Living with a mental health issue isn’t easy.
Having a mental illness is and remains a life-altering experience for people like me. It’s fighting a battle that is silent and invisible – struggling with something that you can’t physically grasp. A war raging against your own self is a war that is not easily fought – or easily won.
But by far, the hardest thing for me to accept was not just trying to come to terms with living with a mental illness, it was also having to learn and understand all the symptoms that came along with it.
The day I was “officially” diagnosed – meaning my psych evaluation was finally put on paper – I remember sitting in a cramped office space with a mental health counsellor and she looked at me and bluntly said, “You have Post-traumatic stress disorder and general anxiety disorder with OCD tendencies.”
My first thought was, That’s a freaking mouthful. Try saying that three times fast.
I spent the next several weeks being lectured my different doctors and counsellors, all who gave me the rehearsed speeches that every mental health patient gets. Things will get worse before they get better. You have to remember to eat even if you’re not hungry. It’s important to take your medication at the same time every day. Don’t expect to feel “cured” after a few days. And on and on and on.
And through my own ignorance and general lack of understanding of what living with a mental health issue actually entailed, I spent the next several months trying to deceiver the difference between a nightmare and night terrors, a panic attack vs. an anxiety attack, stress vs hypervigilance and so on. Learning to live with a mental illness was trying to understand what the “actual” symptoms of my illness were.
Hell, six years later and I’m still trying to understand the symptoms.
But like many people, I associated living with PTSD meant I was just going to be generally sad and unhappy, not able to get out of bed, having a lack of energy, not being able to concentrate – and all the generalities that the media and the negative stigma depicts. But it would take me months – even years – to learn that living with a mental health issue was more that just being “sad,” it was more that just having panic attacks and no appetite.
Living with a mental health issue means there are countless symptoms that you have to overcome, something I was not prepared to deal with – something that every doctor and counsellor I saw failed to warn me about. It was more than just being sad and generally unhappy. It was a battle of trying to understand my mental illness – a self-discovery journey I had to take to understand the difference between me and my PTSD.
And in true advocacy fashion, I created a list of symptoms that I face living with PTSD, a list of symptoms that no one ever talked to me about (but I wish I would have been warned about).
So I’m going to talk about them!
Spoiler Alert: You won’t see “Feeling Sad” on this list.
This is a symptom that I still battle six years later after I was first diagnosed, but something that stems back to when I was being abused by my father. I always had excessive pressures placed on me as a kid. Grades less that A’s were considered failures, forgetting to do chores would result in getting harshly dragged to my room, not solving problems on the first try meant a screaming match ensued (and sometimes meant getting my textbooks thrown at my head).
Growing up there was no room for error. I was never allowed to have any faults. And to this day if I can’t do something right on the first try I feel like a total failure. (You should have seen me when I got my first rejection letter from a publisher). Because of this, everything in my life had to be perfect, which is likely what fuelled my OCD urges. My house always has to be spotless. If something gets tossed at the garbage can and misses, I have to get up and put it in the bucket. Everything in my life had to be perfect. I have to be perfect.
And guess what ladies and gentlemen, that is something that is completely unobtainable. Perfection is something that doesn’t truly exists. This was defiantly a hard lesson I had to learn, a lesson that got beaten to death in countless therapy sessions, and an issue that even today I still think to myself, “What the hell is wrong with me?”
And the most damning thing about trying to being perfect meant that it not only made me afraid of failure, it also meant I was afraid to truly live my life. It took me five years living in the skiing capital of Eastern Canada before my fiancé finally convinced me to downhill ski. Why? Because if I couldn’t do the big hill without falling down on my first attempt, I thought I would be a failure. (And yes, part of me was scared I would break a leg). But now? I love skiing and I’m not afraid of falling down (even though I’m still scared of the big hill).
I missed out on so many opportunities in my early years of adulthood because of my obsessiveness with trying to be a perfect person – and because of this I have so many regrets.
An Obsessive Need for Control
Going hand-in-hand with perfectionism is the next symptom. An obsessive need for control. Because of the abuse, I lived in chaos for years – and a mental chaos at that! Because of the abuse I suffered, I had put up defences because I had no “control” over the abuse. I could barely comprehend why it was happening, let alone how I could stop it. In an abusive household, a child does not have options – there is only survival.
Hence, I have a constant need to control the world around me. I couldn’t control what happened to me as a kid, but as an adult, I needed to assure it would never happen again. And to a degree, there is nothing wrong with wanting to protect yourself, but when it gets to a point that I could melt down over the stupidest of situations, I realized I had a serious problem.
It was only a few years ago that I couldn’t even entertain the idea of a “Spontaneous Saturday Adventure.” I’m a list person. I’m a planner. I had become obsessive with time. I couldn’t just simply to go a party on a Friday night. Everything needed a schedule. 5:00 we eat. 6:00 we have a few drinks. 7:00 we can play a board game. 8:00 we can go outside for a fire – I needed control over everything!
Because the minute I start to feel like I am losing control over any situation, I instantly start to shut down. It’s not because I’m a “It’s my way or the highway!” person. It’s because when I don’t have control, I feel vulnerable, and when I feel vulnerable, I instantly feel like my life is being threatened. I immediately don’t feel safe and my assurance of stability starts to vanish. It is a terrifying feeling when I don’t have control over the world around me.
And yes, I now gravely understand that this is not healthy – that this symptom has sometimes been the “be all, end all” of many of the mental breakdowns I have had over the years. And most of the time it wasn’t even over serious situations. It took me years before I would let my fiancé do the laundry because I was afraid of how he would wash the clothes. “What if he doesn’t separate the whites?” “What if he doesn’t remember that my favourite sweater can’t go in the dryer?” Looking back, what was the worst thing that could have happened? A white t-shirt turned blue? My sweater shrunk? These things weren’t life-ending, but to me they felt that way.
But because of my illness, my confidence and state of safety are very fragile things. It only takes one little chip for it all to instantly fall apart, which is why I don’t like putting myself in situations I can’t at least have some influence over.
You know the saying “Controlled chaos“? It’s not a phrase that I can use in my life. To me, it’s either control or chaos. There is no in between.
Sweet Moses Above! I wish this was something someone would have told me about from day one – a sign that was shoved in my face with scary warning labels on it.
It took me years and year, and years, to understand that living with PTSD can mean bouts of uncontrollable anger for no reason. And I don’t mean just getting pissy and storming out of a room. I mean having such a burning feeling in my chest, a knot so tight in my stomach that I wanted to punch my fists through walls, that I wanted to scream until my lungs popped, that I wanted to tear my hair out and cause physical destruction to everything around me.
And unfortunately if you watch the news, the horror stories of soldiers committing violent acts against their loved ones shows just how misunderstood irrational anger can affect PTSD survivors.
I have had terrible instances where my irrational anger got so out of control that when I finally snapped out of it, I was terrified of myself. Most times when I have been severely suicidal, it was because I was afraid of myself and what I was capable of. There were times that I was so angry I put my fists through a mirror or punched walls. There were times I resented myself so much, I snapped and inflected bodily harm to myself – I tore out my hair, I punched myself until I bruised, I clawed at myself until I cut my skin and drew blood.
And the time that scared me the most wasn’t even a physical confrontation. One day my fiancé turned down the music I was listening to while cleaning the dishes and I completely snapped – I screamed and shouted and felt myself going into a violent state until I saw the horror on his face. That’s when I finally snapped out of it. Seeing complete shock and terror reflecting back at me almost destroyed me. That shame still burns me to this day, a memory that I can never erase from my brain.
When these states of irrational anger happen and I finally snap out of them, I cannot describe to you how much I hate myself in those moments. It truly makes you afraid of everyone and everything around you. There are times I wished someone would lock me up and throw away the key. How could someone love me when I was so terrible in those moments? And the heartbreaking part is that most times I’m not aware it’s happening until something snaps me out of it. (Which also stems back to my constant need for control).
There are no words to describe how much that type of pains messes up your head, which is why I wished someone would have warned me that there would be moments I would not be myself – and I wouldn’t be the wiser – for someone to have looked at me and said, “Guess what? There will be times you won’t even be able to control yourself.”
And maybe that’s why no one warned me. How do you tell someone that without putting the fear of God into them? I could have moments I literally wouldn’t know what I was doing? You can’t tell me that’s not fucking terrifying.
This symptom has forked out a lot of apologies over the years – for loved ones, friends, roommates, and anyone who has ever slept near me when I had night terrors.
When I was first diagnosed with PTSD, I was warned about the flashbacks and the repressed memories that would resurface through the course of therapy. Little did I know the plaguing state of nightmares that would haunt me over the last six years.
And these are not just bad dreams, they’re not the dreams where you feel like your being chased or you jerk awake cause you have that falling feeling in your sleep. I’m talking about being terrorized in my sleep through vivid and terrifying details and memories of the things my father put me through as a kid. The haunting screams that rattle my brain that leave me feeling like I’m frozen in place and can’t move. I’m talking about nightmares that are so painful that I have woken up to having a panic attacks in my sleep. I have woken up screaming that the top of the lungs. I have woken up and vomited violently as soon as I snapped my eyes open. I’m talking about memories that are so bad that it takes several minutes for me to realize that I’m not that thirteen year-old kid again, that I’m actually awake and (for the most part) safe.
Hence the apologies. I have had to warn friends that I could wake up in a sense of panic and that despite the screaming, I’m (for the most part) physically ok. I have had to apologize for almost punching my fiancé on several occasions when he tried to touch me or shake me awake and I thought I was still trapped in my dreams. You only have to frighten the living daylights outta someone one too many times before they finally understand just how awful the things were that I went through.
And even now where I’m at the best I’ve ever been, I’m still having night terrors. That after years of therapy, there are no rhyme or reason to them. Sure, certain dates can trigger the memories, but for the most part, the night terrors are pretty random. One minute I’m dreaming about characters I write in my novels, the next I’m back to being a kid, fearing for my life.
And a hard fact I had to come to terms with was no matter how much therapy or sedatives I took at night, I am completely helpless from the night terrors. There is nothing I can do to prevent them or stop them. It is a symptom I just had to learn to accept to live with – and just be humbled when I disturb someone from their own peaceful dreams.
Constant Aches and Pains/Vomiting
I have said it once and I’ll say it again. Many symptoms of living with a mental illness are in fact physical. There are so many that I cannot list them all: hand tremors, shaking, sweating, shivering, queasy stomach, headaches, and vomiting are just some to name a few.
And for me, most of my physical symptoms are my body’s response to when my anxiety is spinning out of control. Most days when I’m anxious and placing an enormous amount of stress on myself no reason – because hey, anxiety doesn’t need a motive to strike – my body reacts to the stress. It’s the same when you get the flu or a cold. You get body aches, a runny nose, and a general sense of feeling unwell.
The same goes for my mental illness. I get aches and pains for constantly having my muscles rigid because I’m tense and under stress. When my irrational thoughts get out of control, my head gets dizzy and I get headaches. And days when everything seems to hit me at once, I spend the day vomiting everything I eat or drink because I’m in such a nervous state of being. And yes, it’s super unhealthy. Constantly being subjected to crippling bouts of anxiety are going to have damning effects on my body as the years pass. I am making myself more susceptible to getting sick because most days my body is working on overdrive for no reason.
At least now, I can tell the difference of when I’m generally not feeling because I have a stomach ache or I’m not feeling well because my anxiety is deciding to be a bitch. But this is just an example of how long it can take to truly learn the in’s and out’s of all the physical symptoms that come with having a mental health issue.
It’s like a journey of self-discovery, that even though it is incredibly tiring and long, it’s very eye-opening when finally understood.
Ok, everyone can be forgetful sometimes. You don’t need to have a mental illness to realize you left your lunch at home or locked your keys in the car or accidentally forgot a doctor’s appointment.
But for me, when my anxiety is out of control, the physical and mental stress has caused moments in my life where I have forgotten important information or has wrecked my head so much that I have moments of dissociation and can’t tell what’s going on around me.
For example, the first time I was hospitalized for my PTSD, I was so sick and confused that when the paramedic asked me what month it was (it was March), I told him February. Another time when I was out shopping, I was having an extremely bad depressive episode and my social anxiety was at an all-time high (because big box stores make me incredibly uncomfortable), I got to the checkout and couldn’t remember the pin to any of my cards. It wasn’t as simple as just screwing up the combination of numbers, I actually couldn’t remember what numbers were in my pin. And of course, the horrified look on the cashier’s face when I started to cry because I couldn’t remember my pin only made things worse.
There are moments where I become so overwhelmed by my mental illness, my mind goes into “survival mode,” and when I’m in survival mode, sometimes I just can’t comprehend everything around me. My mind goes blank, literally, but I know that these are moments where my body is just trying to protect itself – and that’s ok.
Even though I’m sure the people at the bank are getting concerned with how often I have to reset my pin because I keep getting locked out of my account…
For those of you who probably looked at hypervigilance and went, “Woah, big word!”, let me explain to you what it means.
Hypervigilance is “an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect activity. Hypervigilance may bring about a state of increased anxiety which can cause exhaustion.” (Thanks Wiki!)
In laymen terms: In these moments of intense anxiety, I see the world around me as a threat.
And yes, hypervigilance is in essence a sense of paranoia, but let’s not take it out of context, please. In moments of extreme anxiety or stress, or if I am triggered because of my PTSD, my fragile control cracks (remember from above?) and I instantly start to fear everything around me.
For example, when I was first diagnosed, whenever I went out in public, I had to plan “escape routes” for a number of different reasons: in case I had a panic attack, in case (the in very rare – almost impossible – situation) I would see my father in public. To feel secure, I needed to know my surroundings. For the longest time, I had blueprints of every department store and shop in my head. I knew every exit and fire escape, I knew every window and storage door I could get through. And yes, I’m aware of the intense paranoia in that.
When I’m in a hypervigilance state of mind, I am in a sense, like a solider. I am planning out my battle field and calculating all potential risks and situations. Is it irrational? Totally, but it’s a defence mechanism many of us with PTSD have.
Think Doomsday planners only ten times worse. It’s an exhausting sense of being when you view everything and everyone around you as a potential threat, as something that is negative and could cause harm. And for the most part, this is why my social anxiety is so bad because these episodes of hypervigilance have left me terrified of public places over the years.
I have defiantly gotten better at venturing to Wal-Mart by myself but don’t expect me to enter a confined room without an escape plan and knowing every possible point of extraction. I can memorize the detail of every room I’m in within minutes. It’s a habit I know that I will likely never break away from, no matter how far I come.
Hmm…maybe I should have been a CSI detective after all.
Exaggerated Startle Response/Avoiding Physical Touch
Ever have those moments where someone pretends to hit or slap you and you flinch?
Imagine feeling like that ten times over if someone even just sneezes next to you. It’s also the same reason when people raise their voices I instantly retreat into myself or I start to cry (even if the yelling isn’t directed at me).
Years of abuse has caused me to be acutely aware of people’s actions and touches. Before I was diagnosed with PTSD, I considered myself a very affectionate person. I use to love giving every one hugs and touching someone’s arm after telling a good joke or what have you. I use to love being near people. Now, I can’t let anyone touch me without permission. And again, it became a defence mechanism to help protect myself. Unless we are really close family or you’re a really close friend, don’t expect to get within ‘x’ amount of feet without my consent.
For instance, because of an abusive memory from my past, a friend once snuck up behind me and grabbed my shoulders roughly, yanking me backwards slightly to give me that sense of feeling I was gonna fall over. My reaction? They got a reflex-punch between the eyes before I crumpled to the ground in a sobbing mess. I’m sure they were pissed they almost got two black eyes, but they were more alarmed over the fact that I sat sobbing on the floor for five minutes.
Because in that moment – within a split second – they brought back a memory so vivid that I reacted out of instinct. In that moment, my friend traumatized me by pretending to drag me to the ground. They were sorry and apologized profusely, but the fact of the matter is, it takes virtually nothing to trigger me. Was it an exaggeration to punch them and then turn into a sobbing mess? Yes, but most abuse survivors all go through this.
I flinch and react so easily to quick touches and fake punches because there was a time in my life where slaps and hits weren’t a joke. There are times people I barely knew would get defensive when I yelled “Don’t!” if they tried to touch me, and I make no apologizes for it.
I am still a loveable person, but any sort of affection has to be on my terms, and a lot of people in my life still have a hard time understanding that.
So be advised, if you creep up behind me and touch me, don’t be surprised if you get punched in the face.
Because at the end of the day, not all symptoms of mental illness are just in our heads. Many of the issues we have to deal with are greater than being unable to crawl out of bed or we just simply feel sad.
Living with a mental health issue is something that goes beyond simple logic. Sometimes the best thing most of can do is move forward and keep in mind of the triggers and situations that can affect our security.
And even six years later, I’m still dealing with symptoms I didn’t even know were symptoms of my illness. It took a long time for me to learn the quirks and tricks of my illness, but once fully understood, it’s like knowing the back of your hand. It’s not always easy living with these painful symptoms, and there are moments when they are terrifying, but I know now more than ever how to control my illness (for the most part).
It takes time. It takes patience. It takes a lot of self-discovery and reflection, but above all else it takes acceptance, even if that acceptance only comes from yourself. Not everyone will understand what you’re going through and many people will not bother to try to understand it at all.
The best we can to is just trust ourselves as best we can and just remember the bad days don’t last.
It’s not always easy but things do get better.
And as always,
Fight the good fight.
Photo credits from Frontline Responder Services.