PTSD episode looks like physically.

A few weeks ago I had one of the worst PTSD episodes I had in a very long time.

The night before I was terrorized with horrific night terrors, vivid memories and vicious accounts haunting my dreams, my mind rattled with haunting echoes of screaming and pain – searing, undesirable pain. By the time I woke up, I was already mentally incapacitated.

Then the physical symptoms started. Shaking hands, tight chest pain, rapid heart beat. I was nauseated (and eventually did vomit a few times), my vision was unfocused, and my skin felt afire. The tremors started – I started clawing at my arms and legs, trying to scratch an invisible pain that wasn’t “really” there. My throat was raw. My jaw wouldn’t stop trembling.

I went into survival mode.

I pulled the blinds shut. I turned on my meditation playlist to help drown out my racing thoughts. I snuggled into my blankets in my favourite sweater and curled up with my cat. I tried to keep my breathing under control.

Inhale the good, exhale the bad.
Inhale the good, exhale the bad.
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

I kept distracting myself by petting my cat, trying to keep my nails from bruising and tearing at my sensitive skin. I was teetering on a very thin ledge, knowing one slip of panic could send me over the edge. I knew I was in dangerous territory, but I tried to fight the demons and focus on my strategies. It was too early to take my pills…Well, I didn’t want to take my pills. I wanted to win this battle on my own, no matter how physically exhausted I felt after.

Inhale the good, exhale the bad.
Inhale the good, exhale the bad.

10:00 AM – The tremors and flashbacks started.

By mid morning the flashbacks started.

While flashbacks are “invisible” to everyone else, they become a disorienting reality for me. Every sound and noise setting off triggers of bad memories and harsh incidents. Every song lyrics, every smell – my senses become so overwhelmed that I easily become confused with my erratic thoughts, blurring the lines between reality and the past.

The tenants in the basement apartment slammed their doors.

And just like that – SLAM! – I was instantly triggered.

The panic seeped into my bones and within minutes I tipped over the edge…right into the first of a string of panic attacks that would wreak havoc on my body that day.

My hands were trembling, my lungs were constricting with the deprivation of oxygen. I started to cry, the flood of emotions hitting me like a tidal wave – fear, panic, terror, shame – humiliating shame. I wanted to claw my eyes out, I wanted to rip the skin from my bones. I felt like I was drowning and being strangled at the same time. Every breath hurt, every tear reminded me of the pain I went through. I wanted to scream to rid myself of the terror but my throat was too raw from the vomiting and the crying.

I was trapped in a riptide of my own making.

There was no amount of meditation in the world that was going to get me through this battle. So, I raised my white flag and admitted defeat. I took my first Ativan.

And waited…

By 1:00 PM, I already had two panic attacks.

After a half hour, I still had no relief. The pain was still too overwhelming. I knew I was in this for the long haul, taking shelter in my trenches (or rather my pillows and blankets), having to wait out the bombing. There would be no relief effort during the attacks, there would be no effort to control the terrorizing doom lurking in the pit of my stomach. I was trapped, stuck on a battlefield that didn’t exist to nobody else expect me.

Physical, yes, but still very much invisible.

No one could hear the voices screaming in my head, no one could see the flashbacks or the tainted memories that blinded my vision. No one could feel the desolation that burned through me. There was no amount of medication or therapy in the world that could have helped me in those moments, and I felt ashamed. Shame that slapped me in the face every time I had a panic attack, every time I let his voice dig up ancient history, resurfacing the pain I tried to amend and bury over the last six years. I was humiliated with myself. For those fleeting moments, I let myself believe I was worthless – I wasn’t needed.

There’s no amount of love and support that could have helped me in those fleeting moments – a painful fact I am graphically aware of.

Three pills later, I sedated myself enough to numb myself into oblivion. I felt absolutely nothing – neither fear nor comfort. I felt like an empty vessel, and I preferred it that way. The aftermath could come later, I was too physically drained to be anything else.

I slept until supper time, my fiancé stirring me enough to convince me to eat something before I took the rest of my pills and exhausted myself into another sedative sleep. There was nothing else for me to do, I needed rest. I needed to drift away for the rest of the night into an uncomfortable, but dreamless sleep, where I was neither tormented by demons or embraced by happy memories.

I was now in recovery mode.

img_1050
6:30 PM – Both physically and mentally exhausted.

I don’t need to talk about the aftermath. I’m acutely aware of the exhaustion and haze that followed me around for days after. Another battle that left me wounded but I carried on. I had to carry on. I gathered my resources and threw everything at recovery – therapy, writing, playing guitar while my baby kitty chilled on my shoulder – and most importantly, I reached out for support from my allies – my loved ones, my friends. Did I share the horrific details I experienced? No, but they offered their comfort and love nevertheless.

I may have fought the battle solo, but I know now, more than ever, that one (wo)man cannot win the war by themselves. You can have all the strength and courage in the world, but never win the war. And I have met many people who have lost their wars too tragically.

No one should have to fight these battles alone, but when the pain is invisible, how can you find aid in the non-existent? How to can you mend what isn’t physically there?

A question that I still speculate deeply even to this day.

So when people diminish my mental illness because it simply isn’t “physical,” I greatly beg to differ.

I even laugh.

Not physical?

Believe me, if you only knew the physical torture my mental illness caused me, you’d be shocked beyond words.

And even though most of my scars are invisible, they are scars that I don’t display as trophies or great accomplishments. I fight like hell every day to stay alive, I pull punches and take hits so the people I care about don’t suffer because of my illness either.

Because people carelessly throw around how mediocre things make them “crazy” or how stupid annoyances drive them “insane.”

But if they felt insane over trivial things, I’d hate to see how they’d feel after facing the war my own mind decided to wage against me that day.

Because mental illnesses do not operate under the assumption of rhyme or reason. My PTSD doesn’t need an influx of hormones, or a chemical imbalance, or broken bones to launch guerrilla warfare against me, a lowly victim who was left defenceless and unaware. Of course, triggers and certain things can tip the scales in its favour, but my mental illness likes to fight dirty – and boy! It really likes to fight dirty sometimes.

I may not be proud of the battles I’ve lost, or the ways I have dealt with the pain, but my scars – both visible and invisible –  are reminders that I am stronger now more than ever. On the lowest days I do wish that my mental illness didn’t exist, on the terribly low days, even I admit I wish that I didn’t exist.

But on the good days, the days I feel triumph? Well…let’s just say I have come along way. I have become both proud and humbled. I have gained perspectives I thought I would never know. I’ve learned to see this messy world through a different lens – to be a select few who can find the beauty in the small things now.

Because I fight a war that will follow me around for the rest of my life, leaving behind me a wake of terrible memories and a painful past that I wish didn’t exist, but cannot help be grateful for. Without this pain, both invisible and physical, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I wouldn’t be me.

And I wouldn’t be lucky enough to have met the people I have met or seen the lives I can change by sharing my story. I can and will help make a difference, no matter what. I’ve seen the darkest days but I’ve also seen the brightest days – where I feel unstoppable and inspired, full desires and dreams.

Yes, sometimes my PTSD launches surprise warfare against me. And some days I don’t win those battles. Sometimes the invisible pain becomes physical pain, but I know it doesn’t last. It lingers for a while, but it doesn’t last. Not forever.

So yes, my PTSD can fight as dirty as it wants, it can use every trick and tactic in the book – but it has me as its enemy. It’s picking battles against someone who has seen the worse of days, whose been to hell and back again. I’ll take the hits and the by-blows, but it still won’t knock me down.

My PTSD can pick fights, but the gloves are off, baby.

I’m ready to fight. Just you watch.

And as always,

Fight the good fight.

-A

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