PTSD and me

Michelle discusses the affect Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has on her life

Written by Michelle O'Connor


I’ve lived through a lot in my lifetime, and I don’t want pity or people to feel sorry for me, because everything I’ve been through has made me who I am today. Good and bad. I suffer from anxiety and depression, which manifests itself with a fear of public transport and crowds. That means, on some days getting out of bed is a big step, and other days it means I’m wandering around until 7pm to beat the rush of commuters because I just can’t get on the bus. I’ve recently learned to accept this and push myself a little bit to enter these crowded buses and focus on the fact that it’s grand, and I’ll be okay. But I’ve also overcome Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

As soon as I heard those words, I was in shock. I was horrified and thought that the counsellor was wrong. After it sunk in, I realised that it was a diagnosis I never thought I would hear, and also something that made a lot of sense. This, was about six months after the sexual assault occurred. The delay was partly because I didn’t think the assault was a big deal, and also because I’m stubborn and I was in denial that I wasn’t okay. It took me a long time to accept that it was “okay” to suffer from this disorder. That it was a justified reaction to an experience which happened me, which, according to some “wasn’t a big deal”. It doesn’t matter what other people think – your lived experience is yours.

Most people associate PTSD with things like car crashes, or war. Literature and movies are littered with “shell-shocked” characters who burst into fits of rage of tears in the corner when they suffer a flashback. This didn’t happen to me. Mine was a more subtle, more discreet type of flashback. It manifest itself in cinemas, if there was a rape scene, if a guy came up to me and started hinting that he was into me. But mainly, it was in my dreams. Well, nightmares to be more specific.

What people don’t tell you when you’re diagnosed with this disorder, or what I wasn’t told, was that it isn’t ever really “gone”. You don’t fully get over it. I was diagnosed 5 years ago, and sometimes I’m still affected. It’s something that I don’t talk about a lot, but feel it needs to be talked about. Because it relates to sex, it’s always been something that I’ve been forced to face with guys I’ve met. It’s easier now that we’re older, and the guys are older, they’re more understanding. And that’s probably because I am too.

It’s almost 6 years later and I’m writing about this for the first time, which is kind of ironic given that I’ve written about most other things in my life. But this is important, because as much as you think you’re “over it”, you might not be. Recently, I got a bout of nightmares after a scene in a movie I was at. This was the first set back I’d had in a long time.

Shortly after, I made a huge breakthrough. Something which took so many years to happen, and something I thought never would happen. The strangest thing about it was that I wasn’t expecting it and I wasn’t consciously working towards it. Any time before that when I had decided to work through it, I couldn’t. It would set me back further and I would end up having nightmares for weeks on end. This time was different.

I guess the problem with PTSD is that no one really talks about it. It doesn’t come with tell-tale signs, they are so similar to panic attacks, but also totally distinct from them. I’ve had panic attacks, and I’ve had flashbacks, and they both instil fear and nausea and the urge to fight or flight. But PTSD is different, and its association with sexual assault should be talked about more. There is already so much stigma around sexual assault and discussing it, victim shaming and blaming. This is why I don’t call myself a victim of sexual assault. I am not a victim because I’m here now, saying that PTSD is something I live with. I don’t consider myself to suffer from it, because I deal with it. I have dealt with it, just like people with allergies live with their allergies or their fear of spiders, or anything else that’s kind of unavoidable.

I’m a female who has sex with men, and I am also someone who was sexually assaulted a number of years ago, by a man. I live with PTSD, anxiety and depression, but I live. I am not a victim or a survivor, I’m simply a human who has lived through some bad experiences, but I have learned so much about myself. PTSD doesn’t define who I am, but it is a part of me. Just like my dark hair, my inability to censor myself, my penchant for history and my willingness to talk about anything and everything. So what I’m hoping to say is that PTSD isn’t as scary as it sounds, only sometimes, and others it’s just there. But it won’t always impact you, and sometimes, it’s a case of mind over matter.

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