06/04/2015 08:07 EDT | Updated 06/04/2016 05:59 EDT

I've Learned to Live With PTSD

Scared woman sitting on floor with windows grid shadows.

My name is Jean-Paul, and I am in treatment for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Hearing me say that usually elicits one of two responses in people -- abject pity or recoiling fear. I want you to know that I understand where you're coming from, but allow me a few minutes to see if we can change this dialogue.

Without a doubt, I am indeed blessed because I believe that when you reach out to me, it is from a place of immense love and compassion, and I believe that all you want to do is to take away my discomfort and suffering. But I see it in your eyes, and hear it in your voice that you feel sorry for me. And still, there are others who step away from me because I scare you -- My fragile mental health is an uncomfortable reminder of how razor thin the divide is between our sanity and supposed "insanity."

I feel as though I found my way to PTSD like Alice falling backwards into the rabbit hole, except the roots and rocks I bumped into on my way down came in the guise of addiction, depression, and isolation. As is most often the case, diagnosing PTSD is akin to a truncated archaeological dig, as patients and therapists delve deeper and unpack further into the trauma, with the hope that one day they'll arrive at the source that has cast such a dark shadow across a life.

PTSD leaves you in an incessant state of hyper arousal, and with this, comes a bone-aching exhaustion brought on by constantly pulling yourself back to the surface. In order to meet that insatiable draw on my energy, I unconsciously ration those precious energy reserves by seeking quiet in emotional numbing and self-isolation. But by far, the most frustrating part is that even though the traumatic event(s) may have passed, the nightmares, flashbacks, and trapdoors are a constant piercing reminder of that trauma.

Those who live with the scars of trauma feel as though they have gone through hell and back again -- we see ourselves as changed, altered, re-calibrated in some way. The outward symptoms of our PTSD are merely a superficial reflection of that change, and in no way do they portray an accurate account of that which has changed inside us as a result of the trauma. For some inexplicable reason, survivors of trauma are drawn to other survivors. It's as if they can detect the invisible patina of that change and the communion that comes when people walk the same path. In the words of embedded war correspondent David Morris, someone who has written candidly about his own battles with PTSD: "The goal of every survivor is to try to resolve this failed homecoming, to try to be less apart."

I can tell you from my own experience, that living with PTSD is like gingerly walking through a landmine field every second of your day -- never knowing what sound, scent, image, or person will trigger you right back into the hell and powerlessness enmeshed in the trauma. Each and every one of us walks around with the baggage of our past in tow. The difference with PTSD is that your baggage is strapped to the roof of your car, on full display for all to see. The people in your life who love and support you patiently wait for you to get better, to get over it, but sadly PTSD often has a shelf life that long outlives us.

I've come to see PTSD not as a vicious fire-breathing dragon, but as a slowly slithering worm that lives among us. If you cut off its head, another grows in its place. You can't silence it by putting it in a box because it continues to breathe and slither its way out. Therapy and drugs may slow its advance, but peace of mind only arrives when I learn to accept and live with the presence of the echoes of trauma in my life.

PTSD has been called a disease of time because the moment that trauma becomes entrenched in our psyche, time ceases to unfold in a somewhat predictable, linear fashion. Instead, survivors of trauma play out their lives on a parallel plane in which time becomes cyclical as trauma from the past latches on to the moments of the present. And so, I'm given an even more fitting reason to see a "worm" as an ideal metaphor for trauma living among us because as a worm can inch its way forward, so too can it recoil upon itself -- past touching present.


Mental Health: 7 Signs That May Signal PTSD