Trigger warning: suicide, self-harm, PTSD, and trauma
We had about 30 minutes left before we needed to haul ass and get ourselves to the airport. My husband, Matt, and I had booked all of us one-way flights to the East Coast this past spring, where we’d be house-hopping with parents until we found a place of our own in his hometown. After a brutal year of parenting two small kids without any support, we had decided it would be best to temporarily relocate and get our bearings somewhere more affordable and filled with family.
We were so close to leaving for that damn airport, with the exception of one heartbreaking obstacle. I was knee-deep in a terrifying PTSD-induced panic attack. And my body would not stop shaking.
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TW: Panic attacks & trauma. . . This is what complex #PTSD looks like some days. I asked my husband to document a recent panic attack I had. It was my hope that by capturing me in the middle of a deeply triggered state, I could offer up a normalized view of panic disorders & share my story honestly & compassionately for anyone needing to read it. By the time these photos had been taken, I’d been twitching & my body had been experiencing uncontrollable spasms for about an hour. In these sporadic moments of fright or flight, fear & shame live loudly, and the trauma from my youth screams out to escape. My husband has learned over time to speak to me with complete ease & love when I reach a state of panic – he gently reminds me that trauma is simply leaving my body & that everything is going to be okay. Because in those moments, he is dealing with someone who, at her core, is much younger than his 35-year old wife. ❤️ My relationship with the ongoing trauma from my childhood has taken time to evolve. I used to push down the intensely negative feelings, often opting for radical optimism to see me through most days. And then motherhood hit me like a ton of bricks, and I could no longer avoid the painfully repressed emotions that were dormant for most of my adulthood. So now – I listen to them and allow them to exist. Emotional & mental pain hurts just as much as physical pain, I have come to learn. But with every wound, there is always the opportunity to heal. I am in the middle of my healing, and I offer you a snapshot of it here, in case you may need a reason to feel less alone in the struggle. 🦋 . . . #complextrauma #panicattacks #recovery #ptsd #shameresilience #mentalhealthawareness #maternalmentalhealth #cptsd #traumarecovery #selflove #innerworth #reparentingyourself #panicdisorders
I had spent the day packing up everything in our house to get us ready to leave, and Matt was consumed with work and forgot to pitch in and help me. I also had about a million things left on my never-ending to-do list that were running around inside my head while my two young kids were running around inside of our townhouse. The mental motherload game was strong that day, and there was no end to my overwhelm in sight.
The pressure of holding up my family’s world totally broke me, and before I knew it, my limbs were flailing around uncontrollably as I fought hard to take a deep breath. Brimming with shame and fear, I quickly sprinted upstairs to our bathroom, locked myself inside, and tripped over our rug as I violently shook. While my body was hitting the floor, one of my legs knocked over my toddler’s potty and her pee spilt all over the place. My clothes soaked up the urine, tears streamed down my face, and I helplessly laid on my bathroom floor wondering how to make this whole damn year disappear.
But it was time to go, and there was no way in hell I was missing that damn flight. Still shaking and so dirty, I picked myself up off the floor, got our family out the door and walked to the car. I continued to spasm and twitch in the passenger seat until I saw the bright, shining evening lights at LAX.
I wish I could say that the relief of moving back home helped make all of my PTSD symptoms melt away. But being around the people I grew up with and leaving behind my local trauma therapist just increased them. In hindsight, I’m really fucking glad everything got worse. Because honestly, hitting rock bottom saved my life.
Four months after we moved across the country, my world completely fell apart. On top of unsuccessfully managing my PTSD, the episodes of muscle spasming grew exponentially to the point where I’d be shaking for an hour or more. Then some news hit our home that forced everything to a painful halt. Two young people in my world revealed that they had been self-harming and had attempted suicide. This triggered me beyond belief, as I had spent months trying to push down thoughts of ending my own life and was failing miserably at controlling the urge to repeatedly harm myself.
I was unable to show up for both of these kids the way I wanted to, and I was feeling an anguish like I had never known. My mental health was failing big time, and it was keeping me from being able to fully support those around me. But it didn’t stop me from encouraging one of my young loved ones to get themselves to an emergency room to be psychiatrically screened.
When they bravely stepped inside of a local hospital and got immediate help, I realized something powerful. I was giving the exact kind of advice that the traumatized young girl inside of me desperately needed to hear as well. It was time to finally start putting my oxygen mask on first, and I knew it.
This past fall, Matt was driving me to work on a particularly stressful morning, and my body began to spastically shake on the ride. I broke down in tears and begged him to take me to the closest ER to be screened. Since we had both of our children in the car and still needed to get my daughter to preschool, Matt asked me if I thought I could walk myself inside and wait until he returned. I knew in my heart that I couldn’t be alone in that moment, so I pleaded with him to stay with me.
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This is a bittersweet one to write. I started 2019 wanting to end my life after struggling with an unexpected & heartbreaking complex PTSD diagnosis. It’s a painful thing to share here, but it’s also quite an empowering one. Because instead of following through with my life-ending intentions brought on by chronic despair & shame, I instead ended 2019 by receiving and cultivating lifesaving purpose & community. To now know what it truly feels like to be on both ends of the mental health spectrum has changed my world forever. My empathy & compassion for myself and others has exponentially increased. I’ve found lifelong friends and discovered who is undoubtedly in my corner. I’ve learned how to ask for real help and stop pretending I’m okay when I’m really not. I’ve put my mental health first, even if it has made others around me uncomfortable – including myself. I share my story in the hopes that if even a single person reading this has struggled at times with suicidal thoughts or intentions, they can know that they are never alone. Life can be as challenging as it is magical. And sometimes hitting a rock bottom moment is the very thing you need to discover exactly who you are when you aren’t so concerned about how the world sees you. I have unearthed the deepest, most authentic version of myself that has existed so far, and I now assuredly know that my inherent worth as a human being can never be achieved or earned – and it can most definitely never be taken away. It has existed inside of me from the very beginning, and it will continue to exist for the rest of my days. I’m humbled & honored to continue getting to know myself as I recover & heal. I’m grateful beyond belief for every single person who has allowed me to trust them with my struggle, to all of those who never minimized or criticized my mental health challenges, and to the counselors, medical professionals, coaches, & loved ones who have patiently held my hand in 2019 through my darkest of moments. I am here. I am alive. And I am just getting started. 🦋🌈
I’ll never forget what happened next. My amazing four-year-old lovingly grabbed my hand and walked beside me as we all entered the hospital. The entire time, she stayed faithfully by my side, smiling the whole time and telling me everything was going to be okay. Here I was, hating myself for not being able to “stay strong” in front of my children, and my little girl was happily and easily showing up for her mom.
The ER nurses started by asking me if I’d been having thoughts of suicide or if I had harmed myself recently. I looked right into their eyes and tearfully answered “yes” to both questions. We found seats in the waiting room, and my body continued to quietly convulse in the chair. Matt called his mom and arranged for her to stay with me and our one-year-old son so that he could get our toddler off to school and come back to join me.
When my mother-in-law walked into the ER, I heard her audibly gasp as she saw me in the panicked state I was trapped inside of. She slowly sat down next to me and held my hand as it twitched in her palm. She told me how much she loved me as tears ran down her face, and we patiently waited there together.
This was the very first time I was out in public during a panic attack, and I distinctly remember taking my glasses off to keep myself from physically seeing if anyone was looking over at me with judgment. The utter shame, humiliation, and defeat I felt in that ER was palpable. Two hours after my spasms had begun, they finally stopped. Matt got back to the hospital, my MIL hugged me tight and took our son home with her. My name was called, Matt grabbed my hand, and we walked slowly and carefully together into an exam room.
Of all the things that surprised me about my trip to the ER, the most shocking thing was the moment when I was asked to put all of my belongings, including my socks and shoes, into blue bags that would be collected by the staff. I completely understand why they took this precaution, since they have no idea if someone’s intention to self-harm or hurt others might become activated in the hospital. But it still sent a shiver down my spine as I piled all of my belongings into bags.
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Recovering from #trauma is rarely a linear process. 🦋 I’ve spent so many years pretending I wasn’t still hurting from wounds so deep, they’ve had the ongoing potential to split me open inside. For a long time, I used achievements to mask my pain – accomplished to-do lists, the constant hustle of hard work, looking as put together as possible, terrorizing my body with #disorderedeating to stay skinny, seeming as pleasing as I could to everyone around me, and keeping my standards for career and personal life unbearably high. All the while, my trauma spoke to me in hushed tones, begging me to listen. And two years ago, when my daughter was a year & a half and the unexpected #postpartum panic attacks got to be too much to handle, I finally started listening. Becoming present to the diagnosis my counselor gave me this past year – #PTSD from complex childhood trauma – was initially an affront to every single comfort in my life. But I soon realized the freedom that’s on the other side of sitting with that abused little girl inside. She helped me heal those gaping wounds, and in doing so, life began feeling a little less terrifying. But then last week, the reemergence of one particular coping mechanism hit me like a ton of bricks, reminding me that there is always the possibility of trauma lurking there beneath the surface, no matter how healed I may feel. I had a #panicattack so horrifying, it left me in a dark place for the rest of the week. It wasn’t so much the loss of breathing that hurt me this time – it was that my limbs became like frantic butterfly wings, flapping desperately around without my control. I had my husband lay down on me just to try to stop the seizing movements from happening. He assured me with the calmest of tones that I was safe & to just let my body do what it needed to do. And so I did, with gritted teeth & tear-stained cheeks. ❤️ It’s a courageous act, I think, to sit with one’s trauma & try to understand how it got there. I don’t have all the answers to everything just yet, but I do know this. To wholly & completely love oneself is to show up for whatever inner guests reside & to listen – really listen – to whatever they have to say. 🌺
I was asked on three separate occasions by various staff to explain the full reason why I had entered the emergency room that day. Which meant that I had to repeatedly tell complete strangers my very personal and very painful history of trauma that occurred while I was a child and teen. I can only imagine that anticipating this vulnerable step is what keeps most people from going to a hospital for the reason I did. Doing so requires your immediate trust in a whole bunch of unknown medical staff, and that can be really hard to risk doing especially if you’ve ever had unpleasant past experiences with doctors.
Oddly enough, telling my truth over and over again led to a surprising amount of calm inside of me that day. The brutal truth was that I couldn’t end my life in there even if I wanted to, because all of the tools that someone might use to do it were removed from the room. Even more so, the other people around me were capably holding the intensity of what I’ve survived as I verbally placed my traumatic past into their hands. Which meant that temporarily, I didn’t have to hold every ounce of pain by myself.
A mental health clinician came in and asked me a bunch of questions, which included whether I’d be open to staying in the hospital for longer or if I’d rather do out-patient treatment. My insurance at the time wouldn’t easily allow for either option, so I went with the less costly choice of having a single follow-up session at a trauma center. The week prior, I had also arranged an intake session with a new therapist and a first time meeting with a psychiatrist. The clinician compiled a list of actions I’d be taking in the days to follow, and she was sure to include the local crisis hotline number with me should I feel the need to use it.
The very next day, I fell back into self-harming and went to excruciatingly new lengths to hurt myself. When my husband found me curled up on the ground, he held me close and grabbed the tool out of my hands that I had been using to tear the skin on my forearm. As I laid like a broken child in his loving arms, I asked him to go get my phone. I called the crisis hotline and received immediate support from them.
I’ve never taken medication before, and I was terrified at what would happen to me if I did. There’s so much societal stigma around antidepressants, and in the past, I let fear keep me from exploring them as a viable option. But after my ER trip, I knew I had to open myself up to the possibility of taking them.
I’ve been on antidepressants ever since, and the combination of therapy and medication has been lifesaving. While I’m still experiencing some PTSD-related symptoms, I no longer think about harming myself or ending my life, and I’m starting to see a light at the end of this harrowing tunnel.
This year has certainly been one of the most challenging of my entire life, but it has also taught me so much about myself. For years, I believed that the ongoing abuse I endured growing up was entirely my fault. As a young child grappling with unbearably low self-esteem, I had undoubtedly convinced myself that there was one single reason I was on the receiving end of ongoing violent reactions. The lie became a truth in my mind as I forced myself to believe that I was inherently unlovable.
Not once in my adult life had I ever stopped to question why cortisol ran amok inside of me at all times, while the serotonin levels dipped down to the lowest possible point. Until I was diagnosed with complex PTSD last year, I didn’t ever investigate why shame was at the heart of every decision I made in my life.
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This is the face of #PTSD. Don’t let the smile fool you. Behind it lurks a low-grade mixture of panic, shame, & fear. Most days, those feelings buzz quietly beneath the surface, convincing me that I’m at 100% fault for every single challenge that occurs throughout my day. They regularly whisper to me that I am a problem always requiring fixing, and that I am way too much for this world. This painful mixture of panic & shame & fear spend many days merely half awake, making it possible to function & even thrive in my life. But with one inciting incident or trigger, I unexpectedly experience a full-blown onslaught of intensely uncomfortable emotions that overwhelm me. At those sporadic times of feeling like I’m falling through quicksand, I often have to walk myself back – or be walked back with the help of a trusted therapist & loved ones – off of a metaphorical ledge that lies to me when it says that I am ruined forever & permanently damaged because of the childhood trauma that has led to my diagnosis. Despite having PTSD for my entire adult life, I didn’t learn I actually had it until this past year. Coming to terms with over two decades of harmful coping mechanisms, ingrained toxic beliefs, and a chronic feeling that I’m going to be in trouble for something has been as messy as it has been freeing. And here I am, continuing to show up for it all, against everything inside telling me I can’t ever be fully healed. To those voices, I say – I will heal nonetheless. I share all of this in the hopes that even one other person out there might see themselves in my story. If you believe you are too much or not enough or a constant burden or a pile of broken pieces – you are so much more than those deceitful beliefs. While I have yet to make friends with my ongoing shame, panic, and fear, I’ve certainly found ways to make room for them to speak up, take up space, and feel heard. And it is well worth the effort to do so. To anyone else walking around the world with a smile that doesn’t show your mental health struggles – you are never alone as you show up. Please keep showing up. 🦋 . . . #childhoodtrauma #traumarecovery #motherhood #CPSTD #youareworthy #selflove
Thankfully, I am so awake and so aware now. And I’m never going back to battling against myself so fiercely ever again. I am a victim and a survivor, and I’ve needed help that I could not easily or knowingly offer to myself. Every single therapist and doctor and caring person in my life has helped me see that I deserve to heal. I deserve the love I constantly dole out to others. I deserve to take back my power and demand better treatment for myself.
I most definitely was not the cause of ongoing abuse in my early life, but I can choose to face what I used to fear and take real care of myself in the here and now.
Every single person out there needs to know that they have the option of a psychiatric ER visit like the one I experienced. Everyone needs to know that they are not alone and that any trauma they’ve encountered is not their fault. We all need to be made aware of the hope that can exist in the darkest of places. There are free crisis hotlines out there with loving folks on the other end just waiting to help. And by receiving that support and stepping into our own truth, we have the power to change our story for the better.
If you’re ever feeling so low that you think the world would be better off without you, I understand your pain, and I want to you to remember my words. No matter how you feel about the matter, you are a vital and necessary part of this world. If you can just trust that a little bit and begin leaning into your own healing, you will ultimately have the superhero ability to help others heal too. After this tough fucking year, I can thankfully say that I am living proof of this.
The toll-free National Suicide Hotline is 1-800-273-8255, and it’s available 24 hours a day to anyone who needs it.