When I received Katelyn’s email asking me to share my story, I had to think hard on it. My story is still unfolding, and doesn’t yet have an ending. I don’t have some spiritual, insightful advice to give that will make everything better -- mostly because I can’t “Disney-fy” my story. I can’t (yet) put a positive spin on this, but maybe that’s part of getting stories out there --sometimes it’s more important that people identify with the journey rather than the outcome.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had a mouth; never enough to get me in any serious trouble, but enough to be considered “opinionated” (see also: “stubborn”) by adults and peers. I talked back to teachers, professors, and bosses when I didn’t agree with them, I talked back to bullies, I talked back to my parents…. Even my report card from kindergarten had “asked too many questions” on it. I’ve always TALKED.
About a year and a half ago, I lost my voice. I lost that piece that made me stand up for people and causes. I lost who I was. In October 2015, during a year that was filled with more downs than ups, I experienced a violent trauma. Finding myself in the wrong place at the wrong time, I was mauled by a very large dog. I ended up physically and emotionally broken for a very long time.
At the time, I didn’t think there was anything worse than the physical wounds I had -- the stitches, the infection, the pain -- the scars. The body has automatic built-ins to heal itself. It regenerates and repairs itself. Tissue and bone knits itself back together without much conscious intervention. Pain, redness and swelling subside, and scar tissue forms to close up wounds.
What I didn’t realize then that I realize now is how hard the mental healing is -- that one doesn’t just bounce back from traumas. I use the present tense because every day is a process. Diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), I didn’t really know what that meant. Sure, I heard about it on the news, and read articles and books about it. My whole career has been healthcare -- and a large portion of it focused on mental health -- but what does a PTSD diagnosis mean to me?
PTSD means anger. Red…hot…lightning-quick anger. The kind of anger that is fast to flare up and slow to simmer. Sometimes, I’m even surprised by it. It’s anger that has no direction or focus. It’s vicious and visceral. It’s often me warning others to walk away before spitting venom at them. What’s even harder to face is that the anger protects the part of me that I hate; that part of me that’s WEAK. For me, there is no greater sin than being seen as weak by others.
PTSD means being triggered when I hear dogs bark. It’s carrying wasp spray in my purse so that I feel some sense of security. It’s not being able to catch my breath when a dog comes up from behind or being able to go to my favourite spot in the city because it’s in an off-leash area. It’s no longer volunteering at animal shelters. I’ve been back to the spot where it happened once in the eighteen months since. I have this ridiculous fear that I will still see my blood on the sidewalk; that there is now this permanent monument of a life-defining event -- that some piece of me is still there.
PTSD means nightmares of suffocating under hot, heavy fur and bites that make my body feel like it’s on fire. Depending on how stressed I am, they could be weekly or on the particularly bad days, several times a night. It’s feeling uncomfortable and claustrophobic in my own skin because I just don’t feel RIGHT anymore.
PTSD means exhaustion; some of it is physical, but mostly it’s emotional. It takes a lot of energy to keep up the walls. They were always there before, but have since been fortified. I didn’t tell a lot of people when this happened; I only confided in a core group of people in my life. Some of it was embarrassment, some of it was shock, and a lot of it was not being able to process and justify what happened. Those walls became even higher and thicker when I reached out for help -- something that I had always thought was a “weakness” – and the people who said they would be there if I ever needed them withdrew and eventually disappeared without a word. They would blow me off or make excuses for why they couldn’t help. They still had beautiful words of support, but there were no actions and no follow-through. I found myself left behind by the people I had thought were stronger than I was. It was as though they thought I would somehow forget that they ever existed if they didn’t say anything. I felt used and disposable. I felt unworthy and undeserving.
Mostly though, I felt hypocritical. In mental health, the mantra “You are not alone” has now become somewhat of a professional cliché. Now here I was, asking for help, both personally and professionally, and not finding it. What if you are alone? What if you don’t have a support system? What if you don’t know how to ask for help or how to get the right help? What if asking for help means admitting weakness?
After eight months, I came forward about my experience with a Facebook post against Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) and how banning Pitbull-type dogs would not have stopped my attack. I never thought it would go anywhere, but it circled the internet a couple of times with hundreds of thousands of shares and comments of support. This thing that I was trying to separate myself from suddenly went very public and global. I was inundated with private messages of love, support, well wishes, and of others who had gone through something similar and felt as if they were alone in their experience. For a long time, the rage and confusion cooled. It’s hard to be angry when you’re in a worldwide hug. It helped that people whom I had no ties with acknowledged my story when people who were in my life no longer wanted to be there. There’s something so peaceful when individuals with no personal investment say, “I see you and the journey you’re going through.” Maybe instead of “You are not alone” the message should be a little more “I see you and the struggles you’re facing.”
Now the person who couldn’t find help and felt isolated was in a position to help others. Not because I fancy myself an expert or am comfortable giving advice about anyone’s mental health journey, but because I put a face on it. I started a support group for people who have gone through a similar experience with a couple of hundred members. I’ve been able to speak against BSL at a global level across the UK, Australia, and the US. One particular message that hangs on my fridge and I read on those really bad days says, “Your story helped me second guess my thoughts on suicide”.
My story does not have a happy ending. It is not romantic or inspirational. It is messy, raw, ugly, and painful. It is often one step forward and two steps back, but it’s still moving forward. There is no recipe or formula to becoming whole again and there’s a good chance I never will be -- I’m learning that’s okay. I’m finding my voice again. It’s a new and different voice. It’s a little quieter -- a little shaky, but slowly coming into itself. I’m a different person after all of this, and I’m still getting to know who this person is.
The one thing I’ve learned in this journey, and I repeat this every time I feel low is that, “There is never anyone braver or stronger than someone who battles their own demons each and every day.” When you are awake and alone at 3am and feel like the whole world is sitting on your chest, when it hurts too much to breathe and the only thing you can do is take that next inhalation -- THAT is the bravest thing in the world. There is something so incredibly beautiful and powerful about saving your own life at 3am just by taking that next breath. YOU ARE A GODDAMN WARRIOR!
People who battle depression, anxiety, addictions, PTSD, personality disorders, identity disorders, etc., are neither “damaged” nor are they a societal burden. Mental health is just that: a part of health. Like any other physical wound or disease, it requires patience and adequate treatment. Unfortunately, we in healthcare are slow on being able to consistently treat mental health effectively. That’s on us and our field. That’s not on you.
If you are someone who is a support system for a loved one battling daily with their mental health, know that you are doing everything you can for them, and if just loving them was enough to settle their minds, you would have a long time ago. There isn’t anything you can do, other than just following through on what you say you are going to. If you say you’ll be there, just be there. If you say you’ll help in any way you can, be prepared to do that. Practice self-love. Your loved one’s mental health can be just as taxing on you.
And most importantly, be gentle with yourselves. You are doing the best you can -- I see you.