What do you think of when you hear PTSD?
Do you imagine a soldier coming home after a long battle where he gave it all-his heart and his soul for his country? Where he saw unimaginable things, felt emotions that cannot be described unless experienced personally and his whole life was turned upside down for the time he was away? His body is now back to reality, back into routine, but his heart isn't. His mind is still stuck at the battle ground, reliving what he saw, still feeling what he felt and his heart is still aching for the ones he lost; imagining he was the one that was lost?
This is correct; totally correct. Except in my experience, I'm the soldier. I didn't go to war with a foreign country, but I did go to war with an enemy.
I came back, victorious, but I didn't feel it right away. I felt damaged, and broken and full of fear mixed with exhaustion. My heart was broken from what I'd been through, from what I'd seen; and the emotions tore at me every night.
Although I was physically clear of cancer, the memory of it and the pain lingered in my mind for months and months after.
I was experiencing PTSD.
I cried myself to sleep most nights, remembering where I'd been and how I'd gotten there. When I finally fell asleep, I'd wake up with startling images through the night, coming back to consciousness sweating, crying and breathing erratically.
My heart was beating a million miles an hour and I had the unavoidable urge to scratch. I'd scratch and scratch my skin until it was red and raw, as if I was trying to dig the memory out of myself. But it wasn't just when I was alone in bed, or when I was waking up and unaware of my surroundings. It was any time I was alone, or had time to process my thoughts without distraction. It was like I had held it together for so long through my treatment, remained cold and emotionless, like a machine, because I knew for that time I just had to get through it. It was like I put on my helmet, grabbed my gun, shot out in my uniform and did what I had to do to win the battle. But now that I was home from the war the guard could come down; the mask could come off and I was processing all the emotions that I had put on hold for so long.
One day I was having a shower, a few weeks after I was placed in remission. I was still very weak from my treatment, underweight and exhausted. I was standing in the shower when suddenly, I was transported back to the white walled room in the hospital where I sat with my radiologist, my mum and my nurse when he told me I was going to die. I couldn't control myself at that point, I had both arms crossed on the shower wall, convulsing in inconsolable tears. I was shaking my head telling myself "no, this isn't real, it's okay, it's over" but my mind wouldn't listen. I was mourning the pain I hadn't mourned before, and whilst it made no sense to me then, it makes sense to me now.
It was at that point I knew I needed to seek help.
I began seeing an amazing psychologist who helped me process all the emotions I felt. I told her of my guilt,
how I had survived cancer and should be living an amazing life where every day I felt gratitude and blessed, yet here I was having panic attacks in the shower every day and crying myself to sleep every night. She let me know it was okay to feel, it was okay to cry and it's okay to give yourself a break from being strong. I for one am guilty of squashing my emotions. I have an incredibly strong Mother, who is my role model, who has taught me an amazing skill of turning off your emotions to get things done. If I had been a blubbering mess all treatment, I really don't know how I would have gotten through it. I was strong, even if I was faking it. But now was the time to mourn, to cry, to relive what I'd gone through so that I could move on.
I learnt that it's okay to cry for an hour, but once that hour is over to get up, wipe your tears and soldier on.
I still experience PTSD. It comes and goes, but it's not as frequent anymore. Little things trigger me, like pain in my neck, a picture of when I was sick, certain songs and smells or images of the hospital. But I've learnt to cope. I've learnt to acknowledge my anxiety and my PTSD- I say hello to it, I process it and then I let it go.
I move on. I've learnt you can still be brave and strong and at the same time be scared, and sad. Soldiers are strong, and brave and beautiful, but they are also human, and I can't expect to not be affected by the pain I went through. Cancer has taught me many, many lessons over the years,
I've lost so much – but at the end of the day I've never been more me than I am right now. From all my misfortunes, I've grown into a woman, and I am proud of the lessons and the blessings.
PTSD is real. It’s okay to cry, you have still won the war.