If you’re a person who changes their outfit five times before heading out the door, raise your hand.
Now before anyone starts pointing fingers, I’m not judging. I am also picky about the clothes I wear, despite always reverting back to ol’ faithful (a tee-shirt and skinny jeans). As an adult woman, there is nothing wrong with this. Sometimes it depends on the occasion, sometimes it depends on my mood, and sometimes it depends on the weather pouring out of the heavens. (It’s hard to wear skits and dresses in a place where it can get up to -30°C without freezing to death.)
And while I have the potential to throw on five to ten different outfits before heading out the door – ignoring the eye rolls and the endless “You’re beautiful no matter what you wear!” from my fiancé – is not always warranted from being “just picky”. It sometimes stems from something greater, something more profound.
Sometimes my PTSD is the demon lurking in my closet (and in my fashion choices).
Without a doubt, even as an adult woman, I still struggle with unrealistic body expectations. I still have moments where I have low self-esteem over the way I look. More times than I’d like to admit, I still struggle with who I see in the mirror. I’ve dieted and binged. I’ve done intense and extreme workout regiments and also been a complete couch potato. I’ve been called anorexic for trying to be healthy and staying “in shape”. I’ve also been told, “You’re putting on a few, eh?” when I didn’t really care about being “toned” (and when my antidepressants caused a tremendous weight gain – but that’s a conversation for a different day!). In society this day and age, it seems none of us can catch a break.
And while the majority of women (and men, too!) can mention a part of their body that they hate/wish they could change, I never truly realized that my extreme (sometimes viscous) self-critical attitude towards myself was due to a mental health issue until I had a complete meltdown over a sweater.
That’s right. A sweater.
The cusp of my PTSD diagnosis came after the verge of a mental breakdown over a piece of cotton fabric.
You think I’m kidding? Guess again.
Picture this: Summer – August 2011.
It’s a typical summer day in Newfoundland. The sun is balmy in the cloudless blue sky, but the breeze from the ocean was keeping a chill in the air. Not too hot, not too cold. Tee shirt and jeans or sweater and shorts weather – really, whatever floats your boat. It’s a Saturday morning where my Mom, sister and I are getting ready for a day of shopping and Starbucks in St. John’s.
Sounds great right? Hot summer weather? A full day of shopping? Delicious food and spending quality time with my number one ladies? Everything should be all hunky-dory right?
So, where was I on this supposed wonderful day?
In my bedroom, stood in front of my closet in a bra and pair of shorts, hysterically sobbing and struggling to pull air into my lungs.
Months down the road when I’m in intensive therapy twice a week, I will look back on this moment and realize I was having the first (of many) severe panic attacks. But never mind that.
Back to the story.
Mom walks into my room, mortified to find me half-naked and looking like I just walked out of the premier for The Notebook. Snot and tears are dripping down my face and she’s quick to panic and fret, like all mothers do.
“Mandie, what’s wrong?”
“I left my sweater at camp.”
(Side note: I was a summer camp counsellor who only came home on weekends. I lived out of a backpack every weekend for eight weeks straight.)
To say Mom looked confused is an understatement. “Ok, but what’s wrong?”
There was no “but”. Nothing actually happened to me. My boyfriend and I didn’t get into a fight. I wasn’t on my period (Hormones, right?). I didn’t just watch The Notebook. My big problem was exactly that: I left my sweater at camp.
I have a purple tank top fisted in my hands and I hold it out to her, “I don’t have anything to wear with my shirt.”
To which Mom replies with an innocent question that makes a nuclear bomb explode in my head.
“Can’t you just wear something else?”
I quickly switch to sudden anger. Deep, burning, irrational anger. I no longer look like I just emerged from watching The Notebook. I look like I just walked off the set of Carrie.
I was Carrie at the freaking prom.
I cry, and snap, and shout, and gargle/sob until I’m red in the face. “No, I can’t just wear anything else!” “I want to wear THIS shirt!” “You don’t care!” “You don’t understand!” “Easy for you to say since you have nice clothes!” And that’s just some of the PG things that came out of my mouth.
By this point, my sister wanders into my room to bear witness to my tragic soliloquy, watching me lament over the woes of leaving my sweater at camp. I’ve quickly come full circle and I’m back to sobbing on my bed, still just in my bra, when she says, “Calm down, maid!”
(Sound familiar, L?😏)
More angry shots are fired. More tears drip down my face. More insults are thrown. My world is in shambles until my sister leaves before quickly storming back into the room, whipping a white sweater at me, “Jesus, maid! Here’s a friggin’ sweater! Put it on and let’s go!”
End of discussion.
Besides, I was already too emotionally and mentally exhausted to start another fight.
Later when I’m sitting in the back seat of the car and listening to my iPod, when I switch from being livid to totally embarrassed, the warning bells will start going off in my head.
Why the hell did I have a meltdown over a sweater?
Why did I turn Jekyll and Hyde over a piece of overpriced fabric?
Why did forgetting my sweater at camp feel like the end of the world?
It was the biggest red flag I ignored until I contemplated swallowing a bottle of pills three weeks later.
O Captain! My Captain!
Hindsight being 20/20, my irrational and sometimes uncontrollable anger was a growing symptom of my PTSD. Having a mental breakdown over a forgotten sweater would be the gateway into many more terrifying and frightening episodes leading up to my official diagnosis. It was no longer a matter of these outbursts being chalked up as “hormonal” or “sleep deprived”. My mental health was in jeopardy. My brain was sick and I was starting to show very obvious – but not obvious to me – symptoms.
These triggered episodes of rage meant I was in crisis, and it was time to get help.
It would become a struggle (but ultimately a journey) in trying to understand my illness and learn to control these episodes of extreme anger. It was a process of trying to heal and learn to accept the ugly side of my mental illness. I wasn’t just some girl having a hissy fit. I was a young woman suffering with a severe mental health issue, a sickness that turned both my mind and body against me. In these triggered episodes I just didn’t see red, I completely blacked out until I would “snap out of it” to see a startled individual, or sometimes group of people, gawking at me in stunned silence.
And as guilty as it has made me feel over the years, my saving grace was I never became violent during these episodes. A fact to this day that leaves a knot in my stomach at the thought of, “What if?”
The biggest red flag to my PTSD was a sign I ignored for months because I didn’t know any better. I had convinced myself for years that the silent war in my head was “normal”, that I was still a young girl on the cusp of adulthood struggling to adjust to the “real world”.
And while I can point fingers in a multitude of different directions, it really all boils down to one significant point: A lack of education and resources on mental health issues left me blinded for years. As I have reiterated a hundred times, my doctors and therapists told me I could have easily been diagnosed at 13 years-old, the first time I thought about putting a razor to my wrists. Or a year later when I had my first failed suicide attempt. All of which were red flags, but ignorance was bliss and pre-teen Amanda was just too numb to realize these thoughts weren’t normal.
As was 19 year-old Amanda. I just accepted my unpredictable rage as being hormonal and sleep-deprived (which probably played some small role along the way). Ignorance was bliss, until I realized how damaging that ignorance was.
And while every day is still a learning process when it comes to understanding my PTSD (even six years later), I now have a better understanding of the red flags that I cannot ignore. There are triggers and moments that I can’t take for granted or shrug off as simply “that time of the month”. The minute any warning bells ring in my head, I know it’s time to take a step back and evaluate things. It’s time to slow down and take a deep breath. To reevaluate the battle plan.
It is why we call them “warning bells” and “red flags” in the first place. They’re meant to be a warning. They’re meant to arouse caution. It means something isn’t right. It could mean we’re entering enemy territory and about to step on a land mine.
So don’t do as I did. Don’t ignore your gut instinct, no matter how unsure you may feel or how scary it is to talk about your mental health. Everyone is entitled to a bad day, everyone is entitled to having an “Ugh!” moment when deciding on an outfit to wear out to supper. But these moments shouldn’t be life-shattering, hormones be damned.
Losing your shit over a sweater shouldn’t mean the end of the world. No article of clothing is worth that mental strife.
Because when our minds become too heavy, it’s time to address the red flags.
And as always,
Fight the good fight!
Happy One Year Anniversary to the release of LP’s “Heavy”!