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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder - A Personal Story


What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that an individual may develop after seeing or experiencing a dangerous event, such as physical injury or severe mental and emotional distress. In the face of imminent danger the fear response is triggered, alerting the body to prepare for, defend or avoid the danger.  This ‘fight-or-flight’ response is a normal reaction that primes the body to protect itself from harm. Over time, however, this reaction to fear is changed or damaged in sufferers of PTSD, rendering them hypersensitive to stress and fear even when they are no longer in danger. Given this, it comes as no surprise that those who have experienced military combat, violent assault, natural disasters or life-threatening events are at a higher risk in developing PTSD. Sometimes, PTSD may develop after witnessing a friend or family member being harmed.

 

Individuals suffering from PTSD are often re-experiencing symptoms that may be triggered by words, objects or situations that remind them of the traumatic event. Additionally, they may avoid reminders that trigger memories of the event, and can exhibit signs of hyper-arousal such as easily being startled, feeling tense, or having difficulty sleeping. After a traumatic event, it is quite normal for individuals to experience some of these symptoms. What differentiates a normal response to that of a disorder is the intensity of the response and the duration. It should be noted though that some people may not show any symptoms for weeks or months, while others who experience a traumatic event may not even develop the disorder. That said, a traumatic event is generally a necessary component in the development of PTSD, but it is not sufficient for it to develop.

 

My two cents

I have just briefly described PTSD - I’ll now give you my two cents on how I managed my PTSD.

“You can’t forget the past, but you can change how you view it.”

For a significant portion of my childhood, I was sexually abused by one of my older brothers. Kept in secrecy, I thought it was a normal part of growing up. In year 5, the concept of sexual intercourse and conduct was brought to my attention, as well as with whom I could share this experience with. Given that I was 10 years old at the time, you can imagine the confusion that came with this newfound information. I was unable to process the magnitude of the situation and its long term consequences.

It wasn’t until my early years at university that I began to come to terms with the impact that sexual abuse had on my life. I was hypersensitive to touch, refused physical contact such as hugs, and had high anxiety among a number of other difficulties. What confused me most was the terminology and connotations that came with ‘abuse’. ‘Abuse’ to me implied a sense of experienced negativity and upon reflection of my memories, my experiences as a child were both physically arousing and at times emotionally distressing. Not all my experiences were traumatic and forced, some were coerced and others initiated by me.   

 

The disparity between my feelings and what others told me was morally wrong confused me immensely. It was a major component that drove me to latch onto what made most sense - blaming someone. I had little knowledge of what ‘grooming’ was, and so placed the blame inwardly.

 

I was unable to tell anyone because I feared for my life. I was unable to communicate effectively because I had been unknowing for so long. I was unable to freely express my thoughts because I feared rejection and a lack of support. The items in these sentences are “I” which implies a sense of personal responsibility. These thoughts over time became the norm, and it became how I learned to deal with what I felt and how I was ‘supposed’ to feel according to the norms of sexual abuse. I rationalised this blame inwardly because I felt it was my responsibility to ensure my own safety and sexual development. Worse still, I could have spoken out at any time, but chose not to.

 

This blame game led to an internal fight accompanied by self-deprecating thoughts, immense feelings of shame since I was unable to speak out, and an unrealistically high standard of emotional control. A deep depression followed that severely affected my emotional stability, and ability to study and work.

 

Noticing my failing grades, the academic progress committee at my University decided to monitor me. They offered counselling sessions, consultations with doctors and psychiatrists and a support network with specialised services, such as the Centre Against Sexual Abuse (CASA), that I wasn’t aware was out there. After countless counselling sessions, meditation and prescribed medication from my doctor, I was able to get my depression under control.

 

What I wanted to highlight here is how I learned to view the traumatic event. A change in perspective really can do wonders in coming to terms with and understanding the emotions that came with the trauma. I put my traumatic event under a microscope and questioned the blame I placed on myself: what if it were another child who had gone through the same experience? How would I feel towards them? What if they came to me, confused about how they felt? Would I deny them of support, empathy, or understanding?

 

The obvious answer is ‘hell no’. I would go to the ends of the earth to ensure their safety, protection and happiness. But because I did not receive this kind of support as a child, the idea was so foreign. I had to learn that what happened to me was extremely unfortunate, but what I could do was control my reaction to it. And I’ve chosen to react in a pro-active way by not allowing it to be the defining factor of who I am; by raising awareness of the situation, by making it a less ‘taboo’ topic, by making sure this doesn’t happen to those around me, and hopefully - to all children. My experiences were traumatic, my pain is real, but the motivation that comes from it is pure, compassionate and kind.

Understanding myself more now, I extend the compassion I would for a child who has gone through the same experience towards myself. I rationalize it this way because I cannot blame children for their lack of understanding, so how can I blame myself? They’re children - underdeveloped cognitively, emotionally, physically and psychologically. They are unable to understand fully, sexual conduct and the consequences of actions, making them sensitive to manipulation and coercion. With that said, children should be protected and free to explore their sexuality in an environment that is safe and loving. I now extend this empathy inwardly - for if I choose to deny myself of such compassion, then I’m indirectly denying sufferers from that same understanding and support.

 

I plucked up the courage to write a letter to my parents, sent it off, and awaited their reply. Long story short - I cried, they cried, asked me why I never told them, they told me they always had an idea but thought I would speak up about it - and much to my surprise, the walls that always kept my emotions in check began to dissolve. This feeling of unexpected support and understanding was beyond anything I could have imagined (I’m crying just writing about it now!), and the weight that held me down was slowly lifted. I could feel happiness without it being tainted by my past memories, I could study without having flashbacks, and I could connect with others on a much more personal level. And the sense of clarity that came with this acknowledgement and release of pain was more than welcomed.

 

I wrote this article to reach out to those who have suffered such traumatic events. What has helped me immensely is speaking out about the issue of sexual abuse. The taboo feelings that surround discussions on sexual abuse shouldn’t be there - they should be open and free, without judgement and received with support. I once read somewhere that when someone suffers from cancer or some other form of potentially life threatening disease, they are a survivor - and more often than not, are received with much compassion and viewed in a bright light. What I wish for the future of sexual abuse survivors is that we are viewed in much the same light - that we are survivors, that we came to terms with the abuse and that we won’t stand for this in our lives or in those around us. For if we as free adults are unable to speak out about it in an empathetic and open way, how can children feel the need to do so? How can we then look to stop the cycle of abuse? Even if you do not have the courage yet to speak out about it, speak inwardly to yourself. Allow yourself that same kindness you would extend to another sufferer. Allow yourself that peace.

 

T.L. Nguyen

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