By Cathy Bryant
A slightly puzzled look – then they ask, “Were you in Vietnam?”
That’s the most common response when I explain that I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was eight when the Vietnam War ended, incidentally!
The diagnosis ‘bipolar’ didn’t exist when I was first getting processed by the NHS after repeated self-harm and suicide attempts, thirty years ago; instead I got virtually every other diagnosis in a sort of Pick ‘n’ Mix of psychiatry. Endogenous depression is the one that annoys me most now – that means it comes from within for no reason. What an odd and inappropriate diagnosis to give to an abuse survivor.
My new and accurate diagnoses are: PTSD, General Anxiety Disorder, Depression with Anxiety, and Premenstrual Syndrome enhanced by Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. All the fun of the fair.
My current therapist wasn’t keen to give me a specific diagnosis – she said that she didn’t want to label me; but when the government required specifics, she insisted that when we went through all my previous diagnoses I didn’t feel constricted by them, and that she’d only put her name to ones that I, as well as she, felt were appropriate. Good therapist!
I told her that PTSD had been mooted.
“Well, it makes sense,” she said. “But – er – which trauma in particular?!”
That made me giggle, and thankfully I have the sort of therapist who can join in a giggle properly.
I asked her what PTSD was. She told me the story of a boy doing a paper round on his bike, who was chased by a dog – the big scary slavering sort. This went on for a while, the boy’s legs getting tired, and no one stopping to help. Eventually the dog pulled the boy off his bike and savaged him, doing severe damage to the femoral artery; the boy was rescued and recovered physically in hospital. He’s doing fine now – except that if he sees a dog or has to interact with a dog, he turns into a screaming mess. So he lives round his disorder, and has a life – he just has to keep well away from dogs. It’s not that simple, of course, and he has worked hard in therapy to sort his life out, but he’s still left with that basic wrinkle in his mind and life.
For some years I had what I think of as a bad-soap-opera-cheesy-storyline life, with a ton of traumas, and there are all sorts of triggers. There’s a particular problem with feeling trapped, or having someone with power over me who might hurt me (e.g. a doctor or a boss), but anything can trigger it – certain words, rooms, smells. Then I can’t breathe, and I have a panic attack in public, or a collapse in private. My 3D perceptions are heightened and things seem to jump out at me, be too brightly coloured. I can’t bear being in my body, and long to escape it – I’ll cut my way out if I have to. I’m a newly-caged animal, terrified and in agony. I can’t speak.
Like most people on the BP spectrum I’m fine, great even, until I’m not, and then it’s like falling off a cliff, only speeded up, and the crash at the bottom is not pretty.
I have trained my main carers to hold me silently and stroke my hair if they can – this seems to help; but an attack can last for hours and its effects will linger for days or even weeks. These effects are fear, shame, misery and inability to function.
It used to be worse, in that each attack felt Significant and Meaningful and This Is My Life and There Is No Hope. I’ve worked hard at wellness and I have managed to have rational survival thoughts – This Will Pass – My Life is Really Good And I Just Have To Get Through These Bits. I can feel them emotionally now as well as rationally, so that helps. Thank you, therapy. But I still self harm sometimes – better to cut an arm than my neck, I reckon, and the feeling can be that those are the choices. I am lucky to have excellent support now and so attacks are held to a minimum.
When I got arthritis in my twenties (there’s one of us in my family every generation – just bad luck) and couldn’t walk, suddenly I was met with public and official sympathy. Benefits were offered, criteria met, and people can see what is wrong. I’ve explained over and over again that my mental health problems are far worse, but people often don’t get it, and officials almost never believe it. The arthritis and fibromyalgia are painful, very painful and debilitating, but I’d rather have them than my mental health problems any day. If I could choose, I’d get rid of the mental problems before the physical.
I do understand that it’s hard to understand. But sometimes I get so tired of having to explain and explain and explain, though I know that explaining aids understanding.
Maybe next time I’m asked I’ll light a cigar, let my eyes glaze over and say, “Yeah, I was in ‘Nam…it was pretty bad in ’66…”