Personal Stories

What It’s Like To Live With PTSD

By Charley

Before I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I didn’t hold much of a clue as to what it really was. At the point of my accident, I had 8 years experience working in a mental health setting and through that time I think I’d come across only one person hospitalised with PTSD and even then, I didn’t have that much contact with them. I, like many others, held the assumption that PTSD was something war veterans suffered with and the rest of us didn’t really get it.

During the weeks after my accident, I didn’t notice much of a change in my own behaviour as I hadn’t been very well for the months prior and so I assumed anything at this point was a continuation.

I became obsessive about my accident, the events leading up to it, how it happened and why it happened. When I woke up in the hospital the morning after, I had no idea why I was there. I could feel unbearable pain through my entire body, my head ached and I could barely move. I couldn’t remember a thing. I didn’t remember who I was with, where I’d been, where I lived, where I worked or that I’d even been run over. This lasted a number of hours. All the health care assistants and nurses could tell me was that I’d been hit by a car. My first thought was, how? Was it an accident? Had I done it on purpose? It seemed ridiculous. I wasn’t suicidal so, why would I?
During the weeks after the accident, I tried desperately to piece everything together. I walked up and down the road and every road surrounding the area where I was hit. I even timed my self and how long it would take to walk from one place to another. I would do this multiple times a day even in the rain then sit on the pavement and stare at the road until maybe it made more sense. If I look from my front window, I can see exactly where I was hit, exactly where I landed and exactly where I was stood for the events leading up to the accident.
I asked every single person involved and anyone who had seen me hours beforehand the same questions over and over again.
What happened?
What did I do?
What did I say?
What made me act the way I did?

The simple answer, I had no idea. That in itself became very distressing to me but the fact that I had no memory of the incident allowed me to find what I thought was some peace of mind. For 6-8 weeks, I questioned the same people about the same thing and though I believed some more than others and some not at all, I had what I thought was a solid time line and a time line that made sense.

So, what symptoms do I suffer from?

  • Flashbacks
  • Dissociation/Detatchment
  • Numbing
  • Depression
  • Avoidance
  • Anxiety
  • Intrusive thoughts

And what Triggers do I have?

  • Sirens
  • Alarms
  • Hospital machine noises
  • Crossing busy roads
  • Dark nights/Weather changes

I’ll try and touch on a few symptoms and triggers in this post without rambling on too much. I don’t suffer from these symptoms every day and at the moment, I am fully functioning and for the most part, well. I am focusing in on the worst parts for the purpose of this post.

Flashbacks
My first flashback hit me harder than that car ever could. Up until this point I thought I had no recollection of the accident but there it was, in HD. I felt cold and in that same moment, I wasn’t in my house, I wasn’t warm or safe. I was freezing cold, in the road, screaming in pain, shaking and crying, pleading with my friend not to leave me. Everything felt black and all I could feel was pain. My body ached and all I could see was the same view I had when I came round from being unconscious. Sirens, paramedics, people standing over me. Other memories after that are prevalent but blurry. Such as being moved into the ambulance, arriving at A&E.

I had that same flashback for months with that same feeling every time. The only way I can describe it is like every breath being drawn out of your body and every ounce of strength being taken away from you and then you fall. The second flashback came some weeks later where I saw the car moments before it hit me and I then began to remember the minutes leading up to the accident. Slowly from there I was able to piece together what actually happened but the bits that remained blurry still caused me to feel somewhat, incomplete. How did I deal with it? At first, I didn’t. I didn’t tell anyone and for a short period of time, I began to drink again. Drinking numbed the flashbacks, made them dull somehow. A good friend had words with me and helped me to find other ways to cope.

Even after the first flashbacks I didn’t realise that I had developed PTSD. I assumed that if you were going to suffer that it would onset straight away but I was mistaken, PTSD can develop days, weeks or months later. The act of being run over didn’t particularly phase me, as strange as that sounds, but it wasn’t until a discussion with my CPN revealed that it isn’t necessarily the physical trauma that the distress is centered around, it’s the emotional trauma. I stopped to realise at this point that I really was suffering that this was a real problem and that a bit of medication wasn’t going to erase it. I needed psychology and I still do as I remain on their ever lasting waiting list.

Dissociation/Anxiety
I’ve discussed the flashbacks. Secondary to that is the dissociation. For those who don’t know what dissociating is, here’s a brief definition below…
Dissociation is a mental process that causes a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, memory and sense of identity.

And it feels like just that. I get very real sensations of not being in my own body. It’s my minds way of saying “okay Charley, these thoughts are getting too much, I need to escape”. Sometimes I feel like I’m in 2017 again and I relive the very same sensations I did at that time i.e. Sickness, anxiety, lack of appetite, depression. If the weather, temperature and place all match up then sometimes I even have a genuinely difficult time distinguishing exactly where I am. This can happen at any point but 99.9% it’s at home or when I’m not at work. When I’m out of work I’m not as distracted, my mind is more open and I tend to have my thoughts running more freely through my mind. Sometimes I just go cold and I can’t breathe. These are the moments I know that I’m dissociating and I have to find a way to ground my self and remind my self that things aren’t that bad anymore. I usually do this by speaking with a friend, spending time with my daughter, taking the dogs for a walk or going to the gym. You have to find something that works for you.

It’s a heartbreaking feeling to know I experienced something so traumatic to my heart and mind that I have to verbally remind my self I’m not there anymore. My affirmations usually contain something along the lines of me telling my self “It’s okay, you’re safe now”. It’s like watching a horror movie for the first time over and over again and there’s no stop button, no escape. You have no choice but to see and feel what your mind wants you to because you’re unable to process the emotional trauma you experienced and that leads in to the intrusive thoughts.

Intrusive thoughts
An intrusive thought is an unwelcome involuntary thought, image, or unpleasant idea that may become an obsession, is upsetting or distressing, and can feel difficult to manage or eliminate.
For most of the year my flashbacks had mostly been through intrusive thoughts, they weren’t always too intense and I was able to handle them and push past them with distraction. But instrusive thoughts can be incredibly distressing, in this case I suffered with a repeated thought that I wasn’t supposed to here. Without going into too much detail, as the anniversary drew closer, my thoughts told me that the car accident should have killed me and that I wasn’t supposed to be here. My thoughts convinced me that I should fix what didn’t happen last year and that I should act upon these distressing thoughts. Thinking about that more now and more clearly, it was my brains way of saying “I haven’t processed how lucky I am to be alive” and “It was an accident, you weren’t supposed to die”. A car hit me at full speed, I smashed a windscreen with my head and was thrown 6 feet into the air so by all accounts I was incredibly lucky to have survived, as the surgeon reinforced at the hospital. It took a long chat with a good friend and a real good cry to make me realise that it was an accident and that of course I should be here, I was given a second chance.

Triggers
Triggers are different from my symptoms. Usually when triggers affect me, I’m having a good day with no thought to my accident and hearing a siren, seeing blue flashing lights or crossing a road will enable my symptoms to start or trigger a flashback/intrusive thought. This can happen on any day, any time with no given warning. I’m usually able to find a way to cope with this and that’s usually by affirmations, reassuring my self I’m safe, talking with a friend or taking some anxiety medication as a last resort. It’s manageable and up until the anniversary of the accident, I’ve luckily never had to have time off work. Some people unfortunately can’t manage their symptoms/triggers this way and the condition is incredibly disabling.

This post took me way longer than I wanted it to. Writing about this triggered many unwanted thoughts and feelings. It’s still a little incomplete and not quite how I want it to be or in the order I wanted it to be in but it’s getting too much for me now so I’m going to draw it to a close.

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