By Vanessa Stapleton – President Armor Up West Virginia
I will never forget the first time my trauma therapist told me I had CPTSD. I had been in denial for a very long time. I knew I had trauma in my life. I denied it was PTSD. I somehow imagined PTSD was only for soldiers who had been hunkered down in gunfire away from their families. I felt like PTSD was something you could only have if you sacrificed your life for something greater than yourself such as the military and first responders do. I was just a “wife.” How could I have PTSD? What had I done in my life that I would be diagnosed with such a complex issue? The answer was simpler than I realized.
I lived with someone whose PTSD had grown into full blown addiction. I spent my days in a constant state of alert trying to gauge when danger was present in our home. I had developed caregiver, or secondary, PTSD. When his PTSD went untreated and grew into addiction, my PTSD grew to include codependency and enabling. Our entire family was living in complete dysfunction.
I sought help in talk therapy or as the professionals call it, cognitive behavioral therapy. For well over a year, I talked about my issues with a professional. I wasn’t getting “better,” but I enjoyed talking with my therapist. She was kind and supportive. Back then, I didn’t realize that there was a higher level of care for people with my level of trauma. I thought therapy was therapy. My insurance ended, however, and I could no longer afford the therapist I had formed a bond with. I was heartbroken. In the midst of this, I learned that a trauma therapist was more equipped to deal with someone like myself. I wondered what the difference would actually be. I didn’t like change at all. Losing my insurance forced me into this change that I did not want.
The truth is, I would have continued seeing my therapist forever even though mentally I wasn’t improving. I would have continued though because it was all I knew. I was comfortable there. I had no idea therapy should be so much more than comfortable. I liked my therapist. I went there every week. I shared my story and struggles. I cried a little. I went home afterwards and did it all again the next week. Other than what I had seen on TV and my own experience with one therapist, I knew nothing about therapy. I had no idea therapy could be so innovative and complex depending on what kind of therapist you chose. In my mind, therapy was exactly what I was doing every week.
After losing my insurance, I called a reputable organization and asked for a trauma therapist. They worked with me on the price so it fit my budget more so than if I private paid my regular therapist. My mind flip flopped on if I should try someone new. I decided to give the new trauma therapist a try. I no longer slept at night because the nightmares re-traumatized me. I had panic attacks when out with my kids. I no longer enjoyed family activities because my mind jumped to worst case scenarios. If we went swimming, I was worried they would drown. If we were traveling, I pictured a car wreck. If we were in an unfamiliar place, I watched for sex traffickers and murderers. If we were home, I felt shaky just waiting for something horrible to happen. I had lost complete control over my mind and thoughts. I just wanted to be “normal” again.
My trauma therapist was nothing like my previous therapist. She asked me questions that I was unprepared for. My previous therapist didn’t push me like my trauma therapist. This woman was gentle, but firm. She opened my eyes to the extent of my denial. Not only did she help me realize that this was a serious problem, but that denying it was only worsening my symptoms. My reservations quickly deteriorated as I melted down in her office telling her I just wanted to go back to “normal.” I wanted to sleep without nightmares. I wanted to wake up without feeling fear and dread of what could happen. I wanted to go places without running every worst case scenario in my head. I wanted to enjoy watching my children play without worrying about what could go wrong. I fell apart. I showed my weaknesses and vulnerability to this woman I just met. She knew what she was doing and how to extract the information she needed to help me. I sat there like a helpless child just needing someone to tell me that I wasn’t a lost cause.
She did two things for me in the first session. She told me I had unrealistic expectations of going back to the person I was before the trauma. The truth was that as much I wanted to erase my trauma, I could not. I would never be the person I was before. That reality shattered me to the core. But then she gave me hope. She reminded me that I am a survivor. I am a fighter. I make the choice every day to get through this. There are ways to control my emotions. While I may never be the calm and serene person I was, I CAN BE at a tolerable level of keeping my anxiety under control. I had to accept the new me. I had to feel these feelings I was working so hard to suppress. I had to grieve the loss of the old me. Over a year of talk therapy did not teach me any of those things. One session with the trauma therapist had me in a whole new mindset.
I left that session feeling defeated and hopeful all at once. The next few days were a wave of emotions. She said I had to feel the feelings to work through them. She warned me it would be hard, but that I needed to feel my way through it. I woke up crying and cried off and on for days. I even took her advice on writing my thoughts and feelings. The summary of my writings was basically that feeling my feelings sucked. Grieving for the woman I had been before the trauma was hard. I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the rest of my life fighting down anxiety and PTSD. Would everyday be this hard? My new therapist assured me to trust the process and feel the feelings. I was crying every day. Surely, the “process” didn’t include crying every day forever.
My next session, we worked through the feelings I was having. We started on coping skills. We decided walking and writing would be my starting point. I started walking every day. Then I would write. The first few days, I walked and cried. My trauma therapist warned me that by suppressing my feelings for so long, they would be like a tidal wave. They were. She assured me my feelings wouldn’t kill me although some days I wondered. By the end of the week, I was walking without tears. I began to realize maybe the “process” isn’t so bad. Writing helped me to reel my thoughts in. Writing out my fears helped me see how quickly I went from riding in the car to fearing a death by car accident. Writing it out helped me to see where my mind would veer off and my therapist could walk me through reeling it in. She taught me how to stop my thoughts from running away to those irrational thoughts.
Within three months, I had gone from panic attacks daily to learning to recognize the onset of anxiety and curbing it before it spiraled out of control. Three months of trauma therapy had me in a better emotional state than I had been in for years. About four months in, I began to have anxiety again. I could feel myself struggling. I had cut my therapy back from once a week to every other week. I had several days of crying. I emailed my therapist. I was so disheartened. How could I have done all that work only to be back where I started? I told her I did not want to live like this every day. She reminded me that I was not back where I started. I had come so far in my recovery. I was merely hitting a bump in the road. She assured me it was normal to have setbacks. She talked me through them. She gave me more coping skills. She reminded me that all my hard work had gotten me to the place where I could reach out for help. That alone is a huge difference from when I started. I recognized that she was right. I allowed myself to feel what I was feeling then I got to work on pulling myself back together.
Most days are good now although I do have to work every day to keep my emotions in check. I have to be aware of and recognize that my anxiety will try to hit harder some days. Those days I need to use my coping skills and support system to get through. I have accepted that this me is who I am now. I am okay with that. I show my children every day to fight for their peace and happiness. It is an ongoing battle. I have a rooted faith in God that also strengthens me daily. I need both Jesus and a therapist to get through this hard life and that’s ok. Not every day is a big battle. Most days are actually what most people would consider normal because they don’t see the internal struggle.
Most days I am able to keep my anxiety at a tolerable level and live a normal, healthy life. Some days are harder and that’s ok too. It is time to be honest about our emotions. Telling people they should never feel stress and anxiety is making people feel crazy when they do. People feel if they are stressed and have anxiety that something is “wrong” with them. They think they have to get “rid” of those feelings. We need to start teaching people to feel their feelings. We need to let people know it is ok to struggle emotionally. In fact, according to statistics, more people struggle with anxiety and depression than people who do not. Why does anxiety, depression, and PTSD have to be a secret? Why do we continue to make people feel bad for having normal human reactions to abnormal situations? I am tired of fake. I just want to be real. This is me, the real me. I am no longer ashamed of who I am or my struggle with anxiety and PTSD.
If you, someone you love or someone you know needs help, call:
Safe Call Now: 24 Hour Confidential Hotline: 206-459-3020
For more information on the First Responders program: Click here
Or call Shannon Clairemont at 661-466-6352 or Vanessa Stapleton at 304-651-3008