Doctors Say I'm the Illest 'Cause I'm Suffering From PTSD

I went to my doctor this week. Last week, I signed a release for my counsellor to share information about my therapy with my doctor. My time off from work has already been approved, but I wasn't sure if I would get paid. I wasn’t even sure if I would have a valid diagnosis, so I was a bit shocked to find out I have PTSD and probably an Anxiety Disorder. Apparently many victims of domestic abuse identify with the symptoms of PTSD, but few are formally diagnosed.

This is what the Canadian Mental Health Association has to say about PTSD. I’ll emphasize the parts that resonate with me.

What is post-traumatic stress disorder? Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness. It involves exposure to trauma involving death or the threat of death, serious injury, or sexual violence. Something is traumatic when it is very frightening, overwhelming and causes a lot of distress. Trauma is often unexpected, and many people say that they felt powerless to stop or change the event. Traumatic events may include crimes, natural disasters, accidents, war or conflict, or other threats to life. It could be an event or situation that you experience yourself or something that happens to others, including loved ones. PTSD causes intrusive symptoms such as re-experiencing the traumatic event. Many people have vivid nightmares, flashbacks, or thoughts of the event that seem to come from nowhere. They often avoid things that remind them of the event—for example, someone who was hurt in a car crash might avoid driving.

PTSD can make people feel very nervous or ‘on edge’ all the time. Many feel startled very easily, have a hard time concentrating, feel irritable, or have problems sleeping well. They may often feel like something terrible is about to happen, even when they are safe. Some people feel very numb and detached. They may feel like things around them aren’t real, feel disconnected from their body or thoughts, or have a hard time feeling emotions.

I'm told addiction is related to trauma. When you're traumatized, you become stuck in a certain state in your life, and there are only a few ways to escape it that you know of. Sometimes it's a healthy or harmless outlet, like creating music, exercising, shouting at a TV. Sometimes it takes over your life. Some of my addictions right now is EDM, video games, sugary drinks, and TV. As I unfreeze from whatever traumas are stored in my memory, so will my addictions reduce. When the addictions as coping mechanisms become the source of more problems, then that's when I'll be in the danger zone. When the solution is the problem, like guns, there is little hope.

Carrie and I usually have one crisis per year, and this is shaping up to be the one for 2016.

It’s a little hard to believe I have PTSD. (One of the symptoms of PTSD listed above is not believing things around you aren't real, so go figure.) I find myself in a lot of situations where I’m shocked and I hold my breath, and sometimes I forget to continue breathing once the surprise has passed. I’ve joked a lot about how someone will describe a traumatic experience, for example, driving downtown by the arena after the big event finished, and I’ll joke that their story alone gave me PTSD. I’m pretty sure people can experience trauma simply by watching the news repeatedly talk about a shooting or natural disaster. It’s partly the fault of the news for sensationalizing tragedies to get viewers and ad dollars, but people should protect themselves from constant bombardment of traumatizing events. It’s normal and healthy to want to learn more about what happened, but there’s an unhealthy level of staying informed because feeling totally overwhelmed and powerless to address the disaster can be traumatizing.

I thought everyone experienced flashbacks. I thought others always felt unsafe and paranoid and fearful when there was no visible threat.

School was particularly hard for me because I never stopped feeling like I was missing something. I was sure there was always some assignment I was forgetting about, some class I was supposed to be in at the moment. I think it’s partly normal to feel this way in engineering school because you actually are always falling behind on assignments or lab reports, but the sensation was heightened for me compared to others. Combined with only feeling valuable if I was being useful, I always picked up new things like volunteering or projects for my hobbies, which burned my candle from three ends. I thought everyone struggled and had low grades, but some of my friends did really well; I’m very proud of the one course where I actually got an A. It’s kinda crazy to think that I had a mental illness through school. The heightened stress and my poor stress management probably only exacerbated it.

It’s crazy to think about how my family treated me now that I know I was mentally ill. None of us knew and couldn’t have known. I wonder if there's a family history. I'm sure tons of refugees suffer from PTSD.

I think one challenge of PTSD is that people just think that you’re unable to cope with the normal difficulties of life. Someone this week kept insinuating that I should learn how to deal with stress just like everybody else, but the ironic part is that I’m dealing with way more stress than most people my age. I don’t think people are meant to handle PTSD on their own. They need the support of professionals, friends, family, and society in general. I’m fortunate enough to live in Canada because we have the healthcare system and work culture that supported me having this kind of time off. Calgary might be expensive to live in, but I have the supports to make it work. This is the kind of situation where it would be nice to have a family to turn to, so I’m glad I made some changes to my family.

Being a victim of gaslighting (friendly reminder: a form of mental abuse where you're tricked into doubting your own memory, perception, and sanity), I had a hard time believing I even had any diagnosis worth taking time off. I was on the fence about whether there was even anything wrong with me, but then bam! PTSD diagnosis. Telling people about my time off, I explained the concept of resting when you're stretched too thin, even though they already fully understood and supported the concept. In those instances, I was probably trying to convince myself that it was okay to take time off, but my default posture is to assume that I'm wrong and nobody knows what I'm talking about and I'm the crazy one. It was quite a shock to learn that I had any diagnosis at all, let alone PTSD. Am I a war veteran?

I think some people see my time off work as a great vacation, but if this week was any indication, it only made room for the stress that I avoided. I cleared my plate, and it was filled up instantly with the items I wasn’t able to fit initially when I was overloaded. Even though I have time off work, it's going to be a tough and long few months. I'll be stressed, but just not from work anymore. I'll have to spend a lot of time with myself, and I'm not really that cool.

I haven't even thought about what it means to have an anxiety disorder, but I'll worry about that after the Calgary Stampede.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le