I feel like I’m laying on a glacier. The ground beneath me is cold and hard and my eyes can’t stay open. I open my drowsy eyes to an all enveloping darkness. No cracks of light, like I have woken to a universal void. Am I still sleeping? Are my eyes still closed? I blink to check. I am awake. My hand touches the floor, then moves to the throbbing gash on my forehead before I push myself up off the cold and unnaturally smooth ground. I am naked. I try to orient myself, but there is no up or down…where is left or right? I feel my heart start beating faster as I start to realise I am awake, and this is reality. My breath gets heavier as I step into the void, searching for a crack in a door or window to colour the blackness. As my hands move swiftly across the walls, my hopes of finding an escape seem to grow more and more distant. Panic sets in, it’s happening again. My movements become quicker, more desperate and I start using my nails to dig at the walls, clawing my way across and up and down the rough concrete. I feel like there are hands clasping my oesophagus and I hear foreign sounds coming from the back of my throat, like an injured animal caught in a trap. My fingers are stinging. I find my way to what seems to be a metal pole across the ceiling and start banging on it to make noise, finally I find my voice, and I start screaming for help, please someone come and find me. I bang the concrete until my hands hurt and pull at the metal bar. I have lost my voice. Suddenly there is cold water raining down on me, I slip, and grab onto some slippery plastic that breaks my fall and I bang my head again. I am trapped, and exhausted. There is no escape. I sit sobbing, wrapped in a plastic sheet, in my concrete cell, devoid of all light, with icy water running over my freezing, naked body, and I wait…
5 years ago, I was not OK. I was diagnosed with PTSD. My first symptoms arose swiftly and unexpectedly while watching a documentary on Thai boxing, my heart started beating as though I had run a marathon, I couldn’t catch my breath, I huddled in the corner of my boyfriends bedroom, rocking myself to feel comforted and safe. My boyfriend entered the room and asked what was wrong, but I couldn’t explain it…so instead of just sitting with me and comforting, he threw his arms in the air and said frustratedly “well what? Get it together, I can’t deal with this” and went upstairs to an easier, more comfortable environment. I eventually pulled myself off the floor and into bed…and depression for months to follow.
The triggers kept coming, and my big wake-up call was a trip to Bali, where after a night of drinking, I had a flashback so vivid and realistic, that I demolished a hotel bathroom trying to escape a concrete cell that I believed I had been put in by my captors, my traffickers. I was found huddled in the bathtub wrapped in a shower curtain, when hotel staff broke into our room to see what the commotion was. I had just experienced a psychotic episode, not uncommon for people who suffer from PTSD. In that moment, and with the alcohol in my system, and the giant flashing trigger of being in an environment very similar to the place where my trauma began, I truly believed that I had been kidnapped again…and this time, I was not escaping.
The hotel staff were lovely, they assumed I had been drugged and we went along with it, so that we wouldn’t have to pay the damages for the bathroom I had just destroyed. We felt bad, but we just couldn’t afford it, it had taken 2 years just to save for this small holiday with all the debts I still had looming from my last disaster trip from hell…6 years earlier (travel insurance isn’t worth the paper it’s written on, for the record). Who knows maybe I was drugged? But I don’t think so. Not like the last time. This time, it was all in my head, because that is where Post Traumatic Stress Disorder lives. PTSD feeds off the little similarities, the tiny nuances in our environment, that trigger the memory and emotional centres of our brain, the amygdala and hippocampus, to start reliving traumatic memories as if they are happening all over again. Sometimes, they don’t release the memories, just the physical symptoms, the adrenalin, the racing heart, the feeling of anxiousness first thing in the morning when you have nothing to be worried about, the feeling of leaving your body and not being present in your own life…the waking up and wishing you hadn’t, because you just don’t want to be here, in this horrible world where people do horrible things to each other…anymore.
The 3rd and final red flag, came about in a phone counselling class, where a mock crisis scenario involving a student who had been raped, caused me to leave my body and view my life from outside of my body…a classic dissociative experience. I realised this wasn’t the first time I had felt this way. I had left my body several times since my nightmare trip to Thailand that never ended, in 2003. Whenever something about kidnapping or sexual assault had come on the news, or each time I heard a rape joke in passing, or whenever someone made a sexist or female derogatory comment, or when I saw or heard something that objectified women…turning them into objects, not humans, that can be manipulated, drugged, kidnapped and potentially sold…as an object. I feel my heart beating now, as I write this, I feel a sandy grip around my wrist, I can smell J’adore in the air around me, but it isn’t there, it is an olfactory hallucination produced by my brain, telling me to panic, and run…and instead, I shake it off…and I breathe.
When PTSD reared it’s ugly masochistic head in 2009, I had little to no support from those people around me, who were meant to be my close friends, and my partner in life. I was lucky enough however, to have Lin & Megs, who encouraged me to see a psychologist and if it weren’t for their encouragement I would have continued having these horrible reactions to triggers, with no idea what was going on, or how to cope. These people saved my life.
For the next 6 months I underwent counselling, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Exposure Therapy and Journal Therapy…at one point, in the begining, I was so depressed that my psychologist threatened to have me sectioned. I decided right then, that I was not going to live like this anymore…and that I wanted to live a long and happy life, and I wanted to travel again one day. Most of all, I wanted to travel back to the same place, to Thailand, and stop this from happening to anyone else. I also decided to change psychologists, to someone a little more sensitive to my condition. It took seeing three different psychologists before I found one that I really clicked with, and it was worth perservering. I had been prescribed anti-depressants earlier, without any referral for therapy, and they had only made me more confused…not depressed…I just felt empty, with a strange sense of happiness and impulsivity, which was a very odd feeling to me, and I feel this is what contributed to my anxiety about the PTSD, I wasn’t dealing with the issues, just masking the symptoms.
I did fortnightly therapy for 6 months, I read newspaper articles about the things that terrified me, I stopped leaving the room when there was a rape on the news, I started wearing J’Adore again, and while I still get pounding hearts, and flashes of anger at injustice in the world, particularly to women, I cope. I breathe. I fight back or I shut it down, before it escalates into a full-blown break-down. Occasionally I still have triggers that are just too much, persistent people who like to antagonise and push people’s buttons when they see a reaction…I try to avoid those people like the plague, sometimes you can’t avoid them though, so I need to cope, and breathe. Lots of breathing…and yoga has been my saviour. It encompasses a deep connection to body and mind, that unites me back to myself, calms me completely, both physically and mentally, and just generally helps everything seem more manageable 🙂
My therapy did not stop after 6 months though, I use it everyday, and not just for PTSD, but to deal with any difficult time in my life. I don’t believe that anyone can be cured of PTSD, yet we can learn to cope with it, using the skills learnt in therapy. I still see a psychologist twice a year, or just when I feel like I’m forgetting something I’ve learnt or if something comes up that I’m not sure I have the skills to cope with…and just to let her know how I’m going.
PTSD brought up new memories for me of an experience I thought I had forgotten about, those memories had been hiding inside my brain, waiting for a trigger to bring them to the surface. I believe that this is a protective mechanism, I do not believe I would have coped as well, or even sought help, if these flashbacks had started sooner. It’s not the same for everyone, but when those symptoms start, it’s your brains way of saying “you’ve reached your coping capacity, you need some help to get you through the next part of your journey”.
I will eventually share the full story of what happened in Northern Thailand…that is a story for another day.
I share this story today, because today is RUOK? day and 5 years ago, I wasn’t OK, but today I am, because I had some good friends who asked if I was ok, and I got help with something that I was not equipped to deal with on my own. There is no shame in mental illness, it is only a shame to see someone losing their happiness because they feel like they can’t talk to anyone about it.
If you are struggling with depression, anxiety or any other condition that might need psychological or medical help, please take a look at some of these resources:
You can also see my post of free or low cost psychological services here: