Have I always had PTSD? Struggling with the idea that I am now defined by something I want to be rid of, but for which there is no cure.

As many of you know I suffered some burns last year in the spring and by summer following the physical treatment of the burns I was diagnosed with PTSD. At my lowest point I was barely managing to function. I refused (as is my nature) to allow whatever was making me ill to stop me entirely. I used every ounce of energy, every fibre of positivity, every bastion of resilience just to keep going. Managing to keep going to work and looking after the kids.

Things were far from right. I was having what I now know were panic attacks at least every other day, sometimes multiple times in a day. Some days I felt so unwell and anxious I would fail to achieve much. I remember one morning waking up at 5:30 for a flight to Edinburgh and having to cancel my meetings and the flight as I felt so unwell. I couldn’t bring myself to admit the issue to my boss, so covered the cost of the flight myself and just skimmed over the fact I didn’t travel that day. I had stopped socialising, walking out on lunch with a close friend because I felt dizzy and light headed, totally isolating myself, nervous that if I made plans to meet people I would let them down. I was really struggling.

Following a call to the Burns Intensive care unit and some amazing support and treatment I began to feel much better. I remember at the time being told by different people that I could never be cured of PTSD that I would find ways to manage it, but a cure was not an option.

At first in my usual defiant way I became determined that I would cure myself, and whilst probably 80% better now, I am still not entirely there. I still have moments where I feel the start of a panic attack creeping up on me, now I am pretty good at stopping it in its tracks before it takes hold. I still have moments of self-speak and behaviour that are driven by fear or anxiety. I still have to use more energy than “normal” to do the things I want to do and I know will make me happy.

This week after my mental health first aider course I have been thinking about what PTSD is, where it came from and the fact that even if one day I consider my self-cured I won’t be immune. Oxford Dictionary definition of a cure is to “…relieve (a person or animal) of the symptoms of a disease or condition.” When researching the definition of a cure or treatment, there was no suggestion cures had to be permanent. You could be cured of something and then get it again. So why can I not be cured of PTSD? How long would I have to be symptom free to be considered cured?

Why does it bother me that I was told I can’t be cured?

I think it is disempowering to limit my recovery. I feel like somehow there is an expectation I should accept the symptoms, that I need to learn to live with being unwell. Perhaps I struggle with that idea because I don’t like to be limited. Maybe I just feel sad at the thought that I will never be the post burn Alison.

I also don’t like being told I can’t be cured because I think it strips away my hope of recovery. My mind whispers stories of those that were told they would never walk again, but have and those that were given a death sentence only to find a way through. Why should PTSD be permanent?

The worst of being told I will never be cured is how that statement feeds the faint fear that runs through me. Fear of the next anxiety attack, fear of driving forward without a normal life. I think it limits my happiness.

I suppose it could be a good thing to consider myself as never cured. If I always assume, I have PTSD maybe I will take better care of myself. Or maybe I will limit my life.

Did I always have PTSD?

Then I got to thinking more about it I starting questioning has it always been there. I didn’t catch PTSD. I didn’t wake up that day and something in my body had changed. And if I can’t be cured of it maybe I was born with it? Don’t get me wrong I am not suggesting it was hereditary, more so that all the buttons I needed to be pressed to switch it on existed long before the actions that caused it. The reason my PTSD became apparent were because factors external to my body. There were incidents that tested a limit of my capacity and that capacity overflowed.

The Mental Health First Aid course talked about every person’s capacity for stress, like a cup being filled up with water. Everyone’s cup is a different size, there are things you can do to increase your capacity (Meditation, exercise) there are things you can do to take a bit of water (Stress) out (take a bath, do something you enjoy) and then there are things that cause stress to fill up your cup (Bills, work, expectations).

The result of the burns and treatment overflowed my cup. Though my cup was pretty big to start with, when I suffered the burn a lot of things I would normally do to maintain my cup (Exercise, meditate) stopped and then I stopped taking water out (stopped seeing friends). And then my cup broke. The cup was always there though.

Maybe the difference is before this happened, my cup wasn’t broken, maybe they say I won’t be cured because my cup will always be more fragile, even if I mend it. (Dam I though if I can I would love to reinforce it and cast it in cement, I guess it couldn’t flex that way though).

What is we all have PTSD?

I do wonder what if we all have PTSD? What if before I had PTSD I had PTSD? Would I have behaved any differently, would I have made more of an effort to prepare for the cup needing more capacity. Do we take for granted our good mental health and then before we know it we have broken it somehow?

We get taught so much in school but I certainly never had an education about my cup or how to look after it. What if every teacher assumed every child already had PTSD or another anxiety related issue, could we teach our children about looking after their mental health in a way that prevented them struggling with the very thing we assume they have not got.

I also wonder mental health challenges can be so stigmatised but if we all have it, if it is just a question of something happening in your life to pull it into the light, draw it out. Then the stigma dissolves.

Truthfully if I listened to the doctors I won’t be cured, if I listen to my heart, I believe I will be. And actually, if I accept that I always had it perhaps I don’t need to even define it as something I can get rid of. Does it really matter, PTSD, No PTSD aren’t I just the same person? Well maybe 80%.

Photo by Paweu0142 L. on Pexels.com

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