Living with PTSD after Domestic Violence
A staggering ten million people in the United States are victims of domestic violence every year. Yet, one of the most common mental illnesses, victims develop from domestic abuse, is not widely talked about or even accepted. I am talking about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
So what is PTSD?
It is a psychiatry disorder that can occur after facing a traumatic event. It is most commonly associated with what our heroes in the military come home with after war. However, it can happen to everyday individuals when they experienced a trauma like a natural disaster, a bad accident, anything that endangered their life or those of their loved ones. This does not have to be direct, it can be from something like losing a loved one who died in a horrible manner. This includes domestic violence.
Every year, 3.5% of Americans face the diagnosis of PTSD, that is around 1 out of 11 will get it in their lifetime. Women, are two times more likely to develop it, and three ethnic groups have a higher chance of it as well (African Americans, American Indians, and Latinos).
Avoidance behaviors and actions that relate to their trauma. It can be people, places, things, smells or something that triggers them bringing unwanted feelings related to the trauma. It is common for people to not talk about, it is a way for them to try and forget what happened, so they do not have to relive it.
Issues with cognition and feelings, leading them to forget key moments during the trauma. It can jade their thinking when it comes to themselves or others (e.g all men are bad, I am bad, do not trust others). Their beliefs, can put self blame front and center, when in fact they had nothing to do with it. They can experience fear, anger, guilt, and feel a detachment from the real world. It can be hard for them to experience positive emotions in their daily lives. It can be as extreme as losing interested in everything- even their favorite hobby.
Intrusive thoughts, dreams, and even flashbacks that can be just as real as the day they experienced it.
They can also develop arousal and reactive symptoms like being reckless, experiencing outbursts, being overly cautious, easy to scare, and sleep loss.
Most people develop symptoms within three months of the event, but for people to get the diagnosis, they have to experience the symptoms for at least a month. It has to significantly infringe on daily life and is commonly in conjunction with anxiety, depression, and physical and medical issues.
It will differ from patient too patient and the earlier a person gets treated the better. For some, having a great support system between friends and family, allows the patient to work through the symptoms and it can decrease over time. For other, medication and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) have helped. Other options one could try are animal assisted therapy, acupuncture, EMDR and there is some emerging research in Virtual Reality (I got to be a small part of this research).
Tying this to Domestic Abuse and Violence
Why this is not widely talked about bothers me to be honest. PTSD is common in victims of domestic violence, but if you lost a loved one too it- you can develop it as well!
So a bit about my after effect of almost being killed. Not only was I left with an injured body, my brain mentally, was far worse. It crept up on me fast and I did not expect it at all. The next day, I tried going back to work. My ribs were bruised so breathing hurt, but when I sat in my chair, I felt like I was going to pass out. I ran to the bathroom because the nausea hit fast, I was sweating, and it felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest. I managed to calm down about 15 minutes later, but knew I did not need to be at work this soon so I decided to speak with my manager.
My boss at Dillard's was a female, so I felt comfortable telling her that I was in a domestic violence situation and I was not doing okay. I needed to take sometime off, to heal physically and mentally. I will never forget how she responded: "Do you see that girl right there? She is fighting cancer and she is still here. You were in a fight, and want to take time off? I cannot approve this, so lets part ways here." I lost my job, after my life was almost taken. My entire world flipped upside down. I was twenty years old, the man I loved tried to kill me, and now I have no job?
I never felt so alone. I went home, I crawled in bed and cried. I stayed in bed for days. I was scared, no, I was downright terrified. My bedroom was at the front of the house and I could imagine him breaking the window to get to me. The nightmares, flashbacks, never stopped. The nausea never stopped either, so I barley ate. I would shake and sweat and I had no idea why. Often times, my chest would hurt, it felt like I could not take a deep breath anymore. So those days in bed, turned into weeks.
I spent my 21st birthday in bed, answering birthday calls and lying about having awesome plans. Two days after my birthday is my fathers. The ex who beat me just a few weeks ago, came to my home. He fully believed that he could bring my dad gifts, to make him love him again, so he could be back with me. My dad was dumbfounded, he accepted his gifts and words, then said: "I cant accept this, and I think you should get the f*ck off my property."
Somehow a month passed by and my grandfather Grady told my mom: "Stephanie is not okay, she needs help, from doctors." I was down ten pounds, and not eating. My mom took me into a GI doctor and all the tests came back normal he told us to go to our primary doctor to talk about mental health.
It's been a month at this point, and it was almost my best friends wedding day. So I went to our local pharmacy to grab some makeup and glue on nails (totally winging it- trying to look decent for her day). I walked in the door and was immediately hit with dizziness, sweating, nausea, I couldn't breathe, I was about to pass out again. What in the hell is happening to me? I loved shopping. So I ran to my car to sit down, and the fear that came with this, lead me home and back into bed. So the week of my besties wedding we went to my primary doctor and diagnosed me with depression and prescribed me an antidepressant.
I took the medication two days before my best friends wedding and it was bad. Like full force Zombie bad! I lived with my dad at the time, and had to drive to my moms house because I did not feel okay. I was shaking, sick to my stomach, I was having night terrors, could not speak clearly, and when I had to leave for the night- I barley remember that drive back. Needless to say, I did not take another dose of it. The wedding day has arrived and I was still groggy, shaking, and I had to do the most heartbreaking thing- I stepped down from being her maid of honor. I let my best friend down that day. The one day, it was supposed to be all about her, it became about me. I wanted to die. I couldn't even bring myself to sit in the audience. I sat in my car watching the entire thing and cried. I was supposed to be beside her and I am not. What kind of friend am I now? I stayed a bit for her reception, but kept tearing up so I left. I could not regulate my emotions at all. I got home, cried even more and stayed in that bedroom another month.
I will tell you this right here, I thought I was dying. I knew nothing about mental illness and the impact it has on your entire body. I wanted death, I yearned for it.
I would try, time to time, to run to a store or do something with friends but I couldn't. Every time I tired, I would experience the same symptoms as above. I became a flake. The person everyone ran too, is now someone they could not depend on. Driving and listening to music use to always soothe my soul during hard times, so I would try to take a drive, and I couldn't. Another thing taken. If I got past 5 miles from my home, I would experience the same symptoms I mentioned above and back home I went. The girl, who would skip classes and drive a car full of girls to Dallas to shop- couldn't make it down the road. It got to the point where I couldn't have anyone in my car me. So I spent all my time, months, in my bedroom. Then the moment came, when I had to move out quickly, and I went back to my childhood home to live- alone. I was able to go back to a previous job that I had (one the ex new nothing about) before- so I felt comfortable there.
I would go to work, then home. When I needed food, I would drive 30 minutes to my mother, so she could grocery shop with me. Several times, I would have to leave my cart and money with her while I waited in the car.
About a year after all of this, I finally found out that I did not have depression, I had panic attacks. It took another two years, to be diagnosed with PTSD and Agoraphobia. Finally the world made sense. I now know what exactly I am dealing with and I can focus on becoming the person I use to be again.
Finding that carefree, fun Stephanie again. The one who would do road trips same day, the one who jumped on the back of a strangers bike and took off. Let's do this!
I was ready to be the person people turned to again!
Boy was I wrong... I tried 18 different mental health medications- none of them worked. They would give me the craziest of side effects (thinking my dog was going to kill me, to fixating on suicide). So for years, I had to do exposure therapy on my own. I went school for psychology because I couldn't take any medication, nor could I afford therapy. I just lost another best friend who suffered a TBI and PTSD from war by suicide. I wanted to do better for others. My 20's were taken from me because I did not have the mental support I truly needed. It affected every single area of my life: work, love, friends, etc.
If I could help one person, it would be worth it.
So here I am in my 30's and let me tell you were I stand. I can easily go to any store/building, I can travel, I had a child, I have stood in front of hundreds of people and gave several speeches. I graduated from TCU in honors, went to sporting events, flew, concerts, and so much more. Do I still experience anxiety and panic attacks? Absolutely, especially when I have to give speeches to large crowds and every single time I step on a damn plane (fear of being stuck- there ain't no stepping outside for a breath), but I refuse to let my life pass me by again.
One of the things that can come with PTSD is health issues- I have Fibromyalgia. Research is showing, that this links with a traumatic event that happens in a persons life, causing your brain to misfire pain signals. I feel like I have the flu (body aches) 24/7. I had COVID, Flu B and a kidney infection for 6 days, thinking it was a Fibromyalgia flare. I was shocked when the doctors told me what all I had. This gives you an idea of the pain I experience on a daily basis.
Now when it comes to the PTSD, I no longer have flashbacks and the nightmares are rare. The only time it acts up, is when I am in an argument. I refuse to entertain a full-fledged yelling match (the night I was almost killed- there was NO yelling). I walk away, a little too easy and say things like 'fine its over,' just a little too much. I give them the option to leave, because I fear, that if they stayed while angry- they could put their hands on me. I have been told a couple of times, that because I do these things (I don't yell back, I don't fight to make them stay) that I don't love them enough. It was not true, I just wanted a moment for both parties to calm down and talk it through. In my eyes, a bad fight could lead me too being killed. When I first start dating men, I ask them to meet me at the place where we are headed. My abuser kicked me out of his car at two in the morning, and I genuinely thought I was going to get raped (drunk guys hitting on me). So I tell a little white lie: 'I have a meeting right before, so let's just meet there,' and it works. I will admit that losing Marissa has elevated these emotions. I have had a bit more panic when I think about her last moments. I almost had those last moments too. The grieving process is different for someone who has been murdered- especially when it was almost your story too. Anytime I am sad or anxious, it hits me in my gut so my eating habits haven't been the greatest.
So I am still a work in progress, but aren't we all? My mental health issues went untreated for years, and when I finally knew what I had- I had to treat it myself (also took years). So if you are struggling, please get help! Do not waste those years like I did. Take action immediately so you do not spiral like I did. I have so much regret when it comes to all the things I missed out on, but I am now making up for the lost time. I made a promise to my daughter when I was pregnant with her- I would never miss anything due to my fear. And. I. Won't.
You are stronger than you know. Do not be ashamed for having a mental health issue. Do you blame people who have chronic migraines, epilepsy, etc. for needing help and medication? No, you don't. This is the same thing, you faced something traumatic your serotonin levels got all f*cked up and you need help. Get it and don't you dare feel bad about it!
I like to say: "My brain betrayed me, but I won't let it win anymore!"
Please remember, if I can help in anyway, I am here!