CW: child abuse and sexual abuse are mentioned, though not in detail
I was diagnosed with PTSD in 2017. When I walked out of the psychiatrist’s office that day, I held the single piece of paper that reformed my world. On the top left corner, it read: “Diagnosis: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”. My immediate thought was that it bothered me that there wasn’t a hyphen between “post” and “traumatic.” My second thought was that it wasn’t real, it was a joke. The sky was blue above me and the cement walkway below me was gray, and the decorative mesquite trees around me were green. Yet, in that moment those things were every color, and I was walking upside down.
I had been in counseling for a couple months, and the prevailing fear was that I had schizophrenia. That visit with the psychiatrist, however, validated all of the pain I had endured and the psychological repercussions of that pain. I knew nothing about PTSD at the time, but I had an idea what it meant. It meant that what had happened to me was real. I wasn’t ready for that understanding.
PTSD covers a wide range of situations, all of them valid and all of them difficult. From losing a loved one to enduring a car accident, anyone can be affected. You can find that information yourself at WebMD. I didn’t know this at first. I didn’t know there was a life beyond it, either. The only example I had to go off of was a veteran returning home from war. I had to realize that abuse survivors don’t talk about it. I had to realize that we don’t have representation. I don’t know a celebrity who went through twenty years of abuse. I don’t know a movie where a survivor didn’t commit suicide or become evil in the end. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them shattered me after I saw what became of Credence. (Though I can’t stop myself from holding hope for him.)
I don’t know a place where child abuse survivors gather in bravery and comradery. If you do, show me that place. If any of these resources do exist, they aren’t loud enough for survivors to hear.
I had to redefine the definition of a child abuse survivor to suit what I want for myself. I had to decide, and I’m still deciding, that I am going to create my relief. I desire a life where I have a family and a career, and I can acknowledge my past at the same time.
Now that I know what PTSD is, I’m able to walk out of an appointment without the universe tipping over and spilling its paint everywhere. I’m able to feel proud that I escaped from my previous situation on my own and moved on to a place where I can walk freely. Yet, I have still struggled to reconcile the pain with my everyday life.
PTSD is a raging monster of a mental disorder. It cannot be contained. It needs to express its thoughts and tear down walls. Any effort to place the monster in a box makes it grow several times over. Its attacks are unpredictable. It calls bullshit on any assurance that it can be managed. PTSD is my pet velociraptor, except in real life, Chris Pratt isn’t there to communicate love into its primitive brain.
I don’t know what it’s like to have a full, natural night of sleep. The idea that I’m dreaming all of the good parts right now keeps me constantly vigilant. I’m always aware of my surroundings. I’m an adult, and I still check under my bed. Then I check again just to make sure. Any sound or smell can propel me back in to the past, falling dizzily through time until I’m suddenly shoved back into the present, confused and exhausted. The monster doesn’t care where I am or who I’m with. It wants to be alone, its backside to a corner, shaking and angry.
The point being that if I can’t keep my PTSD pinned down, if it’s always going to be as looming and heavy as it was the day I was first diagnosed, how do I have the life I desire? When will everything fall apart, like it has for all of my predecessors?
I found the answer to that question this morning when I woke up in my boyfriend’s arms. Not just next to him. He’s the sort of person to hold you close through the night. I found the answer again when I was listening to Julia Michaels’ “Happy” in my Honda. I found it in my past when I first came out as bisexual and friends sent me heart emojis. I found it when I started recording the Arizona sunsets in photographs, watching the sky turn multiple pinks at once.
I found the answer when I looked up from the paper that reformed my life in 2017 and saw that the ground was right-side up, and the colors were still so vibrantly true to themselves. I have always been able to slow down my panic attacks by feeling what’s around me in the moment. I take the monster and I give it flowers. I don’t pretend it doesn’t exist; I don’t force it into a cage. I validate him. I give him a name and a blanket and tell him he is going to stay. And that he is going to be okay.
Life is always a tragedy. There is nothing glorious about how we humans stumble around, destroying our planet and making excuses for our behavior and conditions. But nature is constantly showing off its beauty behind the light pollution. If life was a Shakespearean play, we would be the relatable characters and the incredible dialogue behind the conflict. The answer is therapy, it’s daily vitamins, it’s writing poetry, it’s exercise, it’s planting a flower for the bees.
The answer is you are never alone. You exist for no reason; you exist for every reason. You are the only you who needs to be here. You should question the things that try to bring you down. You deserve to better yourself. There are people who love you. Again, there are people who love you. You will be okay.
Emily Mardelle is a poet, essayist, and student at Arizona State University. Her work is influenced by local experiences, rhetoric, the Gothic, and LGBT+ issues. She was a blogger for the Superstition Review from 2017 to 2018. She resides in Mesa, Arizona. Instagram: @emilymardelle