Changing My Definition
I, like many others, associated PTSD with veterans and rarely heard the acronym used in my daily life. Mental health wasn’t something that was talked about, let alone an aspect of my life that needed attention. My awareness of my mental health was limited to the knowledge of an addiction and an eating disorder, which developed out of two experiences of sexual trauma, but I did not recognize the extent of my pain. I thought my emotional outbursts, anger and irritability, the constant fear for my safety, my inability to trust others, involuntary cringes when specific parts of my body were touched and avoidance of intimacy were merely negative aspects of my personality that I sealed within the knots of my stomach. This pain – concealed in disordered eating and substance abuse – felt like a weakness, something to keep guarded from others. It wasn’t until I became willing to step into recovery that I learned the truth about what I was experiencing.
Five years into sobriety, I sat in my therapists’ office desperate to find relief from my eating disorder and explained this pain and anger I had carried for decades. I couldn’t understand why even after abstinence from drugs and alcohol I still felt boiling anger, overwhelming sadness, crippling fear and had a system of defenses in place to keep myself safe from others. She said something to the effect of, “those symptoms are common with complex-ptsd.” The letters “P T S D” shot out of her mouth, and hung stiffly in the air. She continued to talk but my ears deafened as I stared at the letters glaring back at me. How could I have PTSD? My experience didn’t compare to that of a veteran. It is common for addicts and people with eating disorders to have sexual assault experiences – how is mine bad enough to be labeled as PTSD?
And there it was, the word that had defined my existence – enough. I never felt small enough, pretty enough, smart enough, worthy enough and now traumatized enough. I didn’t feel as though I deserved that diagnosis, that my experiences were worthy to carry the significance of those four letters.
Returning home I began researching, finding article after article explaining these physical and emotional symptoms that I carried for decades. Although I began to understand that having PTSD can cover a variety of traumatic experiences, I still felt a sense of shame for relating to this diagnosis. Out of every symptom listed, I could relate to each one with some degree, but I didn’t want to. I wanted my problems to begin and end with eating disorder and addiction. This meant there was more. More to dig, more to process, more to relive. Fear had disguised itself as shame.
Acceptance and willingness appeared in stages. The day the acronym PTSD was said in reference to what I was feeling, I had to ask myself, “can I allow this to be a possibility for what I am feeling?” Saying yes to this question led to research. I then had to ask myself, “can I allow some flexibility in how I think of PTSD?” If I could allow a change in my definition of what I thought PTSD meant, then there was room for acceptance of what it meant in my life. And then finally asking, “am I willing to dig into this wound with someone I trust?” Facing the trauma included the excruciating process of opening this sealed wound, cleaning it thoroughly, digging around and removing fragmented pieces, sterilizing, and finally, allowing it to heal itself, on its own time.
Accepting the fact that I had PTSD took months but I began to feel like I wasn’t alone. Trauma had taken parts of my soul. I might have to crack and shatter the glass that was keeping me guarded to slowly rebuild my soul piece by piece. But I was not broken or damaged goods. I was bent, bruised and maybe a little frayed but not broken. I could rebuild and grow into someone new.
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