Every day begins the same: I open my eyes and take a long deep breath. I attempt to inhale the moment — to embrace the present — but before I exhale, a chill snakes up my back. I feel my body quiver with uncertainty because I am unclear what the morning may bring, what my day may look like, and what life may throw may throw my way, because I am an abuse survivor; one who silently struggles with PTSD.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD (or post-traumatic stress disorder), is a psychiatric disorder that can occur after a person experiences or witnesses a traumatic event. It’s characterized by “intense, disturbing thoughts … flashbacks [and/]or nightmares … sadness, fear [and/]or anger.” People living with PTSD may feel “detached or estranged,” leading them to avoid certain situations or people that remind them of the traumatic event they lived through. According to the APA, they may also “have strong negative reactions to something as ordinary as a loud noise or an accidental touch.”
And while I do have triggers — like sudden flashbacks and intrusive thoughts — my PTSD isn’t marked by avoidance or negativity, it is marked by a feeling.
Physical and emotional feelings.
You see, when what I can only describe as a “episode” hits — when I encounter a trigger — I feel the tremors first. My hands shake. My heart pumps hard and fast, so hard it feels as though it will tear through my chest. So hard I can actually feel it pounding into my ribcage. Thud, thud. Thud, thud. Filling the space just beneath my left breast, and I struggle to catch my breath.
I no longer feel safe in my bed, my home, or my body.
I no longer feel safe in my own mind, and for good reason. Because what comes next — while an illusion — feels real. To me, it is real. I am staring into my abuser’s glossy, red and rage-filled eyes. I see his closed fists and my bloody face. I smell the sewage and stall liquor flowing down Sansom Street as I hide between two dumpsters, and my chest burns from the breath I will not take. From the tears I refuse to cry. And I choke on the water filling my mouth. The bathwater which floods my eyes and rushes into my nostrils as he holds my head beneath the water. As I kick and flail and attempt to break free, but it is no use. The harder I fight, the more water I swallow, and so I freeze.
I stop moving and breathing and find myself paralyzed in the moment.
Eventually, I find an anchor. I hear my daughter’s laugh or a passing car. I hear something familiar — something which shouldn’t be in this moment or memory — and then (and only then) do I look around and take a breath.Then, and only then, do I realize there is no booze, no blood, no bruises, no morning-after bullshit. Then, and only then, do I remember I am safe.
In this moment I am — deep breath — safe.
But the truth is, I am never really OK. I am always surrounded by noise and clutter. My mind is always racing and I am in a constant state of chaos. On edge and aware. I am hypervigilant and, because of this, I overcompensate: I plan every detail of my day. I micromanage my life. And “the fear” rages inside me. It swallows my voice and fractures my mind. It keeps me inside, and alone. It dominates every decision I make, and it forces me to keep everyone in my life at arm’s length.
I refuse to let anyone in. Even my mother. Even my husband, my brother, and my best friends.
Of course, I would like to tell you there is some sort of happy ending here — I would love to tell you that the fear is dissipating and the flashbacks have stopped — but it hasn’t. They haven’t, and saying so would be a lie.
A bold and brazen lie.
Make no mistake: Over the last 16 months the flashes have become less frequent. I have gotten to the point where I can smell booze without shutting down. I can go swimming and hold my head underwater — but only for an instant, only for one brief and fleeting second — and, on most days, my husband can wrap his arms around my waist without me freezing up.
But the fear is still there. The flashes still come, and I’m not sure they will ever go away.
I’m not sure I’ll ever catch my breath. But I hold out hope that some day, I finally will.