Helping someone with PTSD is quite similar to helping someone with depression I think: you have to try and put yourself in their shoes, which is an incredibly difficult thing to do (if I’m brutally honest I think it’s impossible to put yourself in the frame of mind of someone who’s been sexually assaulted or has PTSD, because every experience is different. It wasn’t until I was actually attacked that I realised just how impossible it is to be able to completely understand what someone goes through who experiences that – but you can try to). I think there are a few key differences though.
The first is that those traumatic memories are always going to be there, trying to creep back into your mind and push you back into the state where all of the symptoms control your life. That’s not to say we can’t get past it, don’t get me wrong. With the exception of writing about what it was like to be attacked, I haven’t actually really had the moments that I used to when I wouldn’t be able to get what happened out of my head for almost a month now. But it’s still there, and I’m still waiting for the moment that it creeps back in again. It’s like your shadow in a way – always there.
There are the triggers which can set you off again, and they’re different for everyone.
I have three:
- When I read about people being sexually assaulted in the news. It’s worse when I read about it happening at universities, and worse still when it’s happened at my old uni. And it hurts when it’s reported that the person who attacked them has been caught. Not because I don’t want them to be obviously, but because it makes me think “why couldn’t they catch mine?” and I can slip back into the phase of hyper-analysing every decision I made that day and wishing I had done things differently.
- When people grab my arms in a certain way. It makes me panic. It’s probably obvious why.
- When I’m walking along on my own and walk past someone or someone overtakes me. It doesn’t matter if it’s dark or light – it was broad daylight when I was attacked last time. It matters if there are people around. I think it’s the fear of being attacked again and not being able to be heard screaming.
It’s impossible to predict when you’re going to come across a trigger. I think that’s the most important thing to understand when you want to help someone with PTSD – they’ll seem fine for days, weeks, months, but then there’ll be something that will put them back in the mindset that leads them down the dark path of reliving it all over again, and that can be tough once it sets in. When that happens to me, it can last up to a day. But it’s getting shorter. The worst one is when I read about other people being attacked – the others aren’t as bad as they used to be, I can get over them relatively quickly now. They’re more of an in-the-moment-fight-or-flight-panic-mode – once I’m not on my own, once someone isn’t grabbing hold of my arms, I’m fine. I can breathe. Reading articles and watching news stories – they stick in your head and can pop up again and again on the news, on the radio, on your Facebook newsfeed. They’re more difficult to avoid because of just how connected the world is now.
Sometimes triggers can lead to flashbacks, although I really hate that term. It conjures up images of having a huge bright light flash inside you head whilst you’re rocking backwards and forwards in a ball on the floor, and then all of a sudden you’re watching yourself in a weird black-and-white slow-mo video, and then there’s another flash and you’re back in the room. Not everyone experiences it like that, and so it can be confusing when people ask you if you’ve had flashbacks and you have, but you can’t recognise them because of what you think they should be like. It feels like they should be really obvious, but really it’s you thinking, reliving what happened. You can’t push it out of your head and it can escalate to making you feel utterly terrible and hopeless all over again. They can happen when you’re surrounded by people too. You’re still aware of everything that’s going on around you, but you’re thinking about it, and it’s making you sad. Eventually you’ll stop thinking about it, but the feelings remain. I used to relive the actual events quite regularly, but not so much any more. But I still relive the feelings sometimes: being scared, sad, angry. But they tend to come back only on the really, really bad days now though, and those are becoming further and further apart.