Real Shit: My Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Story
My time in college was riddled with constant ups and downs. It was a perpetual roller coaster ride I could not get off—the ascensions were exciting, and the drops numbing and brutal. In constant motion, I lived with the inability to simply breathe and be at ease, my heart always dropping to the pit of my stomach only to return to its original place in my chest cavity. But there is not a drop as brutal and frightening as living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
As with any mental condition, PTSD is a deeply personal and individually unique experience. It’s different for everyone, with some common characteristics. PTSD is not just reserved for individuals who have been in war, or who have lived in war-torn countries, or people who have witnessed horrible events and death. It comes when the mind is under more stress than it can process, and the origins of this stress can be anything.
For me, it was as simple as a bad relationship and a bad breakup.
I had never been in a relationship before college, so when I started dating my then-boyfriend, it was all new territory for me. I didn’t know how to be, I didn’t know how to act. I didn’t know what was okay and what wasn’t. I was so aware of my insignificance and smallness amongst so many people congregated in the same place for the same purpose that I couldn’t make sense of the possible importance I had to this one person. It seemed odd, at the time, that I was even remotely special. More importantly, it was because I was still trying to figure out my purpose and my place amongst all these people. How could I feel special of I didn’t really know who I was?
My ex and I dated on-and-off for the first two years of college. All that time spent with him was a constant struggle between not knowing what was acceptable and what wasn’t. Every time he did something to make me mad, I blamed it on my hot temper. Every time he said something insensitive, I blamed my hurt feelings on my over-sensitivity. He broke up with me a grand total of three times, and I took him back the two times he wanted to get back together. Over the course of our relationship, he had treated me so badly that I just accepted it as the norm. I didn’t know any better, even if my instinct told me otherwise. I figured that when you love someone as much, you’re willing to forgive and forget every mistake they make.
It was the last time we broke up that triggered something so overwhelming in my mind that I lost my ability to function on a daily basis for some amount of time.
He left me for someone else, that time. At the time he did, I thought our relationship had hit a high note. I thought that our relationship had gotten stronger, when it was apparently quite the opposite. I was left with feelings of emptiness and despair, because I thought that, for as much as we had been through together, that I had wasted so much time with him.
After all, he did break up with me with the words, “We weren’t really dating, and my friends here don’t get along with you, so it wouldn’t really work.” And he had always said before then that he loved me too.
In the months after that, he would talk to me constantly, claiming that he cared about me, and he wanted to know that I was doing okay without him. But he also came to me talking about the girl he left me for, telling me how perfect she was, how much he loved her and how much he wanted to marry her. He told me she was in his bed as he spoke. And I let speak to me about all these things because I still loved him and still wanted to be with him, despite all of his cruelty.
That was when the nightmares started.
I relived the breakup, over and over again in my sleep. It’s hard, reliving a rollercoaster drop like that every night. I remembered how my world seemed to disintegrate before me—the whole relationship seemed to be a setup to a bad joke, like fate was slapping me in the face. So when I relived every moment of breakup, so vividly as if I had been transported to the same exact crippling moment in the past, my mind seemed to reject the pain and suffering it was consistently experiencing.
At first, I was depressed. I slept all the time. I couldn’t bring myself to get up in the morning. I ignored friends and family, who were rightfully concerned about me. When the dreams became a regular occurrence, I stopped sleeping altogether. I feared losing consciousness, because at least when I was awake I could control the pain. In my sleep, it was as fresh as the day it happened. I lived in fear every minute of every day—for months.
I sought out a therapist to help me go through the motions. When she told me that it appeared that I had mild PTSD, it all made sense.
With therapy, the dreams eventually stopped. They still come once in a blue moon—I blame that on the lack of closure from the breakup and my residual mistrust of men. But when I do have those nightmares, they are still just as painful, and the drop is just as violent as when I first experienced it. It doesn’t matter how much I have changed since then. It doesn’t matter how much stronger I got. It doesn’t matter that I have separated my existence from others’ and that I am my own person, and that I don’t rely on others for happiness. I remember the way I was, I remember how empty and lost I was, and I still remember that pain of loss.
But that’s about all I remember.
I don’t remember much from the time with my ex. I don’t remember the good times or the bad. I can’t conjure to memory any particular instances during our relationship, or any particularities about his personality. I think that part of me was so hurt by his transgressions that my subconscious refuses to bring up to consciousness any part of my experience with him, aside from the actual moment of the breakup.
And that probably hurts more than anything else; even the dreams. Despite everything, without my time with him I would not be the person I am today. I would not have grown in the same way. I am thankful for the hell he put me through, in some ways.
When I saw Inside Out in theatres, I bawled like a baby, just like everyone else. But I’m not sure if I cried for the same reasons.
I know what it’s like to consciously lose a memory. For most people, it’s not just the memory that is lost but also any kind of associated trigger. If you had an imaginary friend when you were younger, you don’t just forget who or what that imaginary friend was, but you forget that you even had one in the first place.
I cried the hardest when the child’s first “personality island” of friendship collapsed into the pit of forgotten memories. For those who have not seen Inside Out, it’s a foundation of her personality. In other words, she forgot a part of herself. When my ex left me, I realized that I had “forgotten” a part of myself. So much of me had become him. Because I didn’t know who I was as a person at the time, because I didn’t have any goals or purpose of my own, he had become my world.
He was the project I was working on—his problems had become mine, after a while. His sadness was mine, as was his joy. I hated myself for giving up so much of my individuality to another person.
When the child’s imaginary friend faded away, lost in the depths of her subconscious, I understood that experience all too well. The first time I tried to recall to memory any part of that relationship and couldn’t, it was almost just as painful as the dreams I was having. I wanted to at least cherish the good parts, though they were few and far between. I had been holding on to those memories because, well, what else could I do? I was too preoccupied with grief that I thought of nothing else, and when, one day, I suddenly couldn’t remember anymore, my mind felt like an empty jar, full of emotion but nothing to substantiate that emotion.
While I still can’t remember anything of that relationship today, I have filled the jar with other memories, and happier ones too. I still wish I could remember certain things about my ex, but I don’t, and I don’t get too sad about it. When I have those nightmares, once in a blue moon, I give myself a couple of minutes to grieve, just as I did the first day, and then I remember that I am no longer in that same place of hurt I was before, and that I am no longer that lost, little girl I was halfway through college. Now, I have my own goals and aspirations. I am my own person. And that’s what living with PTSD taught me.
I don’t even want to be in that terrible place again, so I won’t give anybody else the opportunity to treat me the way he did—I know better now. I have to create boundaries for what is considered abuse and what is trivial. And most importantly, I won’t ever lose myself, my individuality, my uniqueness, in favor of another person.