I've envied people with cancer because this is a disease so much in the zeitgeist that people know now how to deal with the news. We know to be reassuring: treatment is so good these days. Most of all we know the questions to ask: How are you doing? How is the treatment? Are you tired? Do you need anything?
But with PTSD the eyes narrow and go sideways, the brows crumple, the lips purse. There's a momentary pause and then maybe a 'isn't that what Lady Gaga's got?' or 'isn't that for soldiers?'. There's a big double silent question mark: What is the trauma and when did it happen? And then there's a ripple of secondary silent question marks: why didn't she tell me, why didn't I know about this before, what does this mean, is it something I want to know about, why isn't she in hospital if she's got this? There's a look of disbelief, that's when the eyes go from sideways to looking at me. How can she sit there so calmly and tell me? Why hasn't she fallen apart.
Well, I have fallen apart. I didn't let you see that. I'm not coping very well. I just haven't told you that. I'm managing because I've been prepared for this. I've battled depression and anxiety all my adult life and in the process have had a lot of therapy, read a lot and sought out ways to manage and even overcome.
I envy that everyone asks people with cancer how they are NOW and we cheer them on through the treatment process. I long to be cheered on. I wish someone would say to me that trauma is like cancer, and treatment is like zapping the bad cells.
'People are afraid of anything mental in case of what might come out,' said one friend who suffers from anxiety. I think she was trying to tell me she herself was afraid of what I might come out with as I've barely heard from her since I told her.
With PTSD (and other mental issues) people focus on the past. Yet we don't obsess with why and how someone got any serious disease like a heart condition, cancer, dementia, Parkinson's. We are intelligent enough to know that how the person feels now and the treatment they receive are the issues. We know the reasons for the disease appearing are so random and irrelevant.
If I tell you my trauma, you will see me through that lens forever more, and that's who I will be to you. Whether the trauma is bullying, near death experience, rape, physical or sexual abuse, witnessing crime, being a victim of crime, surviving a natural disaster or a car crash, or a mix, is really not relevant. You don't see a person with cancer at that point when the series of cancerous cells morphed. You see them now. You see them recovering or if the worst is at stake, you see them suffering the least possible.
What I need is for you to tell me there's great treatment out there, or ask me what treatment there is available and what happens next and reassure me I'll be fine, especially as I'm waiting to find out what's available. I wish I could discuss the NHS process and the cost of going privately.
My boyfriend tells me that I'm doing well, I'm functioning well, I'm doing what I love, and yes I have times of sadness, but this is a spiritual crossroads, I am releasing and growing. But I don't want him to be the only person I can talk to. I don't want my therapist friend to be the only friend I can talk to.
When you focus on the past, that defines me as the past. I remember a close friend telling me she didn't get what shame meant and I so ached to tell her: Shame is when you fear uncovering who you are. Because just as we look at a person who is physically deformed or maimed and find ourselves strangely compelled to look whilst trying to act normal, the same occurs when people 'see' an inner deformity. Those of us deformed and maimed and scarred emotionally and mentally may have dressed the ugliness bequeathed to us by circumstances and fate, but we know it's there, and we fear you will repulsed or want to know the gory details. We don't want pity and we don't want to be ignored.
With a physical malfunction no one asks well what exactly happened, when did it happen, how did it happen, where did it happen, who was involved? But PTSD launches these questions even if they are not voiced. We wouldn't dream of saying to someone suffering from cancer you should try this and shouldn't do that. We wouldn't tell someone with a weight issue diagnosed with diabetes that they didn't try hard enough to lose weight and get healthy. But it's ok to say to someone with mental issues that they need to pull themselves together, stop being intense, go and do yoga, take medication or whatever random fact is circulating in the media.
I was so grateful to the friend who offered to come with me for my NHS assessment. I wanted to go alone, not even with my boyfriend, but that's not the point. Knowing she had offered, and that she also offered to have lunch afterwards gave me the courage I needed to feel optimistic.