I’ve been lied to. It was all fake. All that work for nothing.
This is what I say to myself when I wake up angry. I sit up in my bed and see that I failed again, and the evidence shows in the red scabs on my thighs. I thought I was doing so well, and one bad day, a terrible night and a flooded mind and I’m right back where I started.
This is what it’s like trying to recover from a mental illness. This is what it’s like for me every few months. At the beginning of 2019, I was diagnosed with PTSD. A diagnosis I never thought would be applicable to someone like me, but I was wrong. In 2017 I was sexually assaulted by a man I knew as a friend. The couple of years between then and my diagnosis was filled with denial and repressed memories, thoughts and feelings. It was filled with emptiness.
When I started to have flashbacks of these events, that’s when I knew I wasn’t okay. I have been dealing with depression and anxiety from a young age, but this was different. This left me frozen. The flashbacks caused migraines and nausea so severe that I was given tests and brain scans because I showed symptoms of a brain tumor. But it was the PTSD. Not a tumor, not a disease, not an infection, but trauma that made me feel like I was dying. Before researching the physical effects of PTSD, I believed and felt like my body was failing me. It left me tired and sick. I was, and sometimes still am, so exhausted that getting out of bed or brushing my teeth feel like it might be the last thing I do. My muscles would give and I dropped things, broke plates and cups just trying to load the dishwasher. I looked over my shoulder constantly, thinking he could be there at any moment. I was angry and sad and tired and I didn’t know why. I have fought depression for so long, but this was not the same. This was worse. This was more violent. It was sharp and cold, and so sudden.
I finally mentioned my trauma to my doctor, and instead of more blood tests and brain scans, I began therapy.
Therapy always scared me. I only talked about my feelings and my experiences through writing, that was my way of unpacking these things. But it wasn’t enough. I needed to learn more about why I felt the way I did, I needed to learn how to help myself. I remember my first appointment. Walking into a waiting area with a long, curvy connect couch, signing in and describing my need for the appointment. I waited and waited until my new therapist came out and called my name.
She was younger. She was pretty. She was smart. She told me she specialized in trauma and sexual assault. I sat in her office, looking out the window at the view of The U, it was raining. I didn’t feel like I deserved to be there. The thought that I was a “survivor” was surreal. Then I began to speak.
It was like I was a shaken bottle. Every bubble ready to blow once that cap was twisted. Things I didn’t even know I remembered came out when I told this woman why I was there. This was the very first time I had ever described in detail what had happened to me. I told her about the threats of violence he promised if I told anyone. I told her about the time he sent me a Snapchat video, captured from a distance, of me leaving my apartment, getting into my car, with a target drawn on my head. The video ended with the sound of a gun. I told her about how that video plays on repeat in my head when I see someone in the grocery store that might look like him from behind. How when I hear loud noises, I feel like he’s there, watching me, ready to take his shot. I tell her about the fact that I wish I never remembered what had happened. That I wish I couldn’t still feel him behind me when I walk alone at night. That I’m scared to be alone outside in the dark because I feel like I’m running through his apartment complex parking lot again, scared, wanting to be home.
I told her I felt like I was being dramatic. I felt crazy that I couldn’t even remember what happened until almost two years later.
That day I learned I wasn’t crazy. I wan’t the only person with PTSD that repressed their trauma for so long.
I went to therapy every week from March to July, and every other week from August to October, and it saved my life. Therapy allowed me to spill my guts, but only clean up the parts I still needed. I learned that I am not a burden, I am not crazy or pathetic, but that I was strong and I was here. I learned to use a container.
The container is a tactic my therapist used so I could talk about and process my trauma without taking that burden with me everywhere I go. During therapy, and times when I needed to talk, I would opened the container, pull out the trauma and assess it, then put it back in, and lock it away until next time. Although it was heavy, I did not have to carry it like I had been for the last two years.
My last regular therapy session was in October, 2019. I left that day feeling so powerful. My therapist moved my appointments to “as needed” and I had this new grip on my life that made me feel more in control than I think I ever had been. I was perfect. I had it handled.
You see, I was not healed. I wasn’t fixed, but I really wanted to be. I wanted to go down that elevator and be done. I wanted to be strong for the rest of my life. But I was wrong. I underestimated how powerful trauma can be. I underestimated how dark and lonely PTSD can be. I caved.
I relapsed with old coping mechanisms. Starving myself. Hurting myself. Because the build up was so much, even screaming at the top of my lungs could not get it out.
I woke up after one of my worst breakdowns in a very long time, ashamed, regretful, and empty. I saw the marks on my body, I felt the soreness in my throat, and I felt the same panic I did before. I told myself that I ruined everything. I was doing so well, now I have to start all over. All that work for nothing.
But a very supportive person in my life reminded me that is not true. They reminded me that this only shows that progress is happening. And they were right. I was not lied to, I wasn’t tricked, I hadn’t failed. I had simply hit a speed bump. I left the container open for just a bit too long. But this did not mean I was still broken, because I remember that I was never broken in the first place. I was doing better because I knew I needed to get back up the moment that I slipped.
This process of healing will take the rest of my life. I will never be fixed, because I don’t need to be fixed, I just need to rebuild the parts of myself that were taken without permission. PTSD does not disappear overnight, let alone 10 months. It does not stop just because you tell it to. It persists.
But so will I.
The thought of going back to therapy is scary. Walking into that office, sitting on that curvy couch, it makes me embarrassed. But it reminds me of all the work that I have done. And I have done so much. To those of you who are healing, know someone who is healing, or if you are too scared to start, know how powerful that is. The work that goes into something like this is tremendous. It is honestly so damn hard. I wish so many times that I could just stop, but that’s what will ruin it. Stopping will be a waste of the work, not the speed bumps.
There is a certain power that comes with making the decision to heal yourself. It’s like a secret, but a good one. Like hiding a surprise party from your best friend. In this situation, you are your friend, and the surprise party is each milestone you hit after each and every hard day. You must keep getting up, you must keep doing the mundane tasks that come with getting better, you must hit those speed bumps. But you also must enjoy the surprise of one day waking up and the load you carry is just slightly lighter. You must enjoy the surprise of not hiding from your life because of your fear of losing it.
Carrying something so heavy causes so much pain. It causes heartbreak, misery, and loneliness. To be honest, healing does too. But it also carries light. And in the moments when you slip, it’s so dim, but it will be there every time you decide to get up.
Deciding to get better makes that light brighter. Every choice you make that leads you to recovery, it gets brighter. And even when you slip, you fall and repeat the same behaviors you swore off just months ago, the light will be there to guide your way back up.
I am not weak for needing help over and over again. I am not dramatic for looking over my shoulder when I thought I didn’t need to anymore. And I am not a failure for falling after marching on such slippery ice in the first place. I am healing.
And that is not a lie.
The lie is that there is no hope. The lie is that it will not get better. The lie is that I cannot be changed.
I have been changed. I am different from the girl I was ten years ago. I am different from the girl I was three years ago. Even one year ago. I am different. And it’s because I decided I wanted to heal. The only way through it is the thick of it.
And that’s the truth that gets me up from each and every fall. That’s the truth that keeps me from going too deep into the dark that I dread. The fact that I persist is what overcomes the feeling of failure.
It persists. But so do I.