My Mind Wasn’t Lost, I Had PTSD: By Susannah
HA notes: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Susannah” is a pseudonym.
Writing about mental illness frightens me.
It’s a topic I don’t like to think or talk about, especially at times when it takes a lot of energy to maintain my emotional equilibrium.
My grandmother used to go through phases when she would sign our birthday cards “Snowflake” instead of “Gramma”, which always unsettled me. Other times she just took her “happy pills”, to my mother’s chagrin. My parents were opposed to “mind-altering drugs” and “worldly philosophies” of psychology. They were also followers of Bill Gothard, whose singular ideas about the root causes of mental illness are legendary. We were taught to smile to create good feelings, to force enthusiasm, to “submit” to authority even when we disagreed, and not to express “bad” feelings.
It was a recipe for disaster.
Though we knew numerous Christian people who suffered from depression, anxiety, mood disorders, and even psychosis at times, prayer–and maybe fasting–was considered the [only] acceptable course of treatment. One did not consult physicians (ours was a Catholic man who prayed with his patients and recommended homeopathic remedies) for problems with spiritual causes. One might consult a trusted pastor, but they never seemed able to offer anything but more prayer and Bible reading, which we certainly did enough of, anyway.
My sisters and I learned that it was better to keep our private internal conflicts inside our own heads.
I started having panic attacks as an adult when my other grandmother, my closest friend outside the world of religious homeschooling, died of cancer. (We used to pray daily that she wouldn’t perish in hell.) I went to the E.R. only to be told that my symptoms were a classic presentation of anxiety. Panic attacks? Me? As the eldest of eleven siblings, I had prided myself on being strong and resilient.
I was not happy to learn that my body had ways of bypassing instruction from my brain!
Like the society in Shyamalan’s “The Village”, the world I was raised in had been hemmed in by fears: fear of God, fear of Satan, fear of persecution, fear of government control, fear of strangers or nosy neighbors, fear of vaccines and unhealthy foods, fear of ourselves. Though I had left that world years earlier, the patterns of anxiety were worn deep in my psyche. For the next eight months, I struggled with fear, insomnia, and depression. I did seek out a therapist who helped me process the fears of my past.
The fog eventually lifted, and life moved on.
Later on, the panic attacks returned with a vengeance–this time triggered by a college professor whose rude and controlling manner in the classroom dredged up numerous uncalled-for memories of misogynistic “spiritual leaders” from my past. Physically and emotionally overwhelmed, I returned to my therapist, who recognized PTSD. I was a child again, being spanked across my dad’s lap for asking one too many questions. I was a teenager trapped in his office being told my character flaws, or in his car while he asked about my sexual thoughts. I was a young woman in a fundamentalist cult organization where women had to be led, protected, and prevented from “causing” men to lust. I was walking on eggshells in my mom’s kitchen, afraid of accidentally saying, doing, or not doing something that would send her upstairs to her room in tears.
I started reading about C-PTSD, especially as it relates to adults whose childhood was abusive or neglectful. It made so much sense, and I was relieved to know my mind wasn’t “lost”, only responding normally to being bruised again and again. Medication didn’t help my situation a bit (made it worse, actually), but I found that writing and exercise would counteract insomnia and stress-induced pain, while yoga and coloring pictures calmed my hypervigilant and anxious mind. Meanwhile, supportive, healthy friendships gave me a new standard of how respectful adults interact.
Knowing people outside my family whom I can trust and talk to about my struggles means the world to me.
For so many years, I knew no one who would not defend my parents. I was socially isolated and there was no one I could turn to for objective counsel. Every major influence in our lives reinforced the fear and the pressure to conform our everyday emotions to an ideal level of contentment. But my friends and neighbors have never been judgmental; they never assume that depression or anxiety are my fault. More often than not, we end up sharing stories of feeling weak and of overcoming hard things. And when they ask me how I’m doing, I don’t feel I need to make something up.
The realization that all emotions are valid aspects of human experience was a huge relief to me. I am learning to first acknowledge my feelings without judging them, and then to choose how I want to act on them.