"Oh… So Where Did You Serve?"

“Oh… So where did you serve?” Is a question I’ve had a few times since coming out of the mental health closet and openly talking about my PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) diagnosis. I always reply that I have not been in the military, nor have I spent any time in a war zone.

It’s funny how much the media influences the publics perceptions of disorders. Most people when picturing a PTSD sufferer in their minds get a picture like the one below:

Picture of a white, male, American soldier in uniform looking overwrought

The average PTSD sufferer/survivor on a global scale is actually depending on your preferred way of looking at it is female and not a soldier. They are someone like me. Someone who has been exposed to a very traumatic event that was “outside the range of usual human experience.” Things like witnessing a violent/ unexpected death, rape, torture, sexual abuse, witnessing or experiencing life-threatening physical assault, terrorism, being held hostage and similar are often causes of PTSD. Where many people experience some level of trauma in their lives only about 8% of them will go onto develop PTSD.

So, what is PTSD? It’s a severe anxiety disorder caused by physical trauma and/or psychological trauma. It’s thought to happen when the brain is exposed to extreme levels of adrenaline which causes the brain to store & deal with the trauma in a disordered manner. People with PTSD have the following symptoms as a result of their exposure;

  • Persistent Re-experiencing – flashbacks (v.different from memories), nightmares, intense negative reactions to things that remind them of the trauma and other re-experiencing of the event.
  • Persistent Avoidance & Numbing – disassociation, seriously reduced ability to feel certain feelings and a desire to avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma.
  • Increased Arousal – hypervigillance and associated problems like difficulty falling/staying asleep.

In my case I spent years in a extremely abusive relationship where I was frequently abused (physically, psychologically & sexually) in horrific manners during which I was repeatedly exposed to the imminent possibility of my death. Looking back I’m still not sure how I survived some of the stuff. It all feels like a nightmare I can’t quite forget yet can’t bring myself to properly think about.

It’s funny, I can type about it sometimes but yet if I try and talk to someone about these things face to face my brain simply shuts down on me. I can’t hold the memory of what I was trying to say in my mind and I just end up opening and closing my mouth and eventually apologising for the fish impression and changing the subject. My brain is very good at blocking off the traumatic memories by either making it all feel like a dream or a story. Sometimes it shuts me down and I simply sit and stare into space, it feels like being simultaneously awake and in a deep dreamless sleep. Othertimes it drives me away from things that are likely to trigger flashbacks or re-experiencing. Occasionally it causes head pain so intense I feel like my head has been cut open again. Normally it just makes me forget things that I find extremley difficult to deal with which can be very problematic.

For the last year or so of my relationship and the years that followed I would have these intense re-occuring nightmares where the same horrific acts were being carried out by my ex. I’d find I would be unable to recall how I got cuts & bruises or why I was suddenly terrified of seemingly harmless things. It wasn’t until I escaped his reach that I really started getting flashbacks. Waking nightmares, memories so powerful they are indistinguishable from reality, like having time-travelled back to the time of the trauma and being forced to re-live it again and again. Imagine the most horrendous thing you have ever exprienced, the worst thing to have happened to you, forever etched in your mind. Haunting you with not just the old emotions but the smells, the tastes, the senstations on your skin. I hate them most of all. I think they are now the thing I’m most afraid of in the world. When they started kicking in I broke down. Having recently become disabled I lost the ability to cope as my mind crashed six months after my body. I lost the ability to sleep, lost the ability to disassociate for a while and ended up ready to kill myself. Luckily my GP intervened and got me psychiatric help where I was finally diagnosed and I began to get treatment.

I’m saddened to say that I’m not alone in this. I’ve met hundreds of PTSD sufferers online over the last few years and the overwhelming majority are female victims of domestic abuse, childhood sexual abuse, rape and domestic violence. Not white male soldiers – though I’m not ignorant enough to suggest my experiences are going to be representitive. Yet we often seem to be ignored when a discourse is opened up about PTSD, especially by the media. As well as the issues with inaccurate representation by the media fueling public stereotypes and misunderstandings it also can be very damaging for victims of the above traumas. Denial, silencing & victim blaming (often thanks to that pesky Just World Fallacy) is a really common experience for those of us who suffered in these ways. These problems create a feeling that people don’t/won’t take the horrid thing that happened to you seriously and more often than not they get internalised making survivors blame, silence and doubt themselves. Naturally this makes healing far harder. When the media ignores stories like yours and paints your struggles as being somehow less traumatising it adds to this nasty mess.

The more I think about it, the more sure I am that there is a gender bias in the reporting and coverage of PTSD which fuels the blackout of ‘womens issues’ with regards to the disorder. PTSD from ‘masculine’ causes like the serving in the military or in the emergency services is talked about far more commonly than PTSD arising from incidents that disproportionately happen to women*.

For plenty of reasons, male dominance in the media being a big one, people like myself are being left out of the PTSD discourse. If we want to move forward and stop creating a culture where some traumas are problematically rated as ‘less deserving’ than others, then things need to change.

* rape, domestic abuse, sexual assult – please note that no where did I say these things don’t happen to men.

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  1. PTSD is relatively rare in the British military (different countries' armed forces fair differently) and the association is a disservice to everyone – some people think about PTSD as a natural after-effect of seeing a bit of death and being shot at, which makes it something soldiers need to “suck up”. But it's not normal at all. It usually takes going through some kind of hell – occasionally a hell which others wouldn't recognise as such, but hell nevertheless.

    I think another part of the problem is that we see PTSD, a dramatic condition, involving sudden flashbacks and way too much adrenaline, as an inherently masculine condition. Women are supposed to have nice feminine mental illnesses which involve getting weepy and gazing out the window, not heart-racing panic which make us want to run or fight.

    And it does harm us. I had studied psychology, but even then the focus of understanding PTSD was in terms of military experience (which makes some sense in terms of study, because you do get a group of people with many similarities (age, training, usually gender and background) who are reacting differently to similar experiences). And I'd had this stereotyped extreme view of a flashback as being something akin to a complex daylight hallucination or delusion, so I thought mine, vivid and sensational as they were, somehow didn't count. I thought my trauma couldn't be bad enough, because if it had been I'd have run away at the time. It wasn't until I was past the worst of it that I went to the GP.

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