I write often here about living with Cerebral Palsy because it is what I have a grip on and feel confident in putting into words. But, my experience with disability goes much further than CP, and I think I need to start talking about my other disabilities in order to gain the familiarity I have come to take for granted with CP. So, yup: here we go. I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and it’s really really hard to keep up with and understand. When most people think of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, they think of combat veterans and sexual assault survivors. Or, at least, that’s what I thought of when I was first diagnosed a year and a half ago. In actuality, though, PTSD can result from a wide variety of traumatic experiences, because (according to Merriam Webster) trauma is broadly defined as “a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress”. Think about what causes you stress. Trauma is the result of the extreme of that, often manifesting in one experience or event. Along the same lines, a “trigger” is anything that brings that stress to the forefront, which can literally be anything. Usually, it is something very specific to the person’s individual traumatic experience, making it impossible for others to know what one’s triggers are, unless very explicitly stated.
My Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is very much socially and emotionally based, as opposed to physically like that of a veteran or assault survivor. So what I am triggered by and sensitive to are vastly different than either of those demographics. I am triggered by and sensitive to a number of things that are seemingly random without the background that my trauma is based in social situations. Triggers are easier to explain than general sensitivities, but still difficult to explain. I am triggered by brusque confrontations, and I am triggered by being actively left out by a group of people, or being a part of a group that for whatever reason, excludes people. By extension, I am triggered by many group dynamics themselves, and struggle to feel confident in groups of peers my own age. I get very anxious when having to socialize with a group bigger than two other people, and feel much more comfortable in one on one conversations than big group discussions where you have to independently jump in to further the conversation. Also, I am often triggered if a social routine is broken. If I always sit next to the same person in a class, and then one day the person elects to sit somewhere else, I will spend hours and hours analyzing that decision even if the reasoning behind it had nothing to do with me. By extension, the same can be said for larger choices others may make, like someone having to cancel plans or choosing to stop being my friend altogether. Seeing all of this on paper in a non-triggered state is excruciating, because right now, as I am in a rational mind, these things seem trivial and not worth my time, so it’s hard to admit I am so deeply affected. But PTSD is defined by losing grasp on reality, and being unable to distinguish what is happening in the here and now right in front of you. So when triggered, rationale is non-existent, and everything feels more dangerous and much closer to reality, mimicking the original physically, mentally, or emotionally dangerous circumstance.
Sensitivities are different than triggers, because for me, sensitivities are tasks that are just harder to accomplish because of being traumatized. Some of the esoteric things I am sensitive to are: asking people to take pictures with me, initiating hanging out, telling others to accommodate a social space to meet my physical needs, expressing that something made me feel angry as opposed to any other emotion, balancing seeing people from different circles at the same time, and probably what is most difficult is assuming any entitlement to space and moving with people (I.e sitting next to someone because I want to instead of asking if I can sit there and waiting for permission). It probably sounds strange, I know. What’s even stranger is the idea of verbally explaining any of this to anyone. How do I contextualize any of these things without oversharing and seeming needy? I can’t completely legitimize this for myself yet, so how can I expect others to? This silence often leaves me feeling lonely and socially awkward, because I’m made so exhausted and nervous by the aforementioned possibilities, that I’d rather avoid people altogether than run the risk of having to confront something on the list above.
I wish I could vocalize my extreme discomfort in the moment and know the person hearing it would understand without judgement. But I also wish the people around me magically knew this part of me without my having to explain and possibly re-trigger myself in the process. Part of the reason I’ve never written about my PTSD before is because I don’t want readers (many of whom I know in real life) to jump to the conclusion that I am socially inept or dependent, or a weak person on the whole. Also, I’m not a hermit by any means. I have a healthy social life and good friends who I feel safe with. But, there is this huge blockage that stops me from enjoying this and engaging fully. I’m hard on myself, and get really really nervous often. But, you know, baby steps. In the foreseeable future, there are going to be times I feel the need to scream I want/need ____, and instead stay silent. There are going to be times I am triggered and hyperventilating, struggling to ground myself, much less let others know what I’m dealing with. But I’m going to therapy and doing the work, and I’m writing this post, and I’m able to claim PTSD as a thing that I have, even though I fall outside of what many think are the only qualifiers and don’t necessarily believe me. I’ve started to understand how it manifests for me, and I’m trying to trust that in time others will begin to understand as well.
Today, this is where she stands.
*This post was originally published on Spastically Yours some time ago- see it here