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.
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.
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.
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.
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.