PTSD: My Story of Unseen Scars
Unseen Scars called PTSD
This is a true and painful story of my journey from the unseen scars, wounds, and shame to a place of acceptance and understanding of what PTSD really is. For those who are just learning, PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder. Many people suffer from it and the ensuing anxiety and depression that is often associated following trauma. Not many understand it and even fewer will come to a diagnosis or acceptance that they are living with PTSD, depression, and/or anxiety. This is my story. This is my pain. My prayer and hope are that in sharing it, others will reflect on their own unseen scars and seek help or help support someone they care about struggling through their own nightmare because it is a constant battle and long road to healing.
My story starts five years ago. I was abducted, raped, and tortured five years ago this week. Anniversaries of trauma are hard and this one is no different. I was in a place that was thought to be safe. Yet in broad daylight, I was taken, then repeatedly raped and tortured. I was a wife and mother. They didn’t care. They didn’t care that I had saved myself completely for my husband until my wedding day. They didn’t care that I had a young child at home. My abductors even used a picture of my child I carry with me by holding it in my face while they sought an end to their own aim. I fought and after not getting what they wanted, I was freed. I returned home with a baggage of unseen mental and emotional scars I could tell no one about. I was going to protect my family and everything I knew at all costs-and that cost was me. The shame set in as I tried to return to normal life, seeing that the world very much looked the same, yet I was forever changed and there was no going back. The sky was so beautifully blue, the ocean deep emerald green, yet I felt like the leftover remnants of a shipwreck that no one knew nor cared about. I thought if I could bury all the disgust and pain deep down, it would go away. Somewhere deep down I knew denial was not going to work in the long run, but I still had a job to do, a family to take care of, and I felt incredibly blessed to not be returned home to my family in a box. Yet, as a human being, I felt shattered and struggled through unanswered questions on how to move forward after such a horrific experience. How could I find myself again amongst so much internal wreckage?
Early on, all I felt was that I had been abandoned, left to suffer alone with scars no one could see. I could fake a smile pretty well. No one knew, not even my family, the pain of the scars I was carrying. But over time, secrets start to rot like a bad onion, and the shame was eating away at my soul from the inside out. Whether your job is in the military or not, mental health still has a long way to go being accepted in society. Thankfully that conversation is starting to change for the better. Many nights I would cry alone, praying for God to just call me home. I sought counseling alone under the guise of marriage counseling, yet it got me no where because I felt I couldn’t actually talk about what I had lived through. I still felt like a victim and far from a survivor. The nightmare and shame were just too real. I would secretly sigh in relief at every medical health check up, knowing at least my particular trauma had not affected my physical body. Day in and day out, I would throw myself into my routine, praying for one more day to not have to deal with emotions that were too raw to handle. I lived this way for a complete year before I realized I was emotionally coming apart at the seams. I was terrified to tell my husband. Would he reject me? Would he think I was the garbage I felt inside that needed to be thrown to the curb? Even though I had flashbacks from my attackers telling me they would kill me if I told anyone, I finally found the courage to sit my husband down and tell him everything. He didn’t reject me. He didn’t throw me away. He just held me and cried with me. That was the first moment I started to heal. I finally wasn’t alone in my pain any longer. I finally had told my story from beginning to end for the first time in my life. The secret had been broken. The dam broke loose but there was still a long, painful road to healing and accepting what had happened.
From Victim to Survivor
I made changes in my life and career that allowed me to be free of hiding from PTSD. I medically retired from my job and finally allowed myself to be the one that needed love and protecting. It has taken years of counseling and letting go to understand that I am a survivor. I am not a victim. I am a survivor struggling with PTSD and the anxiety it brings. I had to learn how to love myself again. I had to accept that I was still worthy of love and being loved. I still felt broken but I had faith that somehow, someway, I was going to be able to help others one day. That through all the months and years of pain, I was not the only one struggling with PTSD and I could again help others. It took a fateful event in 2016 that made me realize that not only am I a survivor, but I’m still a fighter.
PTSD is very individual to each person and everyone has different triggers that can bring back fear and terror from the initial trauma. In the early summer of 2016, my son was out of school and at home with me. A man was trying to break into our home in the middle of the day. The police were 10 minutes away and my husband was at work. I hid my son and locked him in the safest part of our house instructing him to not come out for anyone except the police or me. I grabbed our gun and faced the burglar as he was trying to break in through the back door. I refused to be a victim and was going to protect my child, even if it meant my life. The burglar was not expecting someone to be home and I ordered him to leave. He ran away and I secured the backdoor while safely unloading then locking the gun back in the safe. My child was safe. He never saw or heard what had happened and that was all that mattered to me. I held him and told him everything was OK. Yet inside, I could feel I was far from OK. In the following days, the nightmares came back. I felt like I was losing a grip on reality. My individual triggers came flooding back. The picture of my child held in my face, feelings of my family being in danger, and a man who intended harm where I should have been safe. I knew inside that the PTSD was rearing its ugly head again and I needed help. We had moved the previous year and I found a new local Psychiatrist. Again, I told him and my new therapist my story. I was afraid of not being believed. You can’t see the scars of PTSD like you do a broken bone. But I had researched to find the best Doctor and he believed every word. Finding the right support is crucial. The right Doctors, Therapists, Counselors, family, and a few close friends becomes your lifeline when life throws you a PTSD curve-ball. It’s not like an ear infection that can be seen, diagnosed, and treated with a round of antibiotics. It is something you live with and fight everyday. There are good days, OK days, and some really, really tough days. That hot summer day in 2016 felt like I was back at square one. I had done everything right in the moment, yet only afterwards is when the shock wears off and the triggers set in. You don’t even realize it at first. It starts with feeling uncomfortable, irritable, edgy, and only later do you realize it’s full blown anxiety. Anxiety attacks began to happen regularly out of nowhere. It felt like I couldn’t breathe. I had never struggled with sleeping or anxiety prior to PTSD. The nightmares got so bad I was terrified to sleep. I would wander around our house cleaning in the middle of the night or reading a book, anything to distract myself. Distractions are important for me with a short term wave of anxiety. I find something funny to watch, call a family member or friend, and do anything to change my mind’s ever present need to scratch at that PTSD/anxiety itch which means replaying the trauma over and over like a movie in your head.
It’s Ok to Not by OK & Get Help
Often after the initial trauma or a triggering event, a person with PTSD can feel suicidal. We’re often just so tired and exhausted from dealing with the roller coaster of emotions. This can range from feeling like it would be fine to just die in your sleep to actually having a complete plan to attempt suicide. During these times, you need your support system to remove anything that can be used for self harm. You also need some down time and tlc. For me, this meant my husband changed the combination to our safe so I would not have access to any weapon as recommended by my Psychiatrist. For others, this may mean needing someone to monitor access to medications or behavior. After the attempted burglary, my husband took our son to spend a couple of weeks with his Grandparents. I needed this time to just let everything out and not do it in front of my child. The last thing I want is for him to see Mommy fall apart. This can make everyday life difficult when you don’t have the ability to leave your job, have someone take over your responsibilities, and deal with your emotions. This is where having your support system, knowing yourself, and your own triggers is vital. I learned breathing techniques, listened to recorded meditation exercises online, and immersed in physical exercise such as swimming and running. Learning techniques to self soothe and release tension are life savers. Exerting yourself physically helps to release a lot of emotional stress and anxiety. The endorphins are good for your brain and help you to get past the momentary anxiety and fear as well as deal with the long term depression PTSD can bring.
My Breaking Point
With my son at his Grandparents, I was at my lowest point. I had a kidney stone less than a week after the attempted break in which required a visit to the hospital. Between the pain, exhaustion, and roller coaster my emotions had been on for the previous week, I was at my breaking point. After returning home from a long night in the hospital, my husband went to sleep and I wrote a suicide note. My hands shook as I realized I had come up with a plan and wanted out. No amount of faith or prayer was helping and I was at rock bottom. My husband was so tired I couldn’t call out to wake him up. I left the note on the side table in the living room and something inside me cried “NO!”. I was still in too much pain to walk, so I crawled on my hands and knees to our bed. I got myself away from the note and was finally able to wake up my husband. I was drenched in sweat and tears. For all the previous years of fighting, I had never actually wanted out. I had never put my final words on paper. Again, my husband held me and we called my doctor. I didn’t really want to die but I couldn’t cope with the pain, physically and emotionally, anymore. I confided in two dear friends who know everything. My support system rallied and I wasn’t left alone. I followed up with my doctor and therapist. I talked, and I talked a lot! I needed to get everything out I had been holding in. For the first time, my husband and I started Pastoral Christian Counseling. The important thing to understand is that PTSD does not only impact the person living with it. It impacts every relationship in their life including their spouse/significant other, family, loved ones, and friends. Anyone living with a person suffering with PTSD needs support too. They see us struggle and often feel helpless to do anything about this unseen illness. It can become frustrating for everyone involved. So be proactive and get help when it is needed.
Keep Moving: Our Journey of Healing
PTSD is never something you “just get over”. It becomes something you learn to manage and live with every single day. As I take my vitamins every morning, I’m just as much aware of how I’m feeling for the day and what things I need to do to help myself. Keep moving, exercise, find those things in your life that, even if hard to start, leave you smiling and give you a sense of accomplishment. These are the things that ground you, move you, and keep you looking forward, not back. Personally, music is therapy for my soul. I have played the piano since I was three and have learned many other instruments over the years. Music and songwriting speak to me in ways that seep into the deepest parts of my being. It can change how I feel and often reminds me of things I need to hear in that very moment. I love creative writing and journal daily. I also look back in my journal and it reminds me of just how far I’ve come. I reread the moments I didn’t think I could take anymore and remind myself that I’m still here, I’m still fighting and have so much more to do in life. My life didn’t end with PTSD. Yes it changed, but it has shaped me into a person who sees another’s pain, their unseen scars, and has given me a heart to reach out in genuine love and kindness. It’s important for others to know they are not alone and have a person in their corner who understands. These are the people you can call at 2 AM in the morning and say, “hey, I’m not doing ok” and they are there for you. These people are cherished blessings. They see you at your worst and still love you for who you are. I call them Super Heroes because that is what they are to me. And we can in turn be that Super Hero to someone else.
PTSD, anxiety, and depression are just hard. It’s ok to say it because it’s true. But it’s not the end of your story or mine. It doesn’t have to define you. Wherever your story with PTSD began, it is a struggle and there’s no denying that. Life comes with ups and downs and living with PTSD means actively managing these downs much more. But that doesn’t mean you’re broken, worthless, or unlovable…it means you are a survivor, a fighter and so much stronger than you even know! You are worth it! You are loved! Even if you don’t believe that right now, trust me, it’s true. So where are you in your story? Remember- get help, find your support system, get involved, take care of yourself, and most importantly-be patient with yourself too. Healing is a journey and we’re all in this together. You are not alone!
…Her Real Story
Amanda Cureton – follow her journey on Twitter – @floridagal82