Updated: Mar 11, 2022
How I decided to use my experience as a catalyst for creation rather than destruction.
A new perspective
This afternoon, my mind threw me back into my childhood. The memories were not of a happy childhood, playing with friends and having fun, but a dark and repressed memory of trauma long-buried beneath my conscious reach.
Episodes of PTSD have been a constant in my life for some time now. Thankfully, these attacks occur less frequently than before.
There has been a positive shift in my mindset towards my symptoms, and a new outlook on my condition. A shift that I hope will help me heal and find a deeper sense of purpose in life.
Today’s episode of pain and flashbacks has inspired me to write.
Whereas in the past an episode like this would leave me crippled, unable to do anything but rest, watch a film, eat food, and drink tea, these days I am more motivated to use my experience as a catalyst for creation rather than be defeated by it.
When I feel at my worst (or rather, once I have calmed down from the peak of my symptoms) I aim to embody my experience as art. I want to use my darkness for good: to paint, to write, to build something out of pain rather than be defeated by it.
As Carl Jung said, “we cannot change anything unless we accept it.”
Being someone with a past of subconscious denial, the idea of acceptance has long been on my mind. Recovery from mental health disorders doesn’t mean running from them. Nor does it mean throwing yourself so deeply into self-discovery that you become overwhelmed by your own darkness. There is a middle ground: to see the darkness, to accept it, and to use it to one's advantage, rather than be engulfed by it.
There is the possibility of seizing one’s own darkness, and although it is not always possible to control it, it might be possible in some cases to bend it towards one's own greater good: whether that be towards greater self-awareness, greater knowledge, empathy, or the creation of ideas, theories, stories, or works of art.
In my mental health journey, the final stage of creation has been a long time in the making. Of course, I needed support from a therapist and loved ones before I could even consider doing something like this. A time came when I was ready to stop therapy, when my own soul-searching became self-defeating, and when it was time to grasp my own life by the hands and steer it towards a brighter future.
Whereas I once believed that my symptoms and problems had to disappear before I could live a happy and fulfilling life, now I see that my mental health plays a crucial part in fulfilling my life purpose.
I think I've always been an artist and writer. What a good artist, writer, or philosopher needs is content. I am only 23, but life has already supplied me with plenty of experience from which I can create. Although there have been many darknesses in my life, these periods of struggle have been interspersed with ripples of understanding, love, learning, insight, and most of all, a will to knowledge. The will to happiness came much later.
As Marcel Proust wrote, "it almost seems as though a writer's works, like the water in an artisan well, mount to a height which is proportionate to the depth to which suffering has penetrated his heart."
In the same way that weight resistance builds physical strength - insight, empathy, and knowledge are gained from hardship. Perhaps life experience is a means of resistance from which the human spirit can grow stronger, or otherwise be crippled under the great weight of trauma, illness and suffering.
My experience of PTSD: what does an episode feel like?
I realise that although post-traumatic stress disorder is a pretty well-known phenomenon, most commonly associated with shell-shocked veterans returning from war, reading an objective list of symptoms is not the best way to understand what it really feels like to suffer the long-term effects of trauma.
It can be very difficult to empathise with a mental health condition or a physical illness unless we ourselves have experienced it (or at least have known someone close to us who has lived with the condition).
Since one of the symptoms of PTSD is avoidance, and often, a strong reluctance or inability to talk about the trauma, it seems fitting to attempt just the opposite - not an open account of the trauma itself (since there is no need to traumatise my readers), but an honest phenomenological (i.e. first-hand) account of the experience of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Experiencing an episode of PTSD:
Take this as a psychological account of my own experience, a self-study in the long-term effects of trauma aimed at increasing awareness of PTSD, empathy for traumatised individuals, and increased knowledge of the condition.
Although PTSD episodes sometimes strike me as sudden and unexpected, if I observe my emotions and thoughts well enough, I can usually track the build-up towards the peak of the attack (or at least recognise the steps in hindsight if my self-awareness is lacking in the moment).
This latter point is important: PTSD feels very foggy (so please excuse me if my account is also somewhat hazy, disjointed or broken since this is exactly the way it appears to consciousness). There is a lot of confusion present in the build-up and experience of an episode, likely because the mind is in a state of severe conflict, on the one hand trying to suppress painful memories, emotions and sensations, and on the other, bringing pain to one's awareness so it can be seen, accepted, processed, and healed from.
Building up to the peak:
Often, the first emotion I feel before the onset of the full episode is depression. This can last for hours or days. Depression is often mixed with some misdirected anger and resentment, swirling in a murky pool of sadness, lethargy, stress and anxiety. The emotions are not always distinct, and they come and go in their intensity. But once depression sets in and I begin having to battle with my own emotions, thoughts, and moods, I am already aware that something painful is bubbling beneath the surface.
Depression is not always the first sign of an episode. In fact, finding exactly what triggers me has been a real challenge, but an essential exercise towards finding the source of the problem. It was by carefully tracing my triggers and reactions that I was able to lure my repressed memories out from the unconscious mind and into the light.
Whilst on some days depression is the lead up to an episode, at other times, it is a mixture of shame and anxiety which trigger me towards a 'trauma state of mind.'
This latter phrase, 'trauma state of mind' is important. It was only within the last few months that I recognised this state of mind within myself as my most-inhabited perception of reality. To see my own 'trauma state of mind' from the outside was really eye-opening, since it really does a lot towards clouding, distorting, and negatively shaping my perception of the world. Learning that your mental perception isn't always an accurate picture of reality is more than a little startling, but it is also a hugely important step towards letting go of bad habits and toxic reactions which only serve to fuel one's condition.
As I said, shame and anxiety are triggers towards fuelling an episode of PTSD. Shame is especially toxic. I am not sure why so many traumatised people feel tremendous amounts of shame and guilt around their trauma. For me, the guilt lies not so much in the trauma itself, but in my perceived inability to 'get over' what happened to me and stop living in the past. I oftentimes despair after an episode, with thoughts like 'why can't I just move on' or 'how can I stop this from happening?' as if I was somehow to blame for these symptoms. I feel bad for the people around me who have to witness me in such turmoil and distress and at the same time, a sense of complete helplessness that is dependent on the presence, love and support of another. Like many people with PTSD, I also feel guilt about taking up space in the world, which sometimes manifests itself as a very counter-productive aversion towards life in general. Shame, on the other hand, is directed internally and has been a constant shadow hanging over my life. I have come a long way in the last year towards overcoming feelings of shame, replacing them with a sense of pride and self-love directed towards recognising how strong and resilient I have been in talking about and working through my painful experiences.
For me, stage two towards a PTSD episode is 'feeling off.' Once I've hit this stage, I know an attack is pretty much imminent. 'Feeling off,' I understand, is a pretty vague notion. The transition from feeling off to experiencing a full-blown episode goes something like this: 'feeling unwell,' 'feeling strange and off', 'feeling disconnected,' 'not being sure what's wrong', (panic and confusion increasing) 'being aware that something is wrong' (panic rising) 'feeling bad' (beginning to feel sick)...
At this point, I've already started having a PTSD episode. Much like a panic attack with added features (that wasn't meant to sound like I'm selling it), a PTSD episode is unclear, hazy, disjointed, and full of a lot of overwhelming feelings, emotions, thoughts and sensations. Now we're this far, here are the thoughts and feelings which comprise the attack (if you'd like to skip over distressing parts, feel free to jump ahead):
...'feeling really bad', 'trying to figure out why', 'intense upset and crying', 'recognition of trauma state', 'name of abuser jumps to mind' (very intense panic, sickness, crying, terror), 'hazy memories of the traumatic episode along with other memories which are tenuously linked', (cycle continues and increases in intensity), 'throwing up', 'completely dissociated' (i.e. feeling dizzy, ill, and disconnected from reality), 'physical pains in the area of trauma', 'pains trigger more memories', 'hyperventilation, 'distressing childhood thoughts and emotions', 'intrusive and strange thoughts', 'wanting to throw up or pass out', 'body spasming and flinching', 'crying and unable to talk', 'shutting down'...
As you might imagine, the end result is a very upset, scared and exhausted shell of a person. The whole experience feels like a battle in which the more you try to think about other things and root yourself in the present, the more violently intrusive thoughts and memories attack your mind and body. That said, there are techniques one can use to mitigate an attack - although I find that once I'm this far, very little can be done other than to wait it out and try to feel grounded. Breathing in for 5 and out for 8, drinking tea, or getting someone to ask me very basic questions about my environment can sometimes help me break the dissociation and return to the present moment. One can understand how once upon a time, people would have attributed such violent attacks, seemingly without a cause, to invisible entities or bad spirits. Trauma is invisible, but its effects are ever-present.
When researching trauma I came across a video on the author of 'The Body Keeps the Score' by Bessel van der Kolk (this is a must-read if you want to learn more about trauma and its effects on the mind and body). The most popular comment read, "The worst part of being traumatized is that people expect you to behave as if you aren't." I think this goes for any illness, disability, or disorder that's not explicitly seen: even in the midst of pain and suffering, we are expected to act as if nothing is wrong. It takes a lot of strength to act like we are coping in the midst of suffering, but it takes even greater strength to open up about your pain and admit that something is wrong.
This article is dedicated, not only to the survivors of trauma and the sufferers of PTSD, but to everyone out there fighting silent battles within their minds. May you find the strength and openness to share your battles with others and teach the world about your own unique perception of reality.
Thanks for reading. If you would like to talk about anything discussed in this article, please feel free to get in touch with me using the comments below or the contact box at the bottom of the page. You can also reach out to me on Instagram or Facebook using the social media icons.
PTSD UK: https://www.ptsduk.org/
Big Think: What is Trauma?: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJfmfkDQb14
Big Think: 6 Ways To Heal From Trauma: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZoZT8-HqI64
'The Body Keeps the Score' [Book] on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18693771-the-body-keeps-the-score
The Body Keeps the Score: The School of Life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSCXyYuT2rE
12 Signs You Might Be Suffering From Complex PTSD: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOibW5LXt3w&t=236s