Traumatic life-threatening events often leave emotional scars, which, like physical scars, remain with an individual for the rest of their lives. Although we all go through a healing period following trauma, for some, the emotional scars are so deep they interfere with their ability to function normally. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a psychiatric disorder where flashbacks and memories of a traumatic event significantly disrupt patients’ everyday lives.
In a World Health Organization survey, it found that around 3.6 percent of the world’s population suffered from PTSD over the past 12 months. The underlying factors that lead to the development of PTSD are complex and still poorly understood; however, as new research emerges, scientists are gaining a better understanding. For example, they've already found genetics may play a role.
Recently, Medical Daily had the chance to speak with Ruska, a 23-year-old American college student who developed PTSD after experiencing repeated physical, sexual, and emotional abuse through most of her life. Ruska, who chose to conceal her identity by using a different name, hopes that her first-hand account of what it’s like to live with PTSD will not only help remove some of the stigma attached to it, but also give hope to other people living with the oftentimes debilitating condition.
What were some of your earliest symptoms of PTSD and when were you diagnosed?
I've had PTSD symptoms for as far back as I can remember. A majority of my trauma stems from extreme abuse from my parents growing up: sexual, physical, emotional, and mental abuse and neglect. I was then raped six times in college and have been homeless on and off since I graduated high school.
[When I was 12], I got retriggered by a friend at school. I was in fifth grade and he came up to me and told me what sex was, and said that some kid in my class had molested a girl in the woods. I didn't know any of what he was saying, I was still very oblivious to the words, but I knew that it triggered all the abuse I had suppressed. Afterward, I didn't sleep or leave the house for a month-and-a-half and was crying non-stop. My parents finally took me to a therapist, but they did not want their abuse to be revealed, so that did not last very long. I wasn't allowed to go to a therapist again until I was put in therapy by my college in my freshman year, (2011) after a sexual assault on campus. That's when I got diagnosed.
How does your condition affect your everyday life?
It’s really hard. I ended up going on medical leave [from school] because it affected my memory. It got to the point when I’d have completely sober blackouts and I couldn’t even remember seeing people, having conversations with people, or doing things. It messes up my ability to process what people are saying, so I would be sitting in class and the professor is talking, but the words are all jumbled. I would be trying to take notes and he’ll be all, like, halfway through a sentence and I won't even remember the first half of what the sentence was. I also get really bad dissociation. That’s one of the main signs that confirmed to my therapist that I had PTSD. I was completely outside of my body almost looking down on myself.
What are some of the physical effects of living with PTSD?
I have developed Crohn's disease, fibromyalgia, celiac disease, sciatica pain, and chronic fatigue.
I did become an extreme alcoholic for numerous years, to the point [where] I was blacking out probably about five times a week. I also had an eating disorder back in high school that landed me in the hospital. I think when I was drinking I was trying to both feel something and numb something at the same time, because I was in so much pain and so numb. At this point — because most of my abuse happened around alcohol and almost all my abusers were alcoholics — it’s triggering to even think about drinking, which is why I don't really drink any more.
What helps you cope?
I’m on Ambien. They had me up to the highest dose and I still wake up with terrors — it’s that bad for me. I don’t like taking it because it leaves me really groggy in the morning, which then leads to my depression.
Just talking about what happened over and over again helps. I know a lot of therapists think that not talking about it is the way to go and just move on, but in my experience, talking through what I have been through allows me to believe that it has happened. I get triggered, relive through events, and get flashbacks constantly, but there is part of me that believes it didn't actually happen. Talking about it and talking about my feelings helps me to believe it's happened, accept that it's happened, and therefore let it go. That, mixed with exercising, has been huge for me in allowing me to let off some of that emotion and energy that feels trapped.
I do use marijuana medicinally; that helps me so much. I use very little at a time because too much can give me anxiety, but it helps my fatigue and my appetite so much. It can help, like, ground me when I get so much anxiety that I’m out of my body. It also helps a lot with my physical symptoms.
What’s something that you’d want people without PTSD to understand?
I’m really glad that you're writing this because I feel that so many people out there don’t understand PTSD at all. I feel like people are starting to become a little more aware of it, with the push with the VA and the veterans — but even that, it's very different. I have friends who have PTSD from war and I have friends who have PTSD from trauma and abuse, and I would say they are very different. It is something very indescribable if you haven't been through it. I feel like there is a lot of judgement about it [and] I’m glad that more word is getting out there about what it's actually like.
Is there anything you’d want other people with PTSD to know?
There is no quick fix, but have patience with it and yourself. Not a lot of people are going to understand, but everything you’re experiencing is normal. Whatever happened wasn’t your fault and it will get better, even on days when it really doesn't feel like it will.