Dear Neurotypical people…

Dear Neurotypical People,

This is a very unsure time in history. I know you are stressed. I know you are anxious, afraid of the uncertainties that lie ahead. You feel hopeless, useless like you have no control over what is happening around you. All of your feelings are extremely understandable and valid. Try to keep in mind, however, that this is feeling-pure anxiety, depression, and hopelessness- is what a lot of people feel every single day of their lives. People with mental illnesses are absorbed by this feeling. What you are feeling right now is their normal. If your anxiety has escalated due to the current circumstances, their anxiety has too. 

Our lives have changed. Our schedules are drastically different and, for you, this might be a great thing. You have that excuse to sleep in another hour. You get to stay in comfy clothes every day. You get the option to skip that shower (who cares, no one’s going to see me anyway!) These small luxuries that you are experiencing every day could be a nightmare for someone with a mental illness. Sometimes, they make it almost impossible to get out of bed. It can make you forget about hygiene (who cares, I want to be alone anyway.)  People with mental illnesses are not using this as an excuse to relax, their mental illnesses are using it as an excuse to break down everything that they have been building to keep them strong.

So please, reach out to those in your life who you know have mental diagnoses. Now, more than ever, they are going to need to be assured that they are not alone, because their illness is going to make them feel more alone than ever. They are going to need an extra shoulder to lean on. Be that shoulder. Ask them how they are. Let them know that you are there for them, even though it may not be physically. Make a point to tell them every day that you love them; that you care for their well being. Let them know how they make you happy. We are all working together to keep each other healthy, but that does not stop at physical health. Let’s all work together to ensure that the world stays distanced, not isolated.

Sincerely,

Your Friendly Depressed Neighbor

Honor, Trust, and Selflessness: Supporting Someone with PTSD

Disclaimer: this article discusses and mentions topics such as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, and sexual assault, which may be triggering for some.  

art print by kikicastel
art print by kiki castel

There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ way to love somebody, but there are common morals and responsibilities that we should bring into every friendship and relationship: trust, compassion, respect, and communication. When you love somebody who has been diagnosed with PTSD and gone through considerable trauma in his or her life (warfare, car accidents, assault, etc.), it can require even more patience and selflessness to establish a sense of safety and love between the two of you. More than anything else, it’s a reminder that it’s not all about you: it’s about keeping your partner safe and respecting their boundaries, their feelings, and of course, their trauma.

Another reminder I’d like to point out (and this applies to all types of relationships): is to remember that you are not your partner’s therapist, and they are not yours. Of course it is important (and frankly necessary) in any relationship to have a sense of open communication and unconditional support, but that does not mean you have to disregard your own emotional needs. Love is give and take!

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and with that in mind, I want to talk about why dedicating nurturing patience into these relationships is so important, and, from personal experience, what we can do to make our partners feel safe and protect their vulnerability.

When I refer to a survivor of sexual abuse as ‘vulnerable’, I do not mean it in a sense that they are weak or defenseless. What I do mean is this: PTSD entails a wide variety of devastating symptoms, including flashbacks, disturbing thoughts and feelings, mental distress, suicidal ideation, and increased fight-or-flight response. Survivors of repeated, prolonged abuse may exhibit ‘fawning’ symptoms, or a display of people-pleasing behavior to subside conflict. In a general sense, individuals with PTSD can feel an overwhelming desire to mirror the expectations and desires of other people, and neglect standing up for themselves. With all of that in mind, here are ways you can support your loved one with PTSD or a background in sexual trauma in a way that is encouraging, supportive, and gentle.

Perhaps one of the most important things to remember when approaching a friend or partner with trauma: respect their boundaries. While clear communication and honesty is extremely important in any friendship or relationship, that does not mean your partner is obligated to tell you every detail or answer every question you have about their trauma or incident. If he or she is visibly uncomfortable with the conversation and wishes not to speak about any subject, respect that and switch topics immediately. Additionally, if a conversation about trauma does come up, you should not be the one dictating that conversation – it is up to your friend or partner if they choose to start speaking about it. If your partner or friend struggles with anxiety or depression as a result of their PTSD, do not force or coax them into situations which may heighten these illnesses. Signs that someone may be uncomfortable with a situation or dealing with anxiety include sudden quietness, nervous ticks, or obvious discomfort from their body language. It is always important to establish your boundaries at the beginning of the relationship, and make sure your inner circle is aware of these boundaries as well to avoid uncomfortable situations. 

Arousal does not equal consent. Ask for clear, verbal consent before engaging in any sexual activities with your partner. If he or she expresses discomfort with any activity or expresses a need to stop, it is your responsibility and obligation to respect that. Your partner does not owe you an explanation for this! Their safety is more important than your satisfaction.

Offer emotional support, resources, and positive affirmations. Remind your partner that they are strong, valued, appreciated, and honored. Thank them for the little joys and favors they bring into your life. Text your partner or leave them notes reminding them how beautiful and important they are. It’s a small effort, but to someone who may be struggling with anxiety, depression, or negative body image, these small reminders can mean the world. Emphasize to your partner that there are resources available and countless people who love him/her, if he ever needs additional support.

Before making a decision together, double-check that your partner is okay with this choice and make sure their voice is heard. This ties back to the fawning behaviors and tendencies sometimes exhibited by individuals with PTSD. Your partner may be afraid to tell you how they really feel about a decision or admit that they don’t want to do something, because they are afraid of letting you down or not pleasing you enough. Remind your partner that his or her voice matters, and ensure as much as possible that they can say ‘no’ any time they feel uncomfortable with a decision or frankly just not up to it. 

Be wary of triggers. Like I said before, survivors of trauma may experience flashbacks or uncomfortable feelings when their memories or PTSD is triggered. If your partner has a negative body image, avoid talking about your weight or comparing your body to theirs. If your partner has attempted suicide, don’t make jokes that you’re ‘going to kill yourself’ when something goes wrong (For real, please don’t make jokes about that in general.) If you’re planning on seeing a movie or watching a show that may contain triggering content, make sure you and your partner are aware of this ahead of time, to the best of your ability. 

I hope this article is helpful and informative for all of you! I’m not an expert or a psychologist or anything like that, but like I said, I have been able to improve my relationships and maintain healthy communication with my loved ones through taking these actions. And like I said, most situations are not one-size-fits-all, so please be flexible and adaptable with your loved ones depending on their exact situation!

If you are a survivor of sexual assault or any debilitating trauma, please know that there are resources available for you! The national hotline for sexual assault (US) is 1-800-656-4673. Additionally, if you suffer from depression or suicidal thoughts, please do not go through this alone and reach out to an outlet or person you trust. The national suicide prevention hotline is 1-800-273-8255. Stay safe, everyone, and love each other! 

 

Brain on Fire: Detaching from Trauma and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

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Over the last couple of years, I feel like I’ve gone through an enormous internal metamorphosis. Most days, I wake up brimming with positivity and gratitude, and sometimes even a sense of self-actualization. I truly do feel like I am the best version of myself that I can be, and even when I make mistakes, I try to be gentle and forgiving with myself.

I wasn’t always that way. Middle school and high school, the most formative years of my life, were turbulent and full of dark energy and negativity. I constantly found myself plagued with anger, confusion, self-doubt, self-deprecation, the sense that I was a bad/broken person, and a tendency to exhibit fawning behaviors (common with survivors of verbal and emotional abuse). I was extremely anxious and highly sensitive to loud noises, confrontation, and raised voices. If someone even criticized me a little bit, and particularly if they spoke loudly, my ears would begin to hum and vibrate. I shared several of my childhood memories with a therapist in high school, including the time I was dragged across the carpet and spanked as a child, screaming, and how similar memories tended to pop into my mind like uncomfortable flashbacks. I told her about my notable (but not alarming) social delays, my broken confidence, my damaged relationships, and my extreme discomfort with certain areas of my body. She swiftly summarized my case as C-PTSD, otherwise known as Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. C-PTSD is commonly diagnosed in individuals who grew up experiencing repetitive, prolonged abuse, usually as a child. One of the most common experiences for young adults with C-PTSD is growing up with a parent who exhibits narcissistic tendencies, which is what my family agrees probably happened to me from my father. As a result of disconnecting from him, I went through a very mournful period of traumatic grief. 

What may be normal and surmountable to some children could be extremely difficult for others. Many kids grew up with unhappy childhoods and ended up fine, but for me, growing up afraid in my own household and dealing with anxiety through the roof, panic, and fight-or-flight sensations permanently altered my brain chemistry. As the therapist described it, my brain was “on fire,” constantly lit up with a life-or-death panic and ravenous will to survive.

There are still foggy patches in my brain, and sometimes, I lay awake and think, What happened to me? Most of the time, however, I put those worries to rest and allow the unknown to be unknown. At 20 years old, I still have several unrecovered memories that I choose to leave unearthed.

After I was put on a standard dose of escitalopram (which I continue to take to this day), entered college, and became estranged from my biological father, something surprising happened to me: I have seemingly recovered from my initial C-PTSD diagnosis.

This raises two questions. 1) Is it possible to recover completely from C-PTSD? Also, 2), did I ever actually have it? Do I simply have a ‘mild’ case of it? Am I just exceptionally lucky?

Honestly, I have no idea, and I almost don’t care to know. I do know that my trauma still impacts my life in several ways, but it’s not unmanageable and detrimental like it was a few years ago. It’s almost as if I’ve learned to love that part of myself and nurture it back into a state of healing. Additionally, as I emerge into adulthood, I feel like I have become very comfortable with self-regulating my emotions, particularly since I have such a strong support network now. 

I am a highly sensitive person. I still catch myself exhibiting fawning behaviors from time to time; particularly recently when I was going through a difficult period of anger and conflict with a close friend of mine. Rather than being angry, however, I am learning to self-soothe and forgive myself for the things I cannot control. I can truly say that I love myself and I’m enormously proud of the progress I have made.

When I feel my weakest, I remind myself that I am actually made of strength and perseverance. 

When my heart begins to cloud with fear, as it was a couple of weeks ago with my friend, I had a sudden moment of clarity and peace that enabled me to write this article in the first place: I am not a broken woman, I am not a bad person, and I am NOT going to push myself into a state of grief over privations when I can use this situation instead to love, forgive, and grow.

As I said, I wake up every day full of gratitude and fullness for the beauty of my life. I wish it were easier to put this feeling into words, but truly, I feel such a sense of clarity and excitement about the beauty and complexity of the world. Having gone through difficult things, kindness and compassion are even more present in my life than they ever were before, and I think that juxtaposition is a beautiful thing. Please don’t ever destroy yourself over things that are out of your control; forgive yourself for the cracks in your soul and learn to nurture those patches, too.