Years ago I was diagnosed with PTSD as a result of long-term domestic violence. Despite receiving this diagnosis, I’ve never really felt comfortable claiming it. I’ve said it out loud before - “I have PTSD” - but immediately afterward, I’ve always felt like a fraud. I’ve told myself that I’m making it up. That my trauma hasn’t been that bad. That I’m just overreacting and I must have skewed my experiences in order to receive my diagnosis. In short: I haven’t trusted myself enough to validate the depth of my trauma.
As a student at a large public university, I have access to their mental health services, and I’ve been speaking with a therapist at the school’s counseling center who has been just lovely, and so helpful. We had a Zoom session yesterday in which I found myself downplaying my trauma, and the therapist responded by suggesting a PTSD evaluation. I could have said “I’ve already received a diagnosis” - but, due to those feelings of fraudulence and invalidity, I didn’t. Instead, I decided to let this therapist evaluate me for PTSD without any knowledge of a previous diagnosis. I guess I was expecting to find that it really isn’t that bad; an extremely mild case at most. I was expecting the evaluation to validate my own invalidity.
We went through the diagnostic checklist, which consisted of the therapist asking me whether I currently experience certain things, and I’d say yes or no and then elaborate. When we were done, the therapist turned the paper around so that I could see it on the camera.
Out of about 20 or so boxes of indicators for PTSD, all but two were checked.
“You,” said the therapist, “are undeniably existing in the midst of acute PTSD. This is real. Your trauma is strong and valid, and it’s affecting your life on a daily basis.”
One might think this would be a terrible thing to hear, but the first thing I felt was relief. I felt seen. Validated. And finally - finally - willing to trust myself and my experiences. Seeing it plainly with my own eyes on that piece of paper, all those checkboxes neatly marked, somehow made it real.
The therapist asked me if I’d ever heard of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing - a form of trauma therapy that’s been found to be incredibly effective in many cases). I said yes and that I’ve been interested in it for years, but that I’ve always felt a sense of impostor syndrome around it: “Don’t be selfish - save this resource for the people who REALLY need it.”
The therapist replied, “Your trauma is real and you deserve support.”
And I found myself believing that - really believing it. So I accepted a referral for EMDR through my school's counseling center; I had no idea it was even offered there. My first appointment is next week. I’m nervous and a little scared, because I’ve heard the process isn’t exactly comfortable or fun, but also excited at the prospect of finally moving past some of the things that have been affecting me.
It's not just that these things affect me, either. It's that I've been refusing to acknowledge, for years, how heavy the burden they create actually is. By invalidating the very real aftereffects of my traumatic experiences, I've been blaming myself for the struggles they create. It's like trying to roll a boulder uphill and telling myself I should be able to move as quickly as all the people without boulders. When I fail to acknowledge the boulder itself, it's easy to convince myself I'm simply inadequate.
I’m severely afraid of the dark since experiencing my abuse. If I am alone in the house after the sun has gone down, I don’t feel okay unless I’ve locked myself into a brightly lit room with no open doors or dark corners where anyone could be hiding. I’ve been so panicked before that it’s been hard to even convince myself to go to the bathroom, for fear that someone will be lurking in there, waiting to kill me. Even though I have two large, vocal, vigilant dogs who I KNOW would alert me if anyone was in the house (they alert me if the wind blows or if a neighbor has the audacity to walk past our house, so there’s no way they would miss an intruder), I can’t seem to reason my way out of the panic; logic can’t touch it.
I have dreams, at least several times a month, in which I am still with my ex and I feel helpless and stuck and full of the defeated knowledge that my life will never get any better. That I’ll never escape; that I’ll never be free. Less frequently, I have nightmares about being physically abused, and when I wake up, I experience real, intense physical pain in the parts of my body that were being struck in the dream.
I cannot handle loud noises. If there is a sudden loud sound or I am similarly startled, my standard response is to experience an overwhelming flood of panic in my body, burst into tears, then feel sharp, irrational anger at the source of the noise. Something similar often happens in large crowds, or if I witness physical aggression or even someone I perceive as masculine verbally expressing anger: my heart pounds, my stomach clenches, my mind spins, the world tilts, and every muscle in my body tenses, ready to spring into action. It is exhausting.
I’ve never had a healthy relationship with sex or with myself as a sexual being. I’ve often wondered if I am somewhere on the asexual spectrum. I am now realizing I don’t think that’s true, and that my frequent aversion to sex is deeply rooted in trauma - not just from my ex, but from experiences stemming back to my adolescence. The things I learned about sex and how it was something sinful and shameful. The multiple sexual assaults I’ve experienced since my teenage years. The way I was taught by my culture and my socialization to objectify myself and seek validation through being physically desirable. All of it.
I’ve been living with these limitations and convincing myself they’re not a big deal; that it’s okay if this is just how my life is from here on out. That I’m fine.
And in a lot of ways, I am fine. I’m grateful for that. At the same time, with regards to my trauma, I’m not fine. Not yet. Perhaps, now that all this is coming to the surface...I can be.
It feels difficult to share this. Wrenching and vulnerable. I realize I am expecting everyone who reads this to scoff, to doubt, to invalidate. I hear my ex’s voice in my head: “Quit being such a drama queen.”
I’m sharing precisely because it feels difficult. Because it won’t get any less difficult if I don’t. Because shame thrives in the darkness, and shining light on those dark corners is the best way I know how to free myself.
I’m also sharing on behalf of anyone else who doubts the validity of their trauma - because I’ve heard many similar echoes over the years.
Your experiences are real. They matter. Your pain is valid. Don’t ever let anyone - especially your critical self - tell you otherwise.
Your trauma is real. And it can get better.