Trigger Warning: The following blog post contains information about PTSD symptoms, trauma, triggers, depression, and suicidal thoughts. As such, it has the potential to cause significant distress, intrusive thoughts, or recurrent thoughts. Please proceed carefully. If triggers occur and you need support, please refer to the hotlines provided on our page of Resources for Survivors.
PTSD. They give you a textbook definition of it — hyper-vigilance, nightmares, flashbacks, etc. — but they never really tell you how it feels. They never tell you the reality of the disorder. They never tell you the ins and outs of how these symptoms play out in the real world. As a survivor and a therapist, these are the things I have learned about PTSD. These are the things that no one ever tells you is “normal” for survivors.
Nightmares and Flashbacks
The nightmares aren’t always about the specific trauma. They can fall under similar areas of fear, sometimes brought on by the trauma, and your fear can feel very silly when you think back on it while awake. Sometimes moving the bed can help ground you when you wake up from these nightmares.
They don’t tell you that life can be fine for a long while, and then something can set everything off again and send you spiraling. They don’t tell you that a look from a boss can place you back at six years old or bring back memories of an abusive relationship with a person you were supposed to be able to trust.
They don’t tell you that sometimes the body betrays us during sexual assaults, leading to guilt over “I liked it” when it is just the biology of the matter. They don’t tell you that you can have a drastically changed sex drive — that sometimes, you would do anything to get the taste and feel of it out of your head, while at other times, a simple look or touch can be too much.
They don’t really explain the hyper-vigilance very well either. It’s more than being hyper-aware. It’s hearing every conversation when walking through the store. It’s scanning the crowd to assess for danger. It’s a perfectly normal smell making your chest hurt and mind race. It’s the combination of facial expressions and situations that makes you wonder if every person who shares certain characteristics with the perpetrator is going to hurt you too. It’s waking up in the middle of the night with your heart racing because the cat bumped something.
They don’t tell you that your trauma and triggers are something that you really should share with your significant other, your best friend, your family — with anyone you ever expect to have a deep connection with. Because unless you open up, your actions or behaviors will seem to come out of nowhere.
They don’t tell you that you have the right to speak up when you feel uncomfortable. Even if you believe the other person didn’t mean anything by it. Even if you don’t want to hurt them. If someone truly cares about you, they won’t want to hurt you — even unintentionally — or cause scary thoughts to come back up. These people are part of your team, so don’t be afraid to speak up.
They don’t tell you that PTSD comes with a lot of anger and depression, too. It’s not just anxiety. It’s rage. It’s frustration. It’s a need to survive something that’s not even happening at the moment. It’s feeling overwhelmed by the thought of having to face it every day.
They don’t tell you that the suicidal thoughts will likely continue, with treatment or without, but that we get to choose to live each day. They don’t tell you that the battle you fight in your mind is ongoing and that it never really ends. They don’t tell you that sometimes it hurts so much, you think your body will just collapse in on itself.
They don’t tell you that your need for control will skyrocket. They don’t tell you that every time you feel that you aren’t in control, you will be angry or fearful. They don’t tell you that you’ll need to have stupid little things exactly so — the shower curtain pushed aside in a specific direction, the laundry folded a specific way, the dishes done a certain way. They don’t tell you that control (or lack thereof) will trigger fear that you will be hurt again and that there’s no stopping it. There is no rationalizing it away.
They don’t tell you that it can be months or years before you begin to feel significant stress from a situation. They don’t tell you that although sometimes it hits immediately, it may not happen until years after the event — when you finally know you are safe enough to allow a breakdown.
They don’t tell you that some days can be really good, while others really suck. They don’t tell you that there will be times you feel like you’ve beat it just to have it all crash over you again.
PTSD is complex. It’s different with each and every person. We all have different triggers, different coping skills, and different feelings about how to protect ourselves. Just because yours doesn’t fit the textbook examples doesn’t mean you are crazy. It doesn’t mean you are broken or abnormal. It just means you are experiencing this dreadful disorder in your own way and at your own time. So be kind to yourself, seek out help, and allow yourself time to heal.
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If you are a survivor in need of support, please refer to the hotlines provided on our page of Resources for Survivors.
Rebecca Shriver is a Licensed Certified Social Worker. She received her Bachelor's in Child Development and Family Studies with a minor in Communications from West Virginia University in 2013. She continued her education at West Virginia University in order to obtain her Master’s in Social Work. She is currently pursuing her Doctorate in Marriage and Family Therapy.
During her social work practice, Rebecca has worked in mental health crisis and therapy settings. She is involved with SHIELD and Survivor Tribe on both a personal and professional level. She is dedicated to empowering and advocating for children and survivors of abuse in her community.